Wilco and the Many Faces of Dad Rock - Father's Week on BTR


Jeff Tweedy, photo from WikiMedia Commons

With summer officially rearing its sweaty self onto an already steaming spring, it brings with it a host of concerns: heat strokes and sunburns, West Nile virus, violence, and dad rock.

Many are of the opinion that dad rock has some specific era attached to it, namely the 70s, which personifies all that is daddy-ish about rock. But daddies weren’t all born in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and even some of those want nothing to do with Credence, Skynyrd, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen. Surely dads would not stoop so low as to start listening to kid rock, but for dads whose street presence has taken a backseat to their home life, the Internet music scene provides plenty of chances to renew their cool status.

Middle-aged adolescents in Brooklyn, dragging their confused babies into bars as if childcare were just some passing fad, ensure on a daily basis that their kids grow up with equal parts taste and irony by clouding their ears up with echoey somnambulists like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and any other band that most people in the world would refer to as wuss rock.

Not all dads care as much about the next Animal Collective album as they do about their child’s future, but a common tone tends to pervade the sound of dad rock that follows along with certain fatherly sensibilities. Dad rock does not adhere to the edict issued by Motown that “papa was a rolling stone,” nor does it think too much about 2Pac’s impression of his father on “Papa’z Song”, “Maybe it’s my fault for being a father livin’ fast, but livin’ slow, mean half the dough, and you won’t get no ass.” In dad rock, any attempt to incorporate too much sexy is going to make dads look bad, and that is not the goal of dad rock.

In other words, if a modern day sex icon like Kenny G started billing his act as “dad rock/jazz,” even fewer fathers than usual would show up to see him blow.

Real dad rock plays for the father whose love for slip-and-slides and potato hot dog buns is only exceeded by his reverence for the title of paterfamilias and the honorable duties that said title entails. It implies a dad who would sacrifice his own interests for those of his kids, namely the need to be considered cool by his peers through the acquisition of trendy music, footwear, and the crowding up of places where younger people should congregate.

This sacrifice is, in essence, what dad rock is all about: a farewell to self-indulgent angst, stylish effusiveness, and the need to stay hip to whatever the new scene has started selling. Could dad rock get any more boring, any lamer? Could fatherhood be any worse?

Perhaps, but within that lame, unchallenging sound is an important message: Congratulations, you are free! You do not have to be hip anymore! Throw away your form-fitting clothes, buy a bunch of tools, and remind your children every day of something that makes you look like a loser to them. They are already competing with kids at school and they do not want you buggering up their image issues at home, so do them a favor and make that nu-wave shoe-grazing electro-classical sextet your sexy little secret.

As beneficent as dad rock appears to be in managing a dad’s coolness level in the family, the message simply does not assuage the anxiety of the inevitable midlife crisis. If there were a Midlife crisis benefit concert today, no one would invite Wilco, Coldplay, Tom Petty, or Ike Turner to play.

Weathered and sweet like a pair of old Levi’s, dad rock turns up the volume on good memories and recognizes, in a vague sense, the rises and falls of a man’s life that ultimately lead to appreciating the sophistication of dad rock. That weathered and slightly saccharine sound can be found in the majority of Wilco, the requisite favorite among dad rock aficionados.

Men whose hearts turn to Gerber at the very sight of their child will swoon to the gentle wistfulness of a staple Wilco pop track like “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which starts with the telling phrase, “I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands” and then goes on to remember “playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.” The song treats the memory with admiration, understanding that aging means that certain youthful wiles have ended in order to make way for talking fondly about those long gone youthful wiles. Jeff Tweedy mastered, way back on Summer Teeth, the art of distance while singing about heartbreak.

Before the world forgets though, the man is still responsible for the gorgeous, tragic magic of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that should excuse Wilco from any accusations of making boring music for American dads.

The ending of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot paves the road for a Wilco who several years later would embrace dad rock and largely shed darker poetry; “Poor Places” is a man fighting against total resignation, and “Reservations,” which spirals down and out with a repetition of the mantra “it’s not about you,” is a harrowing instance of depression’s destructive effects of love. More an exception than the rule, YHF will not be making an appearance on Wilco’s next album, Wilco: (For Babies).

At the beginning of “Poor Places,” Tweedy plays with his subjects, moving from an image of his father as a departing sailor, to an image of an unnamed “singer,” and finally to the “I” of the song. Each one’s “jaw’s been broken” and “fangs have been pulled,” a father-son-hero bond of injured spirits and injured voices that ends with a singular man who is “not going outside” because he has plenty of other problems to deal with inside. In a way, this is Wilco’s magnum opus on the stripped down essence of dad rock, an ethereal meditation on maintained detachment and floating memories from which dad rock draws most of its derision.

So, the next time your friend abuses the term ‘dad rock’, let him know that one day when songs are entirely composed of screamed expletives, Kanye West and Cannibal Corpse will move into their respective roles as dad rap and dad hardcore representatives, giving newer generations a reason to poke fun at their elders.

Written by: Jakob Schnaidt