First of all, I should start out by saying that I use "little girls" is a term of endearment. My husband and I coined it as a joke several years ago in reference to the "Little Girls" song that Miss Hannigan sang in Annie. At the time, it seemed like my music studio was full of girls ages 5-9 inspired by Glee, American Idol, High School Musical, etc. who were taking voice lessons with me.
First of all, let me be clear- while my little girls are more valuable to me than the entirety of Daddy Warbuck's fortune, that age range is too young for serious voice lessons. Your body is your instrument, and with children, the instrument changes so rapidly, it is difficult to train young singers with any real stability. Boy or girl, your voice WILL change as you grow up, so this age is a very difficult one to approach as a voice teacher. My personal approach is to focus on fundamentals- good posture, correct breathing, finding confidence (probably the most important thing to cultivate with singers- singing can be terrifying), pitch matching, blending pure vowel sounds, being able to clap simple rhythms, being able to understand AND COMMUNICATE the meaning of the lyrics, and finding the "lady" voice (head voice). I typically do two songs per semester with my little girls- I choose a song, and they get to choose a song. Unfortunately, this means that I know way more Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and Adele than I'd really care to, but still, I have to admit, I do appreciate the fact that I am aware of what is going on in the pop music world, and I know who the kids are listening to. It keeps me from being that adult who only listens to music from my youth (which actually works great in Seattle- Nirvana anyone?). By using the two song method, I choose music which will address concepts/skills specific to each girl and introduce them to "literature" while still letting them learn the songs they want to learn and are passionate about.
So, my students' spring recital was a couple of weeks ago, and one of their recent assignments was to bring in a new song they wanted to learn, and we'd listen to and begin working on that new song. I found some very disturbing trends in song choices this time around and I find myself feeling like I need to focus on the messages that we are sending to our young girls.
Superman by Taylor Swift
I'm actually going to start by trashing a popular 1961 Broadway Musical- "How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying". Based on a satiricle book by the same title, this musical follows J. Pierpont Finch as he goes from window washer to executive by following the manual, and doing nothing. In typical 1950's fashion, the female characters are both shallow and weak- you've got the wife sitting at home doing nothing, and the sexy but secretive secretary (think Mad Men). In the song "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm", Rosemary Finch sings:
"Oh to be loved by a man I respect
to bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect...
"Happy to keep his dinner warm
till he comes wearily home from downtown"
I can accept this musical as a period piece- just as I can take "Porgy and Bess" also as a period piece. This was written in the late 1950's and reflects that time- a time when women could only be a nurse, secretary, or a teacher if she wasn't fortunate enough to be married, and if she was, she stayed at home, took care of her husband and kids and was grateful.
Fortunately, times have changed but Taylor Swift never got that memo. Here are some of the most anger-inducing lyrics:
"I watch Superman fly away
You've got a busy day today
Go save the world, I'll be around"
"And I watch you fly around the world
And I hope you don't save some other girl
Don't forget, don't forget about me."
One of the messages that I want to be sure to share with this girl: you don't need to hang around waiting for some man to discover your worth. You ARE worth his attention, and any man who would expect you to just sit around and wait for him is not superman, and he's not worth your time.
Heart Attack by Demi Lovato
This song won a teen choice award in 2013. Blah, what do teens know anyway? My point is that this is a popular teenage song, with lyrics like:
"But you make me wanna act like a girl
paint my nails and wear high heels."
Right. If a woman puts on lipstick, it must be because she's trying to please a man. To me, this comes dangerously close to the same concept put forth by rape defense attorneys "she was asking for it because of the way she dressed/looked/etc."- the idea that a woman dresses and makes up in order to attract or please a man. A woman may dress up because she loves clothes, because she is visually oriented and enjoys wearing bright colors and not blending into the background, because she enjoys feeling good about herself. None of these have anything to do with a man. Other great lyrics include:
"When I don't care
I can play him like a Ken doll
Won't wash my hear
And make him bounce like a basketball".
Again, the personal hygiene thing is so easy to hit- I wash my hair because I don't like having dirty greasy hanks of hair in my face and eyes- not because I am trying to please my man. AND on the flip side- feminism is not "man trashing". Men are people too, and entitled to fair and decent treatment. It is NOT okay to manipulate people- regardless of their gender. Feminism is about creating an equality between the sexes.
What I want to make sure this student learns is that she can dress in whatever way makes her feel comfortable- that she doesn't have to put on a costume to find the right guy. Also, that it doesn't matter how she dresses, she is entitled to respect, and likewise needs to respect others.
I've saved the real shocker for the last....
Love Me Like You Do by Ellie Goulding
Yes, that's right, a 9 year old girl who goes to a private Christian school came to me wanting to do the theme song from Fifty Shades of Grey. I almost made it through the official music video.... About 3 and a half minutes in (the final chorus) I had to hit stop- it went past my comfort zone for a 9 year old. Lucky for me, there is a Kidz Bop version.
So, they changed some of the words- high became shy, skin became mind, and "touch me like you do" was taken out and replaced with one more line of "love me like you do". However, for me, the absolute WORST lyrics of the song remained:
"I'll let you set the pace, cause I'm not thinking straight
My head's spinning around, I can't see clear no more
What are you waiting for?"
WHY would ANYONE think that is an okay thought to put in a child's head? Over the past year, we've heard about how Bill Cosby drugged and assaulted women for who knows how many years, Ke$ha was drugged and assaulted by her producer, Dr. Luke- the case was dismissed, and Brock Turner just received 6 MONTHS for raping a woman. I just read or sing those lyrics and want to tell this child that if she is in a position where her head is spinning, and she feels like she is having problems "thinking straight" to RUN, do not walk in the opposite direction. DO NOT allow anyone else to set the pace for you. If you are in an uncomfortable situation, find a friend, find a safe place, find an adult- whatever it is you need to do to take care of yourself- because clearly our judicial system will do NOTHING.
On a personal note, I clearly remember begging my parents to let me watch Dirty Dancing in 1987. That was about as racy as it got for 10 year old me.
I certainly don't have answers for how to change the status quo. I will do these songs with these kids, while addressing my concerns with them and creating a dialogue. To say "no" goes against everything I have done with these kids- they can choose their own songs and have the right to find their own voices. To deny them the right to sing their own songs will create an aura of mystique and curiosity about what is forbidden and why. Right now, I just wish that pop culture, and especially women in the public eye had a better message for our little girls- they are watching and listening to you.
Thanks for reading. Now go practice!
is a professional pianist, teacher, singer, and Music Director currently residing in Snohomish, Washington. She is the Director of Music at Peace Lutheran Church in Monroe, WA, and also teaches private piano, voice and ukulele lessons at The ARK in Snohomish, WA.