On May 8, Uproxx Cultural Critic Steven Hyden will release his new book, Twilight Of The Gods: A Journey To The End Of Classic Rock, from Dey Street Books, which you can order now. In this exclusive excerpt, he writes about how the term “dad rock” came to be applied to so many bands.
My new book, Twilight Of The Gods: A Journey To The End Of Classic Rock, covers topics such as Frampton Comes Alive! and Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” and David Bowie’s cocaine habits in the ’70s. If that sounds interesting to you, I’m going to assume that you’ve heard the term “dad rock.” I’m also going to assume that you like dad rock. This is good, because I (obviously) also like dad rock. A lot.
But let’s say you have no clue what dad rock is. In the parlance of our times, “dad rock” is used to describe three kinds of bands.
1. A dad-rock band is a band that your dad liked when he was young.
The most straightforward definition. Initially, dad rock was meant to describe popular if also unfashionable groups from the ’60s and ’70s — Steely Dan is probably the most emblematic dad-rock band of all time, though dadness is also strong with the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, Paul Simon, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. However, dads have gotten younger over time, so now it also applies to bands from the ’90s, like Pearl Jam and Wilco. (The current generation of dads might very well be the last for whom rock is popular enough for “dad rock” to work as a recognizable signifier.)
2. A dad-rock band is a band that is consciously and unapologetically influenced by bands from the ’60s and ’70s.
This version of dad rock was born in the ’80s with groups like U2 and R.E.M., who came up during the first decade in which rock music was divided into distinct halves by the advent of punk and the rise of classic-rock radio. These twin events severed modern rock from its past, even as rock’s past survived and weirdly carried on a parallel life in competition with modern rock. To some, the act of plugging in a guitar was now automatically construed as “retro” or “nostalgic” (i.e., the judgmental form of “retro”). It was now possible to sound like a rock band and act like a rock band and perform rock-band-like tasks in a contemporary setting and be viewed as not contemporary.
This gap between rock’s “classic” and post-“classic” periods created a battle of conflicting impulses—burying the past vs. building upon the roots — that every subsequent important rock band has had to reconcile. For dad rockers, many of whom came to the music as it started its cultural decline, rock ’n’ roll was like folk music, a tradition handed down as a box of tools that could be used to build and fortify a subculture outside of the pop mainstream. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes — one of the defining dad-rock bands of the ’90s — once referred to this continuum in a Behind The Music episode as “the song,” an ongoing collabo- ration between an unborn future and the mythical past to create something that feels a little realer and more permanent than the latest trends.
3. A dad-rock band is a band composed of dudes who are old enough to be dads.
This one is tricky, because a band can start out in stark opposition to dad rock in one decade and then age into dad rock in another decade. Sonic Youth was not a dad-rock band in the ’80s but became a dad-rock band in the ’00s. Yo La Tengo also became a dad-rock band at that time. So did Pavement. Sleater-Kinney became a dad-rock band in spite of being made up of women. This is all just a function of the space-time continuum.
No matter which of the three definitions apply, classifying a band or artist as dad rock is generally understood to be a putdown. For starters, the word “dad” has a terrible connotation in rock history. Jim Morrison wanted to kill his dad. Harry Chapin suggested that karma eventually screws your dad over, because (of course) he’s a jerk. Paul Westerberg and Kurt Cobain both distinguished dads (bad) from fathers (less bad) in “Androgynous” and “Serve The Servants,” respectively, agreeing on the overall failure of their respective patriarchs as male role models.
In terms of dad rock, the modifier “dad” is meant to weaken the word “rock,” divorcing it from any sense of power, danger, or sexual excitement. This matters if you care about classic rock, because the implicitly negative epithet “dad rock” has overshadowed the implicitly positive “classic rock” as the favored term for how rock ’n’ roll is now discussed.