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Pop has a problem with dead dads

Mike Rutherford, mourning tunefully

Mike Rutherford, mourning tunefully YouTube

It’s Pittsburgh, 1998, and 17-year-old Kate Pearson is going through some shit.

Her body image, her relationship with her mom, her self-confidence around pursuing a music career—all weigh heavily on young Kate’s mind. One day she cuts school to buy concert tickets for her very favorite artist, Alanis Morissette. She’s about to cross the street when who pulls up to the stoplight in front of her but her dad, Jack, in his new station wagon. With a stern, mustachioed look, he makes her get in the car. Defeated, she explains why she skipped school. His face is hard for another five seconds, then it softens.

“Are you taking me back to school?” she asks.

“No,” he answers. “I’m taking you to get those tickets.”

On the drive, he asks her to play some of that “Atlantis” person’s music. After a few seconds of “All I Really Want,” he scrunches up his face and says, “I don’t get it. This is like complaining with a guitar, Kate. It’s not music.” He’s playing with her, but not really. He gives it another few seconds for her to tell him it won five Grammys, and then turns it off. “This,” he says, popping in a tape. “This will really get under your skin.” “Ah,” says Kate. “Bruce.” “This is a real American hero,” says Jack. They look at each other and smile.

As you may or may not know, This Is Us is a fucking menace of a television show. Whatever triggers you have, including ones you don’t know you have, it will set them off; it’s like you’re consciously watching yourself be emotionally manipulated in the tritest of ways and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Shortly after the scene above, Jack tells his family to save the following Saturday because they have surprise plans. Later that week—and spoiler, although not really because it’s the entire premise of the show—Jack, the greatest dad OF ALL TIME as the show WILL NOT STOP TELLING YOU, dies in a fire, leaving his wife, Rebecca, and 17-year-old triplets Kate, Kevin, and Randall to spend their entire lives thinking about how it was their fault.

The next day or so, Rebecca looks in the glove compartment of the new station wagon and finds five tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert. That Saturday, she and the kids spread Jack’s ashes on his favorite tree, and she tells them she knows what Dad’s surprise was, and they’re all going to go that night because it’s what he would have wanted.

'This Is Us' shows us what a soon-to-be-dead dad looks like.

'This Is Us' shows us what a soon-to-be-dead dad looks like. NBC

In October 1984, my dad prepared for weeks to drive from San Diego, where we lived, to the Los Angeles Sports Arena for the Born in the USA tour’s seven-night run. He was a working-class Jersey boy, and the Boss spoke to his soul. I was an 8-year-old Southern California girl, and could not imagine the appeal. While he packed for his trip I danced around him singing, “I was--booooorn in a STUPID PLACE.” I thought I was funny as hell.

The next summer, in 1985, I had an incredible opportunity to go with a friend, without our parents, to stay with her mom’s family in Bogota, Colombia for two months. I still can’t imagine how hard it must have been for my parents to let their only child, just out of third grade, get on a plane to a foreign country for two whole months, weighing their fear and how much they would miss me with what I’d see and learn. And it was amazing, if sometimes really hard and sad to be away.

When I came home on the second to last day of August and got off the plane, my dad wasn’t at the airport to meet me. My mom had to tell me he’d collapsed that morning from a stroke, and he ended up never waking up. He was 42 years old, the age I am now—in fact I outlived him just over three months ago, which I know from doing some morbid math a few months ago to figure out whether his death date landed on a day I was flying on a plane. It did, and I changed my flight.

Now what if I told that story… IN SONG.

But seriously, the fact is that I have been a not entirely voluntary lifelong critic and analyst of the way that pop culture, and especially pop music, mythologizes and exploits the nearly universal yet highly individual experience of losing a parent. This is particularly true about a dead father, who as the trope will tell you, represents the secondary parent but the primary source of power, pain, pride, and continuity in a family. He also represents the arbiter of lifelong cultural taste—a father’s failure to shape his child through his record collection may be his biggest failure of all.

Where a mother leaves a sum total of individual choices, a father leaves a legacy. A dead dad means the end of abuse, the fallout of neglect, or the loss of superheroic guidance and wisdom, without which the child struggles to be whole. The problem with pop and paternal loss isn’t that music can’t be a powerful channel for processing grief or honoring memory, but that with a few exceptions, the literal transposition of that grief to song is often forced into clichéd narratives that lionize, demonize, or generalize to almost comical extremes.

One of the things that enrages me about the show This Is Us is that Jack’s death is treated as THE defining moment in the life of the rest of his family, against which every decision they make as individuals is evaluated and questioned. The death of my father at an early age, who was my primary caretaker while my mom worked and to whom I was very close, is an extremely important part of my story, but it does not define it. The consistent suggestion in music and media that it should, is, in my opinion, dismissive and patronizing to the resilience and individuality of those of us who have experienced it.

And that Springsteen plot? Oof. That was a personal attack.

Unsurprisingly, my appreciation for Springsteen grew after my father’s death, for a lot of reasons including the connection to him and my own maturation. When I talk about him and celebrate him, the Boss is a common theme. You might think that seeing that connection and evolution paralleled in popular culture would speak to me and connect with me emotionally, but it absolutely had the opposite effect. It was like someone took my story and simplified it down to one clichéd note, that the most famous working-class rocker is the most acceptable symbol of masculine vulnerability, and also represents the cultural authority and authenticity that fathers have a duty and a right to instill in their children, particularly their daughters, who literally need to suffer the loss of that father to truly “get it.” By the way, my dad’s other favorite albums were Handel’s Water Music and Puccini’s Tosca, after which he named our dog (and the cat was Scarpia, the opera’s villain). I frankly don’t think it’s even occurred to me to listen to either of them since he died.

Which brings us to the daddy of all dead daddy songs. In 1988 Mike and the Mechanics released “The Living Years,” and I hate it. Clearly there are plenty of people who disagree with me; it was a No. 1 hit in multiple countries, including this one, was nominated for four Grammys, and was referred to by Burt Bacharach in 1996 as “one of the finest lyrics of the past 10 years.” Bandleader and co-writer Mike Rutherford also wrote in a 2014 essay that since “The Living Years” was released, he has received countless letters of thanks from people who say the song encouraged them to pick up the phone for the first time in years and say the things they never said to their fathers.

OK, great, that’s all good I guess.

Maybe I’m just jealous because I never even had the chance to develop a strained relationship with my dad. Which, despite how close we were, was definitely within the realm of possibility—he suffered from clinical depression that, I have only since learned, he self-treated with a daily excess of food and weed. How this might have played out as I entered adolescence and adulthood is unknown, but it couldn’t have been all rainbows and sunshine.

But still, that fucking song. When vocalist Paul Carrack sings, “I know that I'm a prisoner to all my father held so dear, I know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears,” nuance and relatability are about as dead as Rutherford’s dad.

If I were at, let’s say, a funeral, and heard someone give the following eulogy, I would find it very heartfelt and sweet:

"I wasn’t there the morning that my father passed away. There were a lot of things that I never got the chance to tell him. Later that same year, I had my son, and I could see my father in him, and it really made me think about how much I wished we’d been able to have those conversations."

But I don’t feel the same way when I hear it like this.

There might be at least a few of you who are welling up internally, genuinely moved by the arrangement as well as the lyrics, and you think I’m made of stone frozen in ice. But just hear me out for a minute. Music has the unparalleled ability to be more than what it is. To use composition, arrangement, instrumentation and lyrics to create imagery and endorphins and emotional connection that can be felt and interpreted and related to differently by every person who hears it. This song and other songs like it are a colossal waste of that potential.

“The Living Years” is exactly what it is, and explains itself in extremely literal terms. It takes what is, for sure, a very common and relatable experience, and earnestly narrates it back to you in the most clichéd terms, backed with exactly the music you would expect it to. It practically demands that you pay due honor to Captain William Francis Henry Crawford Rutherford and his legacy, despite his flaws. As someone who certainly wishes I’d known how little time I would have with my dad and might have spent it differently, this song gives me infinite eyerolls.

Sometimes a dead dad can be more of a dead-to-me dad. In both song and real-life experiences, there can be a fine line between literal corporeal death and estrangement or abandonment and how they can feed pop music with trite, over-generalized mythologies that trivialize rather than give space to real trauma.

I really don’t mean to pick on Mike Rutherford all day, but he did also co-write “No Son of Mine” by Genesis, about alienation from an abusive father, in which Phil Collins sings, “Well, the key to my survival was never in much doubt/The question was how I could keep sane, trying to find the way out/Things were never easy for me/Peace of mind was hard to find/And I needed a place where I could hide/Somewhere I could call mine.” There’s just something about using low-hanging rhymes set against pop rock to talk about abuse that strips all the depth and gravity from the very painful, personal experience.

At this point some of you might be thinking, “OK, but one of the best songs of all time is very explicitly about a dead dad.” And you’re absolutely right.

“Papa Was a Rolling Stone” is a literal story about a dead dad set to music, but it works unbelievably well. It’s unsentimental, and doesn’t try to manipulate sympathies. The music is complicated, and evokes the complexity of the family’s relationships. On the face of it, the dead dad is a stereotype, but there’s a believable conversation about it that doesn’t give it outsized power. And it fucking grooves. It’s completely impossible to feel irritated or patronized by a song that grooves like that.

I’ll leave you with my number-one favorite dead dad song. Beyoncé’s dad is very much alive, but they have a famously complicated relationship, and the best storytellers don’t have to draw from direct personal experience to move people. The song works because it tells a very specific story that still suggests many layers of meaning and routes of interpretation; talks about a father who handed down wisdom to his daughter before his death but never doubted her power to wield her own strength; and proves that songs about loss can be joyous and emotionally manipulative in ways that empower and delight.