How I Schooled My Dad-Rock Dad on Music

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My dad has done many things for me, chief among them conceiving, raising, and providing for me in a home full of love and humor. But if I had to pinpoint the greatest gift my father ever gave me, I’d say it was an early cultivation of my taste in music. And these days, it’s a pleasure to be able to return the favor.

At three, my first-ever favorite songs were R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” and Peter Gabriel’s “Kiss That Frog,” both enduring kid-friendly anthems if you’re a parent looking for non-sanitized tunes for your tykes. He taught me which Beatles albums were worth my time (everything pre-Help is priceless pop, but not exactly innovative), and I played them all backwards on his record player over and over again, looking for “Paul Is Dead” clues. By the time I turned ten, I had been to a laser show set to Dark Side of the Moon at the local planetarium, after which I decided Wish You Were Here was more my speed.

I was probably one of a handful of millennial children to know all the words to Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” before realizing it was a song about closeted homosexuality. ELO and Tom Petty soundtracked the yearly drive down to Disney World, my Motown-loving mom the only person groaning the whole 16 hours. My dad had loved Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie almost obsessively at various points in his life, but those times had passed, so I came to view them as my father’s mysterious musical exes. It was only until later in my life — a few years ago, really — that I approached the Bowie and Bruce canons with unbiased ears.

These days, there’s a phrase for the classic rock my Baby Boomer father raised me on: Dad Rock. Some say Dad Rockers are forever stuck in 1976 or 1985 or even 1994, when the music was real, man. Prominent in Urban Dictionary’s most up-voted definition of Dad Rock is this phrase: “Dad Rockers have no desire to listen to recent music and are stuck in the past.” But I can assure you it is possible to teach an old dad new tricks when it comes to matters of rock ‘n’ roll.

I prefer this definition from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, the leader of a band often dubbed New Dad Rock: “When people say Dad Rock, they actually just mean rock. There are a lot of things today that don’t have anything to do with rock music, so when people hear something that makes them think, ‘This is derived from some sort of continuation of the rock ethos,’ it gets labeled Dad Rock. And, to me, those people are misguided. I don’t find anything undignified about being a dad or being rocking, you know?” (Sort of appropriate that Tweedy’s new band is one with his son.)

At some point my dad ran out of Dad Rock to introduce me to, even if I had still been interested. I wasn’t. I had traded my Abbey Road T-shirt for a Clash hoodie covered in Weezer pins, and upon emerging from my teenage brat phase, I swapped roles with my dad in our little game of music discovery. And in my experience, Dad Rockers don’t necessarily favor new bands that try to emulate the old bands they love. It’s not as simple as direct lineage, or else the Black Keys would be even more popular among Dad Rock aficionados than bros. I can’t tell you how many Dr. Dog albums I put on my dad’s iPod only to have him shrug and say, “Eh, didn’t listen much.” And new-school Dad Rock bands like Wilco and The National? Dad says they’re a snore. (But if you find your Dad Rock Dad is into new artists who directly channel his old favorites, here’s a handy guide we ran a few years back.)

I’ll never forget the day he busted into the kitchen singing Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” (the radio edit, of course), or the fact that he still keeps the only good White Rabbits record, It’s Frightening, in his Camry, five years later. Were my dad hard-pressed to name his favorite post-2000s band, he’d say Spoon without hesitation (who I suppose channel ELO’s pop hits in some ways). Every couple months he’ll call me and say something along the lines of, “Hey, have you heard of this guy Macklemore? Saw him on the VH1 video countdown on Saturday morning, what a clown.” And I’ll know my Dad Rock Dad hasn’t lost his taste, it just may need a tune-up.

The key is to mix familiar sounds and structures (perhaps a current band who makes room for guitar solos) with something new or slightly experimental (could be as simple as electro-pop synths). Still, if your Dad Rock dad was as obsessive over music as my pops was in his day, trust that his tastes are not as narrow as they may seem now that he’s past his prime music discovery years. (My dad said that for the typical music fan, keeping up with new music slides off the priority list when you have kids and you settle in hard with your all-time favorites.) Present a wide array of new music and see what sticks. It may be a chart-topping rap song about money-grubbing groupies, or it may be the new War on Drugs album (which I will be sending dad).

As we approach Father’s Day this weekend, I encourage all the children of Dad Rock Dads to give their fathers a call and maybe send them a mixtape. Be sure to include some weirder stuff too. Trust me, your dad can handle it.