On the way home from school, I asked my 11-year-old son what he was listening to. He offered me his iPod ear-plugs, and suddenly Fat Joe A.K.A. Joey Crack was shouting into my head:
My niggas in the club, but you know they not dancin'.
We gangsta, and gangstas don't dance or boogie,
So nevermind how we got here with the burners and hoodies.
Listen we don't pay admission,
And bouncers don't check us,
And we walk around the metal detectors..."
A relatively tame moment from the Terror Squad's monster hit of 2004 "Lean Back." That night, my son watched the SpongeBob movie for umpteenth time, and when I went into his room later to tell him lights out, I found him listening to Terror Squad in his SpongeBob boxers. Half of him was in a pineapple in Bikini Bottom, the other half in a club in the South Bronx. As a tween, my 11 year old was by definition conflicted, but I never expected pop-culture proxies to get involved in the conflict, least of all SpongeBob and Fat Joe.
When I was a small child, my mother refused to allow a TV in the apartment. She thought it was a corrupting influence. My entertainment diet consisted of Maurice Sendak, revival house movies and stuff I made with pipe-cleaners and construction paper. This was fine by me -- I didn't know any better -- until I bumped into other children and discovered that I inhabited an alternate universe that lacked super-heroes, cartoon sound-effects and advertisements for Rock'em Sock'em Robots. My brother and I stood on the fringes of conversations, naive eyes under bowl haircuts, like Amish children peering through the window of a horse-and-buggy. Pained by our alienation, my mother eventually permitted a television into the apartment. She tried to limit our TV time, but you can't open Pandora's idiot box halfway, and soon we were gorging on Gigantor, Batman, The Monkeys, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family and cheesy black-and-white re-runs of Bonanza and Father Knows Best. I could chart my emotional growth through my shifting allegiances to pop phenomena. Overweight men in tights and singing families gave way to Bruce Lee movies and Wes Craven atrocities such as The Hills Have Eyes. I scoffed at convention with Monty Python and transcended it at Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead concerts. But I'm ok now. I can walk on my own feet, despite having once been strapped to the pop-culture juggernaut.
So why am I saddened to find SpongeBob and Fat Joe warming up in opposite corners of my child's brain? I worry that the media trivializes my son's personal struggle. It pains me to see his passions dovetail with the calculations of huge media conglomerates. I want to believe he is developing into a man, not moving from one target demographic to another. And I know that SpongeBob, for all his giddy optimism and innocence, has only one purpose in life: to sell Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese, Kellogs cereals and Burger King. And I know that bands like Terror Squad and games like Grand Theft Auto are packaged to provide a voyeuristic thrill to middle-class white kids feeling the unrest of puberty. So what am I to do? I can't outlaw the stuff. My parents tried that. It creates weirdos. But I can't embrace the stuff either, not without feeling hypocritical or insane.
A few days ago, my 18 month old daughter pulled out of her bookshelf a picture book called Meet Thomas and his Friends. I don't know how it got there, probably a gift. My daughter became very excited, made a pulling motion and said, "Choo! Choo!" My wife explained that daycare had a similar book. Excited by my daughter's excitement, I also pulled at the air and said, "Choo! Choo!" A few minutes later, my daughter handed me the caboose from her wooden train set. "Thomas?" she offered with a smile. I felt a little sick. As our baby begins to match names to objects, she is also going through a process marketing departments call "branding," a word that gives off a faint whiff of seared flesh. But how could I not smile back?
As I listened to "Lean Back" in the car with my son, I found myself getting swept into the song's boastful rhythms. I could just lean back myself, I thought, like the song says.
Now we livin' better now,
Gucci sweater now,
In that G4 we fly through,
Any weather now,
See niggas get tight, when you worth some millions...
"Do you like it?" my son asked.
"I'm not sure," I said.