Who picks the music?

No family road trip is complete without at least one fight over control of the stereo

Nearly a decade ago, a journeyman percussionist named Thor Harris, who’s played with Bill Callahan, the Angels of Light, Swans and other bands you probably haven’t heard of, published an online article titled “How to Tour in a Band or Whatever.” It’s a list of 21 rules of the road written by someone who has obviously spent a lot of time on it. The rules aren’t, like, safety regulations or, like, a dress code, but are rather a few guidelines for people to help maintain their sanity while engaged in the world’s most unnatural lifestyle: touring musician.

But Harris’ rules are applicable to any group of people crammed into a vehicle for an extended period of time—be it a punk band trying to get to the next gig or a family on a road trip for whatever misguided reason. It’s a wise-but-funny, profanity-laced, candid article that went viral among musicians. Rule number one: “Don’t complain.” Number two: “If you fart, claim it.” Number seven. “Eat oranges. Cures constipation and prevents colds.” 16. “Don’t wander off. Let someone know where you are.”19. “Fast food is poison.” Some of the best ones are pretty Not Safe For Family Guide. So, you’ll have to track it down. It’s on the internet.

But, for today’s discussion, the most important rule is number 13: “Driver picks the music.”

Simple, right? An elegant solution to an age-old problem.

Try telling that to my kids.

Any further than four blocks from home, and the kids start forgetting rules. Rule number one—“don’t complain”— is almost always the first to go. “Driver picks the music” is often the second casualty. So, “complaining about the music” is a favorite road trip game—more popular than I Spy and License Plate Bingo combined. And, yeah, the whole “the rules are for your own sanity” argument doesn’t hold much water with them. Any rule—and every rule—is just a dumb dad rule. And “driver picks the music” seems like an especially fascist rule when the guy spouting the rules is the guy driving—and all-too-convenient when most of the other people in the car aren’t even old enough to get a license.

And it’s not like I try to pick out music just to annoy the little jerks—aged 11, 12 and 12. Well, usually not. (Oh, and there’s also a 17-month-old, but he’s pretty open-minded about music.) I usually try to pick stuff we all can agree on: the Ramones, Led Zeppelin, ABBA. We also all like hip-hop, but, man, you never really notice all the cuss words until you try listing to hip-hop with children. Had to have a very candid conversation about how there are certain words that rappers can say regularly that children should never even think.

And here’s the most frustrating thing: they don’t really know what they want to hear. Even though they’ve been exposed to a wide range of music their entire lives, they’re still formulating their own tastes and trying to do it in a way that differentiates them from their parents. So, they don’t know what they want to hear, but they know they don’t want to hear whatever I want to listen to. My 160-gig iPod has “no good songs.”

So, every once in a while, I’ll let one of them take charge of the radio dial. Most recently, it was Josephine, my 12-year-old stepdaughter. She clicked around for a while before settling on a hip-hop song I didn’t recognize. I asked her if she knew who it was. She did not. She just liked the beat. The rapper on the track was really, really lousy—he sounded like he had never actually heard a hip-hop song before, but someone else had described rap to him so he was giving it a shot. He was a rapper from the uncanny valley. Unexpectedly, the next song was an emo/pop-punk tune with a repetitive refrain—something about how it was uncool to be trendy. Then the DJ came on and started talking about Jesus.

“Did you know you put it on a Christian station?” I asked her.

“So?” she responded. “What if that’s what I like?”

“You can like whatever you want to like,” I said. “Just wondered if you knew.”

She let out an exasperated grunt, and started flipping around the dial again.

Sometimes, especially on long road trips, the kids drift off into their own private universes. They put on headphones and play handheld games or listen to music on their phones. This means that us grownups up front have total, undisputed control of the stereo—which is nice.

But I like it even better when they stay tuned into what we’re listening to, and even if it’s for just a few minutes, they just let themselves enjoy whatever we’ve got on, drop their preteen pretensions, and join their lame parents in big family singalongs of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or “Burning Down the House.” Because that’s what I want them to remember. •