If you’re like me, one of your pop star heroes died this past year. As much as I enjoyed David Bowie and Prince, it wasn’t until George Michael died on Christmas day that I was flooded with visceral memories of my own childhood. My family didn’t have cable growing up, so the first music video I ever saw was “I Want Your Sex” on a hotel television on some family vacation we were on when I was 10. I’m pretty sure I was newly minted in both my knowledge of sex and pop music, and I remember feeling equal parts fascinated and mortified watching George Michael’s scruffy face looking directly out from the tv screen telling me his patience was up and that he wanted sex. It was the eighties and his song was certainly a reflection of all that was popular in culture, both good and bad (that earring really has not aged well…).
When I think about George Michael though, I can’t help but see how positive my experiences were engaging with his songs while growing up, thanks in part to my mom, and at the same time begin to consider the ways pop music is informing the lives of my own girls today.
If I set aside my nostalgia for all things George for a minute, I remember that my mom was sitting on the bed beside me in that hotel room when the video came on. I can only imagine the thoughts that must have raced through her mind: “Do I turn it off? Do I ignore it? Do I say something? Nothing? The things they show on tv these days!” It’s also possible that with her nose in a book, she barely registered the song at all.
Eyes glued to the screen, I distinctly recall asking my mom, “What does it mean that sex is best ‘1 on 1?’” This line, coupled with George writing in lipstick on the model the word “monogamy,” is actually pretty significant. Maybe the memory of this time is blurry for you, but the pop song came out at the height of the AIDS crisis and was controversial for promoting sex, though in statements at the time George states that he was promoting “attaching lust to love,” or sex within committed relationships. Though the song was clearly not aimed at my mom, she definitely got it, albeit with her own angle. “Sex is best 1 on 1 means sex is best in a marriage, like your father’s and mine,” my mom explained and turned right back to her book.
Parents can choose to ignore their kids’ questions, they can try to shelter their children from pop music and culture, to literally shut it off. But if you make the choice to shut if off, you’re missing out on an opportunity to teach and share.
George and the 80’s definitely had things they wanted to teach me about sex. The video is full of images of a headless model strutting in sexy lingerie intercut with George singing. But MY MOM, in what she wore, in what she said, in how she treated me, had a lot more influence on me in the 80’s. My mom bought me a George Michael poster and tapes (!) with nary a protest. Perhaps remembering her own love of the Beatles, she knew that it was important for me to find music that was inspiring or just fun.
My mom could have tried to cut me off from my idol, but I suspect she knew that pop music is a like the hydra in Greek mythology; for every pop music icon you try to cut your child off from, another will grow to take its place.
She didn’t always get it right trying to parent me through the eighties (sorry, Mom!) On a family movie night, my mom covered my eyes during Dirty Dancing when a woman’s breasts were revealed. I remember protesting, “But it’s a woman. Why aren’t you covering my brother’s eyes?!” Without saying a word, just by covering my eyes, I got the message that my mom was embarrassed and that there were things in this movie we needed to ignore. The difference in this moment and the George Michael moment is that we talked about what I was seeing and hearing in the song; I got to ask a question about something I didn’t understand. We never talked about Dirty Dancing. I didn’t get to ask my questions about the issues the movie brought up about sex and love and abortions until much later.
Pop music and culture offer points of entry for talking to your kids, not just about the mechanics of their body and sex, but about your own values in relation to sex and relationships and culture.
Today, when a pop song comes on the radio my daughter discovers a new song to stream, no matter how awful its lyrics may sound to me, I try to follow my mom’s example of openness. I let Nell listen to anything. I watch in awe as she quickly picks up on the lyrics that flash across the screen (remember how long it used to take us to figure out song lyrics?!). I let her turn the music up loud for us all to listen to.
We don’t neglect our own turn playing DJ, of course. The girls can belt Bohemian Rhapsody, Ring of Fire, Fast Car along with us on every road trip.
Do I love Flo Rida’s My House? It’s catchy. Do I think it’s teaching my children healthy messages about sex and drinking? Umm… not so much. Does it have a good beat for a family dance party? Heck, yeah! Do I sing the line, “Baby, take control now,” a little louder than the rest? You know it. Am I ready and waiting for my girls’ questions about anything they learn from this song or other pop music? I better be.