Dad Rock

 Posted by
Aug 062010

Why does the term “Dad Rock” bother me so much? Malcolm McClaren is dead, Bill Wyman is his own grandpa. Rap has sustained for over 30 years, rock for over 60. The surviving original rebels have traded whiskey for tea and weed for Metamucil. They can’t play in this young man’s game, even if they invented it. Let’s face it: “Dad Rock” is code for, “you are old, uncool and your music is lame.” You don’t need to have kids to like “Dad Rock,” it just means that you are bland and safe… like a dad.

I think the first time I saw the phrase was in a review for Wilco‘s Sky Blue Sky and it struck me as a way of saying that the quality of the music wasn’t the issue, rather it was a lack of cutting edges that left it milquetoast, nothing that would upset daddy’s delicate old heart. Yesterday I saw the phrase attached to the new Arcade Fire album, and that felt like crossing a line. Sure, they were cool a few years ago, but now they are filling up the seats of Madison Square Garden. With dads. Playing, “City With No Children.”

A quick web search reveals sketchy opinions that “Dad Rock” is either music of the ’60s and ’70s that baby boomers listen to exclusively, or that it is bands such as Coldplay, U2 and Wilco, or even just selected songs. Or maybe it’s a few more notches down the ladder of hipness – Phil Collins, solo Sting, Steely Dan. To an extent, it’s not that different from “Yacht Rock,” but without the cocaine and soft-rock overtones. But these goalposts are moving too easily, and who decides where they go?

Of course, we’d like to think that wisdom comes with age. Those kids will regret those M.I.A. albums, just like I regret, well, I regret…. My best friend in high school was embarrassed by his father’s fanatical fandom of Leonard Cohen. Cohen toured, the whole family went, my friend missed a big party. When asked why our friend wasn’t at the party, and told why, another friend said, “I wish my dad were that cool!” and I experienced a shift in perspective.

If I have any goal at all with this post, it is to ask the simple question: What do you think “Dad Rock” is? Does it actually exist? If it does, what are its defining characteristics? Or is “Dad Rock” simply a bracket that moves through time, a continuous parade of young people having the label applied to them and their favorite bands, when the inevitable grey hairs sprout? Like an animal urinating to claim its turf, does a dad’s appreciation of any music automatically categorize it as “Dad Rock?” Does a dad’s enjoyment of music ruin it for everybody else? It almost seems absurd to ask these questions, but I think they should be asked.


  18 Responses to “Dad Rock”

  1. Mr. Moderator

    Oh man, you’ve struck a timely nerve, cher, as I mildly stew over some bitterness rising thanks to an e-mail from a close, personal friend and bandmate over some other age-old beefs! I can’t stand this term! My own band got tagged with that by a local concert booker in the early ’00s. We were deemed “good for Dad Rock,” or something like that, a music discussion board. I’ll take any compliment, but the Dad Rock thing just brings out the worst of my reverse snobbism and Rockist leanings. Then I hate myself in the morning for getting haughty over the shortcomings of Kid Rock, that broad style of music that pays no attention to things like backbeats, pinky rock, cool bass parts, and the like. Fuck ’em!

  2. If they’re calling Arcade Fire “Dad Rock” now, then the term is as ultimately meaningless and arbitrary as “hipster.”

    It’s definitely symptomatic of the dick-swinging end of rock criticism (that doesn’t necessarily need to enacted by a dude, but it usually is) that acts as if every album must be compared to Pussy Galore or something to see how it holds up in the “I’m a bad-ass noisenik” race.

    What bothers me more is when NPR is used as a pejorative. Doesn’t tell me a damn thing about the music. All that guff can be summed up with a Homer Simpson line, regarding white people. “It’s true! We’re so lame!”

  3. misterioso

    Hmm. Tough one. My son can answer this for himself someday. My dad was pre-rock, so I sure can’t go by that.

    Somehow what comes to my mind is, say, Dire Straits or–better?–Little Village. But perhaps in doing so I only reinforce how out of touch I am. Plus I still kind of like Dire Straits, up to a point.

    I dunno–is Dave Matthews Dad Rock? (As opposed to merely Bad Rock?) It may be that I am just not totally clued in to the concept.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    I should add, the term is no more dismissive from what I dismissively termed “Sinatra Music” as a kid. Also, I take a lot of pride in being a pretty good dad. Bringing “dad” into the derisive term may bug me more than anything.

  5. I thought Dad Rock referred to the fact that so many Boomers will still actually playing rock. There was this article about it:

  6. Hank Fan

    We don’t like it because we are dads! Hits too close to home.

    But it’s actually pretty funny and descriptive if you take a step back and view it objectively.

    No matter how cool we may be, our hipness takes a step backwards–by definition–when we become “dad”.

  7. I think the synonym for D Rock is “inoffensive.” But that actually works to our advantage because we can cordon off any song from the DR label that might/could have (whether hypothetically or not) offended anybody. So a band such as The Who/Stones is NOT D Rock.

  8. Hank Fan, that is definitely true.

    The boomers are grandparents at this point, so perhaps I partially resent this notion that dads are rocking out to Eagles. I am a dad and am currently listening to “Beach House.” Ironically, all my daughter wants to listen to is The Beatles and the Broadway soundtrack to Peter Pan. She also likes Sparks, but that is entirely my fault.

    Neal Pollack addresses the idea of clinging to hipness after becoming a parent in his book, “Alternadad.” I can’t really recommend that book that much. But while I’m striking nerves….

  9. My Father does not like rock. he likes Motown, RnB, Old Soul, and Doo Wop.

    My Stepdad likes Iggy, Wilco, Gorillas, & whatever Jack White is doing at the moment.

    I think the term might be useless.

    Now Uncle Rock, on the other hand , is clearly defined: Eddie Money, Foghat, Deep Purple, Jeff Beck, Thin Lizzy, The Faces, Journey, etc.

    cher, i am so happy about your daughter’s love of Sparks!

  10. ladymisskirroyale

    Dad Rock = “Cat’s In the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. Maybe that’s more like Dad Rock Lite.

    Honestly, I have no idea what the term means. I’ve always assumed that the term meant “classic rock” that was generally liked by the Boomers. But as others have pointed out, given how much members of Gens X and Y like to listen to stuff of all different periods, the term doesn’t seem to mean much.

  11. 2000 Man

    I always thought that was a funny term and I use it to bug my friends that don’t have kids and listen to Journey and Peter Frampton. I also think it kind of fits in with a newer Rock radio station here, WNWV. They play bands like Train, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, John Mayer and Jack Johnson. I don’t always hate it because in the middle of that white noise now and then I hear Width of A Circle by bowie, or Rock N Roll by Velvet Underground or even Little Triggers by Elvis Costello. It’s all the shit around those few awesome things that I think are Dad Rock.

    That’s not such a bad term. I think it shows that at least a lot of dad’s aren’t buying into this faux country music people wearing cowboy hats are playing these days.

  12. BigSteve

    I prefer the term ‘geezer rock.’

  13. I guess what frustrates me about the term, beyond the fact that it hits home – literally – is the closed, strange loop of the idea. “I think therefore I am” spins into “I think what I am but I am not what I think.” The dad attempting to find the escape velocity to break out of the “dad rock barrier”, the straw man boxed into a corner. “This isn’t dad rock, this is good, important and vital music.” Like blood becoming red when exposed to air, music is instantly downgraded to “Dad Rock,” because dad likes it.

    The son-of-Leonard-Cohen-fan friend of mine, mentioned above, comes to mind again. He had a housesitting job for a lesbian couple, I was invited over. We went through their fridge. We hung things with string from a ceiling fan and watched the cats lose their walnut-sized minds. And we went through their record collection. I still think about that one album.

    I know I’ll never see it again – it was a vanity pressing, self-financed, low-budget. The cover had the same construction as a Folkways record – generic black sleeve with a sepia toned 12×12 paper glued on. Photos and text that probably faded as soon as the ink dried. I don’t remember the name of the band or album, but they were women with an agenda: Simply to be a pioneering, all-female rock band in the late 60’s. The first song’s rousing chorus was, “Free our sisters, abortion is a right!”

    There was one point where the singer gave a spoken word diatribe, explaining their mission: They set out to prove that women could play rock music too. They didn’t need men! But that french horn didn’t belong in there. The playing was so limp, so lacking fire. Frumpy. They defeated their own argument. Sure, these woman could form a band, but could they really play rock music? This wasn’t a political statement, it was unwitting comedy.

    In the same way, “Dad Rock” is a losing argument. It’s like somebody peed in the water and there’s no taking it back. The very people who defend against the label, like me, the only people who would care to, are not in a position to even defeat the term. So we accept it? Find humor in it? Ignore it? Find solace in the fact that everyone ages, and today’s “hipster” getting “iced” at a Bushwick house party is tomorrow’s daddy, pushing a stroller through the gentrified streets of Long Island City. Succumb to the Dad Rock, boys… or die alone!

  14. BigSteve

    I remember hearing MOJO magazine referred to as the Dad Rock bible. The obviously cover boomer era music. They cover contemporary music too, but nothing that strays too far from the Anglo-American guitar/bass/drums template. And if they do have a story about Flying Lotus or Tinariwen, it’s clearly the exception that proves the rule.

    Obviously there are dads with adventurous tastes in music. I mean, even indie kids have become dads. But for boomer and now even gen X dads it implies a set-in-my-ways, music-with-samples-isn’t-really-music, nothing-will-ever-be-as-good-as-when-we-were-in-college mentality.

  15. ladymisskirroyale

    Simon Reynolds, writing in his 1990 “Blissed Out,” proposes that pop music is characterized by hedonism and daring, even if the results are horrible, whereas rock music is characterized by the desire to craft a “Good Song.” He says that in general, pop groups burn out or evolve in rock groups. He adds, “The demand for good songs occur when people who have grown up with pop are forced to accommodate their love of pop within their new sense of themselves as responsible adults.” This brought to mind our discussion of Dad Rock: perhaps, it is defined as “well crafted” music (even if there is discussion about it’s likeable or not).

  16. Mr. Moderator

    That’s an interesting way of looking at this, ladymiss, which may bypass some bruised feelings.

  17. That’s an interesting take, I’d never heard of that, but I can tell you that I posted this to RTH on 7/27/06:

    “I wonder if another sub-category of “what happened” might be, “they were cool, until they gained competence”. Sort of the rock equivalent
    of the “Peter Principle”: Everyone rises to their own level of incompetence. At the point where incompetence is reached, progress stops. Yet, here is this incompetent person, entrenched. (He applies
    this to business structure – ie everybody’s boss is incompetent and if you’ve been working the same job for eons, maybe you’re incompetent
    too! Or complacent.). So maybe substitute “competence” for “slickness” (?) “

    Another approach would be to simply claim the term and lump it onto whatever we like. “Oh man, that new Menomena is totally rocking the dad pad.”

    Well, better go listen to Graceland now.

  18. Dads (and Moms) get preoccupied, they don’t have as much time for the Rock. This means that they will still listen to bands after their second try at overcoming the sophomore slump. “Yeah, their old stuff is great, but the new album is OK. I don’t mind it.” I think we all know what “OK” means in this context: I’m sticking with them rather than undertaking the exhausting activity of finding a new band to like. NB: I have no children.

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