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More music for the kids

My 14-year-old niece is addicted to text messaging and MySpace, but also loves CSNY's greatest hits.

I've had a lot of time this summer to watch how the next generation interacts with music and technology, and it's making me feel like my parents. Two stories to illustrate my point:

1. My 14-year-old niece came to visit last week. One night, she excused herself from the table because she had to take a particular call. As she explained, "My friends brought a portable keyboard with them through the Chick-fil-A drive through and recorded their order as a rap. Now they're sending it to me." (This is the kind of story that sounds like parody until it happens in your presence.) I listened to the rap over the phone, and despite the limited bandwidth, it sounded like they'd rehearsed it.

Mudhoney, a musical outfit playing a quaint, conservative type of music colloquially known as "grunge." Daigo Oliva, via Wikimedia Commons

Later that day, she sang part of this song she loved so I could help her find it online. It turned out to be "Our House," recorded in 1970 by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young--perhaps the most crinkly old-fashioned song to emerge from her grandparents' generation. It's all the same to her--if it's personally meaningful, she couldn't care less where it comes from or how "cool" it is.

2. My daughter just turned two. In a fit of parental insanity caused by lack of sleep and 80-degree weather after a long cold spring, I convinced my wife that it might be fun to take her to the Sub Pop 20th Anniversary show on Sunday. It was outdoors, in a park, next to a playground, and I was a guest of the Zune team so the ticket was free. I figured if she hated it, we'd leave.

We set up our blanket during a set by Red Red Meat who, despite their name, are fairly melodic and not too aggressive. From a distance, she tolerated Comets on Fire (who sound way more like the Grateful Dead live than I would have expected from their albums, which sound like Rob Halford singing for the Butthole Surfers) and the very country and quite beautiful Beachwood Sparks.

Then came the much-awaited Green River reunion. If you're not up on Seattle rock history, Green River was one of the original grunge bands from the mid-80s, long before the scene became a national punchline. ("20 grams of flannel and a straw.") Green River was led by singer/guitarist Mark Arm, who later went on to found Mudhoney, and included two future members of Pearl Jam, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament. They're loud. They make judicious use of screaming and feedback. I don't particularly like them. (My favorite set of the weekend was by Mudhoney. They perfected the genre, and nobody does it better.)

But the second they started playing, my two-year-old daughter jumped up from the picnic table in the back of the venue where we were eating dinner, said "back to blanket, hear music, music!" and started running to where we'd set the blanket up, about 200 yards from the stage. A nice neighbor lent her some earplugs and she danced through the first three songs before mom and dad had finally had enough and dragged her away. Fortunately, there was a sprinkler to distract her on the way back to the car.

The point--if I have one--is simply that the younger generation is going to grow up with far more music, and far more types of music, than we did. Instead of radio and MTV, they'll have a hundred different ways to explore and discover and sample millions of recordings. Peer pressure will still play a part in shaping their tastes, but with so much more music available, I imagine that unique taste--that one song from the group you've never heard of--will be more valued as a form of personal expression. Yes: a world full of record store clerks.