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I Introduced the Term ‘Dad-Rock’ to the World. I Have Regrets.
When Wilco released their sixth studio album, 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, I wrote a scathing review for Pitchfork that introduced the world to the term dad-rock: “An album of unapologetic straightforwardness. Sky Blue Sky nakedly exposes the dad-rock gene Wilco has always carried but courageously attempted to disguise.” I gave the record a score of 5.2 out of a possible 10, and that line became the breakout blurb.
The term came to define Wilco, even though their lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, told Esquire in 2014 it was “unflattering and hurtful.” By then, dad-rock had spilled over the banks of my review to describe most white-guy rock music, an entire genre of clothes and humor, and even a certain body type. If my review was patient zero for the “dad-” prefix outbreak, then watching it evolve from a snarky aside to a signifier of generational style has been truly weird.
I didn’t invent the term dad-rock, nor was my Sky Blue Sky review the first time I used it. I heard it from Chris Ott, a fellow Pitchfork writer and legendary curmudgeon, who dropped it in a staff message-board rant about the overrating of Wilco’s 2002 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. (It earned a perfect 10 out of 10.) He got it from the U.K. press of the 90s; they used it to describe the retro-fetish likes of Oasis and Kula Shaker. In my Yankee Hotel Foxtrot blurb for Pitchfork’s best albums list that year, I tried to turn it around on Chris, writing, “Call it dad-rock if you must, but if the day comes when Dads are mowing lawns to the death rattle of ‘Radio Cure,’ I won’t complain.”
Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy has bristled at the term dad-rock.
Because, reader, I was all in on Wilco. In the early 2000s, indie rock still seemed dangerous and experimental. That was the ethos of the scrappy young Pitchfork. Wilco was one of Pitchfork’s kindred spirits, a Chicago-based band that grew progressively more ambitious with each album. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was their biggest leap yet. I was lukewarm on 2004’s A Ghost is Born—it felt like a hangover from YHF’s unsustainable inventiveness—but still on board for wherever Tweedy went next.
With Sky Blue Sky three years later, the band took shelter in their most basic 70s rock influences. The lyrics were also unabashedly domestic—the song “Hate It Here” boasts about learning how to do laundry—and distinctly not what a childless twenty-something wanted to hear. At the time I bashed the album as “passive,” but a better word is probably complacent, no longer willing to push the boundaries of the genre or themselves. “Dad-rock” was the easiest shorthand to sum up these feelings. Perhaps there was a touch of uncomfortable self-reflection, even at the time, in using the term; maybe indie rock writ large really was just repackaging the music of our parents.
In fact, dad-rock was about to get much bigger than Wilco; it would devour indie music. Soon after, bands like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and The National—purified dad-rock in band form—ascended to the top of the indie rock heap, and the genre regressed to a mid-tempo, overcast mean. If my favorite album of 2007, Of Montreal’s manic, uncomfortable Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, sounds exponentially more dated than Sky Blue Sky in 2019, it’s because the safer sonics won the battle.
Sky Blue Sky (Vinyl) (2LP)
Dad culture also surged beyond its musical boundaries. “Dad” became a recognizable fashion modifier, slapped before hats, shoes, and jeans. Dad-bod, a pleasant rebrand of the middle-aged male spare tire, briefly had a moment of pride; “dad jokes” became a marketing tool. There’s now the term dad-rap, which describes hip-hop music of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Calling a band dad-rock in 2019 is just as likely to be a defiant re-appropriation of a hipster insult. For instance, Whitney, an emerging rock band out of Chicago, has taken up the mantle of dad-rock—and earned considerable praise from Pitchfork.
Having unleashed the term on the world, it’s become a (very minor) claim to fame. I got my first job in proper journalism at the Chicago Tribune in part because the reporters (both dads and Wilco fans) reviewing my application wanted to argue with me about the Sky Blue Sky review. Co-workers and family members occasionally ask me if I’m the same Rob Mitchum NPR told them invented “dad-rock.” Now that I live in an extremely dad-rock suburb of Chicago—having moved out of the city for the very dad-rock reason of “better schools”—I’m guarded about my Pitchfork past, lest other dads shun me by the block party bounce house.
Matthew Berninger, lead singer of The National, a band that is dad-rock in purified form.
I also feel guilty whenever Tweedy, once one of my favorite songwriters, talks about his distaste for the term. Tweedy’s rebuttal (“I don’t think those influences that are deemed unfashionable are bad or unworthy”) resonates with me as my own taste drifts farther from pop culture, or even modern-day Pitchfork. Their best-of-the-2010s list, published this week, was a version of events I hardly recognized, with personal favorites such as Titus Andronicus or Yo La Tengo wallowing at the bottom of the list or completely absent. The definition of dad-rock evolves as new waves of dads are formed—my music is now right down the middle of the dad-rock strike zone.
I’m guarded about my Pitchfork past, lest other dads shun me by the block party bounce house.
But I’m embracing that obsolescence. I’m the same age now as when Tweedy put out Sky Blue Sky, and just as 28-year-old me didn’t connect with a 40-year-old’s songs about aging, marriage, and parenthood, I’m sure Pitchfork readers today don’t want music opinions from a father-of-two who often goes to bed at nine. Dad style as fashion might be a passing, ironic trend, but dad-rock as a frame of mind, an inverse of the youth-chasing mid-life crisis, might just be good mental health. It’s exhausting to stay on the bleeding edge of what’s cool; it’s liberating to know what you like, and to find joy in it during those increasingly scarce moments of free time, or when you’re dealing with the stress of caring for the little humans you made.
Today, nobody expresses that feeling better than Wilco, the rare band that seems truly comfortable in its collective (figurative) dad bod. I no longer love them intensely, but whenever the algorithm coughs up a Wilco song, I enjoy it like stumbling upon a new Facebook photo of a college friend I’m no longer in touch with. I appreciate the fact that Jeff Tweedy is a little bit grayer and a little bit thicker, just like me. His middle-aged contentment is something to which I aspire. Maybe just as we all become our dads, we all eventually come to dad-rock.
Rob Mitchum used to write more about music, but now writes mostly about science.