My eldest son didn’t know who Justin Beiber was until we enrolled him in a Qur’an class at our local mosque (a.k.a madrassa). His class-mates told him about an episode of CSI, wherein Beiber gets riddled with bullets in a shoot-out scene. A few weeks before that, he came home wondering about Eminem. A classmate generously provided the correct spelling in the margins of his homework assignment.
This ain’t your mama’s madrassa!
He implored me: “Mama, please, you gotta’ tell me everything you know about Justin Beiber. Everyone talks about him.” I laughed to myself and wondered how many kids ask their mom that question. He knows I will investigate. A few months ago we discovered that Zoey 101 was a hit TV series. Thank you Wikipedia! I found the goods on Beiber, also, through the internet. Then, I pulled down Rolling Stone from the magazine section in our local library. They put Beiber on the cover. In the article, Beiber is described as, “the most adorable, talented, sensual kid in the world.”
Hold up! Sensual and kid do not belong in the same sentence unless it is on a State Attorney’s charging document and pursuant to an arrest. The kid is sensual? No thank you. I poured through the article and then took the honors of editorializing it for my boy. Aren’t I a good collard green Muslim mama? I gave him the abridged G- version, but here it is uncensored:
Beiber is a child-laborer, albeit very well paid. He is carefully scripted because there are money-grabbers with investments and expectations in achieving dividends. Grown women can throw themselves at him; their daughters, via Twitter, can beg him to send cyber-french kisses; sulking children, with nannies as mamas, can demand that their parents bid, on E-bay, for a lock of his highlighted hair in anticipation of show n’ tell.
His own mama has to sit back and put up, though her baby is a product…and products must be sold. Their lifestyle is a far cry from single-parenthood in a roughed up neighborhood which is what they endured before Beiber was noticed. Beiber’s daddy wasn’t around much when they lived in poor town. He shows up all the time now. The first investor sent front-money for them to move out and into a nice townhome in Atlanta. Beiber was a likely candidate for pop-star success because: 1) he can dance and sing, 2) he doesn’t have acne, and 3) he’s a white boy.
White is green when it comes to developing talent for the tween market. Just ask Beiber’s counterpart- Hannah Montana. There’s more. White is green, if it likes black. It must love black.
Rolling Stone reports: “Nothing makes them happier than when someone compares Beiber to Michael Jackson, his idol.” Beiber is quoted: “Michael is my inspiration, and I want to emulate his career as much as possible.”
How many times did that child have to practice saying ‘emulate’ before they let him have a Capri Sun? I imagine it in my head: “No, Beiber – not mutilate his career, emulate, emulate… keep practicing!”
That script is green dollas, cabbage, bacon, cheddar, loot…what have you; it’s all money as long as Beiber doesn’t actually look like Michael Jackson (especially pre-plastic surgery). When what Beiber says is not expertly crafted, he can tote Ebonics, and even better if he does, but his appearance should not give it away.
The script is crafted by producers who don’t discover talent- they develop it. They know that if masses of moms and dads are going to buy pop-star paraphernalia they will grab more, and pay premium, if their daughter is drooling over a boy with downy soft blonde hair. If they are going to drag their work-weary limbs to a crowded big box store to buy a life-size poster of a teen idol, it better be someone they expect her to bring home to dinner when she is nineteen, on a weekend back from Vandy- where, of course, she is primarily focused on her studies.
As for drugs, of course, Beiber hates them. Drugs are for losers! That boy’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s not like the rest. Just say no, yo! Teen pop stars never do drugs, or at least we don’t get to that part until the industry has moved on, and the former idol finds a new niche, offering up their tell-all to nostalgic, mortgage-wielding grown folks who remember when.
As irritated as I sound, actually, I don’t mind the intrusion into our cocoon. Our son became a tween this year on his ninth birthday. I want him to get a glimpse of pop culture and I want that to generate conversations between us. I’m frankly relieved that he comes home and wants to describe his observations, ask questions and get answers. We talk about why our TV doesn’t stream Leave it to Beiber, or M & M. We are ooey-gooey, fundalicious when it comes to filtering pop fizz, but probably not fundalicious enough; at a recent homeschool co-op class he announced: “Come to Papa!” He ripped that line from Garfield comics. It was a headache explaining to him that he can’t impersonate Garfield outside of the family-audience, without revealing more than was necessary. I was about to issue a Mama Fatwa.
Growing up, like my son, I was on the margin of pop culture, but no one attributed it to any reason, other than that the cable guy couldn’t be bothered to come over. I felt like I was trying to solve a pop riddle most of the time, with only a handful of clues.
There was a boy named George, so they called him Boy George, but he wore eye shadow and lipstick. My friend brought a magazine to school which featured Cindy Lauper in hot pink hair and high-tops. Ms. Lauper said: Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I thought she looked like the expert on fun. Madonna, on the other hand, was in a mess of trouble even before she started wearing her underwear on the outside of her clothes. Someone said she got pregnant, but she wasn’t even married! Her daddy was livid. I knew she couldn’t be collard green like the rest of us, because all she said for herself was:
Papa Don’t Preach.
Papa Don’t Preach?! Papa Don’t Preach?! Woman, are you crazy?! If I ever said that to my daddy, he’d a had a comin’ to Jesus talk with me – collard green butt-whipping style. Why was this grown woman inciting my friends with parent-rearing advice?! Couldn’t she have the heart to at least stamp a disclaimer on her lyrics. Something useful, like – WARNING COLLARD GREEN KIDS: Don’t try this at home unless you have a prosthetic butt!
When I was my son’s age we lived just on the outskirts of town. I always dreamed that the cable guy would show up one day. All the kids at school had already invited him over. The cable company didn’t service our street because it was too far out, although we lived just a quick bike ride to downtown. That left us with three channels, and cycling between the sparse selection of VHS rentals at the gas station, besides whatever the grey-haired ladies at the public library could offer. I was probably the only kid, besides my sister, who knew all the words to the Yentl soundtrack. We had a sprawling grove to run on and a wide, long creek to explore, but the drawback was no cable until middle school.
We didn’t have enough money to own an Atari set. I only chomped Pac-Man dots at Chuck E Cheese. If we ventured to a movie it was more often than not at the drive-in Star-Lite theatre. They charged by the car-load, not by the head, and our mom didn’t have to hide a bag of store-bought popcorn, from Jimmy’s Thriftway, in her over-sized purse. It was more convenient and a heck of a lot less embarrassing.
By the way, collard green folks love, I mean love, drive-in theaters. A rarity will even drive-in to church. Stop laughing because I’m serious. I lived in north Florida after I left home, and drove by a drive-in church every day on my way to work. Attendees could just roll on up to hear the Lord ’s Prayer over the speaker, attached to their window. I never drove-in, but I wondered whether the concession stand was open. That was a gruesome thought. One of the best parts about church-going is singing the hymns. A mouthful of Milk Duds would make for a pitiful, downright offensive, Amazing Grace.
I know I’m not a Christian anymore so I have no business running my mouth off about how to be a faithful church-goer, but love on me enough to let me say something about drive-in churches, then you can sing Papa Don’t Preach at the top of your lungs.
If you attend church services at a drive-in you are suffering from a case of Cheez Wiz intoxication. Take the aerosol nozzle out of your mouth and go drink a cup of black coffee. Have some respect! Go take a shower and get dressed up. Put on a pair of nice shoes and a tie. Get down to the brick and mortar church that your great-great-grandparents built, shake hands with the usher, ask about his elderly mama, stand for the hymns and then sit your butt down on the wooden pew! Oh…and put your popcorn money in the offering plate, but more if you can. If you’re going to be a church-going Christian then you should really go to church. If you want to watch M*A*S*H re-runs, by all means, park your rusted up “vintage” Cadillac at the drive-in, attach the tin-can speaker to your car window, and laugh until your cheeks ache.
America is a great nation, but let’s admit, pop culture has attached to her some funky fads. Who knows, in my great, great-grand children’s generation there may be a drive-in mosque. At least I’ll be long gone. The idea of worms feasting on my flesh, in the grave, is the only pleasure derived from the thought of a futuristic drive-in mosque.
Anyway, back to my childhood trying aimlessly to solve pop-riddles. Even after we got cable, I never gravitated to the pop-fizz besides some TNT movies, Nick at Nite, and Sale of the Century– my favorite game show. I resigned myself to living on the margins of pop culture, and it felt fine, so I didn’t make much effort to get initiated. The closest I ever came was trying out for cheerleading in high school. I made the squad which was clearly a sympathy vote; I couldn’t do anything besides scream real loud and smile unnaturally- like there was a popsicle stick lodged horizontally inside my mouth. I felt glow-in-the-dark walking around school in a pleated, short, polyester skirt and decided it was not much fun to stand out in the hot sun watching other people watch me. Jumping around, like a court-jester, half-necked in front of a sea of yelping, post-pubescent boys, was not something to look forward to every week; although, no doubt, they did.
I took up swimming and had fun, even though I never made it past lane two, which was equivalent to a tadpole rank. At least it led to a well-paid job as a life guard. I was semi-emerged into pop culture, but not well enough to enjoy a conversation with anyone in the cafeteria over a bag of onion-flavored Funyuns.
My biggest drama was trying to hatch a plan, with the Lutheran minister’s daughter, to get a ride to a Tori Amos concert at the Tupperware Center. We got there and weaved our way through the over-crowded hall. She heaved and I leached onto the back of her shirt, afraid to let go. When we got settled I whispered in her ear: “Why is everyone wearing the same perfume…it’s sweet-smelling, but it stings my nose.” She said: “That’s weed, dork.” Thus, I found out that weed wasn’t just a pesky plant we plucked from endless dirt rows, the year my daddy decided to become a farmer, stuffed a scarecrow, and plowed the earth behind our house.
We raved about how it was the best concert of our lives, the best concert we’d ever attended! Outside of our respective churches, it was the only concert we’d ever attended. Not having a lot of mental pop-fizz to occupy my mind awakened me to some other thoughts, like why the honky-tonk I was alive and where I was going to end up. One night during my senior year of high school, one of my best friends and I covertly sat out under an oak tree, on the margins of the orange grove, miserably coughing our way through a shared cigarette. She interrupted my stream of consciousness and cried out: “You think too much, you know!” She put up with all my garbled, aching, yet pleasurable thoughts, and she didn’t even get a Girl-Scout patch for it.
My destiny was to never solve the pop riddle. It was not my path. I don’t even try anymore. I would rather not know why the Desperate Housewives are so dawn desperate. I longed to be on the margins, which is why I always scattered to the periphery if I ever got the chance to enter the ring. I have no regrets that it took so long for the cable guy to come over for dinner. Now that I’m grown up with a family of my own, I won’t even extend him the invitation.
My son watched the first half of Yentl the other night. He’ll have to grow a beard before I let him watch the second half. He loved it and was very grumpy when I turned it off, even though I promised he could watch an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, as a consolation.
He’s got his pinky-toe in the ring, with some TV, a Play Station and a Wii, and a little bit more each year; but, pretty much he’s just trying to solve the riddle. He’ll have his own field to plow one day. He’ll make his own choices. He may turn out to love his induction into the out-crowd; conversely, he may fight with furious thunder to master a shrouded and un-inherited language, to live in the Real World. I will fight with equal thunder to have him hear my reservations, and the pounding of my aching heart.
I am certain, though, as clear as the newborn memory of cradling him on top of my chest, skin-to-skin, tracking the pattern of his faint breath, and sobering to the realization, that he is a being, apart from me- that I will love him. I will love him with every inch of myself…who once sheltered his very soul. I will love him, by permission, with the one part of mercy, out of the hundred parts of mercy that the Source of creation sent down amongst the creation.* I will love him with a quality too pure to come from me; it only clings, by design, from the Source of that nectar…the Source of creation. I will love him, truly, with no sanctuary for conditions.