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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

October 31, 2011 at 10:37 AM

'Moneyball' and the myth of the wise kid

Posted by Andrew Matson

Dennis Miller warning: I am going off on a rant.

Over the weekend I saw "Moneyball," the Brad Pitt movie about baseball that's been out for a month and everyone I know has enjoyed, from The Seattle Times' movie critic Moira Macdonald to my mom. It's less about sports and more about astutely recognizing a broken system, realizing the thing you did before doesn't work anymore, and you have to come up with a new model. I liked it a lot.

Except its crucial use of a pop song, voiced by a child. That part I feel conflicted about.

[spoiler alert]

The song is "The Show," originally by Australian pop star/actress Lenka, sung in the movie by 13-year-old actor Kerris Dorsey, twice. If you know its cutesy melody and rhymes about being "caught in the middle" and how "love is a riddle," that's probably because it was featured in an Old Navy commercial a few years ago.

The first time Dorsey sings "The Show" in "Moneyball," she's in a guitar store with Pitt, and her rendition floors him. Partially that's because of the mature-sounding trill in her voice and her able guitar work. He's moved in a fatherly way. But more, there is unexpected wisdom in the lyric, "just let it go and enjoy the show," which applies to Pitt's character Billy Beane, who employs a controversial mathematics-based style as General Manager of the Oakland A's, and needs a renewal of faith in his strategy. Major League Baseball is colloquially known as "the big show," so there's a clever parallel there.

More cleverly, the movie downplays the "big" in "the big show" — see also: "the big leagues," "the bigs" — and instead highlights the "show," the entertainment, more than once referring to baseball as a "children's game." So when Dorsey sings the song, it's not just about letting baseball be baseball, it's about letting games be games. At that point, the interpretation is up to you about whether or not life is a game, and which values are important.

The second time Dorsey sings "The Show" is at the end of the movie, through the speakers in Pitt's truck while he drives on the freeway, playing a CD-R she made for him and mulling over the successes and failures of his management strategy — the A's won a ton of games, but didn't win the last game. He is very angry about not winning it all. But we see that is beside the larger point as his daughter tweaks the last line, just as the movie ends: "You're such a loser dad / just enjoy the show."

Again, it's about baseball, but it's about life.

And it's a clever use of a pop song with a nice message: Be happy with the good you have done.

On the other hand, it props up the pervasive myth in pop culture of the "wise kid," which is odious, to me.

For whatever reason, my musical archetype for this is Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne, who began her teenage, 2002 hit "Complicated" speak-singing "life's like this..." — then delivered a rose-smelling philosophy about life similar to Lenka's: "Chill out, what are you yelling for?" There are many more instances. Also around the turn of the millennium, perhaps you will recall pop star Billy Gilman, the angel child who sang about the power of one voice among many. Those examples come to my mind right away, but it's a tradition in pop music going way back, stemming from the fact that, talented though the Lavignes and Gilmans of the world may be, in the pop sphere they are puppets for adult songwriters. Likewise, child actors have long been given trenchant bits of dialogue by older writers. My brain immediately recalls the defunct, aughts-era dramedy "Gilmore Girls," where tweens were brilliantly witty all the time.

But kids aren't like that. They are inexperienced, falling-down adults-in-training. When they do something wise, it is usually wise in the sense that it is unaffected, a product of the fact that they don't lie to themselves as much as adults. It is pure, usually because it is accidental. They are not often witty. They will be more witty later.

The tradition of the wise kid is popular because other kids like to see it. They like to see, "I'm right, my parents are wrong, authority is fake, my heart is true." These adult writers — makers of the media that sadly plays a large role in raising kids — are pandering, hard. They are talking to kids and telling them lies they want to hear, for financial gain.

Not that you should talk to kids like a drill sergeant or with a puppy-dog voice — from working in schools, I know they respond best when spoken to straight. But this idea of zen, philosophically satisfied youth is dangerous because it raises generations evermore afraid to make mistakes, who think they are supposed to have it all figured out from birth. They are destined for a difficult breakdown, where at some point they curse Hollyweird and all it has done to them — and create a bold new self-image. Or worse, and more common, they never figure out the media's mind-meld and live in a fake loop forever, believing existence to be more understandable than it is.

And I know, I know: pop culture should not be raising kids. Parents should. But it does, and they aren't, so here we are, on October 31st, blogging about kids wearing adult masks that they may or may not be aware of. And by we, I mean me.

So with that roundabout segue: Happy Halloween. Don't eat too much candy.

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Didn't it bother you that the girl is singing a song from 2008 in a movie that takes place in 2002? Nerdy I know, but that bothered me. Great...  Posted on November 1, 2011 at 8:52 AM by BDUB82. Jump to comment
I'm pretty sure the writers in this movie weren't "talking to kids and telling them lies they want to hear, for financial...  Posted on November 1, 2011 at 8:10 AM by CommutingGuy. Jump to comment

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