Daddy loves dubstep: what children can teach us about our music tastes and listening habits

The beautiful simplicity of the video above, in which a Kindness song is broken down and demonstrated to a young boy, is effective because it explores the dynamic of young children being introduced to contemporary ‘adult’ culture. Videos working on this theme have been repeatedly popular over the past few years. Whether they are candidly reviewing Skrillex at a makeshift disco, harmonising their way through Ariel Pink tracks or simply waking up and having an instinctive bop to Waka Flocka Flame, there is clearly something we find endlessly fascinating about children interacting with music from outside the mainstream cultural frame, which would otherwise be unlikely to enter their sphere.

In his article ‘Milo’s Musical Education: Can you teach your kid to have taste?‘, Justin Davidson outlines how we often separate the youngest generation from what we might deem to be ‘grown-up culture’:

“If we want to be part of our children’s aesthetic world, then why do we equivocate about bringing them into ours? We wall off grown-up culture behind a barrier of ratings, warning labels, and vigilant software. We leave it to educators to filter the arts for consumption by the allegedly innocent. We are terrified of exposing children to material they might not understand, whether because its too crude or too complex”.

Kindness teaching a child to play his song "House"
Kindness teaching a child to play his song “House”

This article has nothing to do with the morality of introducing children to contemporary alternative culture; what Davidson’s excerpt encapsulates, though, is how we often create a stern division between what children are exposed to and what adults are. Much ‘alternative’ music might be considered too progressive, obscure or intelligent for a younger mind to fully appreciate, which is why the video of the Kindness ‘House’ lesson works so well. The world of grown-up art and the world of children become one again, and the song is stripped down to its elements and re-displayed in a way that the child can begin to understand.

Ideas of taste

To be a fan of Kindness, you’ll be at least slightly clued up about contemporary music. You probably actively engage in independently searching out music that you like and have deliberate, considered taste – all of which distinguishes you from the average child. Musical taste might even form a part of your identity and of the way that you see yourself.

In This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin maps the evolution of music taste. Starting before birth via the muffled sounds that filter through to the womb, music appreciation evolves as children develop firstly consonance, followed by dissonance and a more complex appreciation of sound. With adolescence comes the more mature emotional capability to connect with music, take meaning and value from it, and form deep attachments to songs and artists. What is interesting about these videos of children is that we encounter human beings in the earliest stages of their musical encounters, experiencing music in the freshest and most innocent way, even if the music we see them interact with is associated solely with people in their late teens or above.

Bon Iver celebrating his Grammy win
Bon Iver biting a Grammy.

Once we arrive at a point in our lives where music taste is defined, our cognitive habits can be peculiar. It can be difficult, for example, to avoid a level of snobbery – the word pretentious often comes up in discussions of alternative music, and in almost all discussions of art. This might cognitively take the form of a feeling of superior opposition to people ‘not in the know’, or a quiet ambivalence when an artist held in personal esteem moves from private discovery to household name. I can’t say I feel anywhere near the same affection for Bon Iver since he ascended from lonesome lovesick cabin crooner to globe-straddling arena main event, despite enjoying both of his albums equally; right up to date, I’m hoping Frank Ocean‘s emergence from Odd Future‘s R&B side piece to critically acclaimed stand-alone star won’t have a similarly detrimental effect. But its a curious notion, this altering of perceptions – are we merely in a continuous search for something which feels our own, to distinguish ourselves from the collective mass, a desire for individuality within an individualistic society? Do we lose a feeling of excitement and intrigue once an artist emerges from the shadows for all to see (and are human beings innately attracted to mystery and the enigmatic)? Or does our evaluation of the quality of art simply become humbled in the face of mounting hype and acclaim, a relativist shift in perception caused by external influence?

I’m not going to attempt to answer that question, but merely considering it highlights the layers of thought and the cognitive habits the human mind contends with when in the process of something so simple as listening to music. With all of this to battle with, there then develops the obvious potential for a deep disconnection from what instinctively draws us, as human beings, to enjoy music so intuitively in the first place. With too much analysis taste can become an artificial, abstracted thing, detached from the visceral thrill of enjoying sound in the most basic way (a premise applicable to any form of art). Introducing children into the equation is a very effective way to prompt a reconsideration of the experience of music, at the most innate level of aesthetic experience.

Innate reactions of children to music

This is what makes us smile when the child wakes up to Waka Flocka and instinctively bobs his head and waves his hands around like a G – instinctive pleasure mixed with, we can assume, imitative behaviour. The study ‘Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy‘ suggests how “it is the beat rather than other features of the music, such as the melody, that produces the response in infants. We also found that the better the children were able to synchronise their movements with the music, the more they smiled.” Though the ability appears to be innate in humans, the researchers aren’t sure why it evolved. They found that babies moved their arms, hands, legs, feet, torsos and heads in response to music, much more than to speech.

A choir of children singing with Ariel Pink
The internet famous PS22 Chorus – may or may not be doing a rendition of ‘Round and Round’.

The contrast between how we perceive child and adult reactions to music is also what makes this PS22 Chorus rendition of ‘Round and Round’ by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti so haunting – it sounds fairly casual hearing Pink sing “I’m afraid, you’re afraid, and we die, and we live, and we’re born again”, but coming from a choir of children the effect is pronouncedly and invasively eerie. The recent Noisey series, in which children discuss Azealia Banks and Radiohead, consume sweets on a dancefloor whilst reflecting on the artistic merits of Skrillex, and interview The Cribs, particularly highlight the creation of fluidity between the ‘real world’ and the somewhat internalised and private world of alternative music and ‘grown-up culture’.

With the internet now central to modern methods of music discovery and consumption, the formation and exploration of taste is possibly as isolated and solitary an experience as it has ever been. Music aficionados have always been engaged with music which exists separate from the consciousness of the general public, but at least those deep into punk in the ’70s relied on record stores, fanzines and concerts – we’re at the point now where there is no requirement for interaction with the outside world for keeping on the ball about music. Musicians without record deals or singles sell out large concerts off the back of internet presence alone. This is also a key factor on why its amusing to hear a child comment on what they think of Azealia Banks, who rose to fame largely from the viral success of the ‘212’ video. When online buzz can be the main driving force behind an artists’ success, hearing a child mention their name can be an uncanny reminder that the real world and the online world are synonymous with one another.

Personal experience

We can probably all recall moments when music infiltrated our formative years in ways we didn’t fully comprehend at the time. When I was ten I’m sure I listened to Eminem‘s ‘The Real Slim Shady‘ at least 1,000 times, it being the only CD single I possessed to play on my brand spanking new Sony walkman. All I knew was that I loved the beat, the melody, and the way the words sounded, were pronounced and delivered. I certainly didn’t know what a clitoris was, what it would mean if a man and a man were to elope, or what it was to give head. These ideas, contained in the lyrics, sailed over my own head without arousing the slightest suspicion, and it didn’t matter one iota. I simply loved the track and the way it sounded. Any deep, analytical understanding was an entirely unnecessary condition for my enjoyment.

Eminem and a child
The Real Slim Shady, plus small child

A particularly puzzling notion in relation to taste is that of the ‘guilty pleasure‘. So, I really enjoy ‘Make Up Bag‘ by The-Dream, and its a genuine experience of pleasure informing this enjoyment, and still something dictates silently that it is a guilty pleasure. Maybe because who I am in real life doesn’t coincide with the archetypal R&B fan; maybe because the song seems a little shallow (and I obviously see myself as deep); maybe just because I’ll probably never drop five stacks on a make up bag so its hard to sing along without a sense of irony. Or more pertinently, perhaps because I feel deep down that the song doesn’t represent me, doesn’t play into my self-image, and so my enjoyment has to be from a perspective of minor detachment.

It’s confounding to label any pleasure as a guilty one when all that denotes it as such is a delusion of calibre and taste, linked to self-image. The peculiar idea of encountering music that you enjoy but rationally feel you shouldn’t, the separation of reason and enjoyment is rooted in the Western analytic philosophical tradition which teaches us that reason can be pure and disinterested, detached from emotion. And if I tried to explain any of this interplay to a child listening to the song, the vast blank face staring back would speak volumes. The human mind devotes a considerable amount of time and energy toward building up an idea of self, of creating rules, and taste and aesthetic experience becomes regulated within this entirely self-constructed framework. But to a child, Eminem, The-Dream, Kindness and Skrillex are all just music, which you either like or you don’t.

Bringing the elderly into the discussion

Old woman showing her disapproval of Skrillex
This woman isn’t exactly a fan of Skrillex.

With all of this to contemplate, I’d like to end by considering the opposite end of the scale – the elderly. For one thing, they certainly prove no less entertaining or popular when they’re providing opinions on Skrillex. The amusement is clearly focused around the mild bewilderment of people in their twilight years being confronted with the aggressive bass womps of Skrillex; but in other instances, focusing on the relationship between the elderly and music can be just as evocative of the power of music as the videos featuring children. This video in particular, in which a dementia patient is suddenly animated and articulate as a result of hearing a song from his youth, is a beautiful example of the power of music.

In Oliver Sacks‘ Musicophilia, he illustrates the depth of our relationship to music when he talks of how “music therapy with [dementia] patients is possible because musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared”, recalling the anecdote of how Friedrich Nietzsche continued to play the piano long after he had been rendered mute, demented and partially paralysed. For all of the concerns of taste, integrity, and the elements of competitiveness that music fans can busy themselves with, watching both the very young and the very old engaging with music is a profound reminder that a huge part of the enjoyment we take from music comes from a very basic, childlike and emotional part of us.



1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s