Listen, We Don’t Do That

Fellow Slice of Lifer, and friend in real life, GirlGriot recent posted a slice that touched on how classical music once felt “forbidding” to her. I partially understood that sentiment from the perspective of my enjoyment of thrash metal music, something that many still that think I as a 56 year black is crazy for it.

Popular television and cartoon shows were my earliest experience of classical music. I imagine like most inner city Americans over the age of 45, we likely first heard classical music, jazz standards and big band from classic Disney (“Fantasia”), Warner Brothers (Bugs Bunny), and Max Fleischer (Betty Boop) cartoons. There is a reason that for many, many, many years most Americans knew a particular piece of music not as the finale of the William Tell Overture, but only as the theme to The Lone Ranger.

Other than television shows and cartoons as a black inner city girl, born in the early 60’s my exposure to music primarily came from very specific sources: my mother’s record player that only played black gospel music as she did not approve of secular music; my southern grandmother’s radio which only played country music, and the radio that mostly played what was popular at the time (classic and soft rock, and of course disco). Songs on the radio were only heard at friends and neighbors homes as it was not allowed in mine. Everyone regardless of color/ethnicity listened to the same stations for popular music because it was all we had. Sans those who eschewed most secular music of course, what would eventually be dubbed urban (aka Black), adult contemporary radio had become the thing. From the mid-1970s, when such radio stations came into existence until the late 2000s, whether as a political statement or as personal choice, if you were black you mostly listened to 107.5 WBLS (contemporary and traditional R&B), and the now defunct 101.9 WQCD (contemporary jazz) and WKRS (dance, hip-hop and rap) stations.  

Yes, they exposed Black-Americans to more or our own music and to artists who may have been marginalized and not broken through the glass ceilings of other (aka white) radio stations, but at the same time it bred a subculture that made it all but verboten to listen to, let alone enjoy, anything else. I distinctly remember standing in queue at a department during the holiday store happily singing along to Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust” on the PA system when I was asked why I was singing that and told I should not be supporting their music because “Listen, we don’t do that”.

Excuse me? Yeah, that conversation did not go down well for him at all, and thus the point I wanted to make.  

GirlGriot had once felt listening to classical music forbidding. Her story is her own and I will let her tell it. In my case, classical music, world music, and the early emergence of metal were not things I listened to because I was not exposed to them. Though artists who had massive crossover appeal like U2, Eurythmics, Blondie, The Police, Culture Club and Wham! were notable exceptions. While radio stations such as WCBS (music from twenty years ago), WKTU (dance), and WLTW (soft rock and adult contemporary) that crossed genres and remained popular enough, in my then insular world where everyone mostly listened to Anita Baker, Public Enemy, and Michael Jackson on the radio I did not have regular exposure to Bach, Mozart and Rossini. Why? Though the words were rarely so blatantly spoken, other than the guy at the department store, it was implicit we don’t do that.

Then the advent of personal music players and MTV happened.

 A co-worker was listening to this relatively new band on his Sony Discman. He was clearly enjoying the music, I asked for a listen. I was told I wouldn’t like, but I insisted. This most definitely would never be played on anything “urban.” I had never heard anything like it, yet I it felt lyrically and musically on a visceral level. I replayed the song and then listened to the remainder of the CD and was shooketh as the kids say now. I bought a copy for myself that same day.

I had just been introduced to four guys whose names were James, Kirk, Kurt and Lars. The song was “Master of Puppets”, the band was Metallica, and I have been a devotee of them ever since.

Still, for a while I felt I had to hide this new love, because we don’t do that. Then I remembered just how pissed I was at the department store guy who deigned to tell me what I should be listening to and stopped hiding it.

MTV introduced me to thrash metal, death metal and grunge by god I loved it. Come 2000, in the middle of the night MTV introduced me to a then little-known group called Linkin Park and I was shooketh once again. By then WWE was popular and my sons were as much into it as I because many of the popular wrestlers of the time made their entrances to the ring with rock and metal music. Because I listened to it and their heroes at the time listened to it, it never occurred to them that they couldn’t. Their generation was not coming up with the subculture of we do don’t do that musically. Their musical choices were as diverse theirs and theirs alone because of that exposure and I for was grateful.

My late-husband came home one afternoon while our sons and I were head banging in different rooms as we were spring cleaning. Every window was open, and Metallica’s “S&M (Symphony & Metallica)” CDs were on blast. We lived in a mostly Caribbean and Latinx neighborhood, he was shaking his head and laughing that he heard the music half a block away and knew it was our house before he pulled up to the curb. He walked up to me and yelled “You’re Black!” Because the cosmos indeed has a delicious sense of humor, his timing was perfect with the song that was playing, and I paraphrased the incoming chorus as I shrugged and sang “Where I play my songs is home!” and continued cleaning to Wherever I May Roam.  Unlike the guy in the department store oh so many years ago I knew he was partially teasing because while he liked some rock, he was never a heavy/thrash metal music fan at all but was is his choice that he did not do that, not my sons and certainly not mine.

I was in my forties when I went to my first opera and my reawakening to pieces I didn’t realize I already knew thanks to cartoons. I made me search for more and yet a new musical interest in classical was sprung. It is not my strong suit as metal and R&B. Still, I enjoy it.

Though my first musical love remains Rock and Heavy Metal, they have happily shared space on my iPod with Country, Soul, Video Game Soundtracks, Jazz, Rap, Trance, Classic Rock, 80’s Hair Bands, 70’s horns, Blues, Pop, Movie Scores, Broadway Show tunes, TV Themes and so much more.

And all I had to do was be willing to listen beyond the forbidding listen we don’t do that.

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It is Day 5 of the March Slice of Life Writing Challenge for 2020. Stop in and see how others are slicing it up today!

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4 thoughts on “Listen, We Don’t Do That

  1. Cartoons introduces us to so much classical music. Of course, we, at least I, didn’t know it was classical at the time. Music is a universal language. There is a type to fit any mood we are in or any situation in which we find ourselves. It is not age, gender, ethnicity specific. If you like it and it makes you feel good, listen to it.

  2. This is awesomeness in ways that I cannot even begin to explain in a comment box! The unexpected and wrestling with music and identity is everywhere in this writing; there is strength of conviction and concession to the individual. This line was my favourite: “He walked up to me and yelled “You’re Black!” Because the cosmos indeed has a delicious sense of humor, his timing was perfect with the song that was playing, and I paraphrased the incoming chorus as I shrugged and sang “Where I play my songs is home!””
    This concept of home, of our identity has been central in my discussions with Black students at my high school. You’ve just given me inspiration for a lesson plan; the songs that make us feel at home (an annotated playlist).
    Thank you for sharing this lovely slice!

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