So much of modern discourse revolves around sifting our language, seeking to determine which words remain useful and which we’ve bent completely out of shape.
Writer David Dark calls us to wriggle free from the grasp of tossed-off terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” comparing them to cultural curse words. The recent book Still Evangelical? interrogates a movement whose very name sounds God-forsaken in the ears of so many.
Maybe dad rock is the new punk, not a genre as much as a way of life.
Allow me to set my feet and station myself like a shield before a more trivial term: Dad rock.
Falling from the tongues of music critics—professional or armchair—the phrase describes a sound that naturally appeals to very white, very average men. Dad rock exudes safety. Dad rock sets white New Balance shoes dancing.
Too often, dad rock is exactly what critics say it is: clean, comfortable, unchallenging—it goes down smooth after a forty-hour workweek. Defending this music holds little interest; after all, such an act would qualify as the most quintessential dad thing one could do.
Instead, I want to wage a quiet campaign to redeem the term, to realize everything it could mean. Redrawing the boundaries waves a welcome to dads who process their daily dose of existential dread through chords and cadences. Dads who happen to rock.
Fatherhood tunes your ear to different frequencies. Mine grow more and more sensitive to the cries of patriarch-poets I resemble. I hear them going on the record, making sense of this strange and tender work they do, casting a sort of vision—no matter how hazy—for the world they leave their kids.
An unlikely dad ushered me across the threshold of this music. More than a decade before I greeted my son, Ben Folds penned “Still Fighting It,” a song which cuts me deeper with every listen. Often the Gen X piano man mixes an odd palette of lyrical colors, swirling four-letter words, skeptical asides, and disarmingly sensitive phrases.
Traveling a few miles in the shoes of someone he watched learn to walk, Folds sounds more Christ-like than his catalog might suggest.
“Still Fighting It” leans on the latter. A mix of sunburst and shadow, it avoids exasperating its young subject by majoring in commiseration, not condemnation. “Everybody knows it sucks to grow up,” Folds sings, throwing out a lifeline to his child.
Traveling a few miles in the shoes of someone he watched learn to walk, Folds sounds more Christ-like than his catalog might suggest. Identity, incarnation, substitution, union—these grand theological mysteries seem a little simpler set to a father’s guardedly optimistic melody.
The National’s “Afraid of Everyone” wheezes and whirs like the motor animating my anxious brain. Matt Berninger’s burrowing baritone repeats the refrain “With my kid on my shoulders I try / Not to hurt anybody I like,” and I mouth along like it’s liturgy. So much speaks to me in one turn of phrase. The need to protect a child who might be too precious for this unforgiving world; the need to defend myself against a world that might cut me down to size in front of him; the desire to sidestep every potential landmine that might blow us all to hell.
Lately, the songs of Matthew Houck’s Phosphorescent seem most resonant. On “My Beautiful Boy,” the tired-eyed dad joyfully fumbles his words, inching toward the ineffable: “My beautiful boy / I couldn’t fit it in these lines / My beautiful boy / I couldn’t fit it into rhyme.” What a grace for Houck’s son to rest assured that, even once, his father felt completely overcome in his presence. That sort of adoration holds the power to shape a person, to set their future course.
Fatherhood ranks among my greatest literary influences. Not every piece directly addresses the pursuit, but my son sits over my shoulder each time I sit down to a blank page. In these moments, we trade places; he becomes my guardian, calling me to answer questions he’s yet to ask, shaping my words into something worth inheriting.
And I do see my work as his inheritance, every word a hint, a bread crumb. Where will they lead? Hopefully down a path to joy, maturity, quiet confidence and contentment in Christ. They should steer him around the sins of his father and stack up like stones, Ebenezers to my seldom moments of virtue. God, may I never leave him a rule book or a mold to break. Rather let me scribble words like the lines of a sketch, offering an outline of what it means to be a man.
To write like a Matthew Houck or Ben Folds, or the best version of myself, requires generosity and vulnerability. It has nothing to do with the safety and mediocrity synonymous with dad rock. This sort of art only happens with defenses down, with a soft heart and eyes that easily well up both from joy and heartache.
All writing, I know, is aspirational. The drafts of ourselves we turn in benefit from emotional hindsight and the best of intentions. So often we parent on the page better than we do in flesh and blood. We know where to place all the commas, when to interrogate an idea further, how to draw a conclusion. As he reads my words, my actions and the ellipses between, I pray my son finds eyes to see and ears to hear me as I was and wanted to be.
Maybe dad rock is the new punk, not a genre as much as a way of life. Life is mysterious and often frightening. We grope and grasp for light; we try and fail to identify objects worthy of our significant affections. So, if God extends his grace, let me go on the record over and over again, playing a different sort of dad rock, making a noise worth following.