vulture essays

MTV’s Rock the Cradle and Why I Decided to Enter the Family Business

Photo: MTV

It used to be normal to go into the family business. If your parents owned a butcher shop, chances are, you’d become a butcher. If your parents ran a restaurant, you would bus tables, chop vegetables, and greet customers. The idea of children following in their parents’ footsteps professionally made sense; after all, how better to understand the way a particular business works than through observation and hands-on experience? Nowadays, though, working beneath the family shingle can incite cries of nepotism and privilege, especially in the entertainment industry. For every Barrymore, Redgrave, and Gummer (I will fight anyone who tries to tell me that they don’t believe in the power of the Gummer), there are scores of less-inspiring famous parent-child combos: Will and Jaden Smith, Joan and Melissa Rivers, John and Julian Lennon, and John and Sean Lennon. For every Wainwright/McGarrigle/Roche, there are hundreds of Miley/Billy Ray Cyruses, where any creative product the scion issues isn’t quite the point. It was only a matter of time before a lightbulb went on over some reality television producer’s head.

Rock the Cradle aired on MTV for one truncated season in 2008. There were supposed to be eight episodes, but the ratings were so bad that only six got made. The concept was simple: Put the offspring of famous musicians head-to-head in an American Idol–style competion, complete with a judges’ panel that included Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s and former Britney Spears (and Miley Cyrus!) manager Larry Rudolph. The contestants were Landon Brown (son of Bobby Brown), Lucy Walsh (daughter of the Eagles’ Joe Walsh), Lil B. Sure! (son of Al B. Sure!, in case the exclamation point didn’t tip you off), Jesse Blaze Snider (son of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider), Jesse Money (daughter of Eddie Money), A’Keiba Burrell-Hammer (daughter of MC Hammer), Chloe Lattanzi (daughter of Olivia Newton-John), Lara Johnston (daughter of Doobie Brothers co-founder Tom Johnston), and Crosby Loggins (son of Kenny Loggins).

Why did no one else watch this show? I was transfixed. Some of the contestants were pretty bad, some were mediocre, and some were kind of amazing. That wasn’t what made the show good, though, no more than the horrible auditions are what makes Idol good. What I loved about Rock the Cradle is that it forced these young people (they all appeared to be in their twenties) to deal with their parents’ success in a very direct way. With the cameras rolling, they’d talk about their parental relationships and attempt to sort out these very sticky zones in their consciousness. In one episode, contestants had to pick a song that spoke to the relationship they had with their famous parent — and then perform the tune in front of them. Can you imagine?

Landon Brown seemed to know his parent the least; you could almost hear the desperation in his voice when he wondered aloud if his father would show for the taping. He chose Seal’s “Crazy,” which you have to admit, pretty much sums up everyone’s relationship with Bobby Brown.

Poor Jesse Money sang a song called “When I’m Gone.” This was a typical refrain on the show — my celebrity parent wasn’t around very much when I was a kid — and it was glorious. It wasn’t that I was taking pleasure in these young people’s suffering, mind you. But I was intrigued that they had all chosen this very public forum to analyze their childhoods and dream about their futures.

Now more than ever, there’s a rub to having a famous parent and wanting to follow in that parent’s successful footsteps: It can’t be done in a vacuum. Unlike the butchers and bakers of yore, throngs of Internet commenters exist for the sole purpose of mocking you. And technology makes it nearly impossible to erase things you might regret. For example, Chloe Lattanzi, in one of her video montages, is shown — and heard — moaning along with her father’s didgeridoo in a yurt; cameras are also trained on her as she spazzes out while performing a Korn song. Seeing her ungainly televised struggle leaves one with the impression that it wasn’t always easy being Olivia Newton-John’s daughter, but then again, it isn’t always easy being anyone’s daughter. Parent-child relationships are complicated by many factors, and success is a biggie.

My father, Peter Straub, is a writer, like me. Or rather, I am a writer, like him. He’s written about twenty books, many of which were best sellers. He’s won every major prize awarded in his genre, which is what I like to call Big Fat Horror Novels. He’s very good, and very well known, especially if you like things to get a little dark and scary. I started reading my dad’s books when I was about 10, pacing myself so that there would always be more to read. At that point in my life, I already knew that I wanted to be a writer. It just seemed to be what one did. I imagine that’s how Crosby Loggins feels, too, that being a singer-songwriter is the most normal, natural thing in the world, because to him, it is. It’s a comforting feeling, going into the family business — there is always something to talk about at the dinner table, for one thing, and you’ll always have things in common with a person who brought you into the world. And humans are inclined to model themselves after what they’ve seen. A good friend of mine is a singer and a drummer, and her daughter, now 3, sang for us at a Japanese restaurant the other night while accompanying herself with chopsticks. It totally made sense.

Last month, I forced my father to participate in the launch party for the paperback edition of my first novel. I had asked everyone to tell Hollywood-themed stories, and my father’s was about going to visit Steven Spielberg with his friend and collaborator Stephen King at the Amblin Entertainment offices in the early eighties. My dad didn’t have any notes in front of him, and told the story like it was projected on a TelePrompTer — he was hilarious, and had the whole crowd eating out of his hand, and it was nothing to him, just a story told on a Tuesday night to his daughter’s friends. He’s been practicing a long time. I hope I get as good as he is, someday.

I don’t feel any angst about my father’s success, and how it might be greater than what I ever achieve. Maybe this is because I’m a girl, and lack testosterone, or maybe it’s because I went to a non-competitive summer camp and a school where we didn’t get graded. Or maybe it’s because no one ever asked me to do a cover version of one of his books on national television.

I would have loved for MTV to show us more scenes of the kids talking about their parents. Did they like their music? Do they resent them? Did they get grounded when they snuck out of the house, or did they get to share booze and cigarettes with them? Do any of their parents think that being on this show is a terrible, terrible idea, and that they should have just gone to college or gotten a job instead?

When my book came out, everyone expected my father to be proud of me, and he was. He told me so over and over again, and he came and sat in the front row at almost all of my readings, just like Olivia Newton-John did for her little Chloe on Rock the Cradle. But there was definitely an extra layer of feeling involved because he’s also a writer, and I don’t know if either of us expected it. Whenever my book got mentioned in a magazine, he’d joke, “I want to be in Cat Fancy.” It was both funny and awkward. We were just so used to seeing his name up in lights, not mine. But after some touchy moments around the book’s publication, we managed to adjust to the new ground under our feet, ground on which I got to be a grown-up person with a career of my own.

It’s hard to know how to look at the Rock the Cradle contestants. Some seem permanently scarred by their parents’ success, crippled by it even. But others don’t. Crosby Loggins, the eventual winner of the show, was clearly a natural talent, good at both guitar and piano, with an easy-going Californian energy reminiscent of a certain former Messina songwriting partner. His music had a Jason Mraz–y sound, like the softer side of John Mayer, minus all that sexual energy. Crosby was clearly very fond of his father, and, I’ll wager, had a stable mother at home to keep him grounded while Kenny was off touring. Jesse Money performs with her father’s band as a backup singer, doing the Ronnie Spector part on “Take Me Home Tonight.” Does she wish she could tour on her own, singing her own songs? I bet she does. But does she love singing with her father? I bet she does.

Someone asked me the other day if I thought that my father’s career had made it easier for me to get published. The honest answer is this: My dad helped me get an agent. I was in no way ready for one, though. I was 22, and had just graduated from college and had written a novel. I met with a few agents around town, and signed on with a young woman in my father’s agent’s office. I was a total asshole — entitled and spoiled and ready for millions of dollars to rain down on my head. Thankfully, no one agreed with me and that first novel got rejected approximately 100 times. By the time I actually sold my first book, nearly a decade later, it was to a small press for an advance of a few months’ rent, and I could not have been more grateful.

Here’s what having a successful writer parent actually did: It made me understand, from a pre-verbal age, that writing was an actual job. It wasn’t about being inspired and crazy like some Beat Generation hipster, or about taking a lot of cocaine and writing all night long (although it was the eighties, so … ). It was about sitting down and getting your work done. It was about self-discipline. Writing is, in fact, the only kind of self-discipline I possess. Ice cream? Wine? Forget it, I’m a lost cause. Ask me to hit the gym and I am going to turn you down. But if you ask me how many pages I’ve written in any given week, I will look you in the eye and give you a number. It’s not always a great number, but it exists, and that is because of my dad. I saw how hard he worked, and how much pleasure he got out of it, and I wanted to do that, too. But I’d like to think that the same would be true if he were a garbageman, or a teacher, or, yes, Kenny Loggins.

As I said, Rock the Cradle aired in 2008. Crosby Loggins released a record in 2009. He hasn’t updated his Twitter since 2011. Chloe Lattanzi’s official Facebook page has 2,858 Likes, but the first comment on her wall there says “Please do not sing again ever!!!! Please … ” Do those facts mean that neither Crosby nor Chloe will make it as musicians? Of course not. But it does make me worry for them. Having a successful parent can help open doors, but it doesn’t keep them open. But who knows — maybe Crosby and Chloe and their compatriots are hanging out together somewhere, operating a surf shack in Hawaii, or working on a crab boat in Alaska, living under assumed names, cutting their own paths, and blissfully happy about how their lives are turning out. Wherever they are, I wish them well. And MTV, if you’re listening, I’m ready for Rock the Cradle season two.

As for us Straubs, we’re doing okay. While we’re waiting for MTV to come around, you can find us both live-tweeting The Bachelorette. After all, one needs more to talk about than just work.

Emma Straub is the author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and Other People We Married. Her father, Peter Straub, is the author of way, way more books than that.

Rock the Cradle and the Family Business