Parental Musicology

When I was a little kid, like 5 years old, my mom had this habit of asking me who was playing on the radio. Eventually I figured out that whenever she asked me this, the answer was invariably The Beatles. So she upped the ante by asking me which Beatle wrote the song.

“C’mon, you gotta know this is Paul!” she’d say. “Listen to all the different parts that are in it. It’s like a suite!”

I didn’t quite appreciate such nuances, the differences between Paul’s symphonic ambitions and John’s love of more traditional rock and roll. But to be fair, I was 5.

In this grand tradition, I often play a song for The Baby and ask her who it is. Not so much because I think she’ll know the answer, but because it’ll introduce her to stuff that I think is great. I have no illusions of turning her into a music snob at her young age, but I like putting her in a Cloud of Information, the idea being that at the very least, she’ll have a lot of information rattling around in her little brain and can one day do crossword puzzles with it.

Usually, the “instruction” is little more than me telling her who performs a particular song. Like the time Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” came on the car radio and I informed her of the responsible party. “That guy sings crazy!” she said. Yes, he does.

My dad did something very similar to me–unconsciously, I think. He liked to watch British comedy on PBS a lot, and I joined him on occasion. Much of the humor flew straight over my head for reasons of vocabulary, historical context, and foreignness. So I’d ask him to explain a joke to me if I didn’t get it, which he invariably would, even if there was no way on earth I should have understood it. I’d do the same thing with Mad Magazine Super Specials, which often contained reprints from 10-15 years earlier, lampooning people and movies from before I was born. That’s how I could come up with a good zinger about Edward Heath or Spiro Agnew by age 8.

Recently, we were driving home from somewhere and had just parked the car. The radio was playing Frank Sinatra’s version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” So I tried to give The Baby a two-tiered, family-themed music lesson. I explained that this was one of Nanny’s (my mom’s) favorite songs, since she was a big fan of Cole Porter. And I also explained that the guy singing it was my Nanny’s (her great-grandmother’s) favorite singer. It was an attempt to both school on what she was hearing and give her some familial context for why the song struck a chord with me.

From the backseat, she gave me this puzzled look. “I like rock and roll music,” she said, simply, emphatically.

Long pause. “Yeah, I like it, too,” I said, and we went home. There’s plenty of time for more nuanced lessons.