Who Put This Song On? is a 2019 young adult novel by Morgan Parker, and it is seriously a teenage rebellion angst anthem for black/brown girls. It tells the story of 17-year-old Morgan living in suburban California, grappling with the pervasive rules of whiteness around her. She rebels in the ways she can – though her clothing, her music, and her snarky sense of humor – but she still battles with constant depression and the anxiety of fitting into a world that simply doesn’t make sense to her.
I really resonated with Morgan’s journey and her shrewd sense of sarcasm throughout. While reading this book, I was transported back to my old high school self, wherein I was also constantly doubtful, filled with self-critique, and loathing. Some of the questions Morgan rhetorically asks herself are some of the same thoughts that used to (and sometimes still) buzz incessantly inside my head: “Who the fuck are these people? Why do I stand out SO much? What’s wrong with me? and why do I always make things so difficult?”
Some (of my favorite) key moments that really illustrated these themes of self-doubt, anger, and anti-assimilation are highlighted below:
Personal Style is a Means of Rebellion
“This story is about [my therapist] Susan. Draped permanently on the back of Susan’s chair is a sweater embroidered with birds…Susan looks like a preschool teacher with no emotions. She smiles, nods, but she almost never laughs or speaks…She won’t even laugh at my jokes! But…about the bird sweater. I know the bird sweater is awful, and just uncool and unappealing in every way – it doesn’t even look comfortable. But other Susans like it, and generally all Susans do…Wouldn’t it be so much easier if I liked the sweater, if I just wore the fucking sweater and didn’t make such a big deal out of everything?”
The above quote is the first paragraph to Who Put This Song On? To me, this is one hell of an opening. Susan’s sweater seems so symbolic for white “culture” — or, the rules, standards, preferences, and behaviors that come with existing in predominantly white spaces. In other words, the sweater is strange (like, birds?) but ultimately boring and placid, just like how its owner, Susan the therapist, treats Morgan.
In fact, throughout this book, Morgan speaks a lot about clothing and how her style compares to that of her classmates. Other high-schoolers wear Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts, cutoff shorts, denim skirts, and rainbow flip flops. These garments have become such repetitive commodities reflecting social status and a certain level of “hotness” within the school community. But beyond this, they are symbols of conformity, uniformity, and perhaps worst of all – blandness. Everyone in this school seems to wear the same thing, and is almost hypnotically satisfied with a general lack of style or diversity.
In contrast, Morgan rebels with her own fashion sense; Hot Topic T-shirts, boy polo shirts, vintage pencil skirts, and Doc Marten’s Mary Janes. Just reading descriptions of her outfits, you’re met with a wave of texture and color that stands in stark relief against the blank canvas of WASPy whiteness that she has to exist in.
Beyond her clothing, Morgan uses music and her dark sense of humor to distinguish herself from all these #wypipo. She indulges in screamo and willingly debates classmates using jarring, off-brand comments to deliberately make them uncomfortable. To me, this is a way of finding sanity and reason when everyone else seems perpetually ignorant. I admire Morgan’s tenacity — how early in life she rocks her identity even when it risks confusion from others, even alienation.
Make Up Your Own Damn Rules
One of my favorite parts of this book is when Morgan decides to jot down some of her own rules to live by. She is rightfully frustrated by the nonsensical religious and social standards imposed by her school and friends: abstinence before marriage, promise rings that lead to sex, biblical texts that justify racism through God-ordained curses. As a result, she notes some of her own beliefs:
Notes for the Beliefs of Morgan Parker: Religious & Otherwise:
- Darkness isn’t a bad thing
- Don’t follow rules you don’t understand
- You can escape
- There is a lot of stuff that no one knows. (Like what happens when you die.) Don’t trust know-it-alls.
- Anything can happen
These rules hit me like a wave of brilliance. “Yes, yes yes!!” I remember saying to myself while reading them. How is she able to speak such truths at such a young age? Personally, it has taken me YEARS to realize some of the values that Morgan outlines above, especially #1,2, and 4.
For the longest time, I ignored how anxiety and depression drove a lot of my life choices – when in fact, if I had made room for them in a healthy way, it could have allowed other areas of my life flourish a lot sooner than they did. Darkness isn’t a bad thing. I followed a certain formula growing up that was set my parents, teachers, and university systems: “if you get good grades and study science, you will be happy and rich and that is all you need.” When, in reality, this logic caused me severe amounts of stress and suppressed creativity, driving me toward a career that didn’t truly make sense for me, my interests, or preferences. Don’t follow rules you don’t understand. Don’t trust know-it-alls.
Morgan’s ability to reflect and plan for herself is yet another act of rebellion that I find striking for someone her age: “If you start to understand the rules differently, you start to understand yourself differently.” Through strong practices of self-recognition, she is learning to question the systems around her and push for a different reality, even it it makes her seem “crazy” or “dramatic” or “weird.” I high-key respect that!
Seek Hidden Stories & Unabridged Truths
Early on in the book, Morgan shares her hatred of the poetry taught in her school — “poems about cabins and farm animals by some old white men with beards.” I remember feeling similarly back in high school. Poetry was my least favorite subject in English: everything we read — Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, ee cummings — was written in old, dusty language and seemed unnecessarily cryptic.
It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been introduced to a whole other suite of poets – mainly black women — that have totally shifted my opinion of the genre. Writers like Nayyirah Waheed, Upile Chisala, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, and of course, Morgan Parker have enlightened me to a whole new world of poetic self expression – a form that can handle brevity, saltiness, sensuality, and unapologetic clarity. All of which I never felt reading “classic” poetry in school. And it really makes me think “WHY DIDN’T I READ THEM SOONER?” I feel angry that it has taken me SO long to find authors that have SO deeply impacted me. Like, where were they on the curriculum?
The reality, as Morgan discovers, is that it takes WORK to find the narratives of black and brown women. They are intentionally, systematically hidden from our “common” history. Throughout the novel, Morgan seeks out these stories, by reading the (auto)biographies of Assata Shakur and Harriet Tubman. She is surprised by the level of bad-assery and the wealth of unknown facts surrounding these women. Like, did you know that Assata was framed for murder? Or that Harriet carried a gun on her? I certainly didn’t.
And generations of children will continue not knowing. Because textbooks don’t bother remembering the “unsavory” details that humanize these women and distinguish them as radical, rebellious, and disruptive. Your AP History class most certainly glossed over those details.
“They [Assata, Harriet, etc.] weren’t wrong. They weren’t terrorists. They had a kind of bravery, belief, and fearlessness that I’m scared to even imagine. But it was a disturbance. It messed up the status quo. Their revolution was too radical, too intense…Now I realize I’ve been lied to all this time, fed incomplete and discriminatory stories, especially about myself and my people. It sinks my heart to the ocean floor“
And so Morgan takes it upon herself to learn what her education, her teachers, her surroundings have failed to teach her – the unabridged history of her people. I took this as a ticket for my own life as well. Now that I know certain truths have been deliberately hidden from me, I see it as even more of a quest – a personal challenge – to go and find them. Like Morgan, I continually look out for the Harriets and Assatas of my own era, and make it a point to read and share their stories.
I would advocate for this book to be required reading in schools. Case in point: I remember reading A Catcher in the Rye in high school and being seriously annoyed by every single page. I think the teachers were trying to make Holden’s angst relatable to our generation, but I frankly found him excessively cynical, over-privileged, and petty at the world for no good reason. I resented any comparisons of the novel to my own life, because I didn’t see a shred of myself in Caulfield.
Contrarily, with Parker’s book, I see a girl who struggles with insecurity, nonconformity, identity politics, and intimacy – all hallmarks of my own experience growing up (and even now!) As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the popularity of A Catcher in the Rye – because, in essence, it’s a similar story about finding yourself and rejecting the “poser” norms around you.
Regardless, despite these two books having similar themes, they are voiced by two completely different people. And the point is that: I related to Morgan’s journey wayyyyyyyy more because I saw/see myself in her. Holden, not so much. As a result, I feel it’s important to introduce narratives to young(er) people that come from black/brown/female points of view. Not to beat the social justice drum too hard, but TOO MUCH of what we read/see/consume is through the lens of white, wealthy, men. And it’s even harder to recognize that when you’re young and impressionable and take what teachers tell you for granted.
In sum, if I had read Morgan’s book (or others like hers) in high school, who knows what wonders that would have done for my sense of self, confidence, and worldview? What lightyears ahead would I be now if I weren’t still catching up on stories that apply to teenage me? Just sayin’.
Hope this was insightful and nerdy enough for you to want to read Parker’s book. I couldn’t recommend it enough!