What is teen rock music for? To shut out parents. Or so it always seemed.
The donning of the ear buds marks the beginning of teen life, when children set off on their own for the passage through adolescence. Boom boxes performed the same function in the old days.
Even back then, the content of the songs was anti-parent, or at least parent-free. Adults were generally depicted as not understanding: “Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you,” as James Taylor put it decades ago, describing what adults did to a troubled girl. The angry anti-them bias has been the rule since the days of the screaming girls at New York’s Kennedy Airport, waiting for the Beatles.
“Help, I need someone!” Just not my mother.
Most parents have assumed there was nothing you could change about this dynamic. It was a child’s developmental right to break away, girls as well as boys. Music had to end childhood, and early. After a child reaches 13, or 11, or 9, parents must be dissed. Good manners showed you were your parents’ patsy.
When concert time came, parents played chauffeur, covered their ears, and prepared to be ignored or worse. “They wouldn’t be musicians if they didn’t want to rebel against parents,” as one child painstakingly explained to me.
Miley Cyrus, precocious perma-rebel, is typical of this mindset, and publicly abdicated responsibility for fan behavior: “My job isn’t to tell your kids how to act or not to act,” she told Harper’s Bazaar in 2010. And, after all: You can’t fight a market. Anti-parent music seems to be all the pop-rock market wants.
But maybe it isn’t really all. Now a 21-year-old singer-songwriter named Taylor Swift is challenging the anti-parent bias, at least for girls. Swift, who happens to be named after James Taylor, isn’t occasionally pro-parent, like Kanye West (See his 2005 “Hey Mama”), with whom she tangled at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony in 2009.
Swift is, in fact, systematically pro-parent and pro-family. She sings about men, yes, but she also sings about mom, dad, being nice, putting bullies in their place and backing up friends, all in a perfectly irony-free tone. She even publicly thanks father chaperones accompanying their daughters to her concerts.
And here’s the interesting part: Swift is wildly popular with people older than 9. Her album, “Speak Now,” has set a Guinness World Record as the fastest-selling digital recording of 2011. Her tours gross $100 million.
The idea that there was something different about Swift dawned on many of us chaperones when we heard her first big hit, “ You Belong With Me.” Swift comes out of the country-music culture, where nice girls sing about boys they can’t have all the time, but now she had busted into the world of pop rock, taking on someone else for being too cool. Of the girl who has stolen her guy, Swift sang: “She wears short skirts, I wear sneakers, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.”
The first truly astounding Swift product was “Best Day,” a song in which a girl returns home after a fight with her friends and is cheered by her mother, who takes her for a drive. “Now I don’t know who I’m going to talk to at school. I know I’m laughing on the car ride home with you. Don’t know how long it is going to take to feel OK. But I know I had the best day with you today.” It turns out mom is sometimes a better friend than teen girls. Impossible. Even more impossible: that Swift plays her song with a backdrop of images of herself as a toddler with her mother.
The other night at Madison Square Garden, thousands of female concertgoers well into puberty joined Swift in singing down an imaginary bully: “All you’re ever going to be is mean.” The girls were jumping, crying and screaming, just the way their grandmothers would have for the Beatles. But this time, it was all about friends and fairness. Girls were holding hands with their mothers, and this was a concert, not a confirmation class. Impossible!
Some critics have depicted Swift as a manufactured construct of monster parents and coaches, a sort of Shirley Temple. That’s oversimplification. But her parents are thoughtful, and did advance her career, as well as, at least for a time, home-school her. In a New Yorker interview, Swift recalled how some girls at a seventh-grade sleepover wanted to sneak over to a boy’s house. Swift wanted to call her mother. Sounds obnoxious, right? But we all know girls much older than 12 who would rather not sneak over to a boy’s house, at least not this year. For those girls, Swift provides cover.
She is also willing to give cover to us parents. She implicitly rebutted Cyrus in a recent “60 Minutes” segment in which she said the following about artists’ responsibility: “The truth of it is every singer out there with songs on the radio is raising the next generation.”
Swift, the phenom, suggests the market for pop culture features elements of a vicious cycle perpetuated by music professionals, at least in the case of girls. She’s won Grammys. But she’s won more American Music Awards. The distinction is that the former prize is chosen by players in the entertainment industry. In the AMAs, music buyers choose the winner. Maybe the professional entertainers held sway too long. Swift reminds us that music can stretch out childhood a few years, instead of curtailing it. And that possibility is enough to make, if not a best day, then a better day for many of us. Whatever age we are.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg View columnist and the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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