What Music Will You Play Your Kids?

by Alexandra Molotkow


If I ever decide to have a child, I’ll face a predicament besides all the dreadful things that seem to happen in childbirth they don’t tell you about because all you are to them is a vessel for propagating the species: what kind of music will I play?

Maybe it shouldn’t be important. There’s nothing more pathetic than a musical chauvinist, especially an aging one, and besides, it’s the most futile concern in the world: kids are going to find their own music. And I’m excited to hear the music my kids love, because I am young enough to be able to like anything, but old enough to read too much into it.

But this is important. It’s not a moral issue, the way it is for dads who wear Clash t-shirts and respond to t-shirts like these with “#facepalm,” although dads who think it’s important to recognize the Clash are probably not as bad as artists who design t-shirts by algorithm to “affront the cool knowledge of the hipster… while simultaneously offering themselves as wearable ammunition in the favorite game of the committed hipster.”

It is an issue of culture, specifically the family culture my kid will inhabit. My own family’s culture can be loosely summarized as “whatever you like, and not what you don’t.” My mom bought her antique salt shakers and Japanese lithographs, my dad arranged his guitars and watched his golf, I carved a heart with the word “emo” into my bed frame. My parents made steak and rice and I made fusilli with vegetable broth, because I was a vegetarian, and they weren’t, and dinner was what you ate at 7. Or 8, or whenever.

The only meaningful connection we seemed to have to something vaster than our island of three was the music that played in our household. There are songs like “Pretty Lady” by Lighthouse (CanCon’s answer to Chicago), or “Badge” by Cream, or “Love Me or Leave Me” by Nina Simone, that seem characteristic of my parents and the life we had together, and carry a sizable share of my earliest memories and sense of being in the world. The music I listened to was as much the world I grew up in as the homes we rented, or the neighborhood in which I walked to school.

I don’t have any specific traditions to hand down to my kids, besides my music. We could easily rebrand Christmas as “Elton John Day.” (Elton was always more mine than my parents’, but he blended in nicely with their ’70s rotation, which was to them what the ’90s are to me.) Again, I don’t want to impress my tastes on them, or to force them to endure anything they don’t like to hear. I just want to make their childhood a comfortable home.

So I’ve been thinking idly about what sort of music to pass along to my children. It’s an interesting reckoning with your own taste — what about the music you love is really lovable? — as well as a good organizing principle for your collection, if you have one. What sort of music could provide moral instruction, joy, a vision of adult life, a vision of adult fun? Who deserves to be idolized and who’s just fun, corny trash?

I always thought that if I had kids, I’d play them Jonathan Richman nonstop, because it’s such perfect kid music. But it’s kid music from another era, and I wouldn’t want my son to absorb that view of dating and romance — I don’t want him to feel persecuted by the women who won’t go out with him, or to think of himself as a “nice guy” as though it’s a distinction and not a given. So I’d censor songs like “She Cracked” and “A Plea for Tenderness” and hope “I’m Just Beginning to Live” and “California Desert Party” might stick.

When I was a kid, I brought home Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip and my Dad spent what felt like several weeks inspecting the lyric booklet, deciding in the end to confiscate it — Honey, they wear condoms on their bodies,” which is exactly why I’ll be recommending it to my children. As oldies go, the early ’90s offer way, way better role models and much sounder advice than the ’60s ever did.

Bjork, Kate Bush, Minnie Riperton, Aaliyah, and Laura Nyro will be their John Lennons and Bob Dylans and thank goodness because I don’t want my kids behaving like John or Bob at their prime. For lullabies they’ll have David Axelrod, the Free Design, Jorge Ben, and Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express. The Beatles will always be the Beatles.

Finally, I want my kids to look forward to adulthood, so they’ll have something to work toward, and consider leaving the house sooner than their peers. For that there’ll be disco, a whole lot of disco, which will double as an important life lesson in how the best and most meaningful things are happy and sad at once.