When Kids Love Pop Music, And Pop Music Is Crazy Inappropriate

by Sharon Holbrook
Originally Published: 
A boy listening to pop music on his earphones
aydinmutlu / iStock

I’ve heard enough songs about twerking and getting wasted. So much of the mainstream music on the radio is thick with misogyny and sexism, blatant sexuality, and heavy drinking and drug use. Ugh.

OK, maybe I sound like Tipper Gore, but I also have a 10-year-old boy who’s not only obsessed with pop music, but also has an uncanny ability to understand every word of every song (unlike me — I’m officially an old person, always saying, “What? What did they say?”)

We’ve got parental controls on the computer, and use is limited. They watch very little TV. I regularly look up movies (and sometimes even books) on Common Sense Media to check whether they’re age-appropriate and whether there are any issues I want to discuss with my kids. But radio? It’s the Wild Wild West of media in my house, and I’ve really got nothing in my arsenal, except to completely ban radio, which sounds both joyless and impossible to enforce.

What are my other alternatives? I don’t have satellite radio with its carefully curated stations. We’re not into oldies or the Christian station, and my kids are definitely not into NPR. My kids don’t want to drive around in silence, and in fact, my music-crazed son wants to listen to the radio all the time. Several times I’ve found the laundry room radio in my son’s room, and several times I’ve quietly taken it back, not least because the DJ’s commentary is often just as trashy as the music.

It’s tempting to think that this is all a new problem for parents, but of course it isn’t. When my older siblings ordered their records back in the day from Columbia House or BMG, my mother would sit in the kitchen with a record on the turntable while she read the lyrics on the sleeve. “This song is about a prostitute,” she would say in a disapproving tone while listening to The Police’s “Roxanne.” “But, Mom, he’s telling her ‘you don’t have to put on the red light.’ He’s telling her not to do it.” Impressive work, kids. I think my teenage siblings actually won that round.

But parents aren’t always there to preview (and who has the time or, honestly, the desire?). Growing up outside New York City, I had my own clock radio in my room tuned to my favorite music station. One morning I turned it on to find that Howard Stern’s talk show, which I hadn’t previously heard, had been moved to the morning hours. So when I was about 11 or 12, and behind my closed door getting ready for middle school, I got to hear Stern creepily asking female guests whether they had any panties on. You know, typical Stern. I was repulsed, and immediately reminded of the similarly aggressive questions some of the junior high boys would sometimes ask the girls.

So I took my nerd-girl self over to the all-news radio stations — as I recall, there really weren’t a lot of morning music options at that time. Instead of Howard Stern, I heard news reports about the Central Park Jogger (brutally raped and nearly murdered) and the Preppy Murder case (murder of a young woman during violent, asphyxiating sex), both of which took place in New York City’s Central Park in the late 1980s. Um, much better? I’m not even getting into the music while it wasn’t all fluffy Debbie Gibson and Whitney Houston, even Salt-N-Pepa and Madonna could pale in comparison to the talk on the radio. My parents had no idea, of course, what I was hearing on the radio in my bedroom.

The point is, I guess, that tweens are going to hear stuff — a lot of gross or inappropriate stuff — no matter what we do and whether we like it or not. Of course that will be true at school. And at home, it’s going to be especially true on the radio, even if we’ve been vigilant about supervising other media channels. That being the case, I’m trying to minimize the alone listening time and maximize the together listening time. Why not use it as a chance to talk about these topics?

When my sibs and I were young drivers with brand-new temporary permits, my mom used to encourage us to drive with her every chance possible so we’d have that much more time learning from her before we were licensed drivers out on our own. I think that makes a lot of sense, and I think the same goes for media and the complex issues it sometimes raises. The more we listen together, the more chances I get to put my spin on raunchy, sexist lyrics and even DJs commenting about their “bitchy” wives. I’m not saying I won’t change the station, but as I do, I’m hopefully becoming the voice in their head, the one that prompts them to think critically about things they might otherwise take for granted.

There’s hope, maybe. My siblings convinced my mom that “Roxanne” was OK by showing they were thinking carefully about what they were hearing. Similarly, my 10-year-old has tried to convince me that a woman singing “you don’t own me” is much better than a woman singing “I wanna look good for you, good for you.” Well, he’s right about that. And hopefully he’ll also eventually realize that no woman should even have to say “you don’t own me” to her partner to begin with, and that it’s a problem on its own if she does.

So I’ll keep talking, and hopefully he’ll keep thinking. Because maybe it’s time to stop trying to always shield him from the world, and instead start preparing him to take it on.

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