The Musical Age of Accountability
The Mike and Kelly Bowling discussion went from “getting warmer” to overheated when this commenter referred to the Bowlings’ daughter, who often makes appearances on stage with the family to sing with them, as “that screamin’ kid.”
And with that we were, as Sissy from Sordid Lives would say, “Off and runnin.’”
Thereupon, the stars shone brightly for a while, my friends, as Katy Peach and Libbi Stuffle and Joseph Habedank all showed up to say what most commenters seem to think or believe: that it’s mean to “attack” a child, and that this particular child is (or is going to be) a fine singer, and in short, why don’t you pick on someone your own size.
These kinds of discussions produce a lot of heat but little light, and once things cooled down a little, it was encouraging to see the commenter who kicked all this off revisit his original position and conclude the following:
It’s been a few years since I saw Hope. Mommy, Daddy & Grandma were pushing her when she was about 4 or 5, and AT THAT TIME it was not good at all.
I felt sorry for her.
If you’re going to put a child up to sing, and she’s not carrying a tune well yet, please at least teach her to not yell.
It was NOT Hope’s fault, those years back. It was her parents’ fault. I should have pointed the blame where it belonged
I realize, of course, a child has to be given some stage exposure, if the child is to ever have a chance at singing on a larger scale. But PLEASE don’t push it! Teach them some musicality and allow their voices to develop before you put them in that position.
It’s too bad that this whole discussion got caught up in focusing on the Bowlings, because as this comment suggests, the issue is much bigger than any particular instance of children being put on stage with a microphone too soon. All kinds of groups do or have done this, to wildly varying degrees of success: The Goodmans, Greater Vision, the Hoppers, the Lesters, the Easters, the Nelons and on and on.In gospel music, have family, will travel with (often screaming) child, who will be dutifully trotted out on stage and given a microphone in order to (usually) bellow his or her way through some old standard in that metallic, monotone yell that young children mistake for singing, so that mom or dad or grandpa or grandma can immediately pronounce the result unequivocal evidence that the next generation has inherited the family talent.
The old saying in entertainment goes that five minutes from a kid gets a better response than 20 of the best adults, but that’s often because we’re hoping that if we clap loud enough, you won’t subject us to any more of the kid.
A few points to distill from this dynamic:
1. It’s not, as the commenter notes above, the child’s fault. I’m no development pediatrician, but I’d wager that it’s unfair to critique children’s singing as one would an adult’s until … well, they have vocally developed most of the attributes we find in adult singers. I have no idea when that is and I imagine it’s slightly to majorly different from one person to the next. But at the very least, it probably means after puberty. Call it the musical age of accountability.
Whenever it is, until a kid has reliable control physiologically over her voice, and is old enough to be standing on stage mainly of her own volition, whatever musical sins a child commits redounds to the parent, guardian or handler who’s thrusting the child prematurely into the spotlight.
2. No. 1 above does not mean listening to pre-pubescent children “sing” is pleasant most of the time, nor are we as listeners obligated to pretend that it is when it manifestly is not. In southern gospel especially, artists have a vested interested in creating an early and lasting impression of their family as a musical dynasty, and history amply demonstrates that these families are rarely shy about co-opting the general goodwill most audience’s extend to children and claiming that a crowd’s generic fondness for kids is a particular sign of approval for their singing, and by extension, the family at large.
Corollary to No. 2: The sooner you get a child hooked on the applause, the more likely the child will want to carry on the family bidness. And in turn, the sooner audiences will begin to believe that most other people think the kid is as good as the family handlers say they are. Which is to say, the business side of gospel music deeply disincentivizes doing the safest thing and keeping children away from a microphone until they are sufficiently self-possessed to decide if a) they are ready to try to hold their own vocally on stage and b) if they even want to get on stage in the first place, no matter how well they can sing.
3. Just because someone grows up to be a good singer doesn’t mean you’re wrong in your memory of their childhood performances as endangering the integrity of your inner ear.
4. If you put your kid out on stage, you gotta expect people to comment about the quality of the sonic experience that child creates. Sorry. Just the way it is. In a perfect world, no one would ever say hurtful things about a child, and anyway, children would be able to understand that comments about their singing are not judgments about their personal worth. But in that same perfect world, children who are unprepared for the side-effects or consequences of the stage wouldn’t be thrust into the spotlight for reasons and purposes that are not primarily about what’s best for them as children (and not, say, their reputation as the well-born heir of a gospel music family). The best way to avoid unwanted criticism of child performers is to avoid prematurely turning kids into performers in the first place.Email this Post