Pop Music

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.

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.