A father changes his tune after
a game of musical shares
By Jeff Ruby
"At the most crucial time of my daughter’s social and mental development, I had made it all about myself."
Illustration by Richard Mia
When my daughter was an infant, her sleepy-time playlist did not involve Mozart or Raffi. No Baby Einstein for Baby Hannah. She listened to Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits’ notoriously creepy 1983 LP. On repeat. All night.
If you aren’t familiar with Swordfishtrombones, it’s basically 40 minutes of cockeyed tales from an underground world populated with freaks and misfits, herky-jerky howling and whispering accompanied by angry trombones and rusty marimbas being played in a bathtub. It sounds like steam oozing from a sewer grate outside a pawn shop at 2 a.m. Unless you want your offspring to grow up to be a boxcar-hopping grifter, Swordfishtrombones may be the absolute worst album to play in a baby’s nursery. 
“What the hell is she listening to in there?” my wife asked while slipping back into bed after a 3 a.m. feeding.
“The 11th-best album of the 1980s, according to Pitchfork,” I mumbled. Then I rolled over.
This, my friends, is what happens when a grumpy failed hipster has children. I cared not a whit whether Tom Waits was developmentally appropriate — or what twisted dreams were unspooling in my daughter’s evolving brain. I just knew I didn’t want her brand-new neural connections clogged with Kidz Bop and anthropomorphic dinosaurs singing B-I-N-G-O. No, sir. My tyke would listen to music about real life. Loss. Longing. Sailors on shore leave drinking forties of Mickey’s Big Mouth and shooting pool with dwarfs.
A closeted music geek, I spent much of my awkward young life standing in the back of sweaty music venues making sure I had on the right T-shirt, the right sneakers, and the right beer in my hand, tapping my foot but keeping a safe, ironic distance from it all, even if my heart was beating so hard I could feel it pushing against my chest. Only in the privacy of my home could I show genuine love for the music. But I married a woman who has no musical opinions whatsoever beyond turn it down! so in Hannah I was ecstatic to have someone with whom I could share my passion. The fact that this someone was not yet potty-trained, or even ambulatory, barely occurred to me.
By the time my daughter was four, I had her on a steady diet of Johnny Cash, Yo La Tengo, and Stevie Wonder (circa 1972-76, of course). By five, she was singing along with the Clash. The day she requested Bob Dylan’s original 1963 version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” from her car seat, I knew I had done my part. 
Of course, it all came crashing down. When Hannah was six, I happened upon a story in the satirical online newspaper The Onion. Its headline: “Cool Dad Raising Daughter on Media That Will Put Her Entirely Out of Touch with Her Generation.” The accompanying photo shows a father watching proudly as his daughter pulls a Talking Heads record from its sleeve, while she gives the impression she would be more comfortable at a Taylor Swift concert. The father looked a little like me. And the girl was a dead ringer for Hannah.
It was a punch in the jaw. At the most crucial time of my daughter’s social and mental development, I had made it all about myself. Call it snobbery, call it the fragile male ego run amok; I was guilty of both. I had lied for years, to myself, to my wife, to anyone else who would listen, that I was helping to mold a human being who would grow up to be sharp and literate, fluent in what I called “the classics” — when all I really wanted was to create a perfect Frankenstein monster of pop culture references. A mini-me, but more hip.
There’s a possible biological explanation for my actions. “From the beginning, we tempt [our children] into imitation of us and long for what may be life’s most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values,” writes Andrew Solomon in Far From the Tree, his 2012 book about families adjusting to children with disabilities and differences. Then Solomon twists the knife in further: “Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.” This may clarify why, 30 years after running as fast as possible from the Bach cantatas my father was always humming, I was force-feeding my daughter Ramones albums.
On its face, this is entirely rational. What is parenting, after all, but an attempt to instill values in your progeny that will live on once your time is up in this world? A desperate stab at immortality — the ultimate ego trip.
But without a moral code to impart, what’s the point? Once I got past the most basic principles (be nice! work hard! um ... help people?), it became clear that I didn’t have much left to offer. The rest of my knowledge was trivia. Values are one thing; making sure a kindergartner knows the difference between Lennon songs and McCartney songs — and demanding that she care desperately which is which — is another completely. Worse, most of my input for my daughter seemed to revolve around being “cool,” which in my middle age I had managed to forget was a constant burden that suffocated my teen years.
So I backed off. Or tried to, anyway.
OK, so Marvin Gaye might happen to be in the CD player when Hannah got in the car, or Elvis Costello on the turntable when she popped into my office. If she asked what was playing, I would tell her. When she gave a song a thumbs-down or, worse, expressed indifference, I felt strangely wounded, and when she went her own way and inevitably developed her own interests, my stunted heart broke. Not because I had to let go of my daughter, but because she would be shaped by influences that were not my own. Influences I perceived as inferior.
Hannah is 14 now, and we’ve both grown up considerably. She’s smart, anxious, and sarcastic, a terrific writer and a mezzo-soprano in the Chicago Children’s Choir. She has good friends and good sense and is always searching. And I stayed out of her face while she found her own offbeat diversions: episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix; the infinite minutiae of Greek mythology; the joys of online animatics, which I didn’t even know was a thing, by an obscure Polish artist. Best of all, she’s eager to share them all with me.
Last September, I took my daughter to her first concert. It was by Dodie Clark, a waifish British chanteuse whose aching vulnerability has made her something of a sage to quirky teenage girls. I had heard Hannah talk about Clark’s 1.8 million YouTube followers and was naturally suspicious — but also flattered that she was willing to have me there. Plus, she needed a ride.
The concert blew me away. Clark’s lilting performance was raw and endearing, every lyric conveying unironic, life-affirming messages I had forgotten existed. Social anxiety? Totally normal. Worried no one will ever love you? It’s OK. Sexually confused? Join the club.
The crowd — young, enthusiastic, and unjudgey — included girls and boys of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, and orientations, each of them dressed how they wanted, singing how they wanted, laughing and crying and losing themselves in the music in a way I had never been able to with someone watching. Hannah could not stop smiling. And I cried. Because at 14, my daughter had learned how to be comfortable in her skin in a way that I never could.
Hannah’s own peculiar music play-list today includes everything from lo-fi pop to Croatian choral music. And yes, she has managed to enfold Queen and the Beatles into the mix. “I don’t mind when you recommend a song you like,” she said recently. “I like your taste in music.” This may mark the first time in history that a child has said that to her parent. And, as it turns out, I like her taste too.
• In our March issue, Jeff Ruby, the chief contributing dining critic for Chicago magazine, explained how his son Max got his name.
• This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.