Thanks to the glories of modern technology, music-in-the-car life is no longer like that scene at the beginning of Defending Your Life. Do you remember that one? Albert Brooks fumbles with a stack of CDs for his new state-of-the-art sound system in his flashy new BMW, reaches for one that drops, then crashes (thus beginning the afterlife part of the movie). 

Now, you just connect your phone to the car via Bluetooth and boom! whatever music service you have comes wafting—or blasting, depending on your selection—through the car speakers instantly. As someone who used to bring a bag of cassette tapes to work and back every day in the early ‘90s, I still find this magical.

I love a good solo drive where I can blast my own music and sing at the top of my lungs, but I also do a lot of errands with my teenagers. When they were little, I wanted to teach them the ways of musical greatness, so I’d play my music and rejoice whenever they asked to hear something again. “Can you play ‘Accidents Will Happen’?” just about made my day, along with their love of Aretha Franklin. 

But now they’re 13 and 17 and have been cultivating their own favorites for quite some time. So I’m trying something new: When we’re getting in the car, I ask, “Who’s doing music?” Here’s why.

You’ll stay looped in

My days of being on top of new music are long over. I spent years working at MTV, MTV2, VH1, and Fuse, so I at least had a handle on new artists and albums, but those days are long gone. Having the kids pick the music keeps me from becoming a tiresome old-timer; I’m not only seeing social media chatter on new artists, I’m getting a taste of what they sound like. Both kids were really into that Olivia Rodrigo album when it dropped, and since everybody was talking about her, it kept me, well… relevant.

They play some great stuff

I don’t love all of it, but wow, they’ve led me down some great paths. Sometimes it’s reviving an old song I’d forgotten about (“Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s), sometimes it’s one I missed (The Decemberists’ “O Valencia!”), and sometimes it’s some supercool artist completely off my radar. I’m currently obsessed with Chloe Moriondo’s “Bodybag.”

It’s a secret way of getting to their deeper feelings

Teenagers famously don’t like to tell you about their deeper feelings. My oldest is more open, but my 13-year-old is not, and so I feel like I’m getting some insight via car stereo. The days of us bellowing out “Let It Go” from Frozen are long past; now I’m hearing songs full of angst, anger, confusion, yearning, and more. Remember how much music meant to you as a teenager? This is a window worth peeking through, and might even create some bonding moments, like me and my 13-year-old listening to Adele or Bo Burnham’s Inside soundtrack. (I still listen to “Let It Go” on my own, though.)

It gives them some control over their uncontrollable lives

Don’t you remember being at the mercy of adults’ music? Worse, don’t you remember being told where you were headed, when you were going, and how long you were staying? 

Kids, even teenagers, don’t have a lot of control in their lives, and this is an easy one to hand over, especially when they’re already in the throes of a schlep on top of another schlep, and another one after that. At least they’ll have SOME say in their environment, even if they don’t get to determine the destination.

They’ll feel respected

It’s so easy to sit there spouting what we think is wisdom at our kids, isn’t it? Then we can roll our eyes when they don’t listen or congratulate ourselves when they do. But how often do we do them the courtesy of listening to them? I don’t just tolerate what they put on, I talk about it with them and gush when I love something or ask for more from a particular artist. 

And just by putting up with the stuff I don’t love, I’m showing them their opinions are worth my attention and my consideration, and so are they.

Bonus: When I do put on my music, they give it the same fair shake I give theirs!

Downside: Finding out that the only reason my youngest knows the lyrics to songs by the Rolling Stones is that they were performed on Glee.

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About Laurie Ulster

A transplanted Canadian living in New York, Laurie Ulster is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She writes about pop culture, lifestyle topics, feminism, food, and other topics for print, digital, podcasts, and TV.

View all posts by Laurie Ulster