I Don't Censor Music For My Kids

by Christine Burke
censor music
iStock/Christopher Futcher

When I was 10, I bounded into my aunt’s New England kitchen and caught the tail end of a conversation between my aunt and my mother. They were wearing appalled looks on their faces, and they were shaking their heads as they sniffed into their black coffees. I eavesdropped as they said:

“She’s so immodest, dancing on that stage in a wedding dress.”

“And those lyrics! Oh my God, I wanted to die when I heard them on the radio. I was in the car with the kids, and it was so embarrassing.”

It was 1984 and they were talking about Madonna and her now infamous appearance on the MTV Music Awards singing “Like a Virgin.”

Madonna was my very favorite singer in the world. I mean, she had jacked to Jesus hair, her clothes were ’80s perfection, and she pushed the limits with everything she did. And she was a bonafide movie star, what with her Desperately Seeking Susan success and all. (I use the term “success” loosely.) As I stood and listened to my mother and my aunt lament that the music of my generation made them shudder, I wondered what the fuss was all about it.

I had no idea what the word “virgin” meant, and though I belted the words into my brush in front of my mirror every time Madonna sang on my boombox, it would be years until I fully understood the meaning of that song. To my mother’s credit, she didn’t prevent me from listening to the radio, and in a turn of events I still can’t believe, she even slipped the Beastie Boys’ cassette Licensed to Ill into my Easter basket that same year. And she turned a blind ear to the sounds of music she didn’t agree with emanating from my teenage bedroom.

That is precisely why I don’t censor music when it comes to my teenagers.

Our house is never short on music. We listen to music when we share a meal, when we do work around the house, and even in our downtime. My husband and I enjoy a variety of music genres, and though we gravitate toward ’80s and country music, we can appreciate the rhythmic nature of jazz and the masterful artistry of rap.

At any given time, our house is filled with the sounds of music. And sometimes, the words might be inappropriate. Our kids hear the words and — gasp — might even sing along to words that would make my mother drop dead if she heard them coming out of my 11-year-old’s mouth.

My kids know the words to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing.” They’ve heard me sing Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye. We’ve also created lasting memories as I’ve taught them how to do the cabbage patch in our living room, and they’ve rolled their eyes more than a time or two when their father and I have slow danced in the kitchen to our wedding song.

Music is part of the fabric our family life, and I know they aren’t being corrupted by a few swear words here and there. When they’ve had specific questions about a song lyric, I’ve answered them honestly and directly.

I won’t lie though. Explaining “my anaconda don’t want none unless you’ve got buns, hun” was more than a little uncomfortable. But, for as uncomfortable as that conversation was, it doesn’t mean I’m going to switch the station when Sir Mix-a-Lot takes the airwaves — because he reminds me I don’t have to do side bends or sit-ups. Ahem.

Take the Hamilton: An American Musical soundtrack, for instance. My kids are obsessed with the lyrical genius from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, and they listen to the soundtrack on their iPods pretty much all the time. Yes, the lyrics are explicit in certain songs. And, yes, there are swear words and adult themes. But my kids now understand history almost better than I do because Miranda’s music has awakened a place of learning and wonder in their minds. They are excited when a history lesson at school corresponds to the words they know by heart, and they squeal with laughter when King George III is mentioned because the actor has made history fun and entertaining for them. How is it wrong to ignore a few swear words in favor of letting your kids explore history in a unique way?

So, no, I won’t be the mom who is sitting at the kitchen table shuddering because her kids are listening to “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry or “Sexy and I Know It” by LMFAO. In fact, I’ll sway my hips as I make dinner when Robin Thicke sings about “Blurred Lines,” and you can bet I’ll pump up the volume anytime a P!nk song is floating across the airwaves.

The music our kids listen to is no more shocking than what I grew up with, and I take pride in knowing that my kids live in a home where they can be exposed to the culture and diversity that music brings to our lives.

Even if Sir Mix-a-Lot makes it tough on me sometimes.