My 14-year old son has been getting into the music of Gorillaz lately, so I checked it out and found that I really, really liked it.
That Gorillaz’ music is periodically peppered with profanity and drug and alcohol references raises confusing questions for me, and this post is more of a meditation on the topic than an exhaustive analytic exploration.
Being a parent is an exercise in extremes, a series of experiences that vacillate between immense joy (e.g. first steps, first words, hugs, kisses, etc.) and excruciating anguish (e.g. first owies, worrying about every conceivable future owie, disobedience, outright rebellion, etc.).
And perhaps the most humbling aspect of this is the fact that our own parents had the same experience raising us, as did their parents, and so on, and so on, for I suspect that it is close to a universal inevitability that every parent will encounter at least one uncomfortable “do as I say, not as I do” moment.
For those of us who, in the context of a fairly conservative and homogeneous household and community, discovered Rock & Roll music in our teens and twenties, with all the attendant mind-blowing, mind-opening, and mind-expanding experiences, those “do as I say, not as I do” moments can be more than humbling. They can be the catalyst for a full-blown existential crisis.
Even with the advantage of hindsight, while I can see that I didn’t always make smart decisions, some of which were downright reckless and could have had terribly tragic consequences, I don’t really have any regrets, and I truly feel that I gained so much more understanding of the world, so much more empathy for my fellow humans, so much more appreciation for human expression in all its many forms, than I would have if I had stayed confined in the sheltered, safe, conformist, middle-class, milieu in which I was raised.
Ok then, I’m comfortable with the choices I’ve made for myself.
Enter my son and Gorillaz and lines like:
I ain’t happy,
I’m feeling glad
I got sunshine in a bag
I’m useless but
Not for long
The future is coming on
It’s coming on
It’s coming on
It’s coming on
In some ways, this is nothing at all new for him. He’s been listening to the music I listen to for years, music born of and speaking to very similar themes.
The difference now?
Well, I got a friend who’s a man
Who’s a man? What man?
The man who keeps me from the lovely
He gives me what I need
What you need? What you got?
I need it all so badly
Oh, anything I want he gives it to me
Anything I want he gives it, but not for free
And it’s paid for and I’m so grateful to be nowhere
…things like driving a car, or his first exposure to peers who are drinking and doing drugs were just a lot further off. It all seems much more immediate and real now.
So, I was talking about this with a friend of mine who has two teenage daughters, and when I mentioned the subject matter of some of Gorillaz’s music he said, “What worthwhile rock band doesn’t touch on drugs and swearing?”
See, parents are most often presented with a choice based on a false dichotomy: Either you are puritan and take a Just Say No approach to everything, or you’re dangerously permissive and advocate teen drug and alcohol abuse. There are kids who are raised in Just Say No families who end up addicts and there are kids who grow up with addicts who avoid becoming addicts themselves.
The risks are indeed real, but there are many, many dangers our kids face in life that have nothing at all to do with their choices around drugs and alcohol. Every time my son goes snowboarding or rock climbing or even on his daily bicycle commute to school, there’s a chance he could get seriously injured or worse.
If I was to try to protect him from every conceivable danger with a Just Say No no approach, he’d never leave his room, but that’s obviously no way to live, and you never know when a piece of a dying satellite might fall from the sky, crash through our roof, and land right on him.
In the meantime, I’m reminded of a post I wrote nearly two years ago, about how music and other art media can be seen as our uniquely human attempt to make sense of life’s experiences, our attempt to express our thoughts and feelings around even the most disturbing topics, so that we might come to grips with them, and even so that others who hear the music or read the poetry or view the paintings might also be able to find meaning or even experience a sense of sympathetic solidarity with the artist, when previously they might have thought there was something wrong with them for having the reactions and feelings they were carrying around with them, bottled up, where they might otherwise eventually explode in an ugly way.
I can talk to my son about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, but I don’t have to do so with the presumption that he’s incapable of making smart decisions. That’s a terribly cynical and ultimately counterproductive starting point, especially when I see him make smart choices all the time, alongside his other not-so-smart choices.