Learning to be a good dad by listening to songs about bad ones, from “Cat’s in the Cradle” to “Papa’z Song.”
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
In July, my wife gave birth to our first child. In the months leading up to his arrival, I had the luxury of pretending my son was an abstraction that made my better half’s midsection look like that dream sequence from the beginning of Aliens. But now I am somebody’s dad. A papa. Paterfamilias. Which causes me to ponder a rather terrifying possibility.
I could be bad at this. In fact, if I’m to believe most of the songs about fathers in my music collection, I will be bad at this. Ever since I became a dad, I’ve noticed a surprising number of tracks in my music library about bad dads. Songs about bad fathers transcend all eras and genres. Nobody—be it a pop diva, soul belter, gangsta rapper, metal god, or outlaw country singer—is above dissing Dad. Should I just accept that in 2030 my son will inevitably write his own bracingly personal and bitterly universal musical indictment of my parenting skills? Or can I actually learn something from these songs so that I can avoid the melodic and persistently catchy pitfalls of my predecessors?
The most common sin committed by fathers in pop songs is leaving home. This also happens to be sadly common in real life: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 out of 3 American children live in homes without their biological fathers. Good dads don’t leave. Sometimes you can get off the hook if your exit is caused by death, even if it inevitably screws up the kids: The two most popular rock operas of all time, The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, are about damaged protagonists driven to great success and terrible ruin by the premature loss of their fathers in wars. Dads who take off for any other reason—fear, irresponsibility, wanton jerkiness—don’t get the same forgiveness.
In 1994’s “Papa’z Song,” Tupac Shakur tells his dad to “step the fuck off” for forcing him to “play catch by myself” while his “moms had to entertain many men/ didn’t want to do it but it’s time to pay the rent again.” In the last verse of “Papa’z Song,” Shakur relents a bit, rapping from the dad’s perspective about his anguish over his parental failings and how they were caused by a prison stint. Jay-Z is also willing to cut his absentee dad the tiniest bit of slack; he admits that “deep down, he was a good man” in 2011’s “Glory”—itself a valentine to Jay’s newborn daughter, Blue Ivy—though only after calling him a “failure” earlier in the song.
But Danish metal singer King Diamond is not as kind in 1996’s “Daddy.” Over a menacing harpsichord riff—yes, King Diamond can make even a harpsichord sound menacing—he cuts to the heart of childhood abandonment trauma with a slasher’s sensitivity. “You’re going down!” Diamond bellows with the full force of his multioctave vocals, presumably before striking Daddy’s head from his shoulders with a mighty blade already wet with dragon’s blood.
OK, so I shouldn’t abandon my wife and son. I think I can handle that. What else? In 2005’s “Because of You,” the seventh best-selling pop single of the 2000s (right behind her own “Since U Been Gone”), Kelly Clarkson addresses a dad whose distance and neglect taught her to “never stray too far from the sidewalk.” “Because of you, I’m afraid,” she sings over a mournful piano melody. So, I should be emotionally available to my kid while also being diligent (but not overly diligent) about pedestrian safety. Got it, Kelly. I also need to avoid becoming an alcoholic, based on Billy Currington’s 2003 hit “Walk a Little Straighter,” another maudlin ballad that includes a sickening scene where Billy’s alcoholic stepfather stumbles into his high-school graduation, finally leaving “before they called my name.” Most of all, I must avoid turning into Michael Lohan, the subject of the queasiest bad-father song of recent years, 2006’s “Confessions Of A Broken Heart (Daughter To A Father).” Daughter Lindsay’s song is practically an intervention for her dad in the wake of his well-publicized drunk-driving arrest, which occurred while he was on probation for attempted assault on his ex-brother-in-law.
These songs do little to cure my early stage fatherhood anxiety. They don’t seem all that applicable to my particular set of circumstances. The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” is more practical: Don’t lay your hat down in more than one home, and make sure to set some money aside should you die under mysterious circumstances. I can get behind that. But most bad-daddy classics are either too specific or too vague: Johnny Cash objected to his father calling him Sue. John Denver wished that his daddy wouldn’t get drunk at Christmas. Kurt Cobain wanted a father, not a dad, in Nirvana’s “Serve the Servants”; Paul Westerberg preferred the opposite, in the Replacements’ “Androgynous.” For my own kid, I’d prefer to be a father and a dad, depending on what he needs at the particular moment. Unfortunately, he’s not really in a position to offer specifics yet, either. I know when he cries at 3 a.m. he needs me to get him a bottle of breast milk. Otherwise, the nuances are up to me to figure out.
Steven Hyden writes for Grantland, Pitchfork, and the A.V. Club.