my alternative musical education

When I was going through those awkward pre-teen years that everyone seems to experience between the ages of 12 and 16, I tried to rebel through music. That didn’t go too well. (In retrospect, my parents would have done well to realize that music isn’t that dangerous a rebellion compared to what would follow, but none of us knew that at the time, so listening to “crappy pop music with an unhealthy message” did seem like a serious transgression.) Mom and Dad didn’t allow Britney Spears in the car or the house, so I was reduced to listening in secret whenever they went out. When I copied my cousins’ Backstreet Boys’ Millennium album onto tape, I had to fish it out of the garbage can one day, much to my horror. Mom and Dad allowed only what they liked, which was classical music, the Beatles’ Abbey Road, a few jazz CDs, and an old tape of the Fine Young Cannibals, The Raw and The Cooked, that we used for family dances in the kitchen.

I argued, cried, wrote letters of protest, and fought. It wasn’t fair that I couldn’t listen to music I liked (or thought I liked — Britney now makes me seriously doubt my taste at that age), but Mom and Dad remained firm. They didn’t approve of the messages of overt sexuality, of violence, of misogyny, of who knows what else. They didn’t like the lifestyle of pop stars (“They use drugs!”), nor the history of rock music (“It’s music to incite rebellion and it makes you act wild!”). After discovering Bob Marley on a road trip to Montreal, I came home excited that I’d finally found a compromise, but the (unsurprising) answer was, “No — marijuana.” You can imagine the pent-up frustration on my part.

photo: last.fm
photo: last.fm

Finally I discovered a crack in their rules. They were fine with almost any kind of music that wasn’t sung in English. I chose not to challenge the logic or assumptions in this rule and decided, rather, to take advantage of it. I discovered the Putumayo recording company and began stocking up on “world” music. My CD collection looked wholly unlike any other teenager’s I knew, with titles such as “Music from the Tea Lands,” “Jewish Odyssey,” “Rumba Flamenco,” “Global Soul,” “Greece,” “Brasileiro” (the start of a love affair with Brazilian music!), “Italian Odyssey,” “Afro-Latin Party,” and “Latin Groove.” Over the course of a few years, I became a self-trained expert (of sorts) on the global music scene.

Believe it or not, I carried on terribly embarrassing conversations with major crushes that went like, “Yeah, my favourite song is Ya Rayah … what, you don’t know it? …. it’s, like, one of the most famous Arabic songs!” (And I wondered why they always seemed scared off…) At one point I could also sing along to the hour-long, non-stop Bollywood hits CD that I brought home from India because I listened to it so much that my dad imposed a two-times-a-day limit. Fun fact: when Sex and The City II came out, I could sing along to Leiley, the wonderfully exotic Arabic song that plays as the girls arrive in Abu Dhabi; I’ve known that song for years!

My parents’ rigidity had a number of effects. It encouraged me to explore beyond the typical, usually low-quality pop music that many teens listen to. Although there are many wonderful English-singing artists out there, I probably would have been stuck in the mainstream for a while and I managed to avoid that. It certainly planted the seed for a lifelong love of international music since that’s primarily what I still listen to. At the same time, however, it stunted my knowledge of local music and made it much harder to discover, and even appreciate, Canadian artists. Because I’ve spent so many years listening to instruments instead of lyrics, I tend to ignore lyrics even when they’re sung in English. Worst of all, though, my collection of world music made me seriously uncool at a time when being cool matters a lot. Oh well, I suppose I’ve recovered from that trauma, though it still rankles at times, and must catch up on my Canadian musical education, so if you have any suggestions, please toss them my way.

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6 thoughts on “my alternative musical education

  1. Gosh, your parents had a point I think. In the car this afternoon a song came on the radio – something rappy (sorry, I am about as useless with music as I am with home furnishings) singing about “Mr Flintstone” so the little guys’ ears immediately pricked up. Next lyric, the ‘artist’ is saying he wants to make the ‘bed rock’!
    “Mummy, why does that man want to make the bed right?”. We usually listen to CDs thank goodness – the radio isn’t safe! 😉

  2. When I was growing up (way before you…tho’ I’m not saying how much before!), we listened to many Canadian artists without even knowing they were Canadian! That’s how it is in the States, I guess, we absorb everything as though we owned it. Like most of my friends, I was surprised to find out that Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, etc. were not American. Today, I like listening to the radio show Vinyl Cafe for all the great Canadian musicians he features that we would not otherwise get to hear. I don’t think you missed much by being deprived of Britney.

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