When Teen Music Went Silent

At last week’s ceremony for the new Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship at Harvard, honoree rap artist Nas remarked  “Hip-hop is important like computer science. The world is changing. If you want to understand the youth, listen to the music. This is what’s happening right underneath your nose.” Though the value of computer science and the eternal bond between youth and music are indisputable, hip-hop is not anywhere near my nose. In fact, once Steve Jobs invented the iPod in 2001, the teen music we shared in our home went radio silent.

nas, lifeisgood, hip-hop music


Our son was 11 when he got his first iPod. With ear buds snugly in place, he tuned us out and began to download the music of his choice, increasingly rap and hip-hop. I disapproved of music studded with obscenities, with anti-social and misogynistic lyrics and videos. I hated women being called bitches. He was happy to keep his music choices private whether they were lesser-known artists or the wildly popular Eminem, 50 Cent, and JAY Z whose songs and albums were rising to the top of the Billboard charts. In fact, in 2009, Jay-Z supplanted a 53-year record of most No. 1 albums held by  Elvis Presley, yet the single JAY Z song I recognized was Empire State of Mind, recorded with Alicia Keys.

As a family, we were deprived of both communal listening and the lively arguments that every previous generation of teenagers remembers having with their parents. (Think Elvis’ sensuality and the Beatles’ haircuts.) During high school,  I loved Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and James Taylor whose long hair and hippie-ethic were off-putting to my parents. Yet as my LPs splatted down on the turntable in my bedroom and I turned up the radio, my parents inevitably heard my favorite singers and they became known quantities.

According to Daniel J. Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University and the author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession,“Listening to music with others causes the release of oxytocin, a chemical associated with feelings of trust and bonding. That’s partly why music listeners become so connected to the artists they like. Plus, the nucleus accumbens — the brain’s well-known pleasure center — modulates levels of dopamine, the so-called feel-good hormone.”

Our kids listen to their music in private, an activity hidden from us like the text messages and snapchats they send to friends over their smart phones.  The contemporary hit radio station in the NY-metro area, Z100, features a slightly racy show during morning drive time that our son begged to listen to as a pre-teen. Later, with his iPod or phone in hand, I was free to tune to the station of my choice on the mornings I drove him to school. He sat sleepily in the front seat, earphones serving the dual purpose of playing his songs and blocking my voice.

Without having my kids’ favorite teen music on in the house or the car radio, coupled with my disapproval of hip-hop and rap, I lost a decade of music knowledge.  Short of printing out the lyrics and watching hours of MTV, I behaved in a “hear no evil, see no evil” manner and could say nothing more specific than “I don’t like, I don’t want to hear.”

I will never enjoy music with heavy amounts of profanity or songs where women are treated like objects. But at the same time, I don’t want my industry awareness to have peaked in my youth. So, with interest, I will watch for studies to come from the new Harvard center. Marcyliena Morgan is a professor of African and African-American Studies and the founder and director of the Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute which will administer the new fellowship. She described the reason for its creation this way:

The purpose is to support people doing work that has to do with the ways hip-hop itself reaches out to youth through the world, and particularly how it brings together issues of social justice, art and politics. That relationship – and how difficult it can be – is an important aspect of what we’re looking at. Hip-hop has been a way of getting the word out in very difficult situations. It’s important to think about what it means to produce a certain kind of art that gets read as reality because it describes harsh situations. You might have an opera, in which the tenor sings an aria saying he is about to kill his wife, and you may have a hip-hop artist singing about the same thing. One is considered art, one is considered life.

Do you listen to the music your teenagers love with them or is it silent at your house?



  1. Carpool Goddess says

    I share an iTunes account with my kids, so when I upload songs from my computer, their songs come with it too. Thankfully, they’ve become more interested in mainstream popular music and not just rap. However, over the last few years, rap has changed a bit too. Many pop artists (do they still call themselves that?), JT (Justin Timberlake) and Rhianna to name a few, have made great music with rappers that have resulted in music most would enjoy.

    • says

      Yes, my kids have broadened their musical taste, too, so we are sharing again. The last ten years are just a black hole for me, unfortunately.

  2. Cathy Buday says

    Great post! My kids have downloaded some great stuff to my iPhone–Muse, Pavement, the Clientele, Foo Fighters. Love finding something to share with them. Rap is where I draw the line and thankfully they all like rock.

  3. Emily says

    My 16-year old is a rap/hip-hop listener and I even once wrote a post about how his music is “driving me insane.” We argue all the time in the car over what station to listen to. My 13 and 9 year-old will still listen to top 20 hits, which is tolerable, but the minute I turn to the satellite 80s station, they yell at me to switch stations. There was a time when they were younger when they loved listening to the soundtrack of Mamma Mia (Abba) and we all danced to it and sang along…seems like eons ago and makes me sad those days are long gone.

    • says

      I re-read your post this week, Emily, and it was great. Im imagining you and your song dancing right now to Abba…so sweet!

  4. says

    I’m totally uninformed of the current ( and past ) music too. Funny thing is, I prefer the music my parents listened to..and so do my boys, who are in their 20s. Wen they come over, we all listen to Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett together.

    • says

      Tony Bennett and Sinatra are classics and I hope my kids will discover them, too. How nice that you share music over three generations of time!

  5. Angela Kelley says

    I don’t approve of women being demeaned in music and some of the other elements of violence you may sometimes find in Hip-Hop, but not all Hip-Hop music is like that. Try listening to music that your kids enjoy with an open mind, and have them explain why they like it and what it means to them. My son used to strap on his head phones and tune me out on the way to school. I asked him to share his music with me and we have great conversations about music now. Hip- Hop reminds me of the Beatnik poetry and music from the sixties. I agree with Marcyliena Morgan. Keep an open mind and even if you don’t like it, respect it as a legitimate art form with a voice that expresses what a lot of young folks can relate too. Of course, I understand not letting or approving of younger kids listening to the violent or sexist stuff, but that is not representative of all of Hip-Hop.

    • says

      Angela, thank you for your thoughtful comment. It is a mistake to dismiss the hip-hop genre altogether but we need those more knowledgable than we are (ie our kids) to help us differentiate among the artists.

  6. says

    What a fascinating thought! Hadn’t occurred to me that I might miss out on my kids’ music if they end up listening to it on a ipod. At the moment my kids are stuck with whatever LPs I bought in the 80s because we are seriously low tech and still use a record player. (Ghostbusters gets a lot of play, as does Peter Gabriel.) But they do listen to things on their laptop from time to time. I’m looking forward to hearing whatever new stuff they find as they get older.

    • says

      Korinthia, it will be an interesting journey for you as your kids expose you to what they discover in music. As it has been for us, too!

  7. says

    I truly believe that sharing music with our children is a way to grow and learn with them. I can remember sharing music with my parents in a positive environment and I think it has made me appreciate different kinds of music to this day. Sure I have my favorites but I can listen to anything for at least a song or two. Music is and always will be a bond in our family.

    • says

      What Prof Levitin said about the power of shared music is so true. Sounds like you have been able to enjoy that with your family.

  8. says

    I was fortunate that my daughter shared my love of Broadway music when she was in high school, so there was always something for us to listen to together. My son used to like rap, but has moved on to country music as he’s gotten older, which is far more pleasant to hear blasting when he’s in he shower. I’ve shared my love of music with my kids from the time they were born, and I like most of the music they like, too – but rap does escape me for the most part.

    • says

      Someone – a musician friend – once said that when we recognize a song, our enjoyment of it increases. Show tunes, a piece of opera, a song we remember from high school, a favorite lullaby all produce that feeling. Your daughter’s show choir must have been so fun for you. Glad to know that your son has branched out to the more relatable cw genre.

  9. says

    I love this because as an enjoyer of rap music, I am always glad to see hip hop taken seriously. And yet, it’s still changing. While I prefer artists like Nas’ deep thoughts and absolutely incredible at times social imagery, my girls tend to enjoy the more mainstream hip hop artists who, to me, only talk about money, what they’ve bought, bitches, and liquor. I prefer a story, just like r&b still does. I’m glad that my girls (12 and 10) have an eclectic taste just like my husband and I do (AKA sometimes you’re simply going to listen to what we’re listening to and sometimes that is Stevie Wonder or Hall & Oates all damn night). Both have an iPod but we’re in control of downloads. Even though I dislike the younger artists “I” feel aren’t saying anything of value, I still listen to it because I want to at least try to understand their lyrics or motivation. If nothing else, it gives good conversation.

    • says

      Arnebya, hip-hop and rap seem to be entering a new era and this fellowship at Harvard is an indication of that. I love how you describe your music relationship with your daughters and how you control their ipods. I agree, music is a perfect inter-generational topic for discussion. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  10. says

    I feel like it’s important to remember the real-life context that a lot of conspicuous-consumption hip-hop is borne of. A lot of these artists came from a place of struggle and deprivation and very limited opportunities to succeed, so it makes sense that a lot of their music will be a defiant celebration of the material wealth they had to work so hard to get. And make no mistake, you have to put in a LOT of work as a young, unknown MC if you want to achieve any level of recognition. Jay-Z has probably the most famous distillation of how this all works: “If you grew up with holes in your zapatos / You’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.”

    Does this mean it’s not fucked up that in these songs, women are often treated the same way as jewelry and rims, i.e., just another material indicator that you’ve made it? Absolutely not. But I do think it’s important to remember why music made by young men from the black underclass — a segment of society against whom all kinds of forces conspire — is the way it is, and why that resonates with so many of its fans.

    • says

      Alex, I am sure you are absolutely right about the socio-economic context of the music. As a mom with young kids who had no connection to that world, the profanity in lyrics and misogynistic references were major barriers to me to trying to understand the genre. Now that my kids are older (18, 23) and I am no longer protective about the language and media they are exposed to, I need a crash course on the last decade of music to understand it.

  11. Angela says

    Thank you Alex! You did an excellent job of expressing exactly what my 17 year old son was telling me last night.

    • Alex says

      Thanks Angela. :)

      I guess I should also point out that my sister and my ex-girlfriend are two of the biggest rap fans I know, and that they both love a number of artists and songs whose lyrics would turn Betty Friedan’s hair white. From what I can tell, the confidence and the gleefully transgressive nature of this music are a big part of the appeal for both of them. This is just anecdotal, of course, and it’s not to excuse the misogyny (or homophobia) that pervades a lot of commercial hip-hop; I guess I just want to suggest that rap fans’ relationship with the music they love is as complicated and unpredictable as you’d find in any other genre.

  12. says

    My kids love the broadway musicals and still rib me about America lyrics and some James Taylor or Led Zeppelin (the latter considered very controversial in their time) and we listen to music they like too. For the most part I really like who they like. And we are a family who like to play cards and board games and we make it a deal to each take turns letting our i-pod music playlists being the one we listen to. I’ve learned many a new group or singer by listening to what they like – and they enjoy most of what I have on mine – if not – they enjoy groaning about it. The bottom line of blessing in it all for me – is the music. The love of and enjoyment of music and the human experience we can usually share through it.


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