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The Good Listener: With Kids In The Car, Who Controls The Stereo?

Feb 27, 2013
Originally published on May 28, 2013 12:14 pm

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the flyers for furniture stores we will never visit is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how to juggle the competing musical needs of parents and kids when they're sharing the same car ride.

Craig Fischer writes: "Who gets to control the music in the car: parents or kids? The ideal is to find common ground: but when that's not working ... "

When imposing household rules on my kids, I try to set up systems wherein everyone makes allowances for others — for example, if everyone in the house puts both toilet-seats down every time, then no one is disproportionally burdened and the cats don't drink out of the toilet. Everyone gives; everyone benefits, except the cats, who are pretty thirsty nowadays.

But in the car? We're talking about the first rule of road trips: Driver controls the stereo. Everyone's lives are in the driver's hands! Giving up sonic autonomy is the least the passengers can do.

Now, I choose to wield this power with the closest thing I possess to a benevolent hand. My kids, 12 and on the brink of 9, are already accustomed to Dad listening to music in the car for work, and their tastes thus far have largely reflected that; my son loves Kishi Bashi and The Calm Blue Sea, while my daughter expounded at length the other night on the "rumor that is true" that Justin Bieber is terrible because he cares more about money than his fans. (I never thought I would hear myself state, earnestly and emphatically, the words, "Honey, Justin Bieber loves his fans." But there we were.)

So my kids have gotten quite nonchalant about hearing unusual music — in fact, while listening to random songs in the car so I could prepare for SXSW, we came across a massively ridiculous death-metal song called "Vermosapien" by the Florida band Abiotic. It now ranks among our finest and most frequently invoked jokes; I have a CDR, on which I scrawled "SONGS FOR THE KIDS," which is just "Vermosapien" over and over and over again, and it is trotted out constantly. If your kids are prone to objecting loudly and persistently — if an agreement can't be reached — I recommend keeping a "Vermosapien"-style nuclear option at hand, whether you use it in jest or not.

So, to answer your question: I love sharing the music I love with the people I love, the kids very much included. And, when listening to music purely for pleasure — on, say, a family road trip — it's most fun to stick to songs we'll all enjoy, with an emphasis on "Vermosapien" by Abiotic. But the tie always, always, always goes to the driver.

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