The Good Listener: What’s The Perfect Soundtrack To Teenage Flirtation?

By Stephen Thompson  |  NPR

These teenagers in the 1998 film Can't Hardly Wait needed their own nostalgia - which is why today's teenagers might not connect with Can't Hardly Wait the way an earlier generation did.
These teenagers in the 1998 film Can't Hardly Wait needed their own nostalgia - which is why today's teenagers might not connect with Can't Hardly Wait the way an earlier generation did. Columbia Pictures

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the Bachelor Bouquets we ordered ourselves in order to appear loved is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on music to play at a dance for nervous, flirtatious teenagers.

Nanna writes via Facebook: “This Valentine’s Day, I will attend a formal thrown for freshman and sophomore college students in the Netherlands — they are giving us, the lecturers, free drinks, so how could I not? — and I’m already massively looking forward to observing awkward late-teens eyeing each other and trying to flirt. What would be the best soundtrack to this particular event?”

Every week, the pop charts are lubricated with the sticky agony of youth — even when the songs themselves don’t capture the specifics of awkward teenage fumbling. As I type this, you’ll see everything from Pharrell Williams’ Oscar-nominated cheer-up anthem “Happy” to John Legend’s traditionalist R&B ballad “All of Me,” and I could picture either song fitting in alongside the fraught emotions and tense dramas of a gymnasium full of teenagers.

What makes a given song speak to the emotions of current young people is, at least in part, a product of the fact that it’s ubiquitous at the exact time when today’s young people are the age they are. There’s a chicken-and-egg thing happening here, and when you’re picking a soundtrack for listeners of pop music, sometimes it makes sense not to overthink it. More to the point, it makes sense for those listeners to pick the music themselves.

While I think you’re overestimating the awkwardness of college students — if these were freshmen and sophomores in high school, then we’d be talkin’ — your letter still brings to mind an important issue about teenagers’ cultural independence that I’m just addressing myself. Given that my son turns 13 in exactly one week, I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately.

I’ve been covering pop culture of various kinds for more than 20 years, and I’ve been a parent for roughly two-thirds of that time, so I’ve fielded a lot of questions about raising culturally well-rounded children. Those questions almost invariably revolve around how best to imprint our tastes onto the lives we’ve created; how to share our loves so that they may be passed down to future generations, thus (among other things) granting immortality to the things we enjoy.

And that’s fine, and it’s sweet, and it’s well-intentioned, and it’s understandable. Many of my children’s cultural loves do come straight from my own past and present obsessions, from The Simpsons to vintage arcade games to The Princess Bride to “Weird Al” Yankovic. But there comes a point — the arrival of adolescence is as good a catalyst as any — when culture ought to become a full-fledged exchange between generations. Part of letting kids grow up and become their own individuals is letting them call their own cultural shots — and, more to the point, welcoming the things they love into our own lives.

My kids love Pokémon, and I typically couldn’t care less about Pokémon, but I’ve watched the cartoons with them and studied up on the approximately nine million characters. My kids love a TBS reality competition called King of the Nerds, and now so do I, and we watch it together religiously. (We were all equally crushed when Josh, the menschy Pokémon master, was eliminated.) My son came to me recently and asked if we could attend a concert together by a band called Walk Off The Earth; I didn’t know much about its music, which he’d heard by scouring YouTube, but now I’m a fan because we had so much fun at the show. Opening myself to my kids’ cultural individuality broadens my own horizons, and we’ve had a blast together making that happen.

All of which brings me back to my point at the very beginning: Let the kids at the dance listen to their own damn music. I know I’m coming at this from the perspective of a neurotic parent rather than a hormonal anthropologist — and from someone dealing with a future 13-year-old rather than a roomful of 19-year-olds — but the lessons are the same. Much as we try to imprint our own music (and our own nostalgia) on kids, it’s far fairer to let them start fresh with their own as much as possible. They’ll be teaching us soon enough, so we might as well give them a head start.

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