As musical epithets go, it’s hard to say whether “dad rock” is more insulting to the dads or the rock. It’s a term that’s been flung at everyone from Pavement to the Eagles, and it’s most often used to describe a multigenerational swath of rock-and-roll that no longer feels angry enough at the world to want to change it. Or if not that, maybe it’s just mature rock music made by and for chill, white dads.
But what “dad rock” suggests about parenthood is what gives the expression its pejorative stink. Here’s a type of music just mild enough to appeal to the perpetually exhausted, the increasingly disengaged, the intellectually stagnant, i.e. you as you rush the kids off to soccer. Clearly, the relentless demands of raising a family have extinguished your cultural curiosity, so here you go, enjoy the collected works of Steely Dan.
If it seems like I’m being hypersensitive here, well, yeah. I’ve only been a parent for 15 months, but the experience has heightened my senses exponentially, especially my listening. To new parents, “dad rock” implies that your most adventurous listening years are behind you, when in fact, your ears have never been better primed for exploration.
Should that be any kind of surprise? Along with every other aspect of life, a new baby will radically transform your personal soundworld — not to mention your alertness to it. And yes, reshaping the contours of your reality to match a child’s biorhythms can be tough stuff, but it can also enhance the way you’ll hear music in its entirety — from improvisational jazz, to psychedelic heavy metal, to everyday radio pop, to every Young Thug song ever recorded, to everything else, including “Baby Shark.”
As a new parent, the first musical quality that bowled me over anew was intimacy. Delicate music almost always invites us to get closer to it, whether it’s the weightless bossa nova of Antonio Carlos Jobim or the sweetest nothings of Frank Sinatra. But try cuing up their 1967 album, “Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim” after you’ve spent hours listening to an infant breathe in and out. Suddenly, this music reveals details within details. Sinatra is singing with such evocative precision, when “The Girl from Ipanema ” goes walking, you can hear 10,000 grains of sand shifting beneath every footfall.
Even better, dig up any recording that the iconic Brazilian singer Joao Gilberto made between 1959 and 1973. After recalibrating your ears to the sighs of a newborn, Gilberto’s flat, fragile voice feels astonishingly colossal — yet without losing any of its quiet placidity. It’s as if the singer’s body has grown five times taller than yours, and now he’s whispering in your ear through a grin as wide as your shoulders. Is this how infants hear lullabies?
Obviously, life in the baby bubble gets very loud, very quickly. And no human vocalization is easier or more impossible to understand than a baby’s crying. Here’s what it tells you: Something is quite wrong, but you don’t know what, and this sound is going to stab you in your forehead until you figure it out. At the most fundamental level, a baby’s cry is the sound of human pain being transposed into human sound. Hearing it around the clock might change everything you know about Little Richard’s screaming, Henry Rollins’s roaring, Tina Turner’s shouting, Kathleen Hanna’s wailing, Lil Boosie’s sneering and all of the notes that once pealed out of Albert Ayler’s saxophone.
Once the crying annihilates your sleep cycle, try to remember that exhaustion is a psychedelic opportunity. It’s not tiredness itself that bums us out — it’s the frustration that results from a half-asleep brain struggling to perform wide-awake tasks. And unlike driving a car, mowing the lawn or using social media, listening to music in this depleted state can go very well. It doesn’t have to be Pink Floyd or DJ Screw, either. If anything, tired listening reminds us of what music really is: just little pockets of air, vibrating in time. It’s inside our heads where we assign all of those sounds their forms, their colors, their meanings. So when your skull feels half-empty, music has more space to bloom. All music is psychedelic music. Especially when you’ve been awake since 3 a.m.
At around eight months old, my child fell into a merciful sleep routine and began filling our daylight hours with baby-talk — an inventive, automatic mystery language that belongs exclusively to her. I’m starting to think that all of the greatest music aspires to something similar. Either way, listening to her pre-verbal goo-goo has been a total joy. The wild vitality in her spontaneity, the subtle tweaks in her repetition — she’s changing how I hear free jazz and jam bands, vintage pop and new techno.
It’s in those ecstatic moments that listening to a child’s babble isn’t vastly different from listening to the most profound music ever recorded. You feel as if you suddenly know more about life than ever — and also how little that is.