Tina Fey once astutely noted, “The definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” Arguably, the same thing applies to “dad rock.” The definition of “irrelevant” in the music business is a dad who keeps guitar solo-ing even after no one wants to listen (or fuck him) anymore.
And yet, solo they do, which is why we have a label like “dad rock.” That amorphous sprawl of a term that encompasses everything from, depending on whom you ask, Steely Dan to Sonic Youth, from The Eagles to Mac DeMarco, from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to The National, from 311 to Creed. Basically, it’s whatever your dad played in the car growing up; whatever you consider “safe” rock music; whatever is boring, old and lame; and anything you might characterize as “soft rock.” Mostly, though, it’s a term about old dudes still making music longer than we think they have any right to.
I, however, find it impossible to hate dad rock, at least in its current incarnation, because I love ELO, Gerry Rafferty, Tom Petty, Graham Nash, Fleetwood Mac and everything Yacht Rock. I’m okay with aging indie rockers, too. But as a one-time music critic and person who has known or dated far too many musicians, I also know that “dad rock” is a pejorative that’s slung to mean grandpa, snoozefest, Americana, easy-listening puttering from old noodling wankers who have long since stopped producing anything exciting, if they even ever did. The musical equivalent of a mixer at a nursing home.
Yet in talking to numerous writers, critics and fans, I’ve discovered something else: No “genre” better reflects our anxiety about aging male musicians and their seemingly stunted taste, and men’s anxieties about aging and their own musical prowess. It’s also a reflection of our very definition of rock music and what purpose we believe it ought to serve. It’s a term, too, we use when we’re afraid of being old or irrelevant ourselves, one meant to show everyone how cool we are for continuing to reject whatever our parents ever loved, and to only be invested in the new.
“In terms of dad rock, the modifier ‘dad’ is meant to weaken the word ‘rock,’ divorcing it from any sense of power, danger or sexual excitement,” music critic Steven Hyden writes in his recent book, Twilight of the Gods. By phone, he elaborates: “Dad rock used to apply to a very specific thing: You would use it to describe bands that were looking back to 1960s and 1970s rock, and playing music very clearly along the same continuum. Oasis was called dad rock in the 1990s for modeling themselves after 1960s rock bands, most famously The Beatles. The British press called them dad rock as a put-down. But now we’re at a point where pretty much any rock band can be called dad rock. It’s replaced classic rock as the go-to term to describe anyone playing guitars, drum and bass and anything recognizably rock.”
Stateside, the first band to be branded as dad rock was Wilco — specifically in a Pitchfork review of the band’s 2007 album Sky Blue Sky. After stunners like Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made the band indie darlings, Sky Blue Sky, critic Rob Mitchum argued, found the band “receding into the comfort zone,” with an album that “exposes the dad-rock gene the band has always carried but attempted to disguise.” Mitchum continued: “Never has the band sounded more passive, from the direct and domestic nature of Tweedy’s lyrics, to the soft-rock-plus-solos format that most of its songs adhere to.”
Passive? Domestic? Soft-rock-plus-solos format? Yeesh. May as well go ahead and admit you don’t fuck anymore, guys. In a sense, the review sums up exactly what critics found wrong with dad rock in the first place: If rock is supposed to be the bottled power of angsty, sexually charged boners, experimentation and excitement, rocking out with your proverbial cock out, then dad rock is, well, the worst thing a male artist on stage could allegedly be — dick out, no boner.
“Around when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot leaked, there was a big argument about it on the internal Pitchfork staff message board, where I was very much a fan (still am!) and notorious curmudgeon Chris Ott was very much not,” Mitchum reflects today when I reach out to him via email. “He labeled it ‘dad rock,’ which I had never heard before. I borrowed the term and tried to turn it around on him when I blurbed it for the Best of 2002 list. But then when I reviewed Sky Blue Sky, I returned to ‘dad-rock’ in a less positive light, basically as a shorthand of expressing that I didn’t think they were experimenting any more, but resting on their favorite classic-rock-y laurels. It made it into the pull-quote for the review on the Pitchfork front page, and it somehow got locked into people’s minds with Wilco forevermore. Esquire even asked Tweedy about it; he called it ‘hurtful.’ But I didn’t mean it as ‘unfashionable,’ I meant it as ‘boring/safe.’”
“My reaction when I heard Wilco was dad rock was, ‘What’s so bad about dad rock?’” says Ken Coomer, founding member and original drummer of Wilco and also Uncle Tupelo. “Which of course means I have entered dad rock.”
The label doesn’t bother him in general, either. That might be because he’s also known for his role in the late 1980s, early 1990s thrilling metal math-rock fusion band Clockhammer, so he has little to prove on the experimental-vitality-of-rock front. “I can relate to the term dad rock, being both a dad and into rock,” he explains. “The fact is my palate of music has only broadened as I’ve grown older and become a dad.” That said, like many people, he isn’t clear on exactly what bands dad rock refers to anymore. “Does dad rock mean Guided By Voices, Bad Brains or Failure, or more like Hootie and Live and bands I can’t really say I was into?”
Interestingly, Hyden loves Sky Blue Sky for the very reasons Mitchum doesn’t. “The album contains some of Jeff Tweedy’s most trenchant songs about marriage, including the ways in which husbands suck up to their pissed-off wives by offering to do the laundry,” he writes in Twilight of the Gods. “Sky Blue Sky came out the year before I got married, and Tweedy’s meditations on domesticity (and the quiet storms that linger beneath the surface of long-term relationships) struck a chord. I welcomed Sky Blue Sky as a kind of guidebook for how to survive the next phase of my life, which is probably the best compliment you can give any work of art.”
It’s a strange thing that we side-eye men who have the audacity to get older, start families and begin writing for their older peers and not the kids. I mean, it’s completely bizarre to expect aging men to keep penning odes to youth, especially at a time when misogyny in rock music is more or less considered gross, and when men are more engaged in fatherhood than ever before.
“What’s worse?” Hyden asks me. “A 40-year-old guy who loves the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Springsteen and wants to make music in that style, or a 40-year-old guy who wants to be 20, and talks about wanting to be Post Malone? Isn’t it creepier to be the person who isn’t acting their age, or hasn’t embraced being mature or music more reflective of where they are in their life? I’m not judging the 40-year-old that wants to be Post Malone. It’s just ultimately better to be uncool than it is to be chasing something you’re not.”
For what it’s worth, months before his death, Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone that Nirvana would probably make one more record, but he couldn’t see himself still playing Nirvana songs in 10 years. The sounds of that final record? It would be “pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.’s last album.” After all, he was getting older. He was a father now. He couldn’t live that way forever, screaming his lungs out every night. “You have to take a chance and hope that either a totally different audiences accepts you, or the same audience grows with you,” he said.
None of this is to say dad rock can’t be bad. Someone told me they considered Creed and 311 to be dad rock now, which I abhor and will never get behind. And when asking other critics I know about dad rock, they pointed out that while they love much of the music considered that, the taste of the dad rockers themselves deserves some criticism. After all, there are contradictions aplenty within the divisions they make themselves involving not just narrow taste, but narrow race. “The dad rocker is a rockist,” critic and writer Seth Graves tells me. “No tolerance for Kanye.”
“Dad rockers tend to be stuck in the era of the Stones circa Exile on Main St., late Beatles, CSNY and so forth,” adds critic Edd Hurt. “They tend to discount punk, disco and hip hop, which is a deeply uninteresting viewpoint to take. There are still people to this day who think anything manipulated or sampled — and therefore, ‘not real music’ — is fake. Americana is the apotheosis of dad rock, though Americana is also a product of the punk revolution — which is an interesting dilemma that has yet to be solved.”
Hurt also notes a number of women such as Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, as well as Stevie Nicks’ solo work, contributing to what we call dad rock and that there’s no such thing as “mom rock” (again, it’s all just considered dad rock).
All of which leads me to Rigs of Dad, a Facebook page dedicated to aging, balding, not-so-famous (read: amateur-ish) dad bands with bandana do-rags, acid-washed jeans, tank tops, hemmed denim shorts and relaxed fit everything. “The best rigs your wife doesn’t want you to have,” the page’s mission explains. “The best gigs your dreams could let you have.”
“I have a sincere fondness for the guys in dad bands,” the page’s owner, Ross, a 37-year-old musician who’s toured and played extensively, writes over Facebook Messenger. “And I totally get why they’re in a state of creative arrested development. Dudes that joined the forces right out of high school, married their sweethearts and had kids right out of college or got an office job right at the peak of cubicle office culture missed out on their prime years of being in a band, touring, learning about good gear versus bad gear, finding new music and ‘knowing how to gig.’ Now they’re trying to get that in because their kids are driving the car these days, and they have room in the garage to have a couple guys from the neighborhood come over and jam out on whatever hits were huge when their playing time/skills peaked.”
On the flip side, though, he reels off a list of things that we might also find sadly humorous about the clichés of a midlife crisis: The older dude trying to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a Guitar Center; guys who yell out, “I can play the guitar like a mother fucking riot” when Sublime comes on the jukebox; the dad band playing only to their own parents and friends. The latter of which he witnessed himself: “The headliner was a bunch of dudes in their mid-40s with the mid-1990s Michael Bolton ponytail vibe going,” he recalls. “We saw one band where the singer was probably in the middle of a vicious divorce and brought ALL of that to stage with him in his banter. It was similar to seeing Will Ferrell’s Neil Diamond characterization.”
Lame or not, what’s interesting about all of this is that dad rock is having something of a moment again. As proof, Mitchum points to a dad rock exploration at The Outline that he feels exposes the diversity and breadth of the genre in a way that no one has of yet, and that he didn’t with a tossed-off term 12 years ago. Dads today like all sorts of music, and while it’s still inevitably some of what their fathers liked when they were young, that’s different if you’re black, Asian or gay. One man’s dad’s Doobie Brothers is another man’s dad’s Wu Tang Clan.
He mentions that dad rock was once largely viewed as an illness to overcome, but it needn’t be terminal either. “Maybe [dad rock] could be reinvented as more synonymous with ‘comfort food,’ something that feels rooted in music history without breaking much new ground, but still worthwhile and satisfying when done well,” Mitchum explains.
For their part, Wilco has finally made peace with the term, agreeing to “stop fighting the dad rock label.” Jeff Tweedy, once hurt deeply by the association of his band with dad rock, has also since personally embraced it. Recently, so did a fan: “Wilco is my generation’s best dad rock — and that’s okay,” reads one such piece from early 2019.
Meanwhile, newer bands have embraced it unironically. In 2012, for example, Best Coast went dad-rock record shopping for a Pitchfork video segment, highlighting albums by bands like The Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Bread and America. They weren’t just saying they love dad rock either. They listened to these albums while making their own records, even suggesting the recording style to their producer. In the end, it’s pretty difficult to mock warm, analog tones.
Hyden has noticed the shift, too. He thinks it’s because we’re no longer having dad rock shoved down our throats, which makes it easier to appreciate when we come across it again. Plus, he says, you reach a point where there’s no real argument against dads or rock or anymore: “Dads aren’t a negative thing to a lot of people. Rock isn’t a negative thing. For something to be dad rock, well, those are two cozy things that fit together, and I like both of them. Why would that be negative? Only if you feel a certain vanity about who you are and where you are in your life.”
Speaking of where people are in their life, Mitchum, the critic who tainted Wilco with the dad rock term forever, is now a father himself, too. And so I had to ask him if he found himself coming around to so-called dad rock these days, now that, by any definition, he’s gone soft, too. “I’m pretty much as dad rock post-kids as I was pre-kids,” he claims. He does admit, though, “I finally came around on Zeppelin and Springsteen.”