I’ve been thinking a lot about books lately.
Maybe it’s because as I head into a teaching career, I’m more interested in YA literature because that’s what my students will be reading. Maybe it’s because there have been a lot of books made into movies in the past few years. Maybe it’s because I went to the New York Public Library’s exhibit The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter. Or maybe it’s because there’s SO MUCH good literature out there, despite what book bullies might think.
Yes, so much good literature. But are young people actually reading it?
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been working in schools and camps and libraries for the past two years, but it seems to me that reading is becoming less stigmatized than it used to be when I was growing up. Kids carry around books, kids read at lunch, and they readily admit to loving reading. When I was in middle school, reading was dorky. Reading was for the shy anti-social people. But now people carry books around and read everywhere! Is this because of the glamorization of nerdiness? The popularity of e-readers? The incredible books being published and taking the world by storm? I’m not sure there’s one exact reason, but people are reading. And KIDS are reading, which is awesome.
So to answer my question above, yes, young people are reading good literature. If you look around at the real world, they really are. But it’s certainly not the majority of them. It’s just that those who are reading are doing so with pride and without being judged. That’s great! Sadly, for every kid I’ve met who openly loves to read, there’s another kid I’ve worked with who also proudly admits he does not read. Somewhere down the line, s/he came to think books were boring or lame.
What are these kids doing instead of reading?
Far more often, I would argue, kids are listening to music. Music is, in a way, easier. It’s something they engage with without committing to. It can be entertaining or relaxing. It can be shared or self-contained. More and more, music is allowed in schools. It’s easily acquired and easily dismissed.
But the biggest way it’s “easy”? It’s also often times pretty uninspired.
That’s my polite way of saying a lot of current music is just plain not good.
And this is where I get confused. There is SO MUCH good music out there. But everywhere I go, I am bombarded with canned, uninspired, vapid sound. In restaurants (including fancy ones–why??), at department stores, on public transportation, in banks, in gyms.
Think about all the different kinds of people you’d expect to find in restaurants or stores or gyms. Then think about the kind of music these places typically play (keyword: typically). It’s exactly what I described above. Why is it that, despite the varying demographics present in these public places, the music remains the same? You would think it would be catered to match whoever is likely to be present, and I’ve read that marketing companies have found that certain types of music are more likely to increase business. But in my experience, this doesn’t add up. Is current pop really a panacea that companies are keeping secret from us all? Does it magically make people order more food, shop longer (quite the opposite with me, as I’m often driven out of stores by the selection of music), get to places faster, take out more loans/open more accounts, AND work out harder?
What is the reasoning behind this? Corporate policy? Maybe. Not sure what kind of policy that would be. I say it’s because this kind of music is easy.
Music, especially current pop, isn’t marketed to any one group in particular. You might say, yes it is- young people! Okay, well, who are these young people? The continuously widening group that is “young people” includes tweens- which is now children as young as 8- up to people in their early 30s. That’s a HUGE span of developmental, emotional, and cognitive differences. You’d never see Game of Thrones being marketed to a group that wide- or, on the other end of the spectrum, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It just doesn’t make sense, both in terms of content and in terms of developmental compatibility. But songs that glamorize objectification are pitched to 10-year-old girls without anyone batting an eye.
Book marketing is entirely different. Go into any library and you’ll have three distinct sections: children’s, teen, and adult. There is a huge market for YA. Many authors focus exclusively on writing children’s or teen books. The linguistic and visual differences between books for differing ages groups are huge. Because no kid would be interested in a book with long paragraphs and a lack pictures, even if it were about a cute but mischievous puppy. That’s not necessarily a marketing decision. It’s developmental. Kids like pictures and colors and textures. Many kids who pick up books can’t even read them, but we recognize their value nonetheless. Adults like intriguing plots or particular writing styles, and pictures maybe less so.
But with music? Pick up a pop album at Barnes & Noble. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to its production or distribution other than monetary incentives and ease of proliferation. Again, easy.
Look at her pose. Read the title. Who is this album for?
Here’s the big conundrum I cannot explain:
There are TONS of good books being marketed specifically to children and young people. But America still has a problem getting them to read.
There is virtually NO good music being marketed specifically to children and young people. But America has no problem getting them to listen to music that is, for lack of a more precise term, poor.
According to a Huffington Post article from 2013, the American literacy rate hasn’t changed in 10 years. Earlier this year, the Anna E. Casey Foundation cited a study saying that 66% of American children are not reading proficiently. Educators and their allies recognize the tremendous value books have for all people, but especially children. Literacy skills are crucial to future success, yet institutions that have the potential to lead programs to foster such skills are underfunded and therefore undervalued by our government.
Are there poor books out there? Of course! There are books marketed to children that are crude and vulgar, gendered and limiting. But at least they are reading at all, right? I know I’d rather have my kid reading Captain Underpants than playing video games.
We don’t think that way about music. We don’t condone our children listening to Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears because “hey, at least they’re listening to music at all!” We condone it because there is nothing else for them to listen to, nothing else being currently marketed to them that is both socially acceptable and intellectually captivating. We condone it because it is easy. And unavoidable. Not the case with books.
How can we respond to these problems, both the lack of kids reading/ensuing lackluster literacy statistics and the problem of having no intellectually stimulating music for young people?
Here’s an article encouraging parents to get their boys to read by offering them “gross” books. I’m on board with that. Know your demographic, right? As long as it’s age-appropriate and not gendered, go for it. “Just get ‘em reading,” says a librarian quoted in the article. “Worry about what they’re reading later.”
I’d say the opposite with music: “Worry about what they’re listening to. Then get them listening to something else.” Because what’s the problem with a lot of pop music today? Since it’s marketed to such a wide group of people, its content isn’t age-appropriate. Since it’s mass produced, it isn’t musically challenging. Again, not all pop music falls into this category. But a lot of it does, and that is generally what I hear in public places, on the radio, and coming out of kids’ headphones. Parents, take an active interest in what your kid likes to listen to. Talk about objectification, commoditization, and materialism. Talk about artistry and spectacle. Educators, stay steadfast in the belief that kids can learn to appreciate music from 300 years ago. Make it relevant and fun. Make it interactive.
I’ve said “bad” and “poor” and “uninspired” and “vapid.” I understand that these are opinions. It is by no means my call to decide whether music I think has such qualities cannot aesthetically or emotionally move another human being, no matter their age. If that is what we look for in music today, I think that’s wonderful. But as an educator and musician, I know it is calling to open young people up to so much more than they know of their small corner of the world, to help kids understand what they’re listening to, and then let them decide if it is really worthy of their intellect.
There is so much art out there. So many good books. And so much good music. It would be a shame if what kids got on the radio was all they would ever get.