BY MARK ALLISTER
Professor of English, environmental studies, and American studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota
Teenage rebellion takes many forms, but teens rejecting their parents’ music is a less likely expression of that rebellion than it once was. When I was growing up, my mom and dad listened to opera, to their scratchy old 33 rpm records as well as the weekly Saturday broadcast from the Met. They also loved musicals, and I remember them taking me and my brother and sisters to a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy film. The two actors sang, of course, though all I recall are images, particularly the incongruous sight of MacDonald in a blowsy white dress tramping through the woods with pirates. As an adult now, I remember the act of going to that movie as something comical, interesting only as sport of some strange past.
When I was a teenager in the ’70s, I never listened to my parents’ old records. But my daughter, Betsy, is just as likely as I am to pop in a Simon and Garfunkel or Joni Mitchell CD, and my son, Nat, surprises me routinely by listening to Neil Young or Bob Dylan. We also can watch the same music movies. Film of Woodstock retains its hold on the teenage imagination – perhaps in part because of the excesses of ’60s culture, but also because of the transcendent performances by Jimi Hendrix or Crosby, Stills & Nash. And when U2 sings about the troubles in Ireland in the concert documentary Rattle and Hum, the song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” seems as relevant to the world of 2014 as it did to the early ’80s.
Betsy and Nat have compact discs of bands that I’ve never heard of, but they also own the Beatles, Johnny Cash, and Carole King. They view popular music of quality from any decade as part of their inheritance. When I tell them about my teenage concert experiences—when I saw The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Heart, the Steve Miller Band, and The Eagles on one gorgeous day in 1977 in the Oakland Coliseum—they’re actually impressed.
If it’s been fun to have my children listen to “my” music, it’s been equally satisfying to reverse the usual parent-child roles and have them teach me about that music. I listened often to Joni Mitchell records when I was in college and for years after, but then Betsy discovered her and began listening to the records that came a bit later, such as Blue, and now that record has become one of my favorites. Nat reintroduced me to Led Zeppelin when he began playing them at the age of 13. I had disliked the band since my first year in college, when I was across the hall from two guys who had a very loud stereo and only two records. When they drank a lot, which was often, they blasted Led Zeppelin loud enough to make my door shake, and then, when they were hungover or tired, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were replaced by the rather different sound of Olivia Newton John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow.” For 25 years I had been unable to listen to either Newton John or Led Zeppelin until I found myself sitting down with Nat, talking about the group, hearing songs I had only heard as background noise on the radio. And I appreciated the band more in my middle age than I had when I was 18.
It’s not only old music that my children have helped me hear. Through them I’ve been introduced to new singers and bands. I first heard Neutral Milk Hotel and Iron and Wine on a mixed CD that Betsy made me for Christmas one year, and now they are two of my favorites. Nat introduced me to Ryan Adams, Modest Mouse, and The Decemberists, and I don’t know how many albums of each are in my music collection. And, occasionally, I’ve introduced them to something new, singers such as Laura Marling and bands like Lost in the Trees.
So, parents out there, here’s what I propose for a family activity. Pull out the old records or CDs – your favorites and your best – and sing along, and tell your kids why you love those songs, and have them put their favorite CDs on, and invite them to tell you why they love the music they do. I’m guessing that the sound and the themes will not be all that different, that together you can listen to Of Monsters and Men and Bruce Springsteen. And if times get tougher in the parent-child relationships down the road, perhaps you’ll be able to go to a concert together, a concert by some band yet to be formed, but one you’ll both love and that will help you remember that you also love each other.
“Listening to Cloud Cult continues to inspire me: the band has set a tone for the kind of art I wish to create. They’re a carbon-neutral band in a carbon-saturated world, and a heart-centered band in a heartbroken world. I love them dearly and I’m intensely grateful that Cloud Cult exists.”
—Josh Radnor, actor and filmmaker
“As a long-time fan of Cloud Cult, I enjoyed this book and am grateful to know the band’s emotional story. I have always respected their music and lyrics, and I now understand my connection to Cloud Cult’s art and agenda. Their story breaks my heart but also deeply inspires me. We are all connected to the world through pain and love.”
—MC Sean “Slug” Daley, Atmosphere