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Sad Dads

The National’s new album has been getting some fairly regular play in my headphones lately. It’s a great album, in my view, but then I suppose I would say that. I gather that over time the band has picked up a reputation as appealing to a certain sort of brooding, melancholy, bookish, middle-aged audience. It’s mildly embarrassing to admit that one likes precisely the sort of music that one is supposed to like, but what can one do? We can’t all be sui generis, however diligently we labour to prove otherwise.

This morning I listened to an interview with Aaron Dessner, The National’s guitarist and lead composer. Near the end, the host addressed this popular conception of the band’s music and audience:

Often times I see people calling The National “sad dad music.” How does that sit with you?

I was sort of readying myself for the stinging riposte. Hoping for it, even. There’s something vaguely pathetic about “sad dads,” after all. It brings to mind a kind of squishy, nostalgic dude who’s past his prime, who’s settled, who’s been kicked around or given up or whose kids are wearing (or have worn) him down. A guy who’s barely hanging on. Sad dads almost certainly have dad bods, and that’s just pitiful, right? The only thing that could make it worse would be to throw the word “white” in there somewhere. Could there be anything less cool for a rock band than to be known for making “sad dad music?” Surely Dessner would push back hard against this unflattering designation.

Except, he didn’t. Here’s what he said:

It was my idea to take that and put it on a sweatshirt. We sold like thousands and thousands of them instantly… I think it’s a badge of honour… I kinda love that people think of us as sad dads or dad rock… I kinda think, “bring it on.” I’m so proud to be a parent. And also, it’s just life. I think aging is beautiful and interesting and I kind of love everyone’s wrinkles and how we all look… and I wish society wasn’t so anti-aging and all of that. It just really depresses me.

Well. Didn’t see that coming. All of a sudden, a certain sad dad’s chest puffed out just a little and started to feel slightly less pathetic. How intriguing to hear someone actually lean into an insult and say, “Yeah, you know what, we make music that appeals to people who maybe feel things a bit more deeply, who have been through some stuff, who maybe feel a little adrift, who find a lot of what passes for music to be superficial and fake and terrible in all kinds of ways.” How cool to hear someone imply that sad dads might represent more than an sneering epithet.

Dessner’s comments about aging were also welcome, particularly in a culture that glorifies and fetishizes and prostrates itself before and slavishly attempts to placate youth. People who have been through some stuff, in my experience, are actually quite a bit more interesting than those who haven’t. At its best, there can be in aging this beautiful coalescence of wisdom and pain and desire and hope and longing and love and patience and simplicity and holy indifference toward the things that so many of us spend our earlier years chasing after. It’s so terribly odd to live in a time and place where the older and theoretically wiser seem so desperate to take their cues from the young.

Nick Cave recently responded to a question from a fan who was wondering how on earth he could be attending the king’s coronation this week. What would the young rock and roll rebel Nick Cave have thought about this gross capitulation to an institution as uncool as the monarchy? Cave, too, had a brilliant response:

I am not a monarchist, nor am I a royalist, nor am I an ardent republican for that matter; what I am also not is so spectacularly incurious about the world and the way it works, so ideologically captured, so damn grouchy, as to refuse an invitation to what will more than likely be the most important historical event in the UK of our age…

And as for what the young Nick Cave would have thought – well, the young Nick Cave was, in all due respect to the young Nick Cave, young, and like many young people, mostly demented, so I’m a little cautious around using him as a benchmark for what I should or should not do. He was cute though, I’ll give him that.

Love it. So very much.

I, too, am growing ever more cautious about using the young as a benchmark for anything. When I was young, I was I suppose very predictably eager to be “edgy,” in some sense of the word. I never really had much of a desire to leave Christianity behind, but I certainly didn’t want to be a boring old Christian with boring old beliefs. I wanted to push the boundaries, sniff around the edges, question tired old dogmas, explore new forms of music, etc. I could be a Christian, I thought, but certainly not the unexciting kind.

And now? Well, I often find myself just wanting to be plain, unexciting, orthodox Christian. I’m happy to sing old hymns. I’m happy to affirm ancient creeds that some find weird or offensive or whatever. I’m happy—actually, check that, “happy” is probably not the word, maybe “willing?” “eager?”—to confess my sins and to hear words of absolution. I’m happy to pray with and for people even if I don’t always understand the mechanics. I’m happy to read Scripture (even the ugly parts) and feel no burden to systematize or rationalize or defend or apologize for it. I have no appetite for the pop-psychology marketing and relentless programming of so much of what passes for church culture these days. Maybe this makes me the religious equivalent of a “sad dad.” Increasingly, I just don’t care.

My younger self was an idiot, frankly. He didn’t have a clue what he was doing. He didn’t know what he should want or why he should want it. He hadn’t experienced a genuine trial, hadn’t emerged out the other side of anything. He had plenty to learn and unlearn. He had no idea what real love was, and he didn’t know how to say he was sorry. He probably wasn’t even that cute. He would make a terrible benchmark for anything of any importance. “Sad dads” may be easy to mock, but maybe they at least know this much.

Image source.

21 Comments Post a comment
  1. You’re definitely moving in the right direction musicly (please God no more Bono McFlowers references). A record store owner friend of mine thinks the Nats are grown up goths who got day jobs and moved to the suburbs, had kids and at least got less depressed than they used to be but there is no denying the talent. The drummers timing is impeccable and the band never sells out the songs for their egos…unlike others Voldemort types whose names shall not be mentioned. They aren’t ELP or Yes when it comes to skill but damn they play tight and build most of their songs to a really satisfying crescendo. You done good.

    As for Nick Cave, I told you so, love the music not the writing. Seriously how can he in good conscience attend the mark of the beast show later this month. Because it is a significant historical event! Yeah so were the Nazi spectacles at Nuremburg….do better Nick. I’m gonna have to listen to the, “Ship song” on repeat play tonight to remind myself why I still love him.

    May 3, 2023
    • Glad that The National meets your approval. Re: Cave, even thought I cannot imagine caring less about the monarchy, I’m not sure a coronation merits comparison to the Nazis and Nuremberg. But then, that wasn’t really the point of the post anyway.

      May 4, 2023
      • True, the Colonial reign of terror lasted much longer.

        As for the point of the post it’s your confession, not mine and a “captain obvious” moment regarding the fact that wisdom is s bi-product of maturity doesn’t really invite much in the way of a response,….and I do love to respond. 😜

        Filler post but well written as always.

        May 4, 2023
  2. Elizabeth #

    I came to comment but came to a full stop over the Nuremburg reference made so casually and flippantly. I just cant.

    I wonder if many priests are verbally assaulted, ridiculed, belittled and talked down to by the congregation? (As well as praised, applauded and told they may be a prophet by the same congregation?)

    I just can’t.

    May 4, 2023
    • Elizabeth #

      Upon further reflection, I understand the link that you are making. It’s stark and raw, I wasn’t prepared for it. I also find it unnecessary tho.

      May 5, 2023
      • Hi Elizabeth, honestly I find the celebration of anything “Royals” to be demonic. A celebration of human arrogance, priviledge and inhumanity….and a world that, “our betters” are hoping to return us to.

        May 5, 2023
    • I thank you for your concern and kindness, Elizabeth. I won’t say much beyond to note that I have been writing online long enough to know that online forums do not always call forth people’s best selves. I have had things said to me and about me online that I have never heard (and would never anticipate hearing) in person. This is just one of the ugly realities of online culture. I hasten to add that I have also experienced great encouragement and grace here, as well. I am grateful for the latter and, after fifteen years or so of doing this, increasingly indifferent to the former.

      May 5, 2023
      • Dude, I’m in the, “room”. Spare me the withering postures and talk to me, not about me.

        May 5, 2023
      • Believe it or not, I’m not just talking about you. So you can probably spare me the hubris. I’ve had plenty of nasty criticism over the years, some in private, some in public (none quite as persistent as yours).

        May 5, 2023
      • Well given the context, it sounds more like an argument you can hide behind, then the truth but ok, at least you’re talking to me. Hubris? I don’t know. At times, I suppose so. I’m 66 now, I prefer certainty to doubt at this point in my life. When I am wrong, I am, “way” wrong. That’s for sure.

        Is there an implicit arrogance to certainty? Maybe. I have a hard time acknowledging that given the times we live in. The modern debate strategy seems to be to impugn the character of those who disagree with us. It’s easier than contending with an argument. So I think it the lesser of two evils, so to speak, to be assertive and risk arrogance rather than be reflective and invite dismissal. It ‘s a balance and I don’t always get it right.

        My persistence? I think you have greatness in you. I think you need to actually want and fight for, a larger audience. I think you have to pick a side and join the fight. You’ll offend some people along the way, if you’re doing it right. A true disciple always will…

        Btw after all these years of interaction, I can’t recall you ever taking the time to offer me any constructive criticism or any real advices at all. What’s with that?

        May 5, 2023
      • Ah, so we’re back to accusations of lying. Ok, I suppose you can tell yourself whatever you like.

        You can’t recall me ever taking the time to offer constructive criticism, eh? Well, again, I would welcome anyone to comb through the archives and see what they think. For what it’s worth, I did a quick search of your email address in the comment history, and, shockingly, I managed to dig up a rare example of me engaging your comments in the 33+ pages that the search produced.

        Seriously. Sometimes I can barely believe that you believe some of the things that you say.

        May 5, 2023
    • Look at Ryans, characterization of the young, albeit using his younger self as an example. Is this an example of verbal assault? Ridicule? Belittling?

      Sometimes we risk offensiveness when we engage with ideas we find offensive. As for this post, I’m mostly speaking, “tongue in cheek”. Poking a little fun at a guy who I I have read for a long time. Please don’t let it upset you so much as it appears to.

      May 5, 2023
      • Elizabeth #

        Do you smirk when you comment and play your games of cat and mouse? Constantly trying to make it out that Ryan is overreacting or being oversensitive when in fact he is just responding to you? The only one who looks absurdly unreasonable and quite the narcissist – is yourself.
        Sometimes you make some interesting points but it seems frightfully apparent that perhaps you only frequent this blog because you enjoy getting a rise out of people and need a platform to verbally assault readers.
        I’ve come to the conclusion that who you are and who you think you are when writing cannot possibly be the same person. It’s just too tragic.

        I promise here on in that I’m not going to engage with you anymore. You really spoil this space for me.

        May 6, 2023
  3. jc #

    Premise 1: Aaron Dessner, The National’s guitarist and lead composer, likes the fact that people refer to their music as “sad dad music”.

    Premise 2: Dessner thinks that “sad dad music” is a badge of honor because aging is beautiful and interesting, and he is proud to be a parent.

    Conclusion: The National’s music appeals to people who maybe feel things a bit more deeply, who have been through some stuff, who maybe feel a little adrift, and who find a lot of what passes for music to be superficial and fake and terrible in all kinds of ways. Sad dads might represent more than a sneering epithet.

    ….Chat GPT summarized your post. Did it do okay?

    May 6, 2023
    • Not bad, not bad…

      [Realizes Chat GPT might soon put people like him out of business.]

      I mean, it’s completely terrible and horribly inaccurate.

      May 7, 2023
    • A compelling review.

      If AI were to be harnessed and used for the good of mankind, it’s potential as a platform for education, both moral and intellectual, are exponential.

      If only it were so.

      May 8, 2023
      • Not an accusation, Ryan. As before, I’m giving you the benifit of the doubt. Your words read differently to me then you say you intended them to mean…ok, I accept that, I’m just being honest…

        I do believe what I say, though I am at times contradictory, wrong, overly emotional and rushed in my responses. Make of that what you will.

        Thank you for the affirmation, (ironicly intending to embarrass me…I think?)

        Myself and a small minority of people saw the, “Plandemic” for what it was and still is. A nefarious evil, looking to deliver the world into the hands of the enemies of God…and pastors dithered, priests denied their vocation and almost all churches closed. Not a shot was fired, not a threat was made and to their everlasting shame, the one supposed antidote to evil; the church, closed it’s doors.

        The, “church” is gone now. The Spirit cannot abide in a house of betrayal, without that house confessing and repenting. The Spirit still resides in those who did not betray or who have repented of their betrayal…. but we need new churches…

        So I leave you with a last thought. Be a new pastor, a repentent pastor. A leader, a “Bonhoffer”. We are at war. Recircling spiritual maxims and retelling variations of the same stories are stagnating your growth.

        Thank you for all the years of engagement. For all my staggering, too and fro, you have been an essential part of my spiritual growth.

        May 8, 2023
      • An excellent example of my comment below. Not a word about the evidence I provided of critically engaging your comments. Deflection about the lying accusation (which it was). And we’re off on pandemic trails.

        May 8, 2023
  4. Peace be with you, Elizabeth.

    It is difficult enough to work out one’s own confession. A life’s work really. It will be better for you to leave, mine or anyone elses, alone. Stick to challenge an idea, that is what spaces like these are, in part, for.

    It is likely your judgements that are offending you. I speak from experience.

    May 8, 2023
    • *challenging

      May 8, 2023
    • Paul, the irony of you presuming to educate someone else on how to use “spaces like this” is a bit rich, to put it mildly.

      I have lost track of the number of times over the years where you have been rude and insulting, condescending and confusing, where you have completely ignored the topic of the post to wander off down trails of your own preferring, demanding that I (and others) engage the battles you wish to fight. Yes, you have at times offered important insights and challenges, even encouragement, but the overall package of contributions that this comes in is at times utterly bewildering.

      As I’ve said many times before, you’re free to contribute as you choose. Others are also free to engage or ignore you as they choose. But given your “body of work” in this space over the years, I think you should probably hold off on the moralizing tone when it comes to others’ comments.

      May 8, 2023

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