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To Know the Music Is to Reach the Child

Adults who dismiss today's music as 'too weird' miss a crucial opportunity to connect with young people

It's easy to get turned off by popular music. Yet parents, teachers, coaches, cops - adults in any role that depends on good relationships with young people - need to listen to what's coming through those kids' earphones. And we need to do it for our own good.

Why? Because music plays the same role for today's teens as it did for those of the 1940s and '60s and '80s - it's at the heart of their experience of life. Music motivates them, connects them with their peers, provides them with ways to understand and interpret their world, offers them a harmless way to distance themselves from their parents' world, helps them define themselves. Adults who dismiss today's music and its effects with "that's too weird for me" miss a crucial opportunity to connect.

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As an aging baby boomer teaching college undergraduates, I use all the connecting help I can get. And music remains my best mode of communicating with people less than half my age.

That communication often begins the first day of class, when I walk in with a boom box. I've been opening my Critical Analysis classes with a tune called "Fudge Bar" by the pop-punk group Sinkhole.

We listen, we react, we analyze: We articulate gut reactions by becoming increasingly analytical, following an approach we will use later in the semester on plays by Shakespeare, stories by Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner, and poems by Pulitzer Prize-winner Sylvia Plath. As we talk about the song, students see that critical analysis is not an alien process but something they do every time they listen to new music with friends.

WHILE I'm making such connections with the whole group in class, I'm also starting to meet students individually, trying to form a bond of trust that is essential to the difficult business of giving and taking criticism about writing.

We most often find common ground in music - "Oh yeah? You like them too?" And after discussing Liz Phair or Dave Matthews with a student for a few minutes, I have a sense of the student's ability to analyze and articulate, and the student knows that I haven't spent my whole life in a library.

My own kids are only 7 and 2, yet music has already become important in my relationships with them.

I think my son began to see his dad as "cool" when he came home from kindergarten singing a chorus from his first "favorite," Jimmy Buffet, and I played for him Buffet's "The Great Filling Station Holdup." And when my daughter requested that I sing "Baby Beluga" in the car, I knew I had arrived.

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I obviously don't have all the answers to questions about using music as a bridge over the generation gap, but if you're an over-20-something who'd like to feel less alienated from the young people in your life, I offer the following suggestions:

* Listen to their music. Find what they're enthusiastic about, get them to articulate the reasons for their enthusiasm, and then listen with an open mind. Like many baby boomers, I thought rock was dying in the mid-'70s, but then my students rescued me by insisting that I listen to Elvis Costello and Patti Smith.

Soon I found myself singing "I'm Not Angry" with Costello as enthusiastically as I had sung "Satisfaction" with Mick Jagger.

* Listen to their words. Listen to what they sing to themselves; let yourself get caught by the same hooks, phrases, and images. The lines that stick in their heads are windows into our kids' worlds.

* Encourage them to think about their music. I've learned a lot about myself by analyzing my musical passions, really listening to my adolescent favorites like Neil Young's "Down By the River." Maybe a child's fixation on suicide songs is a warning sign, or maybe he just likes the beat. In either case you'll do more good by encouraging him to think than by trying to think for him.

* Broaden your own horizons. Music is not a competition. It's silly to argue whether the Grateful Dead can compete with Beethoven or whether rap is as musical as rock. One of my goals in life is to add to the number of things that give me pleasure, so when a student, a friend, or a disc jockey plays something new for me - whether it's a Sibelius violin concerto or the punk group Minor Threat - I listen gratefully.

* Withhold judgment. Anything new is hard to get used to. Get beyond "it all sounds the same" - that's as true of Mozart as it is of R.E.M. Ask young people to help you hear the differences and develop your ear. They'll appreciate your attempts.

* Share your own favorites. Did you like Seals and Crofts' "Summer Breeze"? Play it for the "death metal" fan in your house. You may both be amazed at how similar it is to Type 0 Negative's cover version. Did you groove to Sly and the Family Stone? Play their "Everyday People" and show young rappers where Arrested Development's "People Everyday" came from.

* Don't overreact. Easy for me to say; my daughter hasn't yet come home with the Nine Inch Nails logo tattooed on her forehead. But a lot of healthy, nonsuicidal people are fans (I'm one) of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who killed himself, leaving a much-publicized note. Having a fit about sexist lyrics or banning the playing of certain songs just increases their allure. Probably the best way to get a kid off an AC/DC kick would be to start playing AC/DC's music all the time yourself.

* Give it time. I'm sure my father despaired when I took his Stravinsky or Ella Fitzgerald records off the turntable and replaced them with the Beatles. Maybe he hoped that one day I would grow up and grow away from the music of my teenage years.

That hasn't happened. I still like the Beatles, but I also listen to jazz, and increasingly, even to classical music. Maybe there's hope for me yet.

* Brock Dethier teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

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