In an age where true fatherhood seems to have lost all meaning, it is all the more important to consider its impact on society today. How do you explain the significance of fatherhood? How do you put into words just what a father's love means to the soul of a child? All of this seems lost on a generation that might be able to comprehend the virtue and beauty of maternity, but cannot see much value in manhood. Is fatherhood obsolete? Is it preferable for Heather to have two Mommies because men/daddies are just useless buffoons? Simply judging from the TV shows and movies out there, one would certainly get the impression that fathers should be seen and not heard. Either they are idiots, doormats, or just some vaguely benevolent force, trained to remain painfully docile. This is not to say that fathers should be a bunch of patriarchal blowhards, but it would be nice if we were to see every once in a while a bit of paternal authority represented in a more positive light. In spite of this emasculating tendency, it is interesting to note that popular music provides a far less facile assessment of what a father means to our lives. Thus, during this octave of Father's Day, let us consider the true meaning of fatherhood, and let us do so through the vehicle of popular music.
Another Brick in the Wall (Part I) - Pink Floyd
The Leader of the Band - Dan Fogelberg
Daughters - John Mayer
There are few people on the face of the earth that I would want near my daughter less than John Mayer (he would be a close second to a rapist, though there's much in common between the two). However, the muse is sometimes an incredibly indiscriminate with these things, and even when a musician himself does not live the virtues he sings about, he may still on occasion provide good insight on a subject. Such is the case with this John Mayer song; "Fathers be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do... Oh you see that skin, it's the same she's been standing in..." Scripture says that the sins of the father will be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, but who knew how practical this advice would be? If one possesses any kind of awareness at all about the development of young girls, one knows that they ultimately derive their sense of love and self-worth from their father. If they do not receive it from him, then they will generally chase love in all of those places where they are incapable of finding it... thus perpetuating a cycle. "Boys you can break. You'll find out how much they can take. Boys will be strong. And boys soldier on. But boys would be gone without the warmth of a woman's, good, good heart... on behalf of every man looking out for every girl (really, John???). You are the god and the weight of her world." One wonders where a snake like this would get such wisdom. Nevertheless, his point is well taken. Women are the great humanizers of the human race, but without a father loving his daughter as he ought, that warmth will quickly dwindle away (think feminism).
New Life - Blind Melon
This song by the late Shannon Hoon is in many ways a kind of simple prayer. It is about the announcement of the birth of his daughter, and an expression of hope that this "annunciation" will mean "new life" for him; "'Cause now she's telling me she'll have my baby/ And a faithful father I am to be/ When I'm looking into the eyes of our own baby/ Will it bring new life into me?" On the positive side of things, this is obviously a beautiful sentiment. Many a man who was derelict prior to becoming a father finds new strength in this beautiful vocation. Emotions arise that were long dormant. And when you're "looking into the eyes of your own baby" it breaks your heart even to consider the possibility that something so pure might be sullied by the perversity of a fallen world; "Should I teach one not to know how/ How to live in the world we live in now?" Tragically, Mr. Hoon was not able to fulfill his dreams of fatherhood (he died of an overdose). Not to over-speculate, but perhaps there was something missing in his overall disposition towards this new life. On the one hand, he most certainly had a sense of awe and wonder in the face of this spectacular gift. Not only did his little girl Nico represent "new life" for him in the physical sense, but equally important is the fact that she represents it in the divine sense as well. She is the image of his redemption. Still, what is fundamentally lacking from his general disposition, at least from the perspective of this song, is a real sense of resolve to change. He wants the baby to "bring new life into him", when in truth he is the one that has to be willing to change his life in order to be the father that he knows he should be. In the end, whether it's a baby, falling in love, or some other beautiful but terrifying responsibility, you cannot sit idly by and hope that those initial feelings will provide enough impetus (on their own) to make you change. Part of being a man is to recognize what has been entrusted to you, and then to change accordingly to protect that interest. You cannot simply wait around hoping that the feeling of love will be so powerful that you can do naught else. Love may begin as feeling, but it must end with an act of the will.
I'm Taking You Home - Don Henley
Father of Mine - Everclear
This late 1990s song by the band Everclear is about a father who is apparently there at the beginning for his family, but then soon after abandons them. What is most striking and unique about this story is that it describes in detail the direct emotional and psychological toll that it takes on a child; "Father of mine. Tell me where have you been/ You know I just closed my eyes/ My whole world disappeared... I remember blue skies/Walking the block/I loved it when you held me high/I loved to hear you talk/ You would take me to the movie take me to the beach/ You would take me to a place inside that is so hard to reach." Not only do these words describe what the father meant to the son (i.e. the world), but it also describes in a very telling way what the sound of a father's voice means to his son, not to mention what it feels like to be held in your father's arms. We assume that the boy's mother was there for him all along, but whatever good she did (which I assume was much), could not substitute for the loss of his father. As a consequence of this abandonment, the lead singer (about whom the song is written) vows never to do the same to his own child, but nevertheless admits that not having a father in his life has left him permanently scarred; "I will never be safe/ I will never be sane/ I will always be weird inside/ I always be lame." It is impossible to report exactly what a father means to his son in the end, but in the context of this song we can at least say that to the lead singer of the band Everclear, a father's presence (as well as the lack thereof) means the "whole world."
My Little Girl - Tim McGraw
Fatherhood is not just about what fathers mean to their children, but what children mean to their fathers. Men do not possess the same umbilical attachment to their children as do mothers, but their fate is no less tied to their children. A few years back, I remember there was a controversy over a photo shoot that involved the bare back of a then fifteen year old Miley Cyrus. When pressed on the issue, her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, responded that there was nothing to be alarmed about, especially since he (Achy Breaky Dad) was there for the whole photo shoot in order to make sure the pictures were not too exploitative. With guardians like that, who needs photographers to exploit you? In my view there are few things a father could do that are more reprehensible than this. The most natural instinct in the world for a father to want is to protect his daughter from the ogling eyes of a creep. However, in this situation, what is most stunning is the fact that not only is Mr. Cyrus giving innumerable creeps a front row seat to leer at his daughter, he is actually accepting admission for it. It is true that a father may go overboard with this at times, telling everyone, including his daughter, that she may not date until she is thirty, but can anyone in all honesty argue that this is not preferable to the former? To his credit, Mr. Cyrus admitted some years later that his laxity was instrumental in leading his daughter astray, but sadly this does not change, at least for now, the damage that has already been done. The above titled song is the antidote to the aforementioned tragedy. A father should put the fear of God into any man who would dare even dream of taking his daughter out. He must make it abundantly clear to this boy/man that he (the father) cares far less about what the authorities think than he does about protecting his daughter. No one is worthy of his daughter, but if the boy proves himself worthy enough, the father may nevertheless recant on his demands for perfection; "Some day some boy will come along and ask me for your hand. But I won't say 'yes' to him unless I know he's the half that makes you whole, he has a poet's soul, and the heart of a 'man's man.' I know he'll say that he's in love, but between you and me, he won't be good enough." A true father is above all things a guardian of his most priceless treasure, and if he is not that, then he is not worthy of the title.
The Shadowlands - Ryan Adams
Coward of the County - Kenny Rogers
I'm Watching You - Rodney Atkins
Fast Car - Tracy Chapman
This haunting ballad by Tracy Chapman chronicles the struggles of a young lady who's dreams are brought to a screeching halt because of the alcoholism of her father; "See my old man's got a problem. Live with the bottle that's the way it is. He says his body's too old for working; body's too young to look like his. So mama went off and left him. She wanted more from life than he could give. I said somebody's got to take care of him. So I quit school that's what I did." The daughter is willing to work "down at the convenience store" if only to take care of her alcoholic father. There's something beautiful and tragic about the love of a child who is willing to honor her father, even when her father is unworthy of such honor, and even while her mother is unwilling to do it. This is not to say that a child should always stand by her father no matter what, but only that the loyalty of a child sometimes surpasses any and all reason. God knows we need people in this world to love us beyond all reason.
Tiny Broken Heart - Allison Krauss and Union Station
Oh Father - Madonna
Oh Father is a song about a daughter who blames herself for her father's abuse. As mentioned before, children will often blame themselves for things that they couldn't possibly have been guilty for (like their parents' divorce), but because they share the same flesh and blood with their parents, there is a mysterious sense of culpability on the child's part. Fortunately, some grow out of this false and debilitating sense of guilt and culpability; "It's funny that way, you can get used to the tears and the pain. What a child will believe... It seems like yesterday, I sat down next to your boots and I prayed for your anger to end, Oh father I have sinned. You can't hurt me now. I got away from you, I never thought I would. You can't make me cry, you once had the power, I never felt so good about myself." Perhaps we do carry their sins about in our flesh like Christ carried our sins- and unless we put them to bed, they do become a part of us. But whatever the situation, realizing that you are not guilty of the sins of your father is not the highest and most important form of wisdom (though it might be the beginning). Indeed, there is another step in the healing process. One of the greatest signs of emotional maturity is the simple discovery that we are not the source of every good thing our lives, nor is someone else the source of every bad thing. This is what we call perspective and it is given only to those who are willing, not only to forgive the sins of others, but to realize that we too have quite a few of our own to be forgiven. When you see this, you begin to realize for the first time just how much time you spent blaming, and how little time you spent thanking. Being sanctimonious and superior with respect to your parents is not only obnoxious, but a lie. You are not the first or last victim of ill-treatment. In fact my guess is, you too may fail in many of the same ways that your parents did. You may even fail in ways that they did not. The best way to avoid some of the pitfalls of parenting, is by realizing that you are just as capable of making the same mistakes; "Oh father, you never wanted to live that way, you never wanted to hurt me, why am I running away? Maybe someday I will look back and be able to say; you didn't mean to be cruel, somebody hurt you too.." There, but for the grace of God go I.
Cats in the Cradle - Harry Chapin Carpenter
More than anything else, this song is a lesson and warning for future fathers. Harry Chapin Carpenter once commented (in reference to the song) that many of the most important lessons we learn in life are often after the fact. This may often be the case, but in this instance it need not be. I would argue that just as science fiction screams at us to avoid a future that resembles 1984, so also this song screams at us like a warning from Marley's ghost. Fathers need to be reminded just how quickly the time slips away from them. If you are constantly waiting around for the right time to do what you should have been doing all along, that time will never come. Wake up! Now is the time to throw ball with your son, for if you wait until tomorrow, tomorrow will turn into the next day, and into the next, on and on until you realize that it is too late for you; "And the Cat's in the Cradle and the silver spoon, Little Boy Blue, and the Man in the Moon..." These words, according to Harry Chapin, were meant to express the speed and transience with which childhood passes. Obviously this is yet another example of a song that reminds us that our sons will be (and want to be), "a lot like you, dad"; but just as important is the troubling admonition, which essentially states; "It's too late for me, but you still have a chance..." Tragically, there are far too many dads who hear this warning, but nevertheless share the same fate as the subject of the song.
All This Time - Sting
Father and Son - Cat Stevens