It was finally dark. The days were still hot here in the desert. But once the mountain became a silhouette, the temperature dropped quickly. My daughter and I were delighted by this first hint of winter, the reward that seemed impossibly remote in the middle of another too-hot October.
As we got out of my parent’s car, the one I’d just driven across the country in three days, she was singing softly to herself. At first I figured it was one of the holiday songs she had been learning for her band concert at school. But then I heard the words: “Look at what the light did now/Look at what the light did now.”
I was overcome with joy. The song is on the album Light Green Leaves by the indie folk act called Little Wings. The previous Saturday I had been sitting on the floor at Tucson’s Solar Culture Gallery less then five feet from its singer-songwriter Kyle Field while he performed for an audience of less than a hundred. His music is far from mainstream, certainly not the sort of thing one would expect a twelve-year-old to have taken to heart.
Then again, she is my daughter. A few weeks before, after I’d played The Cure’s Staring at the Sea compilation for her while we drove around running errands, she had rushed into the house and sat down at the keyboard to see if she could work out the tune to “Boys Don’t Cry.” That made me very happy as well. But in that case it was clear that her actions were the direct result of what I’d just shared with her.
It was different with the Little Wings song. Even though I hadn’t played it for her in years, she still remembered it fondly enough to sing. And that heartened the teacher in me, whose goal is always to impart the sort of lessons that stick. I decided to ask her why she’d thought of the song.
She told me it might be the change of seasons, made palpable by the way the glow of sunset fades this time of year, as if someone were turning a dimmer switch for the sky. “I really like that one,” she said. What more could a culturally inclined parent ask for? At twelve, she already had more sophisticated taste than the vast majority of the college students I’ve instructed.
And that’s the problem, I thought, the sweetness of the moment turning sour. If my daughter had “better” taste than most of my students, surely it was because I’d made a concerted effort to expose her to the music I like. While I was gratified that the Little Wings song had made such a big impression on her, I started to wonder whether I’d impaired the development of her own musical tastes.
That’s why I found myself at the record store a few days later, trying to pick out a birthday present for her that wouldn’t just be a call to follow in my footsteps. As it happened, that was the day that country pop sensation Taylor Swift’s Speak Now came out. Knowing that my daughter liked the video for Swift’s hit “You Belong With Me,” the first one she had sought out on her own, I resolved to bracket my own musical preferences and let her figure out whether she liked the album all by herself.
At the very least, I reasoned, she would familiarize herself with songs that her classmates were sure to be singing, acquiring the sort of “anthropological” knowledge that makes middle school easier to bear. And if she truly liked the record, she would add something to her cultural repertoire that didn’t bear the seal of parental approval.
One year later, Speak Now had become a staple of my daughter’s nightly exercise routine, in which she bounces on a small trampoline to her favorite songs. Because she plays her records at high volume, I had become intimately familiar with each and every one of them. But instead of making me cringe, as I had once feared they might, this overexposure had actually made me appreciate them more than I could have imagined.
Mind you, the first few times I heard Speak Now, I found it impossible to distinguish its songs from the Nashville sheen of their production. I’ve never been a huge fan of mainstream country music. And the songs I liked best all pre-dated the era of Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. Not to mention that the genre had become associated with the politics of the conservative New South and its northern diaspora.
Whenever I happened to come across a country radio station, I couldn’t help but think that most of its listeners were hostile to people with my values. Actually, this conviction soon penetrated beyond the level of conscious thought. I didn’t think it so much as feel it, waves of disgust involuntarily rising up within me. Even though I’d purchased Speak Now for my daughter and was delighted that she appreciated the present, I couldn’t stomach it myself.
Over time, though, this visceral resistance began to soften. Country may be rife with clichÃ©s about good ol’ boys and grin-and-bear-it gals, but its conventions do make it easier to understand the words to a song. The more I listened to Speak Now, the more I realized why it resonated so forcefully for my daughter.
Conflicted, confused and sometimes downright petty, Taylor Swift’s lyrics communicate the pressure of being forced to grow up too soon. She makes it easy to understand why her tabloid-ready romances have ended badly, but does a remarkable job of distilling her humanity in the process. It’s always clear how old she is, what she has experienced, and how much she still has to learn. For girls navigating the most difficult period of adolescence, like my daughter, this narcissistic realism must be deeply compelling.
Or so I reasoned as I tried to make sense of my shifting response to the album. In a way, though, that assessment wasn’t much more objective than my initial disgust. Because it is clear to me now that my grudging affection for Speak Now has as much to do with my own passage through an “awkward stage” as it does with my daughter’s. Even though I have long been fond of claiming that adults spend far more time pretending to be grown-ups than actually acting grown up, I was blind to my own investments in culture made by and for those who want desperately to be freed from the bonds of childhood, but fear losing their sense of self in the process.
Speak Now turns on that paradox, sometimes explicitly — “Never Grow Up” exhorts a teenage girl to resist the call of the adult world — and sometimes because Taylor Swift is still young enough, despite her years in show business, to channel teenage emotions without pretense. And so, in its own way, does Little Wings’ Light Green Leaves, which appeals to our sense of childhood whimsy and wonder. When Kyle Field sings “Look at what the light did now/Look at what the light did now,” he is urging listeners to enter a world in which registering sensory perceptions takes precedence over the work of processing them into thoughts.
Because of the way I discovered Little Wings, on a promo originally sent out by the famous Olympia, Washington independent label K Records to my friend — and current Co-Editor-in-Chief at Souciant — Joel Schalit back in 2002, I had mentally classified the album as an example of sophisticated taste. I was doing a lot of writing about music back in the early 2000s and had the good fortune to receive a wide range of records for free, many of which were unapologetically avant-garde in their aspirations and execution.
But if you just listen to Light Green Leaves without trying to place it in context — as an index, say, of rustic hipsterism in the Pacific Northwest, a demonstration that labels like K could go soft and sweet when they wanted — it doesn’t come off as the faux primitivism of someone who knows more than he lets on, but as a genuine expression of pre-ironic passion. In other words, the album traffics in the unfiltered sentiments of youth as immediately as Speak Now does.
That, I’m sure, is why my daughter recalled the album’s signature song so fondly and why for her there is no contradiction in loving such delicate music at the same time as she is immersing herself in the glossy bombast of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and the numerous Glee soundtracks that she bounces to. Thankfully, she has yet to reach the age when she will feel the need to abandon simple pleasures for complex ones in the name of developing “good taste.”
Part of me hopes she never does. Part of me hopes I can continue to undo enough of my own musical schooling so that I am able to short-circuit the reflexes that inspire disgust. There’s nothing wrong with teaching your children to like your favorite music, provided that you give them the opportunity to return the favor.