The teenager who exhibits angst like a nervy thoroughbred, the kid who seals out the world by shutting the bedroom door and listening to music with the volume knob cranked way up — when I was fifteen, I didn’t listen to records through the geeky mission-control headphones that complete that image, but I was that kid. Music was my lifeline, my towrope; it soothed the savage beast. From the second in ninth grade when I purchased Pink Floyd’s The Wall at the record store I was able to walk to, I was completely and utterly under the spell of music.
The records I bought named the ineffable; said the unsayable. Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine… Patti Smith snarled from the hand-me-down Piledriver speakers I inherited from a professional musician uncle, their faux-wood cases ringed by a bachelor life-time’s worth of drinks set down on them before they came into my possession. It’s better to burn out than to fade away… Neill Young sang in his weary rasp. And God love my parents, for all their foibles, for all their inattentive mid-seventies weaknesses; they hardly ever shouted turn that crap down!
At fifteen, I felt voiceless. Music gave me vocal cords. Not that I ever sang (I had received the impression early on, around age seven, that I would never amount to much, musically-speaking). I wasn’t in Band, or in a band. I had taken piano lessons for a few years when I was younger, long enough to learn to read music and play The Wild Horsemen as a recital piece, but by the time I was fifteen, being angst-ridden was my fulltime job and oh, how I applied myself to it, with all the drive I had in earlier years applied to being a good citizen, a good girl. I snuck into music clubs. I dated older guys in bands, and from this remove, of parenthood and middle age, it’s hard for me to know if I dated them because of any inherent feeling for them or because guys in bands were always able to score a “plus-one” on the guest list. I became adept at calling the campus radio station and winning tickets to shows. Because I grew up in a small southern town without an arena conducive to arena rock, I saw two “real” shows while I was a teenager: Fleetwood Mack and David Bowie, both of which involved travel to other, larger, places. But. The Violent Femmes, R.E.M., The Replacements, Iggy Pop — name any alternative band on the college circuit in the early to mid-1980s, and chances are I saw them. By the time I was a senior in high school, I’d developed a particular live-music snobbishness I have yet to entirely shake — I couldn’t fathom the point of parties where you danced to canned music. If you couldn’t be up front, right there by the speakers, dancing your heart out, swallowed by the energy that sparks between audience and performer — what was the point?
Maybe we all were that kid, saved by music, those of us now with children of our own, those of us who are old enough — almost — to remember the days when the family sound system was built into a coffee table and referred to, with late-sixties suburban glamour, as the hi-fi. Maybe the overwhelming feeling that music is the only soundtrack that makes sense of your days, your life, is one of the few commonalities of adolescence that transcends generations.
All I know is that time passed. By the time I graduated from college, I had a pretty respectable record collection. People who liked music tended to flip through the records I’d amassed with admiration. The job I’d held for the past few years, in which I worked in a vintage clothing shop where the sales-girl (me, mostly) was allowed to blast college radio through the sound system, made me even better at calling the campus station to win tickets to shows. I continued to date guys in bands or guys peripherally involved with the local “music scene.” For love, for music? Hard to say.
And then. More time passed. I began to realize that I had spent a lot of time in bars — that I’d been going to bars for almost fifteen years. And I was only 29! That was more than half my life. I began to recognize that men who stayed up all night listening to or playing music sometimes exuded a particular chemical smell the next day that indicated that their bodies had taken in more alcohol than they could actually process. I wised up to the knowledge that when you hung out with a guy who had that smell you tended to end up in bad places. I began to realize I was tired. I had to go to work in the morning! It stopped being quite so fun, to stay up until 3 a.m.
In short, the time had come to put away childish things, and the moment when I had received my paycheck from standing behind a counter listening to the radio had long ago receded in the rear view mirror.
Oh, I still listened to music. The first Valentine’s Day my husband-to-be and I were dating, he sent me a package of mix tapes. I made one for him in return; our courtship flourished. We spent more time figuring out what band would play at our wedding than we did dissecting our vows. By the time I got around to having the sort of cranky babies a formerly sullen rocker who hung out on the periphery of “the scene” probably deserves, I danced them around our living room to the same Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles that had been the soundtrack of my childhood. The playlists on my ipod acquired names like “4 year old birthday party” and included (what else?) songs by Dan Zane and They Might be Giants.
Somehow, without me knowing exactly how I managed it, I now have one child fast approaching puberty and another who, although younger, has been so beset by the example of her older sibling since Day One that she has absorbed her taste — and I have rules. When I’m driving, I get to choose the music. Dad may be a sucker and put on Radio Disney for you, but when I’m driving, you have to listen to the weird old person station, or NPR, or my ipod.
One of the places I drive to while we are busy not listening to Radio Disney is — piano lessons. God knows why. Because somebody drove me to piano lessons? Because music saved my life when I was fifteen? Because I possessed that professional-musician uncle, and “the arts” are something of a family value? No matter: because I can, I do, well aware every single second of the privilege that allows me to do so.
Over past few years, I have attended so many music recitals that I now take pleasure in their trappings. The little girls in in their glittery dresses and ballet flats, the occasional boy wearing a clip-on tie boy (at our studio, boys take drums and guitar instead, and just what is that all about, you supposedly gender-blind former children of the seventies who are now parents?). The doting parents making videos with their smart phones. The sherbet-and-Sprite punch so much like the one my own piano teacher served after her recitals. The crumbly store-bought cookies. The piano teacher herself, with her long elegant pianist’s fingers.
I have seen it all before.
Well… I have — but then again, maybe I haven’t.
At the most recent recital I attended (the first of May’s many end-of-the-year rituals crossed off my list now), a bevvy of first and second-grade girls played a variety of songs, many of them vaguely exotic in their minor chordage (The Snake Charmer was one piece; Snake in a Basket was another). Beyond that, who participated? A single 8th grade voice student, a couple of six and seventh graders. Two fifth graders, one of whom is mine.
I realize that this dearth of older students at the neighborhood music studio may have more to say about neighborhood demographics (the neighborhood reached its full apex of gentrification eight years ago, in those halcyon Bubble Days; until a couple of years ago there even wasn’t a music studio in the neighborhood) than it does anything else. But it’s an interesting thing to examine … this falling away from art.
When our children are young, we expose them to drawing and painting and making music and dancing and telling stories if and when we can. (And drawing and painting and making music and dancing and telling stories are also just what little kids do when they are left to their own devices.) Whether little children are actually bad or good at those things, whether they actually have a thimbleful of talent at them, doesn’t really factor all that much into our decisions. As a society, we’ve absorbed the vaguely old-fashioned idea that participation in what we tend to call “art” is good for young human beings — that it addresses some sort of hunger in them, and fosters some sort of of joy. We focus on process — not product.
Fast-forward four or five short years and our expectations of our children — and our feelings about the role creativity ought to play in our lives — have entirely shifted. A pre-teen’s exposure to making art tends to continue only if he or she has what we consider talent.
Sometimes our pre-teens quit piano or dance or what have you just because they “just don’t like it anymore” — and what beleaguered parent wants to force art on recalcitrant offspring? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, after all. We figure the best we can hope for is that our children will move from being producers of art to being good consumers of it, that they’ll go to museums, listen to music, read books.
But here’s a question: why don’t our kids like making art of one kind or another any more by the time they’re eleven or twelve? Because people like the things they do for which they get praise, and our society values (and praises) talent over passion? Because the things we start to offer our children instead at that age – their own phones, more unfettered access to media — are infinitely more seductive? (Would you rather play the piano or surf the internet?) Because we don’t actually value art all that much beyond what consumption of it might indicate to the outside world about our socio-economic status?
These may not be answerable questions. But as someone who writes literary fiction (when I’m asked what that means, I have been known to answer “It means I write stuff that doesn’t sell”) I feel like I need to at least examine them.
But later! Right now, I’m sitting in the audience at that recital and — I am on the edge of my seat.
Some of the older kids who walk up onto the stage play piano. A few are taking voice. Two sing opera. And us, this doting audience, we love the little girls who played before them because they are ours and they are lovely and they try so hard, but this handful of young people, they stand there on the stage, on the cusp, with their hearts in their mouths — and when they sing, or play, we are transported. Humbled by their youth, their vibrancy, the potential that has not yet been sullied by the demands of the market place, the demands of our culture, and yes, the demands of us, the very parents who love them so very much that we have a hard time keeping our hands off them. They are so pretty!
I sit there in the audience at the end-of-the-year recital. Floored by the knowledge they instinctively have that we adults have buried so deep we can hardly retrieve it. That art is important. That expression of the naked spirit is an essential thing, transcends self-consciousness, outweighs fear, trumps all.