A quick Google search for the phrase “Dad Rock” brings up 200,000 results. The top hit is an Urban Dictionary definition, followed by an interview with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, where he reclaims the term and defends his music’s relation to it. While this goes on, just months ago The Toronto Standard wondered if the new Feist album was more pleasant dinner party soundtrack and less innovative than the Top 40 scene it’s supposed to contrast. It’s an interesting question. These are all fixations on the same small fear, wriggling in the back of our minds: Our vital, cutting edge youth culture may have unknowingly accepted a bunch of boring music our parents would like into our ranks.
Music criticism has embraced the term “Dad Rock” for years now. It’s meant to easily categorize and identify music that is too traditional, too conservative, too content with being easy and comfortable. In a word: boring. If MTV can be marketed as, “This ain’t your daddy’s music,” then anything that goes against their ideals must surely be your daddy’s music. And for some reason, that’s terrible.
The problem with the term “Dad Rock” and attaching it to all “safe” music is that it’s a broad, easy dismissal. The word allows people to get away without deconstructing music further, acknowledging what does and doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter if it’s Wilco, or Feist, or Bon Iver. If it veers a little too close to Phil Collins or Fleetwood Mac, it can be written off with a shrug. “Meh – Dad Rock.”
If the idea is that boring music is bad music, I’m right there with you. But adhering to an out-of-fashion, middle of the road tradition, without any snarl or attitude, is not synonymous with boring. Even the radical cutting edge of music can put out some real, soulless clunkers. Who hasn’t felt compelled to skip track after minute 9 of a repetitive techno beat? The complaint of Dad Rock isn’t really about Dad Rock; it’s about music critics faced with something that is so normal it doesn’t fit into the many waves and genre movements in modern music.
How we came to this point has everything to do with the misleading nature of the term. Indie rock culture is generally intent on being against the grain, an alternative to alternative that everyone is still struggling to completely define. In this conversation, we found ourselves going against the grain for so long that the grain isn’t even in the picture anymore. It turned out, that after so much of the rebellious, arty ideals of indie culture became commonplace in everything, suddenly the grain was the outsider. It was a challenge to take the uncool and make it cool.
It strikes me that embracing traditions like adult contemporary shouldn’t be inherently bad. Like anything else, it’s a move that can be done well or poorly, and we’ve done pretty well of sussing out the cream of the crop so far. If your sweater vested father walks into your room where you’re blasting Sky Blue Sky and he gives you a thumbs up, feel no shame.
I wonder sometimes if the fear of falling into Dad Rock is tied directly into the fear that we are becoming our parents, or that we are getting older and less interesting. But that fear is never properly combated by broad dismissals of some great music traditions. In doing so, we’ve unknowingly recreated that poisonous conversation about what is and isn’t trendy. So the new Kathleen Edwards isn’t particularly innovative or even fresh. If youthful indie culture is to be as counter cultural and diverse as it claims to be, then it can embrace a broad palette of sensibilities – even the conservative dinner party kind.
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