Last month we kicked off our Dystopian Dance Mix feature with a tribute to Mother’s Day, which means it’s time to throw a bone to the dads. Much like pop songs about moms, dad songs tend to be Oedipal to the core: you’re a lot more likely to hear fathers depicted as deadbeat absentees or authoritarian monsters than as, you know, good dads. But maybe that’s part of the point: like good dads themselves, good dad songs are in the minority, which makes them all the more precious. So whether you’re a dad yourself, or just appreciate the amazing dad’s life, here are nineteen songs that celebrate–or at least chronicle–fatherhood in all its aspects. Listen, take notes, and if you have children yourself, make sure you or your partner are more of a Pops Staples and less of a Joe Jackson.
1. Undisputed Truth: “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”
(from Law of the Land, 1973)
We begin with perhaps the most famous of all absentee-father songs: “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Written by Motown’s dynamic songwriting duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the original version by the Temptations is such a monster that even its single edit is a whopping seven minutes long. Fortunately for us, there was also the Undisputed Truth: a psychedelic soul pet project for Whitfield, who arranged their 1973 cover version to a much more playlist-friendly three and a half minutes. It’s also just a solid rendition, with the alternating male-female vocals by Undisputed Truth members Joe Harris, Billie Rae Calvin, and Brenda Joyce Evans lending a new dimension to Whitfield’s and Strong’s classic lyrics of a ne’er-do-well father who put himself in an “early grave” and left his family nothing but “alone.” Because after all, daughters can be abandoned just as easily as sons. Gender equality, I guess?
2. 2Pac featuring Wycked: “Papa’z Song”
(from Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., 1993)
Hey, remember “Dear Mama” by 2Pac? You know, that sweet song where he bared his soul about his relationship with his mother, and everybody (including us) put it on their list of the best Mother’s Day songs ever? Yeah, well, he was a lot less warm when it came to his dad. Tupac Shakur wrote “Papa’z Song” at a time when he hadn’t seen his father, Billy Garland, in almost twenty years; in a 1996 interview with Vibe, Shakur claimed that he had spent his whole life thinking his father was dead. The song thus imagines a cathartic meeting with Garland, beginning with a brazen dismissal of his father’s presumed desire for reconciliation: “We been getting along just fine without you / Me, my brother, and my mother / So, if you don’t mind, you can step the fuck off, pops…fuck you!”
But Pac is a lot more sophisticated than the average angry rapper, so he actually gives his fictionalized dad a voice too, with a verse (rapped in an eerie, artificially deepened voice) imagining his side of the story. It’s both a touching gesture to lend some humanity to an otherwise despised absentee father, and a more grown-up version of the abandoned child’s rationalizations attempting to explain why their dad isn’t there. Interestingly enough, Shakur would actually meet Garland the next year, while recovering from injuries sustained in a shooting at New York’s Quad Studios. In that same Vibe interview, he would say that the real-life meeting helped him get “past the father stage. I do want to know him, and I do know him. We did talk and he did visit and help me when I was locked down, but I’m past that.”
3. George Michael: “Father Figure”
(from Faith, 1987)
But fatherhood isn’t always about abandoning your progeny. Sometimes it’s also about creepy, paternalistic sexual dynamics–and who better to explore that side of the issue than a man infamous for exposing his dong to strangers in public restrooms? I’m reading the lyrics to “Father Figure” right now, and I honestly have no idea what this song is actually about. All I know is that the words “to be bold and naked at your side” should never appear in the same song as the word “father.” You’re lucky you’re so goddamn soulful, Mr. Michael. Now pull your pants up.
4. Lou Reed: “My Old Man”
(from Growing Up in Public, 1980)
The next couple of tracks on this playlist are about the other side of the absentee-father coin: the side where you wish your dad was absent, because his presence makes your family’s life a living hell. Coming from his largely overlooked 1980 album Growing Up in Public, “My Old Man” sounds a bit like Lou Reed attempting his best Bruce Springsteen impression; listen closely, though, and you’ll find some of the most chillingly confessional lyrics of his long career. Reed recounts his childhood idealization of his father, and the rage and disillusionment he felt as he grew older and realized his dad was no hero, but an abusive bully: “A son watches his father being cruel to his mother / And makes a vow to return only when / He is so much richer, in every way bigger / That the old man will never hit anyone again.” I’ll admit that I don’t know enough about Lou Reed’s personal life to judge the veracity of this story–and Reed was notoriously inscrutable about such things anyway–but whether it’s literally autobiographical or not, it’s a powerful song about the sobering moment when you realize that your parents are mere humans, with sometimes very serious flaws. It’s also a trenchant critique of the way father-son relationships all too often perpetuate the worst types of masculine ideals: “Can you believe what he said to me?” Reed spits, “He said, ‘Lou, act like a man.'” Fortunately, Lou didn’t take his old man’s advice; but after listening to this song, you have to wonder whether that lengthy drug addiction would have happened if it weren’t for dear ol’ dad.
5. Prince: “Papa”
(from Come, 1994)
Like Lou Reed, Prince is notoriously tight-lipped, and sometimes even outright misleading, when it comes to the details of his personal life: especially when it comes to his father, John L. Nelson, who he has been alternately (and obliquely) condemning and defending ever since Clarence Williams III played an alcoholic and abusive dad in the nakedly autobiographical 1984 movie Purple Rain. Now I don’t know if the real John Nelson is as much of an asshole as the father in Purple Rain–is anyone?–but I am inclined to take this stark, confessional track from 1994’s underrated Come as Prince’s last word on the subject. “Papa” tells the story of “1 September day that Papa worked 2 hard,” snatched his “baby” over a minor provocation, locked him in the closet, and beat him–which Prince dramatizes, rather uncomfortably, with some of his trademark eroticized squeals. Near the end, the music cuts out and Prince whispers, “Don’t abuse children, or else they turn out like me.” It’s not an easy listen from a guy who is most famous for sing-along party songs like “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “Kiss.” But true to form, it’s also not a total downer; the final verse suggests a kind of salvation that may exist even for someone like “Papa”: “Fair 2 partly crazy, deep down we’re all the same / Every single 1 of us knows some kind of pain / In the middle of all that’s crazy, this 1 fact remains: / If U love somebody, your life won’t be in vain.”
6. Big K.R.I.T.: “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”
(from Live from the Underground, 2012)
But seriously. Not all dads are absent or abusive (or whatever George Michael was trying to be). Some are even positive role models who shape their children into good men and women. Justin Scott, better known as Big K.R.I.T., was apparently lucky enough to have that kind of dad, and made him the subject of his 2012 song “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.” The title obviously references Robert T. Kiyosaki’s obnoxious best-selling 2000 self-help book, but K.R.I.T. turns it into a clever play on the old (and still true) idea that people can be “rich” with more than just material wealth: as he puts it, “money is the root, and love is all we had / In fact, I’m glad I had a rich dad, poor dad.”
7. Mavis Staples: “Pop’s Recipe”
(from Have a Little Faith, 2004)
While we’re on the subject of good dads, we would be remiss to ignore that most beloved of musical patriarchs, Roebuck “Pops” Staples–I mean, the guy’s name was a term of paternal endearment, for Christ’s sake. As we alluded at the beginning of the post, Pops was basically the anti-Joe Jackson: forming the family gospel-soul group the Staple Singers with son Pervis and daughters Mavis, Yvonne, and Cleotha, and taking them to fame and fortune with a minimum of dysfunction, and, at least as far as I’m aware, no beatings. “Pop’s Recipe,” written and recorded by Mavis Staples four years after her father’s death at age 85, is a tribute to the man and the indelible advice he gave to his children: “Accept responsibility, don’t forget humility / At every opportunity, serve your artistry / Don’t subscribe to bigotry, hypocrisy, duplicity / Respect humanity.” Sounds like a pretty solid recipe to me.
8. Elton John: “Into the Old Man’s Shoes”
(1971 B-side, available on Tumbleweed Connection)
Sometimes, though, it’s possible for a father to be toogood–to the point that it’s paralyzing for his children to contemplate following in his footsteps. This is the subject of Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s “Into the Old Man’s Shoes”: an outtake from the Americana-flavored 1970 album Tumbleweed Connection that eventually made its way out as a UK B-side to the much more famous ballad “Your Song.” The song is told from the perspective of a young man who plans to leave his hometown (Tombstone, because Bernie Taupin) after the death of his father, fed up with all the locals talking about how he “ain’t half the man he used to be.” In fact, it seems the pressure of stepping “into the old man’s shoes” is such that our protagonist has rejected his father’s way of life completely; rather than working “his life to feed his family,” he leads “a wicked way of life, the kind that should be tamed.” It’s a familiar narrative, but one I’m guessing John and Taupin didn’t write about from experience: I’m not sure what kinds of shoes their dads left behind, but I’m guessing they’ve been pretty well filled by now.
9. The Notorious B.I.G.: “Big Poppa”
(from Ready to Die, 1994)
Yeah, yeah, you knew it was coming eventually. “Big Poppa” falls under the same “Electra Complex” category as “Father Figure”–though Biggie at least has the decency to suggest his ladies just call him “Big Poppa,” rather than wanting to literally be their father figure. And besides, it’s not only grown women he wants to father: after all, he “sees some ladies tonight that should be havin’ [his] baby.” Still creepy? Yeah, maybe, but you can rap basically anything over the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” and come across smooth as hell.
10. Tyler, the Creator: “Bastard”
(from Bastard, 2009)
Much like his idol Eminem’s notorious and prolific series of screeds against his mom, the genius of Odd Future ringleader Tyler Okonma, a.k.a. Tyler, the Creator, is his ability to take the childhood pain he shares with countless other fatherless kids and blow it up into something cutting, visceral, and often uncomfortably raw. Thus, while in “Papa’z Song” 2Pac imagined a reasonably two-sided conversation with his long-absent dad, in “Bastard” Tyler just wants his father’s email “so I can tell him how much I fucking hate him in detail.” It’s a pitch-black, claustrophobic, and in its own way deeply moving song, driven by a stark repeating piano line played by Tyler himself (the opening line, “this is what the devil plays before he goes to sleep,” is an apt description). I may feel less enamored and more frustrated with Odd Future’s nihilistic schtick the further I get from my own teenage years, but it’s hard to deny the power Tyler finds in “Bastard” simply by plumbing the depths of his rage.
11. Birdman & Lil Wayne: “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy”
(from Like Father, Like Son, 2006)
Sometimes, though, the best cure for an absent father is a surrogate father: a big, bald surrogate father with gold teeth and facial tattoos. There’s no love lost between Lil Wayne and Dwayne Carter, Sr., who abandoned his son when he was just two years old–“He don’t give a shit about me [a]nd I don’t give a shit about him,” Wayne told GQ in 2011–but Cash Money co-founder Birdman has been Wayne’s adoptive “daddy” since he signed him as part of the Hot Boy$ way back in 1996. And really, they seem to have a father-son relationship any biological father would be proud to have. I know that when my son comes of age, if he and I can go crashing through walls on motorcycles and getting neck tattoos like Birdman and Weezy in the video for “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy,” I will be the happiest dad on the planet.
12. Jay-Z and Kanye West: “New Day”
(from Watch the Throne, 2011)
One of the more emotionally resonant tracks on Jay-Z’s and Kanye West‘s opulent album-length victory lap Watch the Throne, “New Day” finds the two then-childless rappers imagining the lessons they will pass on to their future sons over a spooky, Nina Simone-sampling beat co-produced by the RZA. For Kanye, that means learning from his own well-documented mistakes: with advice including not having an ego, not getting “caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind,” and, with hilarious specificity, never appearing on telethons. “I just want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life,” he raps with devastating honesty, “just want him to be someone people like.” Jay, meanwhile, sees fatherhood as his chance to make up for the sins of his own absentee father: “Promise to never leave him, even if his mama tweakin’ / ‘Cause my dad left me, and I promise never repeat him.” Both rappers’ verses are deeply moving; and it’s worth noting that since the song’s release in 2011, both Jay and Kanye have in fact had children–but daughters, rather than sons (pictured above). Fortunately, it turns out there’s a song for that too…
13. Nas: “Daughters”
(from Life is Good, 2012)
Recorded in the wake of his 2010 divorce from Kelis, Nas’ 2012 album Life is Good is a rare example of a domestic hip-hop record, like Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear with harder beats. But the album’s third single, “Daughters,” refers to neither Nas’ relationship with Kelis nor their then-three-year-old son Knight, but to his teenage daughter from a previous relationship, Destiny Jones. Like “New Day,” it catches the rapper in a moment of vulnerability, reflecting on the struggles of responsibly raising a teenager–especially a girl–when he is himself “not the cleanest father figure”: “They say the coolest playas and foulest heartbreakers in the world / God gets us back, he makes us have precious little girls.” It’s a nice, implicit critique of the underlying sexism in much hip-hop music and culture, and an affirmation that it’s just as important for fathers to raise strong daughters as it is to raise strong sons.
14. The Who: “Pictures of Lily”
(1967 single, available on Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy)
As a father myself, there are few things I look forward to more than when my son and I can bond over the joys of jerkin’ it to Victorian-era pinups. Oh, wait: no I don’t, because that’s freaking weird. But that didn’t stop Pete Townshend from writing “Pictures of Lily,” a song he described as “a ditty about masturbation and the importance of it to a young man.” And who introduces the young man in the song to those titular “Pictures of Lily”? Why, his father, of course. Thanks, Dad?
15. The Monkees: “Daddy’s Song”
(from Head, 1968)
Harry Nilsson III wrote some of the most subversive songs for mid-’60s bubblegum-pop-confectioners-turned-postmodern-performance-artists the Monkees; his cloying 1967 album track “Cuddly Toy” was allegedly written about a Hells Angels gang bang. “Daddy’s Song,” Nilsson’s contribution to the soundtrack for the Prefab Four’s acid-fried cinematic double-bird Head, is less overtly shocking in subject matter, but far more personal: it’s written about his own father, Harry Nilsson Jr., who deserted his family when his son was at the tender age of three. As with “Cuddly Toy,” though, the Monkees camp gave the song to singer Davy Jones, who performs it with such vacant music-hall schmaltz that it’s scrubbed clean of anything resembling human emotion, making for a surreal quality that fits the film (if not the song) to a tee. Incidentally, Nilsson did release his own version of “Daddy’s Song” on his 1968 album Aerial Ballet; what can I say, though, I happen to like vacant music-hall schmaltz, so I’m giving Davy the nod.
16. Tyga: “Dad’s Letter”
(from The Potential, 2009)
Well, it’s been five tracks, so I guess it’s time for one last rap song about paternal abandonment. In this case, though, what’s interesting is that it comes from Tyga: a guy who’s better known for slowly walking away from exploding cars and wearing furs with Rick Ross than anything approaching soul-searching. By way of contrast, “Dad’s Letter”–reportedly written by Tyga, born Michael Ray Nguyen-Stevenson, at the behest of his therapist–catches the swag-rapper in uncharacteristically pensive mode, imagining what he would say to the father he never met: “Growin’ up, all I wanted was a father figure / Me and mom alone every dinner / One day I hope you hear this, I pray you doin’ better / This what it sound like, if I sent my dad letters.” Originally released on his 2009 mixtape The Potential, the song was apparently so meaningful to Tyga that he also included it on his 2013 studio album Hotel California–the year after the birth of his own son, King Cairo. Significantly, “Dad’s Letter” includes a vow to his father that “whatever results” with his own child, he’ll “be there like you wasn’t.”
17. Wilson Pickett: “Hey Jude”
(from Hey Jude, 1969)
John Lennon purportedly spent most of the last five years of his life as a “house-husband” dedicated to raising his second child, Sean Ono Lennon; in fact, if my heart wasn’t made of stone and I wasn’t concerned about choosing less “obvious” tracks for this playlist, I probably would have included his touching, if overplayed 1980 ode to paternal love, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).” But I am a heartless, obscurantist bastard, so instead I’m selecting “Hey Jude”: a song written in 1968 for Lennon’s first son, Julian, not by John but by his bandmate Paul McCartney, because Lennon apparently couldn’t be bothered to comfort his own son about his parents’ tumultuous 1968 divorce. Even better, since the Beatles’ catalogue isn’t available on Spotify, I’m selecting this electrifying cover by Wilson Pickett, which plays the song more or less straight until it reaches the famous extended “na na na” coda, and then Pickett cuts the fuck loose. The moral of this story? Sometimes your dad’s songwriting partner loves you more than your actual dad; but “don’t make it bad,” because the Wicked Pickett is more soulful than both of them put together. “Take a sad song and make it better,” indeed.
18. Badfinger: “Dennis”
(from Wish You Were Here, 1974)
Badfinger is, above all, perhaps the ultimate buzzkill power pop band: they’re the only group I can think of where not just one, but two individual members committed suicide by hanging. But then there were songs like Pete Ham’s “Dennis,” recorded less than a year before he took his own life, that evoke not depression but a deeply-felt hope and humanity. I don’t know who, if anyone, Ham wrote “Dennis” for–it could be about Blair, the boy he was helping to raise from his girlfriend’s previous relationship; it could be about a potential future child; it could just be a McCartney-esque fictional invention–but the song perfectly captures the blend of love and exasperation that comes with raising a rambunctious kid, and the melancholy that comes with knowing that those childhood years will all be over soon. “It could be bad, it could be worse, you’re taking out your mother’s purse,” Ham sings. “And though you cried when you were told / The money there was for the old, to keep their dogs from getting cold / The only thing that can’t be sold is love.” It’s a silly lyric–again, evocative of Badfinger’s early mentor McCartney–but as always with Badfinger, the song’s performance and arrangement are what make it resonate, especially the soaring chorus: “Will you be a good boy? / Will you pick up your toys? / Will you please, please?” Say what you will, but I’m pretty sure every parent can identify with that pleading final line.
19. David Liebe Hart: “Father and Son”
(from Tim and Eric: Awesome Record, Great Songs!, 2008)
I hope we’ve made it clear by this point that there are few things more precious (if also more rare) than the love between a father and his child…except, perhaps, for the love between a 59-year-old, possibly mentally disturbed outsider artist and his puppet. Dedicated to David Liebe Hart’s “new boy” after his other “son,” Chip, “passed away”–which is apparently what you say when your ventriloquist’s dummy is stolen from your apartment–“Father and Son” is a bizarre tribute from the self-proclaimed “best dad” to his “best son” that eventually escalates into an even more bizarre argument between the two. Like many things related to Tim and Eric, the anti-comedians who “discovered” Liebe Hart in the mid-2000s, I’m not entirely sure whether it’s okay for me to be laughing at “Father and Son”; but what’s interesting is how it actually contains some valid sentiment. “I want the best for my child,” Liebe Hart sings, emoting so hard that he blows out his microphone; “I wanna grow up and be wild,” the puppet replies. Pretty much sums it all up, doesn’t it?