Nature, Nurture, and Dad Rock - Biology Week

By Jordan Reisman

Wilco. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At a certain point in life, probably sometime after high school, rebelling from your parents gets a little boring.

The first sign of your weariness to rebel will come when you’re listening to music in your room and your dad walks in and says, “Hey, who is this?” This sudden interest in what you listen to will make you feel things you’ve never felt before. These emotions may not have their own names, but the music certainly does: dad rock.

The term “dad rock” was first used as a name given by Pitchfork to describe Wilco’s early sound, but dad rock has come to mean, according to the ever-reliable zeitgeist monitor, Urban Dictionary, music that Baby Boomers would listen to and/or write themselves. But the real phenomenon is not that dad rock exists, it’s that young people are also a part of the buying market that consumes this genre; without the kid, there is no dad. So how could a youngin’ be conditioned to enjoy dad rock? Is it the environment one grows up in or is it part of one’s biology? In other words, where does dad rock fit in to the framework of nature vs. nurture?

Nurture seems to be the easier of the two to test because if someone grows up listening to a certain style of music, it’s natural to assume they’ll come to accure strong feelings about it, right? Well, not necessarily. While this seems plausible enough in theory, it goes on the assumption that young kids aren’t discovering music from outside the influence of their parents.

For me at least, one of the best parts about adolescence was having that one cool friend who would show me the cool punk bands who sang about worshipping Satan and stealing stuff. These theories go beyond my own experiences, the BBC ran a comprehensive story on whether or not parents can shape a child’s music taste. British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber told BBC, “You want to introduce your child to the things you believe are the best. When my son was eight years old I took him to see [the Russian cellist Mstislav] Rostropovich. That’s a special thing to have seen and it will stay with David all his life.”

This seems to stem from a basic parental sentiment that they want their child to be exposed to the best things possible – “the best,” of course, being an entirely subjective determination. In fact, as someone who grew up with a father who employed this very practice, and continues to do so, I can attest to its efficacy.

In a covert attempt to have me adopt his cinematic, music, and literary tastes, my father would refer to each recommendation as “One of the great (films, records, books) of its time.” By employing some sort of logic that something is better merely because it is old, he was trying to get me to come around to what he thought of as being his “classic taste.” I always understood he had the best of intentions though, so I humored him. I even consumed a few of these allegedly classic things (I finally read The Stranger this year).

In the same article, British conductor Jeremy Summerly tells the BBC that “the sort of music that was fashionable to the parent may have become distinctly unfashionable by the time the child is of the same age.”

I asked Gary Marcus, psychology professor at NYU and author of the book Guitar Zero, how he felt about the decision for a child to reject their parents’ music taste. For context, Marcus’ book is about him learning electric guitar at age 40 by going to a rock summer camp with middle-school aged kids, all the while trying to debunk the theory that there exists a musical gene in humans.

“I think that can come from a lot of different things, such as if parents don’t take an interest in what the kids are listening to. I don’t think it’s an inevitable thing because there are lots of kids today who do share part of their parents’ musical taste,” he told me. “In the book I spent some time going to rock summer camp, some of those kids knew all classic rock and all Top 40 stuff. They were almost being bilingual.”

It really just seems like there are kids who want to follow their parents’ music taste and some who do the opposite and reject it. Rejection of music to Gary Marcus now comes in the form of diversification.

“The biggest phenomenon is diversification, every kid can find their own music. What I find recently is undergrads that I teach don’t even know each other’s music,” says Marcus. “That’s really different from ten years ago.”

What about the kids who dig what their parents raised them on, but could also be found on the line outside of a club waiting to see The Hold Steady? Gary Marcus has thoughts on those kids too:

“Kids like to find their own music to form their own identity, but if you go to a Rock ‘n’ Roll summer camp, they’re going to know classic rock pretty well. There are lots of kids who know U2 and Springsteen just as well as their parents. It’s too glib to say kids like music their parents don’t. What dad rock counts as is who your dad is and what he likes. We have a tendency to like things that are familiar; we get nostalgic for things we are familiar with. For me that is disco. It may not be the best music to me but I’ll always appreciate it because that’s what I grew up around.”

Maybe instead of a rigidly defined set of bands, dad rock is less of a genre and more like a feeling you get when you hear a song from your childhood, and taking that same the comfort found in familiar sounds as you do with music you hear for the first time.

The BBC offers some cautionary advice for these “monkey see monkey do” offspring of aging rockers, though.

“You have to be very careful that if you introduce your child to that and they do follow you, they might alienate themselves from their friends at school. You could be stopping your children from growing up in a normal way with other children whose musical diet will be that of CBeebies.”

Borrowing your parents’ culture might be socially risky for modern youths, but kids alienating themselves and playing rock music can also give the world its Yngwie Malmsteens. But where retroism implies nurture, does the phenomenon have anything to do with the nature side of the debate? Can we develop our own music taste in the art of the past based on biological factors at present? We’d all like to think that the taste that we have is so completely unique that it applies to only us.

In Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus proposes that instead of a musical gene in human biology, there are multiple factors at work instead of one gene that would make someone be gifted at music or be into a certain style.

“Music is something we can learn naturally but in the same way we learn about movies naturally, you wouldn’t think the ancestors were watching movies. Music is the same way; it’s not that old. Most of our evolution preceded music,” says Marcus. “Music is a technology, built by the craftspeople who made music and techniques. Some are like instruments and some are like harmony, which wasn’t a part of music 1000 years ago. Nature predisposes us to like changing patterns that have something familiar to them, whether it’s musical or something aesthetic. Our brains give us a reward for something that surprises us.”

Though he is talking about the physical ability to play music, music taste works the same way. Music, historically speaking, is a relatively new development. There is no single genealogical factor that allows us to process certain music in a certain way, so a nature-only argument about enjoying dad rock is therefore null and void, though Marcus sees enjoying music as a collaboration between nature and nurture.

In his article entitled Musicality: Instinct or an Acquired Skill?, he emphasizes his point about musicality not being an innate skill nor really a tool for natural selection, but he discusses some biological factors as to why humans enjoy music. Such factors include liking familiarity, similarity to the human voice, reward systems for novelty and correct predictions (i.e. repeated melodies and alterations with different instrumentation).

So, while there is no discernible gene that causes you to like “Tears Don’t Matter Much” by Lucero, your brain gives you a fist bump for listening to Ben Nichols repeat that golden chorus.

Simply describing music in terms of dopamine levels and neurological rewards can be impersonal, which is why I shall conclude with a heartfelt sentiment.

Dad rock fulfills a much more basic function for a parent and their child: bonding. What else secures that familial tie more than singing along to a song with your parent? Maybe a real-life Kodak moment of you catching a hall-of-famer trout while your dad helps you hold the rod, but as kids get older those moments are harder to come by.

In my own experience, as I’ve cemented my own personal identity with age and spent less time trying to be the mirror image of my parents, I have come to really appreciate the times that my dad and I go to shows together. Marcus describes this as “two generations sharing a cultural experience.” Be it nature, nurture, or both, parents will always find a way to share their Springsteen with us.

Check out Gary Marcus’ book, Guitar Zero, which is now a New York Times bestseller and is available everywhere books are sold. You can also, follow him on Twitter @GaryMarcus.