Hip to Be Square: Confessions of an Out-of-the-Loop Parent

March 22, 2012 | 2 books mentioned 9 5 min read

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I’ve been wondering if being a bookish kid necessarily means being out-of-the-loop on popular culture. In my life, this has certainly been the case. For example, I didn’t know who Adele was until last Christmas, when my brother and sister-in-law gave me 21, and it wasn’t until two days after the Grammys that I realized the music I’d been listening to and enjoying was by the same woman who swept all the awards.

Here are a few things I don’t usually tell people: I thought The Police really were law enforcement and I understood the song “Rock Lobster” to be “Rock Monster” for years. (Even now I had to double check I was not mixing it up, again.) How can a girl growing up in hip Ann Arbor in the 1970s and ’80s be so hopeless?

I don’t blame books entirely. My father loved classical music and opera; my mother loved musicals and the oldies. My father is a chemistry professor and in those years often worked in the living room on Sunday afternoons, an opera on the stereo as big as a cabinet behind him. My mother’s realm was the kitchen, where she kept a small black radio by the window tuned to the oldies station. She would sometimes get a little teary when a song came on she remembered. She’d sway her hips and sing along and I was always a little bit embarrassed. She probably thinks I wasn’t listening, but I was. To this day, Sha Na Na can bring tears to my eyes.

These two poles, the living room and the kitchen, defined my childhood musical world. It’s true I was very busy reading, but, unlike my younger brother, I also wasn’t adventurous enough to go out and find my own music. If I sound confident about that decision, I was not. It was a source of endless anxiety to me. In fifth grade the most popular girl in the class, Susan R., designed a popularity test. I don’t remember the other four questions, but the last one was: Who is the leader of the J. Geils Band? (You probably don’t need me to tell you it was not someone named J. Geils.)

I didn’t pass, and I went home and told my mother the whole story. She was very sympathetic and suggested I go back the next day and ask Susan R. if she could tell me who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Hmmm? I loved my mother very much, but at that moment I knew I couldn’t rely on her anymore for social help. This was the era when our long summer car rides were filled with cassette tapes of Buddy Holly, Abba, and Roger Whittaker (my father, an excellent whistler, admired his whistling). I kept my window rolled up, and begged my family to do the same, lest someone hear our music as we sat at a light or pulled into a rest station.

But the fact is I don’t blame my parents or books for my profound out-of-the-loopness, and I don’t mind it now. To be out-of-the-loop is to be wary, cautious, but also observant, thoughtful. To be in the loop — possibly, I wouldn’t know, I’m working on observation here — is to be confident, more popular, but also more swayed by the world. Presumably, if I’d really wanted to, I could have found out more about the pop music of my childhood, paid attention to the bands my friends liked, watched MTV instead of Murder, She Wrote. But I didn’t, and I have to conclude it just didn’t matter enough to me. I spent my time doing other things — reading, practicing the piano, pretending to write books — and it worked out in the end.

To be perfectly clear: There is a way of being out-of-the-loop that is hip and cool, but that is not what I’m talking about. I was not a rebel by any standard. I was not defining my own loop. I was not rejecting the popular just because it was popular. The summer I was 17 I worked at a pool with a girl who told me she never listened to the Top 40. She spent that August suntanning a peace sign on top of her foot. That was not me.

My out-of-the-loopness had more to do with obliviousness than wanting to define myself differently. In fact, that was the very thing that scared me when I was younger: The way what you liked seemed to define who you were. J. Geils? Popular. Top 40? Boring. Duran Duran? I don’t remember, but it was something, I can assure you. That’s why I wanted the car windows up. I thought people hearing the music we were listening to would know something about me, about my family, and I wanted to stay in flux for as long as possible.

The only trouble with being out-of-the-loop now is the conundrum of how to parent my children through it. My daughter is just a little younger than I was at the time of The Police debacle and is also an avid reader. So far she seems to be taking after me, vaguely aware of what her friends like to listen to, but not knowing where or how they found that music. We have, however, something my mother and I did not: the Internet. My daughter comes home from school sometimes and tells me names of songs or artists she’s heard her friends discussing, and then we go to YouTube and find little glimpses to watch together. When I opened the Adele CD from my brother, my daughter knew the title “Someone Like You” but had never heard the song.

cover My son came home from kindergarten this fall upset because the boys in his class had announced they would only play Star Wars at recess.

“What is Star Wars?” he asked.

My husband and I looked at each other, then at our son. “Oh, I can tell you about Star Wars,” my husband said.

And so a crash course began. Our boy was visibly relieved to have help — we’re living in Germany for the year, so things were tricky enough — and the approach seems to have worked: He has a nice group of friends, loves school, and trades Star Wars cards like a professional. His teacher tells me he is one of the most popular kids in the class.

Perhaps we went too far.

Part of me wants my children to be a little out-of-the-loop, knowing it might ultimately serve them well. I think it fosters independence, maybe even creativity. I don’t believe you have to have a miserable childhood to become a creative person, but feeling uncomfortable in some part of your life is a fairly common theme in the biographies of artists and writers. Yet there is another part of me — the maternal part, no doubt — that wants to spare them the anxiety. Could there be such a thing as just-enough-in-the-loop? That’s what I’m aiming for.

My son’s birthday is coming up and all he wants is Star Wars Legos. Last week his closest friend came over to play and the two of them debated various Star Wars intricacies for an hour. Third-grade girls in Munich like to trade a kind of autograph book in which your friends answer some questions about their likes and dislikes and draw a picture of themselves. The first few times my daughter was asked to do this, she left the question, “Who is your favorite artist?” blank. Now I have seen her fill in Adele and “Someone Like You” for favorite song several times.

Adele makes us all feel a little more in the loop. We don’t have a car this year in Germany, but if we did, the four of us would be happy to roll down the windows and play Adele’s albums loud. My daughter and I both like “Someone Like You,” though I can tell it embarrasses her when I play it over and over. I wonder if one day, years from now, hearing an Adele song, her eyes will tear up as she remembers her mom, hunched with her in front of the computer, searching for the popular music.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon.

’s first novel, The Report, was published by Graywolf Press in the US and Portobello Books in the UK. It was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the Indie Booksellers Choice Award, as well as a Barnes & Noble “Discover” pick and a Best Reads 2012 selection of the TV Book Club in the UK. A collection of stories, This Close, is forthcoming from Graywolf in March. She is a contributing writer for The Morning News and lives in New York City with her family. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @JessicaFKane.


  1. I loved this essay, Jessica. I was bookish too, and also I grew up mostly on a small rural island, was homeschooled, with no television. There remain massive gaps in my knowledge of pop culture.

  2. Great essay. I was homeschooled as well and was behind on pop-culture for a long time. And even though I’m up-to-date on The Police and Star Wars, I never seem to be concurrent with anyone else. For example, I’ve recently discovered that my favorite show on TV is “The Bob Newhart Show,” which does not lead to much water-cooler conversation.

  3. Great article. I felt like I was reading about my childhood. My parents met while touring in an off-Broadway production of Sweeney Todd (mom was in the chorus, dad was in the pit) and I grew up with Sondheim and Bernstein and Beethoven blasting from the turntable and no idea what MTV was until it was too late for me to ever be “cool.” To this day I still rely on friends to recommend me music. Same goes for movies and TV. “You haven’t seen (insert cinema classic or new popular sitcom here)?! I’m sitting you down next weekend and making you watch the whole thing!” I get that one a lot.

    One day I’d like to make THEM sit down and listen to the scores of Company, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins, and Merrily We Roll Along, one after another, until they start to sob.

    Today is Stephen Sondheim’s 82nd birthday, by the way.

    Anyone? Bueller?


  4. I think this is such a great essay. How wonderful is it that you celebrate your own unique qualities as well as the unique qualities of your children. I was that bookish child–who has turned into a bookish adult–like you. Unfortunately, I was made to feel inadequate in many ways by certain members of my family because I didn’t share their interests like sports. As an adult, I still feel like I have to defend myself and my interests, and I often feel like few people really understand why I like to read so much. For so long I have felt like I am that round peg trying to fit into the square hole when I compare myself to others. I am so grateful for those in my life who appreciate me and love me despite the fact that I do not fit the norm!

  5. This is wonderful. Roger Whittaker!!! I have endless anecdotes of my own to add but I’ll limit myself to two:

    –One summer, in an effort to be cool, I asked my father for some records (!), and listed the artists of one song as “Spinach.” It was actually the Spinners, who of course weren’t even cool to begin with.

    –When I was thirteen or so–around 1980–my family took a month-long car trip through New England, and my parents brought along precisely three 8-track tapes: The Boston Pops with guest star Marty Robbins, Bridge Over Troubled Water (bearable, although I still feel PTSD-ish when I hear The Boxer), and the Kingston Trio’s Greatest Hits.

  6. Good article, but I’m not entirely clear that the framing is right. It seems to me you’re defining “out of the loop,” as being into old-time culture versus what’s current–Rolling Stones versus Kelly Clarkson.

    Your use of “Stars Wars”: as an example confuses me because “Stars Wars” is also old time–over 30 years old! A more telling example might have been the “Star Wars” obsessive who’s nearly oblivious about “Avatar.” (And I bet there’s a few of those around: “What!? That old thing!?”)

    Further, I’d be willing to say that your son’s friends who spent an hour discussing “Star Wars” intricacies are, in their own way “out of the loop”; i.e., my guess is that they themselves represent a relative minority of “Stars Wars” fans; that they know relatively little about other science fiction-fantasy movies.

    Perhaps to be “out of the loop” as we’re discussing it here is to be ahistorical: to be interested solely in the culture of your time (or that you grew up listening to or watching). Seen this way, today’s “Avatar” fan becomes tomorrow’s old fogy with his 8-track tapes of Lawrence Welk.

    My “out-of-the loopiness” BTW was definitely an identity definer: in Junior High in the 1960s, I was a fan of Italian composer Ennio Morricone . . . in the middle of Wisconsin no less. Took forty years before I could consider myself “hip.”

  7. Wow! A great essay and similar to how I felt growing up in Japan and going to school on an American base while living “on the economy”. My brothers and I had American citizenship but had never been there. We pored over Mad Magazine, Marvel Comics and Rolling Stone for clues so we could at least sound like we knew stuff our classmates just knew. My dad listened to Caruso, Mozart, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Reba McIntyre. My mom listened to French chansons. We were between cultures and totally out of the loop. I kept my head in a book most of the time.

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