Tag Archives: Dear Evan Hansen

Music matters: A message to Boomer prison guards

Is it just me, or do you sometimes feel like you will never be released from your Boomer music prison? I was in the dim sum restaurant celebrating 8th-grade graduates and one of them stopped eating dan dan noodles as soon as “Build Me Up, Buttercup” came on the background music. We belted out, “I need you (I need you) more than anyone darling,” which was sweet. But I also thought, “Will we never be free of this song?”

Graduation Day

I went to two commencement ceremonies (loved them!) and heard 8th graders singing Boomer anthems to Boomers. But most of their parents were born in the 70’s and 80’s, weren’t they? In the first ceremony  the kids actually sang “Graduation Day” which was a hit for the Four Freshmen in 1956! I went down to gym floor as the director was cleaning up the band music to congratulate her, “Extra points for ‘Graduation Day.’ Where did you discover that?” She said, “Oh, we always sing it. It’s a tradition.”

How did that piece of fluff become a tradition? You could say, “The same reason your son  makes the Jello dessert for Thanksgiving your mother’s family still calls a salad.” Touche. But still, any use of that song does not make perfect sense to me.

I was out in the Redwoods with ten-year-olds where we discovered our cool farmhouse VRBO had a TV in their room with the Disney channel. We turned it on and there was the new Beach Boys documentary being headlined. I was interested in the Beach Boys, so we watched a bit. But I thought, “The Beach Boys hold some interest for the Disney Plus watchers?”

The Boys also came to mind during the first commencement, since Brian Wilson was obsessed with the Four Freshman and much of the brilliant harmonies he built into surf music were directly from them. The Beach Boys also recorded “Graduation Day.”

The first record Brian Wilson bought when he was a teenager in Hawthorne, CA (about an hour from where I lived), was the Four Freshmen’s 1955 album Four Freshmen And 5 Trombones. The story goes that 30 years later he still loved the album. He told an interviewer, “They had a demonstration booth where you could listen in the store and I found the Freshmen album. My mother said, ‘Do you really want to hear this?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ So I went into the little booth and played it and fell in love with it.”

I aspired to BE one of the Beach Boys when I was young. So I find them very appealing and have almost all the songs from Pet Sounds on my playlist. But “Graduation Day” was a bit of nostalgia when the Beach Boys were young! What was it doing in an amazingly diverse class of 8th graders in Philly in 2024? Has it become “America the Beautiful?”

I turned to the grad’s older brother and said, “Couldn’t they find a more representative song than that?  Do they think people have stopped writing music?” He wasn’t really listening to me complain but he was polite. I went on to suggest, “How about ‘What Was I Made For?’” (which I recently Smuled for my sister). That would be a great commencement song for the present generation, some of whom were dressed like Barbie before our very eyes.

Forever Young

The next day we celebrated with an even more diverse class of 8th graders and they were also programmed to sing for us, which they did very nicely. But what song did their Boomer teachers (or were they GenX?) pull out for them to learn? — the classic “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan, written for his son in 1974. He recorded a couple of versions but, honestly, I have never been able to listen to him sing. Here’s my favorite of his interpreters:

Last year there was a Joan Baez documentary, too: I am A Noise. I watched part of it because I have always admired her voice and activism. She’s inspiring. It ends with her dancing in a field as an old woman, but much like any hippy would imagine Joan Baez dancing.

But what was Dylan’s song doing in a commencement ceremony 50 years after it was written? Has it become classic, like the “Hallelujah” chorus? I looked at my wife when the kids first sang, “Forever young,” and said, “No thank you.” Who in the world would want to stay young, especially always in 8th grade? I want them to be full of the brightness and hope of that moment, but I am not sure they’ll make it if they are stuck in Dylan prison.

My mind turned to all the other, more recent, sentimental music they could have used. I think Dear Evan Hansen’s  “You Will Be Found” from 2016 would have been much better. It is just like Disney but always makes me cry. This year’s grads endured the pandemic, after all.

Music matters

We live in an environment in which every sound wave is monetized. Molecules will probably soon come with pop-up adds. There is a lot of competition for our attention, which means were are mostly not attending at all. But we need to listen to the music. Music matters. The Boomer/GenX teachers keep sampling the past for feel-good nostalgia, for the muffled sounds they heard in the womb, I suspect. That’s OK. But that’s not real enough.

Music is such a wonderfully integrative art, especially singing, if we let our whole bodies get into it. That’s why churches are holding out as a place where singing in public still happens (well, there is the Phillies games and Luke Combs concerts, too). Singing is a spiritual discipline. But even if you aren’t disciplined, or aren’t really listening, it is still a spiritual experience.

The teachers, it seems to me, chose to keep their kids enclosed in a small space — the kind of space stores offer when they dish up more “Build Me Up Buttercup” while you’re looking for polenta (which they keep moving around!). The kids of the future will need a lot more than sedation or amorphous feelings of well-being. They will need a lot of spiritual imagination to get out of the mess they are in. As the atmosphere gets warmer and the warzones get wider, they will need real music to live on, not just leftovers. I hope they learn to remember way beyond 1956 and dare to write the soundtracks of healing and building way into the future.