I spent a good deal of 2013 listening to music with my son. We’ve been doing this for some time now, but listening with a five-year-old is different. When he was younger, I had a lot more say about what he “liked” and believed about music. For instance, thanks to a series of jazz-themed animal books featuring a drummer named Philly Joe Giraffe, we could perform this dialog when he was two.
Me: What does a dog say?
Me: What does a cow say?
Me: What does a giraffe say?
Him: Boom boom bap.
Ylvis got nuthin on me.
But this year, a couple of things changed. He began to request songs, and he began to notice that some songs have lyrics that he could sing along to. These two developments dramatically altered our listening habits, as he could now ask to hear specific tracks, on the one hand, and it became more likely that he would sing something inappropriate, on the other. Translation: Rihanna, unfortunately, got less play in 2013.
As a pop music studies person working in academia, I’m likely to have a better, fuller sense of the music of 2013 a few years from now. As 2014 begins, though, my most immediate and sticky memories of the last year are of the music I listened to with my kid. A quick rundown of the year in music as experienced with a five-year-old.
Team Supreme No. 46
Team Supreme’s beat ciphers, lovingly mixed by a selection of DJs following rules and employing samples laid out each week, are fairly regular in our rotation. For some reason, my son really took to No. 46, not for the cartoonish sample at the beginning, but primarily for the first beat that drops at the 0:07 mark. The “red chili” section kicking off at 2:17 hits the spot, too. Towards the end of the spring, he’d ask for his “favorite song,” and we’d be bopping along to Team Supreme No. 46 in no time.
A Tribe Called Red—Nation II Nation
This was a family favorite—the perfect soundtrack for morning routines, swimming trips, lazy afternoons…anything, really. What was fun about this album was watching the little connoisseur budding. He’d request specific tracks, find out each family member’s favorite song, and even cycle through different tunes that were his own favorite. It started with the first one, “Bread & Cheese,” with its underlying dancehall groove, before “Ndn Stakes” grabbed his attention. He sings loudly when this one comes on; I’m in for the syncopation.
Finally, “Sisters,” or as my kid knows it, “the Aviva song.” If you squint your ears just right, the lyrics can sound like “Aviva,” which also happens to be the name of a character on one of my son’s favorite cartoons. I always try to point out how satisfying the triplet play with the vocal samples can be; he’s dancing too hard to hear me.
Daft Punk—Get Lucky
Yeah, so we all heard this a million times. Nile Rodgers is brilliant, no doubt, and Pharell can still make it happen. As far as collaborations among these particular musicians go, though, I have a strong preference for “Lose Yourself to Dance” with its apotheosis of the vocoded lyrics “Come on.”
But the main reason I stop here is because of the absolute delight of hearing “Get Lucky” this year. My son demonstrates no great gift for picking up lyrics.1 It was months after he knew the whole alphabet and the tune to the alphabet song before he could perform them both at the same time. No big deal—his talents lie elsewhere. Usually when he sings, it’s a string of mumble-hums peppered with the occasional actual word. In the case of Daft Punk’s summer hit? “Muh-nuh nah ight to get lumpy.” There’s a lot of parental chuckling happening when this one comes on.
Lana del Rey—Summertime Sadness [Cedric Gervais Remix]
The big revelation this fall was that my son is a fan of pop divas. A couple of weeks after kindergarten started, he declared that “Summertime Sadness” (and he had the Gervais Remix in mind, it turns out) was his favorite song. It was something we’d heard on the radio but had never specifically sought out, so it took a few days to figure out exactly which song he was referring to when he mentioned “that summer summer song.” But once we zeroed in on it, it became the perfect tune for the morning commute to school.
Otherwise, he lives his life as a tiny jukebox, usually spinning the hits of female musicians. He enters rooms like a wrecking ball, gets the eye of the tiger before swimming lessons, and hums “Beautiful Nightmare” while assembling legos.
There’s probably something in here about the profundity of recapturing the simple pleasures of music fandom through the ears of a five-year-old. But what excites me most about the past year are the critical doors that are opening. There’s the history of popular music if you listen to Pharell closely enough, and a lot of gender trouble, too. There’s power in the way Katy Perry and Beyoncé navigate the hypermasculine music industry, and A Tribe Called Red are the rare combination of musicians, theorists, and activists rolled into one. As my kid found some independence in his musical choices, 2013 marked the beginning of a long road of critical listening and thoughtful engagement with popular music, and it’s one I’m delighted to get to ride along on as we mumble through the hits together.
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, where he teaches in the school’s popular music culture program. The working title of his current book project is Posthuman Pop. He serves on the IASPM-US Executive Committee.