Dad is back. In various forms, all things “dad” have undergone a revival. Whether it’s the times we’re living in or just the experience of being a young adult, the wheel of cool has turned, and dad culture is on top again. What exactly “dad” means in this context is a little harder to say, but I think there is a shared impulse, something in our collective unconscious brought to the fore by bad jokes, awkward dancing, and music. 

I’ve had a bit of a Talking Heads phase recently. Initially spurred on by A24’s Stop Making Sense rerelease, I’ve found their back catalogue extensive and diverse enough to have kept me occupied for a few months now. But regardless of how much of their discography I have covered independently, “Psycho Killer” occupies a very different space in my perception of the band. It is uniquely rooted in some half-remembered fragments of memory from years before I had any idea who David Byrne was, or what the term “post-punk” could possibly mean. It’s an almost reified song for me. It pre-empts any agency I think I might have over my music taste. It’s preconscious. Is it “dad music”? 

The distinctive position “Psycho Killer” holds for me is doubtless the result of my dad strumming it out on the guitar in the living room, back when I was younger and less autonomous about my cultural consumption. I was a captive audience. “American Pie,” “Waterloo Sunset,” seemingly everything REM ever put out; I listened to what was in the house, and that meant the CDs we owned and the tabs my dad knew. 

I suspect this experience is shared by many young adults. Currently, “dad music” seems to be having a bit of a moment. Videos on Instagram and TikTok speak of a collective epiphany that the music our dads subjected us to “is quite cool now, actually”. Songs by The Clash, (thanks to Stranger Things), Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd have seen renewed popularity in the last few years as a result. In some ways, this is nothing new. There are always cultural revivals. Clothing styles deemed outdated come back into fashion, old school cool carried off with some or no degree of irony. Once-popular genres are revived into something counter-cultural again. This is to say nothing of the perennial moving-target argument that music was better “back in the day”. 

But “dad music” nonetheless appears to be a recent phenomenon. If it started as a pejorative term, it certainly has more complex connotations now. The internet has most likely enabled this collective reckoning with the shared experience of subjection to music curation, subliminal conversion through background music, or the reliable brute force methods of recommendations, presents, and gig tickets. “Dad music” can certainly be used as a criticism. This tends to be levied at “dad rock” in particular, a term that implies a more discernible genre and canon of bands than “dad music”. “Dad rock” might plausibly encompass the arena rock of the 1980s and ‘90s (Bon Jovi, Nirvana, U2), characterised by beltable ballads, riffs that can be played at family gatherings, and bad dancing. 

I have of course crossed into the realm of stereotype and meme here, but it’s undeniable that “dad rock” carries a particular set of preconceptions. Is “Psycho Killer” the “most dad” Talking Heads song? Is there something musically essential that makes it so? Certainly, it is more suited to the above stereotypes than much of their discography. In the paternal Venn diagram, not all “dad music” is “dad rock”. The latter has a clearer set of stylistic associations. But there are commonalities. 

The terms are allied to a plethora of other common “dad-” prefixes. Dad dancing is one. Dad jokes, dad bod, dad lore, dad outfit — dad music. All seem to have undergone a renaissance in contemporary discourse. What links them is the feeling that they are not conventionally cool, yet are somehow even more so by their unashamed uncoolness. There is a sense of authenticity and self-assurance to nodding one’s head to The Rolling Stones, The Eagles or Dire Straits that is enviable amid the self-consciousness of youth. Dad is a state of mind. 

Perhaps all this is made stronger by the conspicuous consumption and character crafting enabled by the internet. Renewed interest in more tangible retro mediums, including vinyl, cassettes, and CDs, might then be part of a similar shift. In this way, the present “dad-noun” phenomenon might be a genuinely novel one. The restricting physical forms of music that are again increasingly popular have contributed to the totality of my dad-curated musical upbringing. Now, it is possible that the predominance of streaming means there are fewer captive audiences in this way. Does this also mean there will be a less identifiable “dad music” in our own generation? Unbridled by the restraints of radios and record shops, our own tastes don’t need to be connected to our present or our geographies. 

While “dad rock” might be affected by this, I don’t think the same is true of “dad music”. Maybe this is a good thing. As with all stereotypes, there is a normative mode for the kind of dad in question in “dad music,” and it seems unlikely that future kinds of dad music will be quite so homogenous; for one, there may be a bit more room given to “mum music”. In any case, at its most meaningful, “dad music” is a personal matter. For me, the best thing about “dad music” is the connection it gives me to my parents’ pasts. The stories I get to hear about my dad getting caught up in brawls at a punk gig, or my mum being pursued by a hopeless classmate (not my future dad) morosely quoting The Smiths lyrics at her, are as important as the songs that provoke them. That’s something about music we can all engage with, both as listeners and as storytellers.