It’s no secret that every parent goes through a period of confusion, if not outright ignorance when it comes to the music their kids listen to. I know it happened to my grandparents when Elvis started shaking his hips, and I know it happened with my parents when I went on kicks of listening to everything from AC/DC to Van Halen to even Styx (It was the 80s, people. Don’t you dare tell me you didn’t think ‘Kilroy Was Here’ wasn’t once cool and that you don’t know the words to the chorus of “Mr. Roboto”).
And it is happening to me, now, with my own daughters. It actually started a few years back, most notably with bands like American Authors and singers like Bruno Mars. I can still remember the second I heard “Uptown Funk” on the radio for the first time as I was driving my then 4-and-6 year-old daughters to school. It was the first time in years that a new song had the effect of stopping me in my tracks and I was so wrapped up in it that I nearly put my truck in a ditch.
“WHAT IS THIS?” I shouted as we barreled down the highway and “Uptown Funk” rolled into its second verse. “THIS IS AWESOME!”
“It’s Bruno Mars, Daddy,” replied my six-year-old. “Haven’t you heard it?”
And with that, I officially entered the era of music passing me by.
Oh sure, I still “know” who some of today’s musical stars are. But, I only know those select few due to my kids requesting their songs on Apple Music. Dua Lipa. Halsey. Doja Cat. Mitsky. Bad Bunny. I don’t know if I could name more than three of those singers’ songs (One is Halsey’s “Without Me”, and the other two are Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” and that horrible mashup she did with one of her songs and Elton John’s “Rocket Man”), and anything beyond that would be a blind-in-the-dark guess.
I have tried to get my kids into some of the music that I play ad nauseam. Like anything parents try to do with their kids, this has had some mixed results. For example, I have played Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” at least 500 times over the years. This made such a strong imprint on Madeline’s brain that when she heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time, she actually shouted, “I thought it was “More Than A Feeling!’” I wrote about this happening a few years ago…Go listen to the main riff from both songs. I’m not saying Kurt Cobain stole Tom Scholz’s signature guitar riff, but he certainly had it burned into the back of his brain at some time.
And, of course, there have been the times when I have told them how awesome a song is, and gotten nothing but the “You’re just an old man” routine. Sadly, this has happened more than a few occasions, such as when I have tried to get the girls to appreciate the awesomeness of The Rolling Stones “Tumblin’ Dice”, Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner” or anything off of the first Van Halen album. I might as well be trying to get them to do their homework or practice the piano.
And yet…The girls do throw me a curveball once in while. And fewer curveballs broke as hard as when, a couple of weeks ago, Lily and I had this conversation..
Lily: Can I pick a song?
Me: Sure. Go ahead.
Lily grabs my phone, pulls up Apple Music, and plays…
“Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” by the Smiths.
Yeah, it was that kind of curveball.
For those who didn’t come of age in the 1980s, the Smiths were a band that for several years were gigantic in Britain and barely noticed here in America. That is, unless you read a review of the band’s debut, or “The Queen Is Dead”, in Rolling Stone and managed to hunt down one of their albums at Tower Records And once you heard the whine of Johnny Marr’s opening guitar riff on “How Soon Is Now?” you decided the Smiths were more important of a band than the Beatles. The aforementioned Marr was the Smiths’ music writer and sonic genius, but it was the band’s (Heaven Knows he was mostly) miserable now singer and lyricist, Steven Morrissey, who was the Smiths’ star.
Morrissey, as he chose to go by just his last name, was said to be a gay celibate who somehow managed to simultaneously become a heartthrob for millions of teenage British girls and boys who thought Boy George was too silly and Duran Duran too manly. With his near-androgynous looks and affectations, and his slightly effeminate voice, Morrissey used his position as the Smiths wordsmith to make every lyric he sang sound poetic and important and every kid who heard “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” thought he was speaking directly about, and to them. And for a segment of youths growing up in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain that weren’t into Def Leppard or Iron Maiden, Morrissey was considered to be the voice of their generation.
And like other notable musical partnerships, Morrissey and Marr went from being one based on shared creativity to one of shared animosity toward each other. While it’s still not entirely certain who “broke up” the Smiths (Morrissey is famously known for being a prickly grouch who hates anyone who has ever eaten a hot dog; Marr once gave an interview where he said “Not everyone wants to be U2), and by 1987, the band was done. And 35 years later, the Smiths have never once reformed to play even one song together or go on a tour that would leave their bank accounts flush with more pound notes than the British Treasury.
It is that 35-year-gap between when the Smiths called it quits and today that brings me to the state of confusion I felt when Lily asked Siri to play “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” on my phone.
Lily is 12 years old. The Smiths have been broken up for almost three times as long as she has been alive. Nothing against the Smiths or their music, but I am not what anyone would call a fan of the band. I don’t hate them, but I think they do have some pretty good songs even though I have never owned a single Smiths record. It’s just that they aren’t in my wheelhouse. If you asked me what song I wanted to hear at a particular time, I would come up with 100 other bands/singers before hitting upon the Smiths. I have played Sweet’s “Fox On The Run” more times today (once) than I have played any Smiths song ever (none).
So, how did Lily find out about the Smiths?
“I don’t know,” she said. “They’re the Smiths. They’ve always been around. Kind of like the Beatles.”
(I need to get this kid educated on the “Revolver” album.)
It became obvious that Lily had heard “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” more than once, because as soon as the song started, she was imitating Morrissey’s voice and harmonizing with him as he complained about how miserable his life was because he needed a job and actually managed to find one. Then, she grabbed my phone and played the song, “Back To The Old House”, which left me nearly catatonic because I had not only never played the song myself, I had never even heard of it.
Again, I asked her how she knew that song, and where she had heard of the Smiths. And again she replied in typical sixth-grader fashion:
“I dunno…I just know it. I think it might have been on TikTok.”
That answer made as much sense as anything else.
I don’t know much about TikTok, but this is 2022 and I do know that TikTok is just the latest in a line of channels by which media and music makes it to people’s ears and eyes. Back in the 40s, Bobbysoxers fell for Frank Sinatra over the radio. TV variety shows from the 50s and 60s introduced everyone to Elvis and the Beatles. By the 70s, and into the 80s, programs like “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” were weekly appointment television if you wanted to see some of your favorite musicians. MTV started in 1981, and for two decades was the outlet for connecting singers and bands with the mass millions at home. Say what you want about was MTV has become over the last two decades (mostly garbage), but at the turn of the century you could still find at least a couple of hours each day when it showed nothing but music videos.
And now, we have outlets like YouTube and TikTok where anyone, but especially, the young uns, can spend hours watching videos that include the music from unknown, but soon-to-be-viral musical sensations (Lil Nas X, anyone?) and influential cult bands such as the Smiths. It’s the same game, but just being played a different way by new players.
How did Lily know about the Smiths? It’s the same reason why I knew about the Beatles, Elvis and Frank Sinatra when they had been popular long before I had ever learned to walk. Because they were there. They have always been there.