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Musical Portraits of Contemporary Fathers

Contributing writer Charlie Maybee celebrates fathers with a list of contemporary pop songs that commemorate the good and bad of fatherhood.

Music Portraits of Contemporary Fathers amalgamation

Father’s Day can be a sentimental or challenging day depending on individual perspective, but there is no doubt that dads have a significant influence over the way that many people move through the world, and how they express themselves through music. This year, I am deciding to move against the grain a bit and discuss some contemporary pop songs about fathers or fatherhood that run the gamut from positive to negative experiences, often landing somewhere in between.

I want to be clear from the get-go that this is not a ranked list of songs nor a definitive guide to portrayals of fatherhood in music. It is more a think-piece that explores a general theme found across a variety of songs and styles.

Without further ado, here are some songs that come up for me, and please feel free to listen along with our official playlist:

1)     “Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day (2004)

Though this song has become a yearly meme for many, there is something unique about Billie Joe Armstrong’s reflective ballad about his deceased father who passed when he was only 10 years old. This is surprisingly sad and sentimental for someone who has penned many a lyric about bad or absent parents (“Welcome to Paradise”, “Brat”, “The Grouch”, and even the “Rock and Roll Girlfriend” section of “Homecoming” off the same album). So, to have something this emotional about a father hits differently, and it makes sense that it would make it a difficult song for Armstrong to perform live. Dead fathers are still fathers, and this song unearths the simultaneous, involuntary pain and love that comes along with such a relationship after 20 years.

2)     “Styrofoam Plates” by Death Cab for Cutie (2001)

For all the people who want to do the opposite of celebrating on Father’s Day, this song is specifically on this list for you. This is probably the most venomous song Death Cab has ever written, and they do it incredibly well with a story about the death of the lousiest of deadbeat dads. Though the band retains their acoustic leaning indie rock sound, there is a quiet rage that slowly boils over by the final verse which begins with the throat slashing line, “You’re a disgrace to the concept of family.” As the song’s narrator describes having to sit in a church pew and listen to others saying nice things about his life and integrity, it’s clear that there is nothing but contempt and dissent for this person who was “not quite a father, but a donor of seeds to a poor, single mother.”

3)    “Daddy Lessons” by Beyoncé (2016)

When I first heard this song in 2016 when Lemonade first dropped, I was floored by its mix of country blues and brutally honest storytelling. There is a lot of love in this song for Beyoncé’s father and previous manager, Mathew Knowles, but it is also clear that he was a stone-faced authority figure in her life. There’s violence and protection, a keen sense of insight, and a fierce loyalty that is vividly painted by this musical portrait of fatherhood, which she, herself, has also come to embody. It’s placement as the 6th track out of 12 total, making it the literal center of the album, also feels structurally important as Mr. Knowles presence becomes something of a model for both who she was becoming at that moment in her life, and both the expectations and consequences of her partner’s duplicitous actions.

4)     “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance (2006)

I expect that this to be the song on this list that I’ll get some flak for, but I stand by the fact that the crux of this song’s iconic opening stanzas is the father of the patient, the album’s fictional protagonist. It’s wild how Gerard Way was able to capture charged sense of both wonder and fear with this monologue about fatherly expectations, saving the broken, learning to embrace change and loss, and, ultimately, being ready to die. Paradoxically, it is both paralyzing and freeing in a way that archetypal fatherly advice often is, and we experience the patient grapple with this in his dying moments. Towards the end of the bridge, he arrives at the line “Just a man / I’m not a hero / I’m just a boy who had to sing this song” which feels like the boiling over of a fateful destiny handed down by his father’s advice.

5)     “Winter” by Tori Amos (1992)

This song has made it onto many a sentimental Father’s Day playlist, and I’m jumping on the bandwagon because it’s just so stunning. One could say that “Winter” feels like a play on Harry Chapin’s famous paternal cautionary tale, “Cat’s in the Cradle”, but between a father and daughter who both mirror their need for the other’s approval. Amos delivers intense feelings of love and loss of time with a subtle hand as she slips on her father’s winter glove – an interesting play on stepping into another person’s shoes. With the theme of a seasonal chill against the warm embrace of her lyrics and breathy melodies, the song proves itself easily as a new fatherly cautionary tale for millennials full of advice about changing perspectives, perseverance, and appreciating what you have before seasons change.

So, what are some of your favorite songs about fathers? Do any of these songs resonate with you? Or are there better depictions of contemporary fatherhood out there that I’ve missed? Be sure to let us know as your recommendations and check out all these songs on our official Father’s Day Playlist on Spotify.

Charlie Maybee

Charlie Maybee is a dancer, musician, educator, and writer based in Charleston, South Carolina who currently teaches with the Dance Program at the College of Charleston. His primary work as an artist is with his performing collective, Polymath Performance Project, through which he makes interdisciplinary performance art that centers tap dance as the primary medium of expression and research. He also currently plays rhythm guitar for the Charleston-based punk band, Anergy, and releases music as a solo artist under the name Nox Eterna.

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