I act as a censor for what my daughter is exposed to. There’s a lot of TV, movies, and YouTube that she’s not allowed to watch. There are games I won’t let her play. I keep some news stories from her. I’ve never specifically told her she can’t read a book, but I have warned her that something is too old for her and she’s stayed away. I’m not perfect, by any means, but I try.
The one thing I don’t censor, at all, is music. I don’t know why that is, but I’ll let her listen to anything she wants. It doesn’t matter how good or not good it is. It doesn’t matter if the lyrics are clean or dirty or what they’re about. It might be because I listen to so much old blues which is chock full of violence and sex. But The Beatles and operas are, too. Who knows. I am always prepared to talk to her about anything she hears. Once, Tom Dooley led to a long conversation about violence in art, tragedy, consequences, and catharsis. I’m often answering questions about what certain words mean, especially old-timey words and phrases.
Recently, we had a new experience. We were listening to the album Liz Phair by Liz Phair (@PhizLair) and almost every song sparked questions. I was caught completely off guard. I’ve never had to explain a whole album before. For those of you who are mostly familiar with Liz Phair from reputation, it wasn’t the obscenities or overt talk of sex. Those are everywhere and almost impossible to avoid. My daughter and I have talked many times about both. Obscenities and sex also have very little to do with what makes Liz Phair so interesting.
Here’s, hopefully, a sense of how it went:
The album opens with Extraordinary. The line my daughter asked about is from the chorus, “I am just your ordinary, average, everyday, sane/psycho super-goddess.” I stumbled a little out of the gate as I hadn’t been paying much attention before the question was asked. I talked a little about empowerment, then kind of let it go. I don’t think I was wrong, but if I had known what was to come, I would have liked to talk about how it’s similar, in a way, to Carol King’s (@Carole_King) Beautiful, but with the tension/frustration when the person who you wish would notice doesn’t. You’re not any less extraordinary if someone fails to notice, but it can be annoying.
Red Light Fever comes next. The line that caught her attention here was, “Scared the lights will turn green, you’ll have to be seen. You’ll be like anybody else. Scared the lights will turn red. You’re stuck in your head. Too scared to commit to even her. How are you gonna get through the year?” My daughter joked that the person would be in trouble because there’s no way to only hit yellow lights. Then, she noticed the line, “Always going nowhere. Afraid of going somewhere. And somewhere’s a place in your heart.” I explained that the song is about insecurities, that a lot of people are unhappy where they are, but are too afraid to move. I didn’t get into it with her, but when I was a teenager, I thought that would get easier as an adult, but I was wrong.
Third was Why Can’t I? It was the chorus that got her again in this one. “Why can’t I breathe whenever I think about you?” and “Why can’t I speak whenever I talk about you?” We talked a bit about figurative language, how she doesn’t really stop breathing or speaking. I told my daughter that she’s a little young to know what it’s like to be this excited by another person. It’s kind of like your birthday and Christmas morning and taking off your training wheels all at the same time, but in human form. I’m not sure she really understood, but I assured her that this song captures the feeling extremely well.
The next two songs, It’s Sweet and Rock Me, actually didn’t raise any questions. I was a little disappointed she didn’t ask about It’s Sweet. I really like the line, “It’s sweet how you believe you’re in love with me.” I would have been happy to talk about it. I was OK with her not asking about Rock Me. It’s not a bad song, by any means, but it’s easily the most conventional song on the album, and maybe in Liz Phair’s catalogue. The only somewhat unusual thing is that it’s about an older woman with a younger man, but Mrs. Robinson is a much older song, so that has been done before. (This has nothing to do with anything, but I will say that Liz Phair name drops herself in this song and I’m torn what I think of it. One the one hand, there’s a long tradition in American music of artists name dropping themselves and this is a nod to that tradition. On the other hand, she just doesn’t seem like the type of artist where name dropping of any kind comes naturally.)
Take a Look brought the questions back. Only, this time, the question wasn’t really about the song. In the first verse, she says, “Like an accident on the side of the road and you’re driving past slow.” My daughter wanted to know why people do that. I still don’t have a good answer.
I knew the next song, Little Digger, was going to get her attention. She is a child of divorced parents, and the song is about a kid getting to know his mother’s new boyfriend. (I actually don’t think the song specifies boy or girl, and it doesn’t make a difference, but the image in my head when I hear it is a little boy.) My daughter didn’t ask about any of the particular lyrics, but we talked about a guy that her mother had been seeing and she asked me about dating. I also just want to say that I like the line, “My mother is mine.” It’s a very real kid way of saying it. And I really identify with the line, “I pray to God that I’m the damaged one.” Better me than my daughter.
Firewalker has the line, “Become something strange and beautiful.” My daughter has been asking a lot lately about whether she is weird or strange. I’m always trying to tell her that it’s normal to be strange, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with strange. This continued that conversation.
Next was Favorite. In this one, the chorus says, “Baby, know what you’re like? You’re like my favorite underwear.” First, my daughter wanted to know know what that meant. I explained that the singer is very comfortable in their relationship. Then, she wanted to know why underwear. I told her that underwear goes with the imagery of slipping something on. Then, she wanted to know if I had favorite underwear. I told her that I do not, all my underwear is the same. But it doesn’t have to be underwear. It could be anything that you’ve had for a long time that brings comfort. I said that I have a hoodie like that, and she said that some of her stuffed animals are like that for her.
When Love/Hate came on, it was the line, “It’s a war with the boys and girls,” that got her. My daughter is friends with some boys, she pointed out. I told her that those friendships are a good thing. But, I added, there’s a long history of sexism and some people feel like it is hard for boys and girls to get along. The song is actually suggesting that it’s hard for anybody to get along. I softened it a bit by pointing out that the song opens with the line, “I was a mess in my open-eyed youth. I grew up thinking what’s good for one oppresses the other.” So, the war isn’t real, but it’s a common adolescent view of the world.
Then, I turned it off. It was dinner time, at least that’s what I told my daughter. But really it’s because H.W.C. was coming up next and I’m a coward. The song is about using ejaculate as skin care or a “beauty routine.” I had no idea how to begin explaining that to a nine year old. The song also uses the word come as a noun, and that seemed tricky to me, too. Part of me thinks that the song would have just gone over her head and she wouldn’t have asked any questions, but I was too afraid to find out. So, for the first time, I censored the music.
I’m not, nor have I ever been, a lyrics first kind of guy. I’ve always liked Liz Phair because she writes catchy tunes. But listening with my daughter made me appreciate the lyrics. They’re different. But not in a self-consciously weird way like Phish or The Flaming Lips. They are a bit quirky, I’m assuming like Liz Phair is a bit quirky. They feel authentic to me. I wonder what we’ll listen to next.