Last week I was talking to the mother of one of Westley's soon-to-be preschool classmates about entertainment for car rides. She was recommending books on tape as opposed to music.
"I tried some Radio Disney, but that's more for teens," she said. "So much of what's on the radio isn't appropriate."
I bit my tongue.
I wish I'd been un-self-conscious enough to lady up and tell her, "We're big fans of Top 40."
There are a number of reasons I like to play top 40 radio for Westley. I grew up listening to nothing but children's music, instrumental movie soundtracks, and folk. And while I'm very thankful to know Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul, and Mary...all of those iconic bands and artists from the 1980s? I had no idea who they were for the longest time. I knew Madonna's name—my classmates either loved her or despised her—but I don't think I heard a Madonna song until 1992!
So, yes, I'm getting a childhood filled with popular music vicariously through my kid.
But another reason I default to the top 40 station and not, say, oldies or classic rock (both of which I enjoy as well), is that the mix of male and female voices in popular music seems pretty good right now. It's not exactly equal, but I'd guess that about 40% of current crop of top 40 artists are women.
Why should that matter, particularly to my preschooler? First off, it makes it much easier, vocal range-wise, for me to sing along and torture him. But the real reason it matters is that so much of what Westley is exposed to, even in the "child-friendly" media he experiences, can be summed up as: manly men (or boyly boys) doing manly man things and living to tell the tale. To other men. Male voices are the be-all, end-all, know-it-all. Top 40 radio is one easily accessible place where women's voices get some airtime.
Sure, women of popular music are mostly singing about men. Sure, many of them are playing the passive, "I wish he loved me" role. (And a few aren't.) But at least there are some eggs on the plate to offset all that pop-cultural sausage.
There are a few popular songs I just can't stand (and yet, somehow know all of the lyrics to?!), and I like to keep my car as commercial-free as possible. I keep a fair number of CDs on hand for these moments, but I hadn't realized until recently what a separatist radio station I've been running. I think there's one Mike Doughty CD in my car, but everything else is by a female artist. I shouldn't really be surprised—especially since a few weeks ago, I got on a kick where I decided to revisit the artists I listened to in high school. And, oh, my life was so female singer-songwritery in those days! The CD compartment of my car could practically be the lineup for Lilith Fair: Patti Rothberg, Liz Phair, Sinéad Lohan, Tori Amos, Kendall Payne, Natalie Merchant...
Is it "appropriate" for a preschooler? I don't know. In my mind, inappropriateness in music (or any art form) comes from being hateful or violent. I'd never play something hateful for Westley. And when objects to a song for whatever reason, I change it. He rarely objects to anything. (Every once in a while a song is "too scary.") And I'd be lying if I said I didn't occasionally feel out-voted in this little 2:1 boy-girl family of mine; female voices coming through the car speakers are my tiny rebellion.
Rob took my car out yesterday and I thought for a moment about warning him about the contents of the CD player. Rob is a Pink Floyd kind of guy. Getting all women's music festival on his unsuspecting ass seems mean. But then I thought, Rob lives in the same culture Westley does; he could probably stand to hear more female voices, too.