“Music… gives wings to the mind, a soul to the universe, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, a life to everything.” -Plato
“I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.” –The Rolling Stones
Music is an emotional modulator, an escape, and a source of relaxation for all of us, but especially adolescents. Teens find poetry in their favorite song’s lyrics, drown frustration in a hard-driving rhythm, and let calming songs soothe them at night. Teens seeking out peers who think like them may find music an easy common language, and their dress and worldview may partially stem from their favorite musicians.
It’s a common stereotype that parents hate their teen’s music, and vice versa. For me it was true; in my teenage years, I tormented my mother with Liz Phair, Pearl Jam, and other 90s artists. She couldn’t stand my choice of music, and expressed particular vehemence towards Dolores Reardon of the Cranberries, accusing her of sounding like a dying moose. After a war of sorts, we called a truce: the only music we could agree on was Simon & Garfunkel and The Mamas & The Papas, and so that was the only music played when both of us were around.
Nowadays, kids are more likely to be listening to music through headphones than by blasting their stereo, which is both good and bad. It means you have less of an environmental effect to deal with, but also that you know less about what music your teen likes. There are plenty of reasons to become familiar with it. You may be pleasantly surprised by stirring tunes or poetic lyrics, or you may be sincerely thankful for your teen’s earbuds; either you can learn a lot about your teen and how they think.
On the whole, teens love to talk about music. You might know who your teen’s favorite musician is, or their favorite song, but do you know why? What do these songs say to them? It could be everything from “They’re all so handsome!” to “I like the blues chords in Led Zeppelin.” Ask them to play you a song that demonstrates what they like about a particular artist. Even if you hate it, listen. Try to see what they see in it.
If they’re up for it, you might try playing them your favorite songs from when you were their age. Pick the ones that you still enjoy and that really spoke to you. Be prepared for a negative response (“you listened to THAT?”), but you might be pleasantly surprised. Explain what life was like for you around when you listened to that song, and why it’s different today.
Sometimes teens listen to music that worries you, either because of the behavior of the musician or the music itself. You might worry that your teen will choose a musician with questionable behavior as a role model, or that the lyrics they’re listening to are misogynistic. As in most situations, the best thing to do is sit down and have a talk about it.
Your teen might protest that they enjoy the music someone creates, but don’t necessarily want to emulate their behavior. They have a point; just because a teen listens to Miley Cyrus doesn’t mean they are going to go around licking construction equipment. Express your concerns, and let it lie, unless the musician is doing something that really bothers you on a fundamental level. In that case, explain to your teen why you feel purchasing and/ or listening to their music is unethical, and make a rule about it if you feel strongly.
If your teen is listening to music with lyrics that are misogynistic, homophobic, encouraging violence, etc., I would talk to them about it immediately. Tell them what disturbs you. Set limits on what kinds of music you don’t want them listening to (knowing that a lot of the effectiveness of these limits will be related to your teen’s buy-in.) If you really want to drive your point home, listen to the music with them and focus out loud on the messages you don’t like. Even if they do listen to the song again, they will hear your voice overlaid, saying, “Why is this guy referring to all women as bitches? Do you think all women are bitches? Why isn’t he respecting his girlfriend? Do you think it’s acceptable to punch a father trying to protect his daughter?”, etc. This can be very effective; I still can’t hear the Cranberries song “Zombie” without hearing my mother’s dying moose impression in the back of my mind.
What experiences did you have with your family growing up around music? What music does your teen like? What do you think it says about them- and what does your music say about you?