These days, dads seem to think a lot about the things they don’t care about anymore. If you’re a white guy on the cusp of the space-time rift that is your early 40s and you have at least one biological offspring who lives with you, it’s a very safe bet that you like Wilco. Back in the early aughts, Wilco more or less defined proto-hipster indie rock, which has become what the cool kids might dismissively call “dad-rock.” But, what the cool kids forget is that all dads used to be cool kids too, meaning the next generation of dad-rock is always in flux.
No one knows this better than journalist Rob Mitchum, who back in 2007, accidentally popularized the term “dad-rock” when he used it as an insult to describe Wilco’s then-new album Sky Blue Sky in a Pitchfork review published that year. But now, in a new essay just-published by Esquire, Mitchum is apologizing or, at the very least, saying he regrets using “dad-rock” as an insult. The entire essay is super smart and worth a read, but this section near the end is particularly relevant.
I’m the same age now as when Tweedy put out Sky Blue Sky, and just as 28-year-old me didn’t connect with a 40-year-old’s songs about aging, marriage, and parenthood, I’m sure Pitchfork readers today don’t want music opinions from a father-of-two who often goes to bed at nine. Dad style as fashion might be a passing, ironic trend, but dad-rock as a frame of mind, an inverse of the youth-chasing mid-life crisis, might just be good mental health.
The idea that liking dad-rock, or in the case of Wilco and The National, actually making dad-rock, could lead to better mental health is moderately profound observation. And, though, as Mitchum points out, a lot of this has been co-opted by various trends, there is something very real about getting older and just liking what you like. As I’ve struggled to say make clear when I write about bad haircuts or Star Wars, being a dad means you’re in on the joke of being a dad, but that joke is just your ongoing real life.
A stand-up comic by the name of James Patterson (no not that one) has a great, dark joke: “I’m going to modify the whole staycation thing and have a stay-acide. It’s where instead of killing yourself, you just keep on living.”
For fathers, the second part of the joke is what real life is like. Sometimes things get dark, and you can’t figure out how to deal with any of it. And, honestly, that’s where the power of dad-rock can save our souls.
I listened to the new Liam Gallagher album last weekend while wielding a weedwhacker in the front yard. From the window, my daughter saw a guy wearing sunglasses, headphones, and holding a weedwhacker like he thinks it’s a guitar. My daughter already likes a few songs by the National because, like a true disciple of dad-rock, I only let her listen to vinyl records inside the house. No digital music. (For what it’s worth, Big Boi himself confirmed that this practice is the definition of good parenting) The point is, daughter didn’t seem someone who is cool, but I briefly, felt cool.
It may be a joke to some, but dad-rock matters to the dads who need it. And, as Mitchum points out, sometimes we need it desperately.