Music With Issues: Bad Parenting
Welcome to another occasional series here on Noise to Signal. In Music With Issues we will spotlight a social concern and then select ten songs that we feel illustrate at least one side of the issue. For this debut installment, we’ve gone with bad parenting…a concern to which a lot of others can arguably be traced. So whether you’re seeking parenting advice from platinum-selling rock stars or you’d just like to start up a child-abuse playlist for your iPod, we humbly present the following.
1) Mother — Pink Floyd
(The Wall, 1979)
Our poor young rock opera hero. He probably has the worst parents in all of popular music. Not only does his mama smother him and restrict his emotional and personal growth, but his father would rather get killed defending the Anzio bridgehead than even see him get born. Mother makes her appearance in the song by piping up with “Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true,” which, you’d think, should earn her some amount of respect for honesty, at least. Then you remember that she named her son Pink. Think about that. She intentionally named her son Pink. She could die nursing orphans in Calcutta and it’d be tough to have sympathy for the woman. Mother keeps little Pink healthy and clean and cozy and warm, and though she might eventually shape him into the second coming of Hitler she also shapes him into a world-famous rocker who sleeps with a flurry of groupies just three songs later. Hmm. On second thought, this might actually be good parenting.
2) 1921 — The Who
The Who’s Tommy wastes no time in plunging us into bad parent territory. This early song on the album features a very young Tommy Walker toddling into a room to find his mother and her lover engaged in some tipsy flirtation, New Year’s 1921 style. Immediately we should be on guard against bad mothering; Mrs. Walker took a lover without even waiting for the corpse of the boy’s father to cool. Hell, she didn’t even wait for the boy’s father to become a corpse—Mr. Walker turns up about a third of the way through the song and murders the lover in front of everyone. Unless you’re watching the film, in which case the father is murdered by the lover and the song is murdered by Oliver Reed. Regardless of the version, at least one biological parent is directly responsible for spraying an infant child with sex-blood, and the fact that they cover up the crime by damning their child to blindness, deafness, voicelessness and pinball goodness probably won’t win them much respect either.
3) Cat’s in the Cradle — Harry Chapin
(Verities & Balderdash, 1974)
This is a beautiful song but it’s safe to say that Chapin receives no points for subtlety. The first few verses are all about a man uninterested in spending time with his adoring son. (Where the mother is in all of this is never mentioned. She’s that shitty.) Promises of bonding are made and postponed until the man gets bored and seeks the boy out…only to discover the boy is now too busy for him! Irony! I guess! I don’t know. Gift of the Magi it ain’t, but it’s syrupy enough that it pulls a few heartstrings. Chapin doesn’t trust us enough to understand what has happened (an odd decision considering that the song is painfully literal) and so, lest we decline a game of catch with Junior before we work out this song’s complicated message, he spells out the moral for us: “He’d grown up just like me. The boy was just like me.” Which, on further consideration, is either a lie or…well, it’s a lie; the singer never wanted to spend time with his son, but when the son grows up he is too busy taking care of his kids to spend time with his dad. There’s a big difference between neglecting your own children and not wanting to hang out with a doddering old man who never cared about you to begin with. Oh well. At least they’ll all be together in Heaven.
4) Now I’m Your Mom — David Byrne
It’s probably not easy being the child of a transgendered individual. In fact, depending upon your age, it’s probably a nightmare. But the compelling nature of a certain lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad parent. What would make you a bad parent? Oh…hmm. I don’t know. Maybe if you actually went out and got the gender reassignment surgery without even telling your child beforehand? (“I was your dad, now I’m your mom,” David coos to his little girl, maybe a bit too happily. And then, the closest thing he has to a second thought: “I didn’t mean to confuse you!”) Now one might think it’s difficult enough for a young child to cope with pop singing happily about his permanent transformation into Mrs. Doubtfire, but, for whatever reason, this parent’s poor judgment kicks in a second time and he attempts to discuss the birds and the bees with his daughter in the course of the very same conversation. She’s got enough to cope with, David, believe me. And I doubt you need to discuss safe sex with her anyway; this discussion alone is bound to put her off cocks for good.
5) Your Mama Don’t Dance — Loggins and Messina
(Loggins and Messina, 1972)
Of all the bad parents on this list, the two in this song are the only ones whose guilt rests on sins of omission. Quite simply, the singer’s mother “don’t dance.” (And, in somewhat of an afterthought, his father is convicted of a lesser crime: not rockin’ and rollin’.) Now this might not seem too horrible to the average listener (speaking personally, the less dancing and rocking and rolling my parents do, the better) but, as usual, context is everything. In this singer’s town if your mama don’t dance you hear about it at least twice before and after every verse. (The effect is compounded if your daddy don’t rock and roll.) But not all threats are verbal; late in the song the singer convinces his girlfriend to let him pork her in the back seat of his car, but the moment he fumbles his weiner into view the local police turn up, force him out of the vehicle, and make fun of his haircut. And it’s all because his mama don’t dance and his daddy don’t rock and roll. Yes, it’s all because his mama don’t dance and his daddy don’t rock and roll. Honestly, if rhythmic inactivity is turning your son’s thwarted sex life into a legal matter, you’d think you could at least work up a little boogie.
6) A Boy Named Sue — Johnny Cash
(Johnny Cash at San Quentin, 1969)
The words are Shel Silverstein’s, but the voice and the attitude are pure Johnny. This is the story of a young man whose father ran out on the family, leaving the son with only an empty bottle of booze, the name Sue and a guitar so that he’d be able to wander around singing about how his life sucks because his name is Sue. Sue decides to spend his life roaming and kicking ass in AABCCB while searching for his deadbeat dad, whom he intends to murder for giving him such a lousy name. Some might say he could have just gotten a job somewhere else and used a nickname, but that might have led to a much less enjoyable honkytonk shuffle. Eventually he meets his father and they pound on each other for a bit, but the old man ultimately contends that having the name Sue taught the boy how to fight and stand up for himself, becoming a stronger man. That’s all well and good, but, during the course of the scuffle, the man beats Sue up, cuts off his ear, pulls a gun on him and spits in his eye, which does kind of suggest that this man has no right to be bragging about any good parenting decisions he might have made.
7) Stay Up Late — Talking Heads
(Little Creatures, 1985)
A chirpier ode to bad parenting there never was. Many Talking Heads songs deal with common or mundane situations from the perspective of a universal outsider, but here, in this exploration of parenthood, the song is sung in the first-person plural…meaning there’s a whole group of people who don’t understand what’s going on. And, best of all, they just happen to be responsible for a baby. Perhaps fortunately (or perhaps not) these people think having a child is just swell. They love his tiny little body parts and can’t get enough of the fact that he’ll crawl, smile, and eat from a plate. These people are easy to please, I guess, and they certainly seem to do more cooing than the baby does. The trouble is that they don’t see him as anything more than this (“he’s just a little plaything,” the singer informs us early on), and so they keep him continuously awake so that he’ll wiggle and drool for their amusement. The poor baby…eventually the adults will tire of this and fall asleep as well, but they can always rest in shifts. The baby—clearly without (surviving) siblings—has no such luxury.
8) Loves Me Like a Rock — Paul Simon
(There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, 1973)
I don’t know what this singer’s mother did to retard him so, but we should be darn glad she didn’t have more children. Whenever anything goes wrong in his life, from getting picked on as a child (I wonder why!) to being criticized as PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Paul runs home to his mama to kiss it better. And what’s more, he seems quite satisfied by this arrangement. (One can only assume the opposing political party will have plenty of humiliating images to distribute when President Simon is up for reelection.) The unconditional motherboy love on display here is enough to make Buster Bluth look like James Dean. Perhaps most disturbing is the assurance in the chorus that “she gets down on her knees and hugs [him].” As an adorable little toddler I’m sure it was heartwarming. As a forty-five-year-old politician it’s probably not wise to be caught in front of your kneeling mother.
9) Play It All Night Long — Warren Zevon
(Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, 1980)
Granted, this is more of a song about a bad family than bad parenting, but one has to suspect that things haven’t been right for generations in this bloodline. The song opens with perhaps my favorite opening line ever: “Grandpa’s pissed his pants again.” From there we learn also that Brother Billy is a war-scarred maniac, Daddy’s having sex with Sister Sally, Grandma’s dying of cancer…boy. This is some unfortunate household. Even the cattle have brucellosis. (Sadly, Zevon makes no attempt to rhyme it.) It’s a disturbing composite image that this song paints, but—if it’s any consolation—it’s got the best guitar solo in this list by a mile. It also concludes with what possibly qualifies as the family credo: “There ain’t much to country living…sweat, piss, jizz and blood.” And there’s no reason whatsoever for me to comment on that.
10) Theme From Shaft — Isaac Hayes
(Shaft original soundtrack, 1971)
Say what you will about any of the other parents on this list…Shaft is still the baddest mother of them all.