Facing the Music

Andrea Tomkins

I feel like such an old lady when I’m listening to the radio sometimes. When I’m in the car with my husband we often find ourselves having the I Can’t Believe What Kids Are Listening to These Days conversation, one that often ends with me hitting the OFF button in disgust.

When our children were really young there were certain radio stations we skipped over completely, just because of the kind of music they played. I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time explaining big topics we weren’t ready to discuss, things like sex, drugs, and what it means when someone calls someone a “ho.”

At that age it was just was easier to pop in a children’s CD, but we figured out pretty quickly that most of them were really annoying (there’s a Farmer in the Dell song that remains firmly etched into my brain to this day) and that the best course of action was to keep family-friendly CDs and iPod playlists of our favourite songs at the ready.

We are now well past the Farmer in the Dell stage and find ourselves listening to the popular radio station that was previously banned. My kids are 11 and 13 now but I’ve made it clear that as the driver, I retain the right to switch it off at anytime.

Locked out of Heaven by Bruno Mars is a song that’s getting a lot of play right now and it makes me cringe so I tend to switch the station when I hear it come on. I can’t imagine explaining it anyone under the age of 10.

Here’s the crux of it:

'Cause your sex takes me to paradise
Yeah, your sex takes me to paradise
And it shows, yeah, yeah, yeah

'Cause you make me feel like I've been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long
Yeah, you make me feel like I've been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long

I don’t even know where to begin explaining this song. So she’s not having sex with him. And he’s begging, or worse, laying on a guilt trip. Gah. I guess this is the world we live in now and we need to adapt, but it seems sad that there is nothing left to the imagination anymore.

Whether one finds a song objectionable is a personal thing. Some parents are more likely to be bothered by drugs and sexual innuendo, others salty language, while some might be offended at the sheer absurdity of the song writing or lack thereof.

Most parents probably don’t bother listening to song lyrics too closely, but I know my kids are listening, so I do too. Song lyrics can kick start some really great discussions too, and I like it when it happens in the car because having a captive audience is the way to go here.

There is a song on the radio right now that I do like, because it is catchy and I think there’s an interesting message buried in it. It’s called Thrift Shop, by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Our local radio station blanks out the objectionable parts, like the swear words, but in some cases you know exactly what the blank represents. Personally I don’t have a big issue with language because our kids hear it in the schoolyard anyway.

Here’s the video, just for kicks. (This is an edited G-rated version.)

THRIFT SHOP (G rated Radio Edit Clean version) - MACKLEMORE & RYAN LEWIS FEAT. WANZ from Garrett Wesley Gibbons on Vimeo.


Are you familiar with this song? Here’s the part that got our family talking recently: (Beeps and bolding are my own.)

They be like “Oh that Gucci, that’s hella tight”
I’m like “Yo, that’s fifty dollars for a t-shirt”
Limited edition, let’s do some simple addition
Fifty dollars for a t-shirt, that’s just some [BEEP BEEPING]
I call that getting swindled and pimped, [BEEP]
I call that getting tricked by business
That shirt’s hella dope
And having the same one as six other people in this club is a hella don’t
Peep game, come take a look through my telescope
Trying to get girls from a brand?
Man you hella won’t, man you hella won't

I do believe that popular music shapes and influences public opinion, and this song is using teen language to do it, which makes it especially powerful.

It’s amazing how  much of modern music (not to mention music videos) is about riches and fame and bling and hot chicks. Language aside, Thrift Shop is refreshing in comparison. They’re telling their audience, one who is highly motivated by wearing the “right” brands, that it’s not actually cool to shell out fifty dollars for a t-shirt, and that they’re being fooled into buying it. Teens don’t like to feel duped.

The underlying message here is one that I can support: it’s ok to be yourself and to wear what you think is cool.

When we talked about it in the car we discussed what a hugely consumerist society we live in, and why things cost as much as they do. We talked about second-hand goods and what it means to buy them, and about the environmental impact of buying into every trend. We talked about marketing and fashion, and how people judge one another by what they wear. (Is it good or bad? DISCUSS.)

And then there’s the language of rap that is sometimes obscured by the coarseness of it. Rap is modern day poetry - Shakespeare for the new millennium – and I do like how it shapes our language in creative and interesting ways.

“Can you guess what it means to pop some tags?” I asked my kids the other day after we listened to Thrift Shop on the radio together. They came up blank (although I’m not sure if it’s because my little vocabulary lesson was completely out of left field).

“Doesn’t it mean buying clothes?” I prompted. “The popping refers to the sound it makes when you take a tag off something you just purchased, right?” 

I’m still not sure if that little lesson resulted in back seat eyeball rolling or if I seemed like a really hip mom that day, but I like to think that it got them thinking about creative use of descriptive language. I hope their university professors give me credit some day.

I have a great website to share with you next time you’re trying to decode the lingo of a popular rap song. It’s a site called Rap Genius, and it basically a translator for those of us who need a bit of extra help. Here’s the breakdown for Thrift Shop.

If you are interested in having similar conversations with your kids you should refer to some of the resources on the MediaSmarts site. Here’s the music section of the site. There are a few things that you may find helpful there, such as this MediaSmarts tip sheet about managing music in the home. If your main concern is about gender stereotypes (think about all the rap videos featuring scantily-clad dancers falling over fully-dressed men and their shiny cars) you should talk about it next time a song or video comes on. There are some great conversation starters right here, which can be tailored to any age too.