As you may already know, Dystopian Dance Party is a family affair. That, combined with our mutual gluttony, makes us pretty much experts on the spirit of Thanksgiving: the day when most Americans join together with family members they don’t particularly like to consume quantities of food well beyond what the human body requires. So, this Thanksgiving, we’re applying our expertise to songs about family: the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you’re spending the long holiday weekend with your own families, then maybe this playlist will remind you that things could be worse. And if you’re not seeing your family this Thanksgiving–well, then that’s something to be thankful for right there.
1. Sly & The Family Stone: “Family Affair”
(from There’s a Riot Goin’ On, 1971)
Obviously, any playlist about family is going to have to include Sly and the Family Stone: the groundbreaking psychedelic soul outfit led by Sly Stone (born Stewart) and his younger siblings Rose and Freddie. And what better song to include from the First Family of Funk, you might ask, than their 1971 single “Family Affair?” Actually, like the rest of its parent album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, “Family Affair” doesn’t entirely live up to its title; an increasingly isolated Sly crafted the majority of the song himself, programming its stark drum machine beat and laying down the bass and vocals in his Bel Air home studio, then bringing in guest Billy Preston to play the electric piano part. The song’s lyrics–reportedly, and believably, sung by Sly while laying down in bed–are surprisingly downtrodden as well, painting an ambivalent picture of family relationships as an emotionally taxing but ultimately necessary part of our harsh lives; as he memorably croons at the conclusion of the first verse, “blood’s thicker than the mud.” But hey, at least Sly didn’t completely forget about his family: that’s Rose singing on the hook, bringing a much-needed bit of cheer to Sly’s funky ennui.
2. Z-Ro: “Auntie & Grandma”
(from Let the Truth Be Told, 2005)
Songs dedicated to mothers have been a staple of sensitive gangsta rap ever since 2Pac recorded “Dear Mama” in 1995. But what about those family members who aren’t biological mothers, but bring us up with the same amount of love and care? That’s the subject of “Auntie & Grandma” by Houston rapper Z-Ro: dedicated to his “two favorite girls,” Aunt Sandra and Grandma Dorothy, who “showed [him] love from December to December” and are “the main reason why [he’s] not outlined in chalk today.” Okay, so it’s no “Dear Mama,” but it is a heartwarming tribute to the special loved ones who step in to care for some of us when our parents can’t or won’t.
3. E-40 featuring Otis & Shugg: “Family”
(from Sharp on All 4 Corners, 2014)
And now, here’s E-40 to prove that even the hyphiest among us still likes to relax sometimes with the family–though, as he points out, family can often be more of a source of drama than relaxation: “When you down, some family’ll kick you / When you up, some family’ll diss you / When you die, some family’ll miss you / When you alive, death some of them wish you.” But in the end, just remember what R&B veterans Otis & Shugg sing on the hook: family’s all we got. And if that doesn’t help, then maybe take some of E-40’s other advice: “I know people hate they family / But they love they dog and they pet.”
4. Aerosmith: “Uncle Salty”
(from Toys in the Attic, 1975)
These days, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler looks and dresses like an eccentric grandmother, a fact already makes him a shoo-in for this playlist. But back in 1975, he was depicting a much darker kind of family life with songs like “Uncle Salty”: a menacing tale of child neglect, prostitution, and, if a later interview with Tyler is to be believed, pedophilia. “Salty worked in a home for lost children and had his way with this little girl,” he told biographer Stephen Davis in 1997. “That’s what it’s about. I’m the little girl, the orphaned boy. I put myself in that place. I’m Uncle Salty too.” Sure, Grandma, whatever you say. Remember to take your medicine.
5. The Who: “Cousin Kevin”
(from Tommy, 1969)
If his songwriting contributions to the Who‘s 1969 rock opera Tommy are to be believed, then the band’s late bassist John Entwistle had a decidedly warped perspective on family relationships. Entwistle’s deceptively melodic “Cousin Kevin” is a gleefully voyeuristic chronicle of the abuse the album’s titular “blind, deaf and dumb” protagonist receives at the hands of his sadistic peer: tying him to a chair, ducking his head under bath water, shutting him outside in the cold, even putting “glass in [his] dinner / And spikes on [his] seat.” But if all that seems overly cruel to you, consider that “Kevin” is actually the milder of Entwistle’s two songs: the other one, “Fiddle About,” is a blow-by-blow narration of Tommy being molested by his “wicked Uncle Ernie.” Fun!
6. Gil Scott-Heron: “Home is Where the Hatred Is”
(from Pieces of a Man, 1971)
Still, as the ever-cheery Gil Scott-Heron demonstrates, family members don’t always have to directly abuse us to do us harm. Scott-Heron’s chilling yet soulful 1971 song “Home is Where the Hatred Is” is written from the perspective of a “junkie walking through the twilight,” back to a family too concerned with their own ideas of morality to give him the support he needs: “Stand as far away from me as you can and ask me why / Hang on to your rosary beads / Close your eyes to watch me die / You keep saying, ‘kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it’ / God, but did you ever try?” The song’s message is clear: a family without empathy isn’t much of a family at all; and, as Scott-Heron sings on the chorus, with a family like that, “it might not be such a bad idea if I never go home again.”
7. Steely Dan: “Cousin Dupree”
(from Two Against Nature, 2000)
Of course, there is also such a thing as being too close to your family members. Take, for example, the slacker protagonist of “Cousin Dupree,” an intentionally cringey character study from Steely Dan‘s 2000 comeback album Two Against Nature. Having glimpsed his “little cousin Janine” from “the comfort of his Aunt Faye’s couch,” he proceeds with the skeeviest come-on imaginable: “Honey, how you’ve grown / Like a rose / Well we used to play when we were three / How about a kiss from your Cousin Dupree?” Spoiler alert: Janine doesn’t take him up on his offer.
8. Ramones: “We’re a Happy Family”
(from Rocket to Russia, 1977)
To no one’s surprise, the familial scene depicted by New York punk’s founding brothers, the Ramones, is another dysfunctional one: a hollowed-out shell of the Middle American nuclear family ideal that would make Alan Ball proud, complete with a Thorazine-popping mom, a closeted dad, and a drug-dealing teenage son. But where more hackneyed writers would go for a tone of hand-wringing self-importance (ahem, Alan Ball), Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy keep their emotional distance, sneering and smirking their way through the whole bizarro-Norman Rockwell tableau. And why not? Compared to the sad bastards at the center of their song, the “bruddahs” are basically a model of healthy domesticity.
9. Bill Withers: “Grandma’s Hands”
(from Just as I Am, 1971)
But enough cynicism; here’s another song about families that actually behave in the way they’re supposed to. Bill Withers wrote “Grandma’s Hands” about his real-life maternal grandmother, Lula, and his genuine affection is clear from the lyrics: both in the memories of her nurturing influence on his life and in his longing to see her again in the afterlife. It’s enough to break through even the most carefully reinforced façade of hipster irony. But if your heart really is made of stone, then just consider the fact that “Grandma’s Hands” also gave producer Teddy Riley the basis for a much less family-friendly classic by Blackstreet: without Grandma Lula, “No Diggity” wouldn’t exist, and that’s an alernate reality I refuse to accept.
10. Ying Yang Twins featuring Anwar: “My Brother’s Keeper”
(from U.S.A.: United State of Atlanta, 2005)
Continuing with the positive theme, here’s…wait, wait, there must be some mistake. Is this really a Ying Yang Twins song that’s not about hitting the booty club and downing near-fatal quantities of Patrón? Believe it or not, yes it is: “My Brother’s Keeper” finds Kaine and D-Roc in their rarest form, actually rapping between a whisper and a full-throated roar while they reflect on the depth of their fraternal bonds: “D-Roc is the ying, Kaine is the yang / But without the both of us we ain’t got a damn thang.” They may not actually come from the same blood–personally, I’m still holding out hope for a White Stripes-style “secretly married/divorced” situation–but it’s obvious that the “brothers” are as close as they can be without actually being twins. Now could you guys please go back to yelling about huge asses? I‘m starting to feel like I have something in my eye.
11. Paul and Linda McCartney: “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”
(from Ram, 1971)
An Abbey Road-style pop suite from Paul and Linda McCartney‘s pre-Wings joint album Ram, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is “about” family only insomuch as McCartney’s goofy stream-of-consciousness songs are ever about anything. He would, however, later tell Wings biographer Garry McGee that the character of Uncle Albert was based on his real uncle: someone he recalled “fondly,” and presumably to whom he was constantly apologizing. As for Admiral Halsey, “he’s one of yours, an American admiral”: William “Bull” Halsey, who commanded the United States Third Fleet against the Japanese during World War II and therefore “had to have a berth or he couldn’t get to sea.” McCartney interpreted the former half of the song as an apology to the previous generation, while the latter half depicted “an authoritarian figure who ought to be ignored.” So in other words, just five minutes of classic McCartney mouth noises, roughly approximating the English language. Sounds nice, though!
We’ve talked a lot about dysfunctional families in this post, but it’s important to note that “normalcy” is not a prerequisite for domestic happiness. That’s the hard lesson learned by MC Hammer in his Golden Raspberry-winning “Addams Groove,” a harrowing chronicle of his presumably real-life experiences living next door to America’s favorite family of macabre weirdos. At first, Hammer is understandably skeptical: “Now I don’t mind bein’ a friend / And showin’ a little bit of flava’ / But Wednesday, Pugsley, Gomez, Fester / Man, them some strange neighbors.” Then, after a close encounter with both Thing–the Addams’ pet “hand with the fingers high steppin'”– and Cousin Itt (“Yo! A perm with feet / Standin’ about three feet tall”), he decides he’s had enough. In the end, though, the Addams’ fearless individualism and genuine affection for one another wins the Hammer over: “Now is the time to get in your mind / It’s okay to be yourself / Take foolish pride and put it aside / Like the Addams, yo! They def!”
13. Lil’ Kim featuring Lil’ Shanice: “Aunt Dot”
(from The Notorious K.I.M., 2000)
It’s obvious from the opening lines of Lil’ Kim‘s “Aunt Dot”–in which the titular character leaves “a Glock” and “some blood on [Kim’s] sheets”–that she isn’t talking about an actual relative. But anyone who’s ever spent the holidays with an annoying extended family member knows that it doesn’t take a monthly surge in hormones to be driven to anger, paranoia, and even violence–why do you think they chose an “aunt” for the euphemism in the first place? Or, as Kim sighs toward the end of the song, “When Aunt Dot comes, oh brother / It’s like five Bloody Marys, one after another / She have you stressed, no wearin’ white, no sex / And when she get vexed, guess what happens next.” Trust us, Lil’ Kim, we know exactly what you mean–even the one of us who’s never been visited by “Aunt Dot” in person.
14. Bob Dylan: “Oh, Sister”
(from Desire, 1976)
Family relationships, as we’ve seen, can be a powerful source of support, as well as an equally powerful source of tension and pain. But they also imply a sense of duty, which is the subject of this song from Bob Dylan‘s short-lived mid-’70s rebirth. “Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms / You should not treat me like a stranger,” he sings with guest Emmylou Harris. “Our Father would not like the way that you act / And you must realize the danger.” Of course, if the capital “F” in “Father” didn’t already clue you in, it’s unlikely that Dylan and his co-lyricist Jacques Levy were talking about familial bonds in the most literal sense of the word. In a way, though, the song’s religious undertones just make it that much more powerful: suggesting that we’re all beholden, not only to our actual siblings, but also to our brothers and sisters in the human race. As Dylan and Levy put it, “We grew up together from the cradle to the grave”–we might as well take care of each other while we’re here.
15. Future: “Grandma”
(from Atlanta in Me, 2015)
Another nice thing about the whole “duty and obligation” side of families is that it turns family members into great subjects for solemn vows. That’s a fact with which Atlanta trap-rapper Future seems to be deeply acquainted, as he spends virtually the entire two-and-a-half-minute runtime of his mixtape track “Grandma” swearing on his grandma and even his “grandcousin” that he’s “got bricks here.” Oh, and he’s also “always smokin’ granddad,” which I can only imagine is street slang for a corncob pipe. Relax, Future, we believe you–you can leave your family out of it!
16. Kanye West: “Family Business”
(from The College Dropout, 2004)
Here with a more heartwarming portrayal of family is our old pal Kanye, who makes good on his promise to “spit it in [his] songs so sweet / Like a photo of your granny’s picture”–whatever that means. With its nostalgic sample from the Dells‘ “Fonky Thang” and its lyrics about soul food, electric slidin’, and the amateur dramatics of “Uncle Ray” and “Aunt Sheila,” “Family Business” is basically a musical version of the
#ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies hashtag, 12 years before Black Twitter was a twinkle in Black Jack Dorsey‘s eye. It doesn’t especially matter that the memories about which Kanye talks so passionately aren’t even his, but were “crowdsourced” from his guest singer Tarrey Torae; “Family Business” is a kind of hyperreality, a Platonic ideal of the modern African American family that is all but universally relatable, made all the more so because the performer is one of the people doing the relating.
17. Lou Reed: “Families”
(from The Bells, 1979)
If Kanye’s “Family Business” is calculated to be as universal as possible, then Lou Reed‘s “Families,” from his 1979 album The Bells, is almost claustrophobically personal. This isn’t just a song about an alienated adult coming home to visit his estranged family; it’s a song about Lou Reed coming home to visit his estranged family, which makes it infinitely more fascinating when he sings lines like, “And mama, I know how disappointed you are / And papa, I know that you feel the same way, too / And no, no, no, no, no, I still haven’t got married / And no, no, no, there’s no grandson planned here for you.” But you don’t have to be a junkie rock star to identify with Reed’s wistful depiction of the gulf between middle-class domestic expectations and the fuck-uppery of a younger generation; basically all you have to do is attend a family Thanksgiving.
18. Johnny Cash: “Daddy Sang Bass”
(from The Holy Land, 1969)
Anyone who’s read a Johnny Cash biography, or even just watched the 2005 biopic Walk the Line, would be hard-pressed to imagine many moments of joy in the Cash family home. But listen to the “Man in Black”‘s 1968 single “Daddy Sang Bass,” and you’d be forgiven for assuming that his upbringing was downright idyllic: Cash–and, by extension, the song’s writer Carl Perkins–spends the song looking warmly back on his memories as “a lad…in a family circle singin’ loud,” while also looking ahead to that inevitable day when he’ll rejoin the same family, “in the sky, Lord, in the sky.” It would thus be easy to dismiss this sepia-tinged Perkins/Cash family portrait as revisionist, reactionary pandering to a “Silent Majority” country music audience primed to drink up its potent cocktail of stalwart family values, Born Again preaching, and “good ol’ days” nostalgizing. But I’m inclined to be a little more generous. A family at its best can focus on the positive, forgive one another for the past, and work together to make a better future; and that, at its core, is what “Daddy Sang Bass” seems to be about. Even the song’s use of the Carter Family‘s “Can the Circle be Unbroken” deftly joins together past, present, and future: the Carters, of course, representing both the symbolic family that is the country music tradition, and Cash’s actual in-laws in his recent second marriage to June Carter. Of course, as his children from his first marriage would attest, Johnny Cash was far from a model patriarch in his own right; but the story that “Daddy Sang Bass” represents, of the endurance of familial bonds against all obstacles, remains valid all the same.