I promise you it's a miracle I didn’t run my car into a ditch as I punched the buttons on the car radio, desperately trying to get pornographic lyrics off the speakers, out of my young daughters’ ears and especially out of her mouth. Lila hadn’t heard Lil Wayne’s hit rap song “Mrs. Officer” before, but, like a kid who hears a curse and immediately repeats it loud and proud, she was singing along with the catchy chorus, much to my horror. Between car swerves, steely-eyed looks through the rearview mirror, fumbling for NPR on the dial and digging for my kid-safe D’Angelo CD in the car door, somewhere in there I heard myself rambling the words “Inappropriate” and “No, I’m not mad, really,” and “You’re not grown, so”—proclamations that produced all kinds of confused, fearful looks on my baby’s face. She was just singing a song. Her mother? Well, she was unraveling.
And rightfully so. Any mother would if she heard her then-unwitting 6-year-old singing along to the sexually charged ditty. With all the gusto she could muster, my baby girl was crooning this:
When I get all up in ya.
We can hear the angels calling us
We can see the sunrise before us
And when I’m in that thang
I’ll make that body sang
I make it say, “Wee ooh wee ooh wee...”
This is not the kind of music I want my kids to remember vibing to during our car rides; I want them to have reverence for the radio, and getting the right mix of music pumping through the speakers is paramount. See, I have vivid memories of discovering beautiful music while riding shotgun in my daddy’s Eldorado. The first time I heard Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” was on the way from choir practice; Stevie’s voice soared over the roaring piano, the heartfelt lyrics oozing through the speakers. We were so moved, Daddy pulled the car to the side of the road.
I did the same years later when I first heard Will Downing’s silky “Wishing on a Star” floating from car speakers in my own ride, a Nissan Sentra. For me, radio was the canvas on which music artists painted extraordinary portraits—studies in longing, heartache, brash feminism, street politics, butterflies in the stomach. Love. And as cliché as it sounds, the melodies, and especially the lyrics, are the pictures that illustrate every moment of my life—the extra important and even the mundane.
Who was going to paint my babies their songs? The ones they’d remember and sing to their own children when they rocked them to sleep? What would they remember of their musical journey while riding in my car?
Not Lil Wayne.
Not on my radio dial.
Not if I had anything to do with it.
Lila survived my car freak-out that fateful afternoon. She’s also gone for years without hearing a Lil Wayne song in my ride—at least not without a conversation about the lyrics, the meaning behind them, the implications of letting something so mindless, so vile, seep into consciousness. I’ve switched the presets to tween-friendly and old-school R&B stations, and I’ve stocked the car with appropriate CDs. Mostly we crank up the tunes and rock out to songs that don’t make me want to smash the radio with a hammer.
Cars. They’re a microcosm of family life. A four-doored home on wheels. And, as this series of essays reveals, a little magical. Cars provide a window to the past and the future. They can shift gears to make you feel 20 years younger or add a touch of gray. They can wipe away emotional scars, bring us closer together or transport us somewhere else. We asked writers to take a look in their rearview mirror and recall a car ride that impacted the way they look at life, love and the pursuit of happiness.