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On the designation of Dad Rock
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"Dad Rock," as a term, seems like it's getting thrown around more and more these days. I have contributed to this groundswell. Or, at least, I've tried my very best. What's been hard to parse out, however, is whether or not this explosion of Dad-designation is due to a growth of true Dad Rock music, or just an overuse of the term. If we're going to get to the bottom of this, I think it's necessary to lay out a functional framework of what Dad Rock actually is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn't.
Rob Mitchum, the journalist credited with actually coining the term "Dad Rock," first wielded it in a scathing Pitchfork review of Wilco's 2007 album Sky Blue Sky. “An album of unapologetic straightforwardness. Sky Blue Sky nakedly exposes the dad-rock gene Wilco has always carried but courageously attempted to disguise.”
Mitchum claims not to have invented the term but takes full credit for "unleashing" it onto the world. Since 2007, the paternal prefix has spread to all zones of culture. Hats, bods, you name it. But as the field of "Dad" media grows larger, the qualitative features of Dad Rock grow fuzzier. Is the new John Mayer album Dad Rock? What about Van Halen? How about that new Foo Fighters Disco album, Hail Satin?
There is an impulse to refer to any 80s alternative band as "Dad Rock." And, indeed, there's a strong case to be made for bands like R.E.M. There isn't a trace of Dad Rock, however, in the Smiths (too mopey) or the B-52s (not mopey enough). Nor is it simply a label to be smacked onto whatever bands your dad is particularly into (I speak from experience here, unless you count Novo Amor as DR).
Steely Dan is not Dad Rock. Steely Dan is Uncle Rock. But I digress.
A presence on Classic Rock radio does not, as some seem to believe, automatically distinguish a band as Dad Rock. “Classic Rock” radio is, in fact, made up of three genres that receive roughly equal airtime. The first is genuine, dyed in the wool Classic Rock. Think the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, and so on. Then, of course, there's Dad Rock, but more on that later. Thirdly, and by far most upsettingly, we have Butt Rock.
Butt Rock is wide-ranging, an umbrella term for all the pseudo-macho big-haired cowboy-on-a-steel-horse nonsense that began in the mid-70s and reached its zenith in the 1980s. Grunge arrived in the early 90s as a direct retaliation to Butt Rock's stranglehold on the radio, but within a decade even Grunge had fallen to the Butt brigade (I'm lookin' at you, Nickelback). The patron saints of Butt Rock are, of course, Bon Jovi, but other bands like Whitesnake and Guns N' Roses have made indelible, sleeveless marks on Goodwill t-shirt aisles everywhere.
So what is Dad Rock, then? Dad Rock, I would posit, is not so much a sound as it is a spirit. It's introspective, but not too introspective. It's Classic Rock that drinks one beer and goes to bed by 9:30. It's sort of loud, sort of weird, but not too much of either. It's lawn mowing music. It's hard-rockin' for a Honda Oddysey.
Eric Clapton: Unplugged has often been hailed as the father of all Dad Rock (see what I did there?). This is correct. My Personal DR Mount Rushmore has Unplugged carved right where George Washington usually sits. The other three faces, the archetypal albums by which one can judge all applicants to Dad-dom, are The Joshua Tree, Born in the USA, and - contrary to Mr. Mitchum's designations - Wilco's even more influential Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Within these sacred texts dwells the essence of the genre. They are the four Gospels of Dad Rock; everything you need to know is within them.
The line between Dad Rock and Butt Rock can often, as I'm sure you've already noticed, grow rather thin. In fact, it was my own quest for understanding the distinction between the two - and specifically my own inability to find any such line dividing them - that led me to write this. Through the process of examining the adjacent genres, however, I believe I have settled on a vital point of differentiation between them.
Dad Rock is defined, at its most basic level, by the sort of introspection that comes with being a grown adult with grown adult responsibilities. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot paints a picture of a band settling into middle age, The Joshua Tree is at least mostly about God, and Born in the USA has a song literally called "Glory Days." And let’s be honest: has there ever been an album that more succinctly communicates the message "I am putting my rockstar years behind me" than Eric Clapton: Unplugged? Butt Rock is born when middle-aged men are unwilling to relinquish their rockstar status. If there are three things I don't want to hear a man with children and back problems sing about, they are sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll (in roughly that order).
Dad Rock dares to settle down, bravely going where many have gone before. There's nothing mundane about the everyday, nothing uninteresting about the introspective. Maybe I'm biased: I go to bed before 11 most nights, I have a flair for puns, and I like my jeans a little loose. Still, I think there's something to be said for music that doesn't try to be anything other than exactly what it is. After all, a little gray hair never hurt nobody.
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This Week's Mixtape
This week’s mixtape should serve as a sort of Dad Rock primer. Best enjoyed mowing the lawn, reading the news, or drinking one (1) beer. Listening in order is, as always, recommended.
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David Lefkowitz is a writer, musician, and former Latin NHS president. His work has been featured by Melted Magazine, Double Negative, and Vinyl Tap Magazine, among others.
I love Sky Blue Sky, but that's beside the point.