Listening to Pop Music With My Daughter and My Littlest Self

For one writer, Harry Styles and Ariana Grande provide an opportunity for both creative expression and familial connection

Ariana Grande. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

MyMy 10-year-old daughter loves pop music. She’s newly smitten with Dua Lipa, has loved Ariana Grande since her Nickelodeon show Sam & Cat, and has been trying to convince me to watch Jada Facer’s YouTube channel for years. She finds comfort in major chords, the predictability of the structure and tone. She plays songs out until her siblings complain. Then she puts her headphones in and builds her own mental landscape that she walks and dances through, even if it’s just the living room.

Particularly attractive to her is the music’s projection of fun and positivity. Pop music makes colors brighter, candy sweeter. As she gets older and grows increasingly aware of the darkness at the edges of the world, she’ll hold onto that music. Wanting to help her fend off life’s inevitable difficulties, I must reluctantly accept her music choices, even if they’re not my music choices.

There is a song for every occasion.

My daughter caught her first crush about eight months ago. They were in the school musical, a production of The Little Mermaid. They began spending more and more time together; soon they were best friends. At some point, they started holding hands, though she realized they weren’t ready for that. But, in the way these things do, the relationship fell apart. With the exhilarating start and sudden end of a first relationship — and with some help from her mom — she discovered sad songs. She turned to pop music with a sharper edge and a darker tone. Evanescence. Paramore. Ed Sheeran.

My daughter is smart, curious, and funny. She’s about to be 11, so she’s getting pretty good at busting my chops. I will never forget an icy walk to school in January. Sliding across the unsalted sidewalks, we did a close reading of the Christina Perri song “Jar of Hearts.”

Most of the conversation circled the lines “You’re gonna catch a cold / from the ice inside your soul.” I was making a case against the song. For starters, there’s the obvious incongruity between the metaphorical “ice inside your soul” and the literalness of the ex’s cold. Plus the lines were just corny.

To which, her response was, “So?”

I love rap. I can’t really remember a time in my life when I didn’t. From the moment I heard “Country Grammar,” it was over. Nelly, Jay-Z, OutKast, Nappy Roots — they were my doorways into American popular music. The entry was unambiguously masculine. As I was mocked by other middle school boys for not being manly enough, I threw myself at the newest 50 Cent and Kanye West albums.

Rappers told it like it is, and with a typically male bravado. Wordplay mattered most. The performance of a cool and tough male persona that could best any situation or person mattered second-most. Rap knows language is its material and the MC’s role is to wield it over others (think: Black Thought’s “My pen is Henry Kissinger, Buzz Bissinger”), which is why, for the longest time, I believed it to be the most intelligent form of music. Seeing older, white conservative folks were lighting rap CDs aflame and holding Congressional hearings on the violence in hip hop lyrics in the mid- to late-’90s only reified my position.

When talking about that patently ridiculous line in “Jar of Hearts,” it was most important to my daughter that the line felt true. The words themselves didn’t need to offer a one-to-one correspondence with any one thing in the world, much less rational meaning-making. The materiality of language was utterly irrelevant to her. She didn’t need anything else. The evocation — of an ex’s self-defeating cruelty — was enough.

Incidentally, I was freezing my butt off when she said this. It was the middle of a cold snap in Seattle, and maybe I had to be physically uncomfortable to understand what she meant. I finally did. I let go of the desire to do more with it.

In the fall of 1995, on my first day of school in America, I got beat up. The day ended at the doctor’s: X-rays, broken ribs, one of only a few memories of my father holding me. From the jump, I never seemed to fit in at school. I wasn’t really into sports. I wasn’t allowed to be cute. I gravitated toward girls because they acknowledged their interior lives—conversations were richer and more interesting. That didn’t play well with my male classmates.

I’m listening to a younger version of myself that I’ve long ignored.

To survive puberty in school, I had to hammer these softer tendencies away. My father and all the other men in my life were happy to help. By high school, I’d developed a detachment from the people and events before me that some read as cool. On the interior, I was far from it. I was doing everything I could to hide my feelings, my earnest and cheesy interests, my own deep well of emotion and corniness. It was not okay to be constantly seconds away from crying, and it was especially not okay to encourage that with the frivolity of pop music.

My relationship with my gender now is complicated and fluid, which feels like both a gift and an incredibly scary thing to type out loud. I’ve been playing around with how I present for most of my life. From immigrant farmworker to a private liberal arts college, poetry slams to corporate America, graveyard shift to the governor’s mansion, I have had to move from one space to another fluently. Switching my tone. Donning the right fit. Even straightening or loosening my posture based on my comfort level. In my experience, the difference between surviving and thriving are the right laces on your sneakers or a well-cut suit.

It turns out I love pop music too. I’m on my way to becoming a dues-paying Arianator. Harry Styles’ Fine Line is one of my favorite album releases in a long while, and I’ll fight anyone over how the first six songs are a near-perfect introductory arc, displaying a range I didn’t know he had in him. Selena Gomez’s latest, Rare, is my go-to windows-down driving album.

An overwhelming majority of my newest played tunes come from a genre I’ve overlooked because now I’m listening to a younger version of myself that I’ve long ignored. That little kid and my daughter are discovering and talking about music together. That little kid who never really wanted to play soccer or football or baseball, who wanted so desperately to dance to Christina Aguilera’s “What a Girl Wants” with his girl friends. That little kid is growing alongside my daughter, and somehow, they’re both trying to make sense of what it means to be a girl in America today.

The distance between me and my children keeps growing. With each passing day, it gets wider. Even as our bond strengthens and we grow together, their world is bigger than mine and there’s nothing I can do to catch up. It’s frightening. The best I can hope for, really, is that she’ll always want to share her favorite songs with me.

Read. Write. Ball. Raised by immigrants. Raising Americans. Politics are sacred. Poetry is vital. Will write for food. //

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