I'm Done Telling Kids to Turn Their Music Down

Something I like to do when I see a student listening to music is ask if I can listen through one of their earbuds. Sharing in-ear headphones is probably gross, but I’ve gotten over it. Whatever I hear pumping through the student’s headphones is worth doubling the microbial flora in my ears.

Sometimes I hear something happy, sometimes it’s angry, and other times it’s whatever Drake is (I can’t figure that guy out). The point is, it usually gives me insight I didn’t previously have about the student--even if the insight is only that the student is very into beats and the sound of overloaded bass.

If I hear something developmentally-advanced I usually deflect with a joke: “So wait, how many chains does this guy wear again?” or “How long have you been listening to Barry Manilow?”

Sometimes when I listen, I’m tempted to condemn sex, drugs, and alcohol references--or even worse, the amount of cursing in a song. I get the urge to be a white savior and talk about my love for Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, or my interpretation of redemptive value and its necessity in music. Usually, I pull back from this; I don’t want to be another 33-year-old white dude missing the point. We have too many of those. Plus, how long is it before complaining about innuendos turns into “I can’t even understand the words.” I can’t become that guy. While I’m at it, why not become a comedian and start every joke with “What’s the deal with airline food?”

What really keeps me from scolding a student’s musical taste is remembering why music held the importance it did for me when I was a kid. The U2 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, at speaker-rattling volume in my 92 Ford Escort was probably the best therapist I have ever had. The most difficult part about being young was having strong feelings about something that I didn’t have the emotional language to articulate. It was like having a giant bowl of Ramen and nobody giving me that little spoon that can scoop noodles and broth at the same time. Isn’t that why everyone is drawn to music during adolescence? Our hormones shoot out of control in ways that only 2Pac, T-Boz, and Kurt Cobain can vocalize.

Richard Ashcroft said it quite literally in “Bittersweet Symphony”:

I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah.

I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now.

Adolescence is a time when “the pain,” or whatever is felt, should be recognized rather than condemned. We can all be more thoughtful recognizers. There are far better conversations we can have with our young folks when they shock us with what they listen to, how they dress, or what they get pierced. For instance, any conversation where we aren’t condemning them and their choices is better. These choices are usually symptomatic of something larger. Scolding a kid for the music they listen to doesn’t stop the feeling that prompted their choice to begin with. It’s that feeling we should help them with rather than its manifestations. There is too much at stake to attempt to mute the inner contempt, sadness, and joy of our young folks.

Last week 50 school-aged young folks made the news for a flash mob at Broad and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. A fight happened, and 2 dozen teenagers were taken into custody. I paid attention as the media blamed early dismissal from school, social media, and hashtags for the incident. When things like this happen, my mind wanders about how our schools could have better served these young folks. How could more thoughtful and deliberate conversations with students have changed things? I don’t know where the educators in these students’ lives went wrong, but I bet a lot of them wasted time telling them to turn their music down.

I know this blogpost won’t stop traffic the way our young people did at Broad and Chestnut last week. I haven’t caught lightning in a bottle here; I’m not the first person to say we should worry less about what our young folks are listening to. But, I do think we should pay closer attention to our conversational routines that wear into ruts, particularly in regards to our students.

At some point someone has to stop being the 33-year-old white dude we hated--who never understood the problem.

It’s a big task.

Let's start by not telling kids to turn their music down.