explorations of mindful fatherhood

Cleanly Explicit



First, I must admit that I’m obsessed with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” featuring Wanz.  When it comes to music, my wife is much cooler than I am, and she turns me onto music that I might otherwise overlook.  This was one of her work-out mix jams, and I totally stole it for my iPod.  I love every aspect of it: from the saxophone to the anti-couture lyrics.  It probably plays in my car a minimum of three times every trip.  On some of these trips, my son is my co-pilot.

My question is this: Is the “clean” version clean enough for my son’s young ears?  Thrift Shop is an explicit song, but whenever possible, we download the clean(-ish) versions of songs, and wouldn’t expose him to songs with overt swearing.  But even in our clean iPod version, the chorus is a thinly veiled: “I’m gonna pop some tags / only got $20 in  my pocket / I’m I’m a huntin’ / Lookin’ for a come up / This is ***king awesome.”

Luckly, my son’s young enough that he doesn’t yet know the f-word, so he can’t fill in the blanks. Also, all the “m-f’ers” and b-words are extracted as well, so it’s not explicitly offensive.  But some of the content is questionable, like references to R. Kelly’s sheets and lyrics like “up in her skirt”.  So, of course, I’m torn.

Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, my parents had lame musical tastes.  The only things I can remember my parents liking/listening to were Barry Manilow (my mom) and Jim Croce (my dad).  In my late 30’s, I can now admit that “Copacabanna” and “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” are awesome songs, but not when you’re 9-years-old.  Even in elementary school, I knew my parents’ musical tastes were stagnant, and due to the limited exposure to music at home, I knew practically nothing about music growing up.  For example, my parents had this big-ass turntable stereo and about 8 albums between the both of them.  I recall that in the 5th grade I won a contest in music class and my teacher offered to buy me any single that I could name. I couldn’t name one.  The whole thing played out in front of my class, so it was just the tiniest bit mortifying.

So, when I think about my son, I’d like him to have broad exposure to music.  At the heart of it, my wife and I want our son to have a positive relationship with music.  This means we pick songs that have upbeat choruses, goofy lyrics, or great dance beats.  But it’s mostly about the dance beat.  We started early with children’s music (Raffi, They Might Be Giants, etc.).  Slowly, my wife started introducing him to house music, hip hop, and rap.  I would come home and “Jump Around”, “Groove is in the Heart”, or “California Love” would be blasting out the stereo, and my wife and son would be bouncing off the walls.  By age 3, his favorite lyrics were “Whatcha whatcha whatcha want, whatcha want / You’re so funny with the money that you flaunt / I said where’d you get your information from huh? / You think that you can front when ‘revolution’ comes?”  Yes, he messed up the lyrics, but he was hilarious.

So, as he gets older (and we do), we continue rocking out in the car and kicking up the base.  I think the issue is this: as he gets older, in spite of the “clean” versions of the songs, he’s more likely to pick up on the suggestion or the content of the trashy lyrics.  When he was little, everything seemed fine so long as he didn’t hear a 4-letter word, because any of the innuendo was lost on him.  Now that he’s 6, he’s so damn perceptive.  I just worry sometimes.

But I think the outrageous-ness of certain lyrics are just that, outrageous lyrics.  If we use music for music’s sake, and don’t elevate it or deify the artists, it remains music.  Not a lifestyle, not an ethos.  Just songs to dance to.  If I play a song that’s a little wild, it’s just a song.  I think it takes the mystique and the glamour out of it when your parents put it on in the car.  On the flip side, I went through quite a metal phase in high school and was a huge Metallica, Megadeath, Ozzy fan for years, but it was all just rebellion against the crooners I grew up with.

I’m mindful of my song choices, just like any other media I expose my son to.  At the same time, I take an even-handed approach.  While overt swearing and sexualized themes are still things I want to protect him from, there’s sometimes a grittiness to the lyrics that I don’t mind exposing him to in small snippets.  Music, like all forms of art, is a means to exploring the profane and the fantastic, and if we can be good models of how and when that exposure is okay, we as parents can help our kids see that trashiness has its place.

Either that, or I’m training the next gangster rapper.  So long as he steers clear of those $50 Gucci t-shirts, I’ll be fine with that too.

Author: CJ Nigh

I am an East Coast writer with a Midwestern soul. Undead Dad is a blog about mindful fatherhood in the deadening age of hyper-technology and over-work. I also write science fiction for young adults.

26 thoughts on “Cleanly Explicit

  1. Why aren’t the 9 year olds down with the Barry Manilow? Don’t they know what cool is?

  2. My dad was/is a huge fan of the Beatles, Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, and many others and I remember that growing up. Of course, I wasn’t a HUGE fan of them at the time. But I definitely learned to appreciate it as I got older. Many of today’s music is garbage, if you want to call it that.. as in most of them are auto tuned to say the least. I think it’s definitely fantastic to keep an open mind in general when it comes to letting your kid explore.

    • I agree. I always thought I’d stay current on most music, but as you can tell by my list of songs that we jam to, only one makes it past the 1990s. Definitely into the diverse selection, and am trying to pepper our day with a bit of Chopin and Johnny Cash. Thanks for the comments!

  3. I feel your pain. I don’t know what’s appropriate anymore. We drew the line with Bruno Mars’ “locked out of heaven” because he’s asking for sex outright, but they know it anyway. And I LOVE “Thrift Shop”. It was the last song I heard on the radio before work this morning and I’ve been singing it all day. It came on the other night while I was in the car with both boys. Owen (8) knew the lyrics! I never heard it with him, but he started singing “This is F-word awesome.” (the radio bleeped it out) Then he says, “I know what the F-word is.” “Really? What is it?” I ask. “Will I get in trouble if I say it?” “No. I’m proud of you for being honest.” He proceeds to misspell it “F-r-a-k-i-n-g…It’s Freaking.” I breathe a sigh of relief. “Yep. That’s the F-word.”

    Have you checked out any videos of the Harlem Shuffle? It’s hysterical. Check it out on youtube.

    • Dadicus, that is too funny. That will be my go-to response in case my son asks what the f-word is. My son has also misunderstood some swears, thinking random words were vulgar. Thanks for the comments, and I’ll have to check out Harlem Shuffle.

  4. My parents were even worse–I think the Kingston Trio and an ancient Johnny Cash album mildewed in their cabinets for years. Now, I have two teens, and we REALLY rock out…I’ve mostly given up and put on the explicit versions, since that’s what they’re downloading anyway. But I totally agree with you–having your parents listen to it take the coolness away like June day in Virginia melts the ice cubes in a glass of bourbon.

  5. I feel the same way as you do

  6. My parents were never big into music, but I have to agree with you – most of the time I wanted to listen to explicit songs was only because they were so forbidden. I think it’s great that you are carefully introducing your son to the music!

    • Yes, I think I’ve lost the taste for most explicit songs that I “discovered” in my youth. Most don’t need it, but every once in a while there’s one that’s fun. We’ll keep trying to introduce him to stuff carefully, but I’m sure he’ll go his own direction sooner or later.

  7. I can understand where you are coming from and what you are saying and I agree for the most part. I just had this discussion with my husband this past weekend. I think by editing the swear words out of music and movies, they lose the intent to portray a culture the artitst or writer wanted to convey. This culture may be different than yours and you may not always agree with it. The experience then grants an opportunity to talk with your child about those differences and what you do believe in. It also gives you the opportunity to coach your child on what to do and what you expect them to do if a similar situation arises.

    • Jill, We’ve had similar experiences, and it makes me think about things as simple as people being mean/bullying others in movies or TV. At first, we protected him, but then had to expose him, showing him that it’s the way some people behave. We have to understand it, because we’ll come into contact with it at some point in the real world. Thanks for the post.

  8. Great piece. Love all the songs you mentioned. Each one has a different Dance appeal, but as you said it’s the “beat” that’s important. 🙂 So now pick your song and try this out!
    —-> Dance Walking Fitness Ben Aaron. Time to Dance Walk Baby http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ib3Duz_6a9M&sns=tw via @youtube 😉

  9. I think that you have already answered your own question. He already sings the lyrics to songs and the more you play a song, the more he’ll mimic it. He may or may not comprehend the lyrics and one of his school chums might explain it to him (usually incorrectly).

    The question is…as children are often spontaneous and say things at the most inappropriate time, would you have a problem with him singing it when he is at grandma’s? You could coach him on when it it or is not appropriate but there is no way of knowing if he will remember or have the self-discipline to not sing.

    Bigger question? If he knew what all the words meant, would you want him singing those lyrics. Music is a form of communication and you are educating him whether you are aware of it or not…you are giving him something to emulate.

    As adults, we can differentiate between the art and the message. Children don’t necessarily have this ability. I suggest you stick to things that you wouldn’t mind him emulating. There are lots of cool songs that set a better example.

    You asked 😉

    • Mrs. P, Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I’ve given lots of thought to the selections up until now. Yes, he sings, but up until this point, we’re careful to steer away from songs about sex and violence. The selection of songs I mention in the post are all about rapping, dancing, or life in California (admittedly, with themes from gang culture), but there are tons of songs out there about down and dirty sex and/or gang violence that we certainly stay away from. Yes, some of them have some minor references to sex, but I feel rather comfortable with the sex education that we’ve doled out to our 6-year-old, and I can’t control for what friends on the playground tell him. All I can do is make it known to him that he can come to either my wife or me with questions, and I hope that our levity and freedom around song choices only reaffirms our approach-ability.

      When I think about it, the themes my songs convey, I know the songs my parents introduced me to were actually worse. I mean, one guy kills the other in a nightclub and the woman becomes an incoherent alcoholic? Or the local gangster gets beaten to death when he hits on the wife of a jealous man? I’d urge you to listen to the Beastie Boys, Deee-Lite, and even certain 2Pac songs to see that many are more tame than this.

      Thanks for your thoughts. They have really caused me to sit back and think even further about the issue. Take care.

  10. Because I have always considered myself a good sport and open to criticism and the fact that I am probably closer to your parents generation than yours…which songs are you referring to specifically? I’m curious if I had a blind spot in this area or if we listened to different music entirely.

    I happen to love the song in this post and I enjoy a lot of current pop/rap/hip hop but just as I try not to swear around kids, I watch what is presented to them as well. It is not isolated to music. You can include certain TV, computer games, families with drama. I am not a proponent of isolating them from the real world either as that would not prepare them to handle life very well. I’m a proponent of what will help any kid be able to do well in life and succeed.

    You are mostly getting the viewpoint of an elementary school teacher. (By the way, we did have a hip hop dance class for a few years.) I think the greatest tool a parent has for their raising their child is their willingness/ability to outwardly express love. If that is present, you can almost do anything and have success. My response wasn’t meant as a criticism of your parenting, it was meant to provoke more thought in your direction. I hope that it did just that. 😉

  11. This song is hysterical – I wish it were done without the explicit stuff, so I could play it at home. I download clean versions of songs, too, but at some point, my 8 year old has a clue. Now we’ve let some hell and damns in on songs and while we listen to it at home, we also have great conversations about words that put you in the principal’s office. I do tend to avoid misogynistic music or make a point of discussing with her why the singer is a d*ck for singing what he does. I feel like it will be a huge victory if she can critically think about what she is listening to, before it’s completely out of our control.

  12. My parents never really listen to the lyrics of the song so we got to listen to everything. It might have been a bit different though as I’m Swedish and therefore had to learn English before I could understand any of the innuendos. That did not stop me from going around singing a slightly maid up versions of the songs though. My mom has told me about how I shocked my American aunt was by what songs we were allowed to listen to. And I have to admit that I was slightly horrified when I understood the innuendo in Spice Girls’ wannabe since it was one of my favourite songs while I was growing up and I didn’t realise what it was about until I was 17. But other than that I might know more swear words in English than in Swedish (they usually play the explicit versions on the radio here), I don’t think I’ve been traumatised in any way by listening to music containing all sorts of swear words and innuendos.

    I don’t think that it is possible in today’s society to shelter your kids from popular songs. They will probably hear it somewhere else (especially if they have friends with parents like mine that still don’t get the most obvious of innuendos simply because they don’t listen to the lyrics of the songs) I’ve even heard the explicit version Thrift Shop being played in stores here. I don’t know how fast kids these days picks up on innuendos (it obviously took me a while, I don’t even pick upon them nowadays) but I think by the time they do it will be too late and they will have access to things such as computers and smartphones so the can hear the music anyway. In my opinion the best thing to do is try to explain why they shouldn’t sing a certain part of the lyrics or try to change the words of the lyrics they’re singing to make it more child appropriate.

    • Thanks for the reply, JabbaJinx. Glad to hear that you weren’t retroactively traumatized by American music. I hope that bodes well for my son.

  13. Some great stuff to think about here.

  14. I can relate to this! My 5 year old LOVES ‘Thrift Shop’ and will sing it spontaneously…he even sings the line..’this is king awesome’ and tells me that he didn’t sing the naughty word bit that they beeped out! He is pretty cluey!

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