I was quite old before I realized that I was the only person at my church who listened to secular music. I must have been in seventh grade, because I clearly remember a Sunday School classmate asking me what my favorite album was at the time, and I said Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Of course.

There were gasps. I just thought it was because it wasn’t New Kids on the Block or that it had cursing on it or something, but it turns out the problem was much deeper. The problem was that it wasn’t Christian.

Before this time, the idea of people not listening to secular music had not occurred to me. I was a devoted young person who’d read the Bible a few times and took my study seriously, but surely people were lying if they said they didn’t listen to rap music. Not rock? Not pop? Not even old pop music? Not even the Beatles?

“They said they were more important than our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Especially not the Beatles.”

It was time to have a talk with my folks. Why did we, in our family, listen to whatever we liked, when everyone else’s parents at church strictly prohibited them from listening to non-Christian artists? Not that I wanted it to be different, I added. The thought of subsisting on Michael W. Smith and pre-“Baby Baby” Amy Grant was chilling.

My parents told me about how, when I was little, around four years old, our preacher at a previous church had held a revival series to get members to burn their rock and pop records. People wept and confessed publicly that they danced in their cars to rock music and that it had led them to all kinds of horrible deeds.

Held up as a particular example of evil influence was Huey Lewis’s song “I Want a New Drug.” The preacher read aloud from some cherry-picked lyrics in a Satanic voice. This music was going to murder your children… with drugs!

My parents were not sure about this. They had an extensive record collection, including things far more suspicious drug-wise than a Huey Lewis record. They prayed about it, and got really sad. They seemed tormented by this question, of whether they were murdering their children with drugs through records.

One night we were all driving home from somewhere and, out of habit, Mom turned the radio on. It was “I Want a New Drug.” She snapped it off. My brother and I cried and pleaded for her to turn it back on. We liked singing that song. Mom said the words were evil, that Pastor said so. Somehow, as I recall, we ended up listening to it together in that car, in a parking lot, and decided, as a family, that our pastor was a moron. We didn’t go back to that church.

At home, music and books were never censored. Once that decision had been made about Huey Lewis, the whole idea of saving our precious little brains from bad ideas got chucked. Despite having no privacy in any other respect as a young woman–my personal notes and yearbooks were all read when I was out of the house–I did have complete freedom about what I read and what I listened to. So I listened to Ice-T and read kinda porny/violent books, from elementary school onward. It didn’t really occur to me that other people didn’t.

I was thinking about this after seeing fretting in various places about the effects of music on These Kids Today, especially worrying about girls partying too much and being sexual too early. My initial reaction was that it’s the 2010 version of the same old song. You know the tune; sing it with me: What about the children? I wasn’t a drunk or promiscuous kid. I didn’t get into fights, or get tattoos, or do drugs. I waited for college before I started drinking, and didn’t lose my virginity until junior year.

But then I think about those kids I knew from church who only listened to Christian music, never heard a pop song except at school assemblies. What happened to them? They married their junior-high sweethearts, had kids, stayed in the church, stayed close to home. And I did none of those things. My parents feel like they failed somehow. Where did they go wrong?

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered in my case. Maybe no matter what I listened to, I’d be what I am now. Or maybe I’d be more like what my parents wanted me to be.

I think about this sometimes when I teach, that a lot of the poems and novels my students read for my class are the sort of things that will change them, make them see the world, at least temporarily, in a way their parents wouldn’t be pleased to see. My students tell me, when I voice this reservation, that it’s just a book. But when my religious students find something they really love that runs deeply counter to everything they’re taught, and they come to my office telling me they’ve read it over and over, I say, you’ve got to know this is dangerous stuff.

7 responses to “Influence”

  1. Andrew says:

    This was great. And the image of a pastor reading Huey Lewis (of all people) lyrics in a Satanic voice is probably going to get me through the rest of the day.

  2. LP says:

    I broke my record albums in the 10th grade, following the lead of my brother, who broke his and urged me to do the same. The rationale: “Whatever doesn’t glorify God profanes Him.” So it was all sappy Christian pop after that, although I tended to listen more to instrumental stuff (Vangelis!), which somehow neither glorified nor profaned Him in my complicated calculus.

    it’s true that each successive generation of parents wrings its hands about how pop culture is over-sexualizing children. You could say that all the hand-wringing is for nothing, but on the other hand, the boundaries keep getting pushed and pushed, to the point where one has to wonder, what’s coming next? I think if I had been confronted with sexting as an 8th grader 30 years ago, my head might have exploded.

  3. Dave says:

    I think if I had been confronted with sexting as an 8th grader 30 years ago, my head might have exploded.

    Due to the microwaves coming out of the cell phone?

  4. A White Bear says:

    I’d like to believe that sexting takes the place of what kids my age were doing, which was actually having sex. One of my fifth-grade classmates got pregnant when she slept with an eighth grader, and another friend used to sneak out in elementary school to hang out with her 18-year-old “boyfriend.”

  5. swells says:

    Wow. I thought I was all edgy when I sang along with “The Bitch is Back,” or the line in “Jet Airliner” that says “funky shit goin’ down in the city.” It must have been cathartic enough, though (and I mean that in the purely Aristotelian sense of course), because I also wasn’t having sex in the fifth grade. Maybe the fundamentalist Christian parents have it all backwards. (Ya think?)

  6. Dave says:

    Yeah, I think sexting is no worse than what (other) kids were doing when I was in middle school, and possibly more chaste — they’re using their words, after all.

  7. LP says:

    Well, in my recollection, not too many kids in my 8th-grade class were having sex, and if they were they were notorious for it. Sexting with words is not so shocking, but I was thinking more about all the kids who send each other photos on their phones.