Monday, June 19, 2023

This Year: 1994

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

The best songs express who you are, who you want to be. They can be about that moment of your life when you hear them, or they can look to the future.

My song for 1994 was about the future, at the time. It's since become the past. I hope I lived up to it. I hope this song helped me think about that part of my life. I think it did.

It's Whip-Smart by Liz Phair, a song that made me want to be a better, smarter, sneakier, more interesting father four years before my first son was born.

It's a song by a woman - a woman who has always been clearly feminist - about raising a son, using a lot of imagery and ideas more usually associated with girls growing up. And, yes, that is the feminist part, and yes, that is what I loved and still love about it.

And I'm gonna lock my son up in a tower

Until he learns to let his hair down far enough to climb outside

That's the line that always gets me, drags out the huge smile - the Rapunzel double reversal, first putting it on the boy rather than the girl but then doubles down by making it about freedom and choice. It took me years to learn to let my hair down far enough to climb outside. I hope my boys can do that at least a little quicker.

And this is another song with a great rhythm that kicks it off - a demanding, syncopated beat that starts after a few seconds of quiet pastoral sounds at the beginning and underlies the whole song. To my ear, it almost sounds like a machine: maybe the steam-loom someone is using to spin straw into gold, maybe the machine building the tower, maybe something even sillier.

But what makes this song so special is that core feminist reversal: it's all about lessons Phair learned as a woman, and how she's going to transmute them into things a boy should know. It's all forward-looking, all focused on this boy, who may or may not already exist.

All about that core parental idea: I want you to be better than I was; I want you to be able to avoid these things that I tripped over; I want better for you than I had.

I love that, and I loved the specific lessons here. I probably didn't live up to my hopes as a parent; no one ever does. But that beat in Whip-Smart is still there chugging along, and my sons are both home for the weekend as I type this, and I can keep being the father I want to be as long as I'm still here.

And I'm gonna tell my son to be a prophet of mistakes

Because for every truth there are half a million lies

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