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POP goes the feminist parent

When I was growing up, a concerned parent called our home with an unusual question. The parent's daughter wanted to give my sister Leah an album by a promising new pop singer for her birthday, but the parent had qualms about the singer's habit of baring her midriff at every opportunity.

My sister and I found this hilarious, of course: We knew Madonna was a pop star, not a role model! We just wanted to dance to "Lucky Star" and "Holiday." Weren't parents silly? As a pop music fan, a feminist and now a parent of two pop culture consumers myself, I wish I'd given that parent a break. I know I could use one.

In college, I completed the bulk of my media studies minor dissecting Madonna's live performances and videos, wedding two of my deepest loves: pop music and feminist cultural critique. I believe that our puritanical, sex-negative culture prevents all people from accessing their full humanity. Yet all this carefully practiced theory flew out the window when my children discovered their generation's single-monikered popstresses: Rihanna, Ke$ha, Beyonce, et. al. Now belly buttons are the least of my problems.

My mother allowed the Madonna birthday gift because she believed that banning any music or art would make it irresistible, but she never had to grapple with the information overload of the Internet age. I would much rather explain the lyrics of "Like a Virgin" than tawdry information available with one click of Google-including why Rihanna still dates a man who beat her so badly she needed hospitalization.

On the other hand, when I was once asked what in the heck Madonna was talking about in that song, I fumbled, "Oh, it means she feels very ... er, young." Ugh.

Intellectually, I know that force-feeding my daughter a diet of Joni Mitchell in a Lady Gaga world would be a useless exercise, and not just because I agree with my mom's philosophy. Confession time: As much as I've been told that Ani DiFranco is good for the feminist soul, I find her music boring. I love hearing women sing over 808 drums and thumping basslines, so Madonna's "Express Yourself" is my feminist anthem, not "32 Flavors."

Interestingly, another birthday party renewed the tension between pop as youthful liberation and as a source of parental frustration, but this time with my sister and I in the parents' roles.

Rihanna's "We Found Love," a song as good or better than anything Madonna recorded, appeared on a mix CD Leah gave to guests at her daughter's sixth birthday party. She should have asked for my permission, though, because the song is like a Rihanna gateway drug. My daughter Miriam wanted to listen to it again and AGAIN and again. Finally, she asked to see the video for the song on YouTube. We made it barely past the second chorus. Exposed navels I think a 7-year-old can handle, but simulated sex, dating violence and butt tattoos? No way.

I admit that while writing this column I probably listened to "We Found Love" a hundred times-it really is that good. Would I have insisted that my sister not put it on the party mix, just to avoid having to explain why I slammed the laptop shut? I remain convinced that the liberating joy of a good pop song is worth the difficult conversation.

Still, it would be a lot easier if the kids and I were folkies. Did Ani DiFranco ever vomit ribbons in one of her videos? I didn't think so.

Shannon Drury is a self-described radical housewife. She lives in Minneapolis.


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