Learning to be a good dad by listening to songs about bad ones, from “Cat’s in the Cradle” to “Papa’z Song.”
Here’s where it gets really tricky: You can stick around for your kid, you can manage not to be drunk all the time for your kid, you can do everything you’d think is right for your kid—and you can still blow it. That’s the lesson of Harry Chapin’s 1974 “Cat’s in the Cradle,” the most famous bad-pop pop song ever.
Chapin based “Cat’s in the Cradle” on a poem written by his wife, Sandy, about the relationship between her first husband and his father. The poem resonated with Chapin, a busy touring folk musician forced to spend extended periods away from his son. In the tradition of all great guilt trips, “Cat’s in the Cradle” keeps getting passed from one generation to the next. The forgettable novelty metal band Ugly Kid Joe performed an oddly sincere cover version that hit the Billboard Top 10 in 1993. More recently, the song has appeared in episodes of The Office, How I Met Your Mother, and Cougar Town as a universal signifier of childhood anguish.
For most of my life, I’ve related to the kid in “Cat’s in the Cradle.” How could you not? Like Tupac, he just wanted to play catch with his dad. But when his dad says he’s too busy, the kid just smiles and says, “You know I’m gonna be like him.” And, well, you know the rest: The kid grows up, the father grows old and retires, and now it’s the kid who doesn’t have time for the dad. Irony sticks it to the old man big time, and anyone with any lingering daddy issues of their own might feel a twinge of satisfaction about that.
But suddenly with the birth of my son, all I have is empathy for the poor working stiff who busted his hump for years to make sure his son had a decent life. He had bills to pay and planes to climb aboard. So what if he didn’t always have time for a catch? He was doing what parents are supposed to do—providing. The papa in “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” didn’t do that. Jay-Z’s dad didn’t do that, nor did Kelly Clarkson’s. King Diamond might still be known as sweet and nondemonic Kim Bendix Peterson with that kind of support. And yet the dad in “Cat’s in the Cradle” is considered a failure.
I’m starting to think that pop singers could stand to be a little more forgiving of their fathers. Maybe I should take solace in Bruce Springsteen, who came to an understanding with his dad over the course of several songs he wrote in his late 20s and early 30s. The most blistering was 1978’s “Adam Raised a Cain,” which paints a brutal picture of a resentful paternal presence who “walks these empty rooms looking for someone to blame.” Two years later, Springsteen decided to finally leave that house in “Independence Day,” resigned to never getting along with his father.
But by the time of 1982’s Nebraska, he was casting the father figure in “Used Cars” in a sympathetic light, describing how he endures a patronizing pitch from an unscrupulous car salesman for the sake of his family. Finally, in “Walk Like a Man” from 1987’s Tunnel Of Love, Springsteen writes tenderly of his father standing at his side on his wedding day and thinking about “being 5 years old following behind you at the beach tracing your footprints in the sand/ trying to walk like a man.” He’d finally gained some understanding of the old man and not a moment too soon: Springsteen’s first child, a son, was born a few years later in 1990.
The bad-dad songs in my iTunes queue offer insight into not only what it means to be a father but also my life as a guy who has his own father. I’m trying to figure out how best to take care of my kid, but my kid and I are also in the same boat—we both have dads who are fallible and, perhaps inevitably, disappointing in some way. It’s only after you grow up that you learn the final lesson of these songs: We all screw up in ways big and small when comes to parenting. The key is to forgive, so hopefully you’ll be forgiven one day, too.
Steven Hyden writes for Grantland, Pitchfork, and the A.V. Club.