A Father's Day Mix Of Songs With Mixed Feelings About Fathers
Every May, there's no shortage of mawkishly sentimental songs to play on Mother's Day, but a month later, there are comparatively few Father's Day equivalents. Sure, there are some treacly tracks like Bob Carlisle's 1997 adult-contempo hit "Butterfly Kisses," but fatherhood is more often than not invoked in pop music as a discomfiting sexual metaphor (see "Big Poppa," "Father Figure," and the countless songs that feature the phrase "who's your daddy?").
The best and most enduring songs about fatherhood tend to explore darker and more complex themes, or depict imperfect or absent dads, rather than provide sunny theme songs: "Cat's In The Cradle," "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone," even Everclear's "Father of Mine." This Sunday will be the third Father's Day I've celebrated since becoming one myself; I have a good relationship with my father and am deeply devoted to my son. But I'd rather listen to the songs on this Spotify playlist, and others that explore the complexities and unpredictable gray areas in the bond (or lack thereof) between a man and his son or daughter, than hear goddamn "Butterfly Kisses" again.
1. Pulp, "A Little Soul"
For years, I heard this single from 1998's This Is Hardcore as Jarvis Cocker inhabiting another dodgy character in one of his songs, an unreliable narrator who's self-aware enough to warn his son that he can't be relied on, imploring "You look like me, but please don't turn out like me." It was only recently that I learned that the Pulp frontman reunited with his own estranged father, who'd run off to Australia while Cocker was a child, the same year the song was released.
2. Mike Watt, "Piss-Bottle Man"
Watt's father is pictured on the cover of his 1997 "punk rock opera" Contemplating The Engine Room, and much of the album's narrative centers on parallels between the Minutemen bassist's touring adventures in the back of a van and his dad's years of service in a Navy submarine. But perhaps Watt's most perversely memorable tribute to his father is on his first solo album, 1995's Ball-Hog or Tugboat? "Piss-Bottle Man" is a musical homage to The Who's "Pictures of Lily" and a lyrical homage to the elder Watt's tradition of keeping a receptacle in his truck on long drives to avoid pit stops: "Drivin' in his shoes, usin' the bottle he used/ Every time I pop I think of my pop and pay my dues." Even more hilariously, Watt drafted alt-rock heartthrob Evan Dando to sing this celebration of urination and used a major-label budget to shoot a video for it.
3. Jay-Z and Kanye West, "New Day"
The sadly low number of dedicated fathers in the African-American community is reflected in the especially dark catalog of hip-hop songs about dads. Shawn Carter himself has contributed to that tradition with 2003's "Moment of Clarity," confessing "pop died, didn't cry, didn't know him that well." And on the 2000 Amil collaboration "For Da Fam," he obliquely referenced a possible love child or pregnancy scare that otherwise never became public knowledge. But on last year's Watch The Throne, amidst soon-to-be-confirmed rumors that wife Beyoncé Knowles was expecting, Jay and Kanye each wrote a verse addressed to possible future sons. And Jay's rhymes on "New Day" remain more conflicted, thoughtful and touching than anything on "Glory," the cheeseball track he dropped the week that Blue Ivy Carter was born.
4. Teairra Mari, "No Daddy"
In the summer of 2005, Jay-Z took two young divas under his wing as president of Def Jam, and helped both score breakthrough hits and release debut albums. Rihanna's "Pon De Replay" ended up being her first danceable uptempo hit, while Teairra Mari's "Make Her Feel Good" wound up the sole success of a on- hit wonder. I can't help but wonder whether history would've have told a different story if Mari hadn't followed up her first single with "No Daddy," an aggressive anthem for fatherless girls that didn't quite have the breezy summer jam appeal of "Make Her Feel Good."
5. Spymob, "National Holidays"
Spymob, best known for providing the rock band backing for hip hop producers The Neptunes' genre-bending N.E.R.D. project, never got the attention they deserved for their own songs, and the 2004 Star Trak album Sitting Around Keeping Score came and went with little notice. But I've always regarded that album as an overlooked classic, and one of the biggest reasons is "National Holidays," a first person narrative from the perspective of a divorced dad, voicing his frustration with an ex who got custody of the daughter they both want to raise: "You get to wake her up every day, and we divide up national holidays." My dad wanted to raise me and my brother on a daily basis, but after the divorce, he only got to see us every other weekend. I tapped my toes to this song's catchy tune dozens of times before I listened to the lyrics and realized what it was about, and it ripped my fucking heart out.