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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What Is Dad Rock, Exactly? One Dad's Opinion

Posted By on Tue, May 24, 2011 at 9:38 AM

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In a segment from a Season One episode of The Cosby Show, the sitcom's namesake delightfully illustrates how pop music can function as a generational wedge. "I thought it had come down the hallway," Bill Cosby says in reference to the deafening music playing on daughter Sondra's stereo, "and went into my room and I thought it was going to eat me up!"

Of course, kids never had to play what Sondra was digging -- discordant, No Wave/Throbbing Gristle-inspired clamor from the fictitious Clyde -- to exasperate their parents. According to Mom and Dad, our pop music was always peculiar, threatening, and dreadful on the ears. It's been this way since mankind first indulged in sound. Cro-Magnon Dad was peeved when the vulture-bone flute swing of his day was passed over by Cro-Magnon Jr. for the hip, new bebop being played on those instruments fashioned from reptile skin stretched over a hollow tree trunk.

Kids would inevitably swing back. They'd chide their parents for being so myopic, reminding them of those youthful days when their tastes were more permissive. ("You once told me you made it all the way through 'Revolution 9.'") They'd mock their parents' favorite artists for eschewing retirement and remaining in the game for self-serving reasons. ("Wandering Spirit was Mick's 'facelift and hairweave album,' right?") Or they'd just partake of open ridicule. ("One could argue that Terry Kath's death is not a neat line of demarcation between nonsucky Chicago and sucky Chicago, but that Chicago, in fact, sucked perpetually.")

Only I've been led to believe this is all changing, that the wall separating one generation from the other is crumbling and across the rubble each side is eyeing the other warily. This is my attempt to sort it all out before that wall goes back up -- or each side begins throwing chunks of concrete at one another:

1.) The term "dad rock" became a fixture in the hard copy of British music journalists in the mid-1990s and was a convenient, derisive way for post-Boomers to piss on the cherished artists of their immediate forbearers. According to a 1999 piece in The Observer, the term was coined by a writer after seeing a photo of Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, and Paul McCartney during a recording session for 1995's Bosnian War Child project. (He probably thought it was an advertising photo for an assisted living facility in Florida.) Back then, dad rock artists would have included those mentioned above (the Rolling Stones, Chicago), as well as the solo Beatles and the Jam. Others who qualified: '70s-era Eric Clapton, post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd, Neil Young, and the Byrds.

2.) No group of first-generation dad rock artists came to epitomize the dad rock aesthetic like those connected with the Laurel Canyon scene of the late '60s and early '70s: Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt. They specialized in crafting songs that were safe, unchallenging, antiseptic -- you know, music that was akin to hand sanitizer. "Everybody got really bored with the canyon sound," said Greg Shaw in Barney Hoskyns' book Waiting for the Sun. "To me, it was all lifestyle wallpaper music." Fitting, I suppose, since dads are really good at taking down and putting up wallpaper. In Songbook, Nick Hornby likened Browne's music to "soft rock that expressed a smug stoner's content with his wife, his dog, and his record-company advance." (And he was a big fan!) The scene's most renowned release was Browne's 1976 masterwork The Pretender. On the cover, wearing a tucked-in white T-shirt and stiff chinos, Browne is seen crossing a busy Los Angeles street. Regrettably, all the passing cars missed him.

jackson_browne_pretender.jpg

3.) British scribes gradually began using the term dad rock to slag then-current artists. The dull-edged, conformist approach of those '70s artists was no longer contained; it was spreading in virus-like waves, infecting present-day artists. Britpoppers Cast, Ocean Colour Scene, and Shed Seven were akin to dad's easy chair: cushy, comfortable, a bit creaky. Post-Britpop acts like Travis, Snow Patrol, and Coldplay took this approach a step further; they were the sonic equivalent of dad dozing in his easy chair, newspaper draped across his chest, test pattern on the television.

4.) After the turn of the century, the term began surfacing in American publications: Spin, Stylus, PopMatters, Pitchfork. However, it was deliberately refashioned. The negative connotation lightened. Artists who embraced nostalgia were no longer cloying, but retrogressive. Familiarity was welcomed in an uncertain, post-9/11 world. The reason for the transformation was obvious: The post-Boomers who made up the core of the anti-dad-rock brigade were becoming dads themselves. And they were discovering that artists such as the National, Wilco, and the Gaslight Anthem provided the consummate soundtrack to quietly ruminating on the lassitude of middle age ... while changing an extrashitty diaper.

5.) The more achingly hip you imagine yourself to be, the more harsh your dad rock fate (and rightfully so). At a recent Feelies gig, my friend Tim and I made bad jokes about the several hundred fiftysomethings in attendance, as well as the particularly wizened members of the band. "Glenn Mercer is wearing sunglasses because he has cataracts." "They're not checking licenses at the door, they're checking AARP cards." "We're at a show and no one is live tweeting it; this feels so 2005." Suddenly we understood just how portentous the night was: Those graybeards in the crowd will be us in 20 years. Fate was pointing and laughing at us. (And actually, the Feelies did as well; their setlist was dominated by the slack, sit-on-a-stool folk rock of their post-Crazy Rhythms catalog -- we wanted selections with a bit more pep.) Our heads down, we trudged home to our easy chairs and fell asleep with the newspaper.

6.) The term "dad rock" holds some implicit and deceitful assumptions about fatherhood. To borrow adjectives from reviews of dad rock-labeled artists, being a father means you are passive, domesticated, mellow, normal. I've also seen the phrase "soft cock" bandied about, as in "soft cock dad rock." The suggestion is that these artists are creating music that's overwhelmingly asexual. It's a standard defense mechanism, of course. Nobody wants to think about dads getting their leather stretched.

7.) So now a counterstroke: Fathers rejecting adulthood. There's nothing new about extended adolescence; growing up has always been an unsavory proposition. However, over the past few years it's become a separate subculture complete with its own statutes, spaces, and style points. Christopher Noxon dubbed these individuals "rejuveniles." Neal Pollack prefers "alternadads." In a 2006 New York piece, Adam Sternbergh unveiled the term "grups." So what does it all mean? For some, the generation gap is disappearing. On the surface, the movement appears rooted in surrendering to immaturity, but in essence it's about maintaining the passion associated with youth. So thirty- and fortysomethings adopt the fashion trends and pop music of individuals half their age. It means dad no longer looks like Bill Evans and mom no longer looks like Blossom Dearie. It means owners of trendy urban bars are reversing their decisions to ban strollers because too many grups -- er, parents are getting pissy. It means your 11-year-old son can dig Joy Division.

So there you have it. Dad rock as best as one father can decipher it. What I've learned: Although being a dad particularly rocks, obsessing over generational divides and shifts is a bit exhausting. Besides, a little conflict is not a bad thing. At the very least, it allows me to direct the occasional Bill Cosby-like tirade at the kids whenever the music gets too loud. Just to keep 'em on their toes.

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Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to mofrackie@gmail.com.

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.

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Ryan Foley

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