Welcome once again to Five Songs About, our new weekly (so far, so good!) feature in which we pick a topic and then dig through music history to find relevant songs by some of our favourite artists. It's sort of like a musical parlour game, but mostly it's designed to keep us from finally going insane in this batshit era in which we live. In this edition, we bring you five songs about moms and dads and the things they do to mess up their kids. Oh, and the things they do right, too, of course.
1. David Bowie, "Kooks" (1971)
David Bowie was inspired by the birth of his son Duncan Jones to pen this jaunty little ditty. (He was also supposedly under the influence of Neil Young at the time, which sort of makes sense.) Bowie was deep into his androgynous phase, and given to wearing dresses, so the song was his warning to wee Duncan (also known as Zowie) that this wasn't going to be just any ordinary family life. A grown-up Jones told the Daily Mail that his dad would often encourage him to pick up the guitar, piano, or saxophone, but the boy had no musical inclinations. Bowie did let his son hang around on-set while he was acting in films like The Hunger, Labyrinth, and Absolute Beginners, and he also introduced him to the work of iconic filmmakers including Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick. This proved more influential: Jones grew up to become the award-winning director of features such as Moon and Source Code.
SAMPLE LYRIC: I bought you a pair of shoes/A trumpet you can blow and a book of rules/On what to say to people when they pick on you/Because if you stay with us/You're going to be pretty kooky too.
2. Merle Haggard and the Strangers, "Mama Tried" (1968)
It seems like a natural human tendency to blame one's parents for the things that go wrong in one's life, but country legend Merle Haggard takes precisely the opposite tack on "Mama Tried". The song isn't strictly autobiographical; Haggard did some time in prison, but he was obviously never sentenced to life without parole. Still, many of the things described in the song are rooted in the singer's own experience, including growing up dirt-poor, losing his father at a young age, embarking on a life as a small-time criminal, and feeling like he was a disappointment to a long-suffering mother who had done her best to steer him toward the right path. Ultimately, of course, Haggard did turn his life around. Within a few short years of his 1960 release from San Quentin, he was a bona-fide country-music star. So Mama must have done something right.
SAMPLE LYRIC: And I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole/No one could steer me right but mama tried, mama tried/Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied/That leaves only me to blame 'cause mama tried.
3. Talking Heads, “Stay Up Late” (1985)
Undeniably odd though it is, this track and the chirpy album it belongs to, Little Creatures, mark the moment when Talking Heads snapped out of the nervous dream state they lived in during their psycho-killing, music-fearing, sense-preventing phase. Suddenly, it seemed, they’d settled into the warm, tidy domesticity of the pop song. David Byrne was at this point still a couple of years away from becoming a parent himself, but the infatuation with baby-cuteness here is so strong that even the band’s previously steel-plated irony can’t resist. Many fans at the time considered Little Creatures to be the end of Talking Heads as an experimental force—just as having kids often spells the end of truly weird nights out.
SAMPLE LYRIC: See him drink/From a bottle/See him eat/From a plate/Cute, cute/As a button/Don't you wanna make him/Stay up late?
4. The Temptations, "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" (1972)
It would never fly today: "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" was almost seven minutes long. And that was the shortened-for the-radio single edit! The original song is over 12 minutes. Its epic length didn't keep the Temptations version of the song (which followed a previous recording by the Undisputed Truth) from topping the Billboard Hot 100, nor did its subject matter. Framed as a dialogue between a mother and her curious children, the song picks apart the foibles of a now-deceased deadbeat dad who had spent his life scamming and deceiving others, and generally doing anything to avoid being a reliable partner and father. "When he died," the mother informs her kids, "all he left us was alone". And that ain't right.
SAMPLE LYRIC: Hey momma/Folks say papa never was much on thinking/Spent most of his time chasing women and drinking/Momma I'm depending on you, to tell me the truth.
5. Eminem, "Cleaning Out My Closet" (2002)
You can’t have a list of songs about kids and their parents without including Eminem—who spent the first decade-and-a-half of his career railing against his mother, Deborah Nelson Mathers, with a viciousness not seen since the immortal Mommie Dearest. If Marshall Mathers wasn’t screaming “Fuck you, Debbie!" in the era-defining smash “Without Me”, he was painting a picture of a less-than-idyllic childhood in “My Mom” ("You little motherfucker, I'll make you sit there and make/That retarded fucking face without even tasting it/You better lick the fucking plate, you ain't wasting it”.) But nowhere was he more savage in his takedown than “Cleaning Out My Closet”, the curious thing being he sounds truly conflicted about hating the fucking guts of the woman who raised him. The song (which also makes it clear he’s not too fond of his father for splitting while Eminem was still in diapers) starts with Mathers running through various traumas, including being painted as the devil by the Christian right, the politically correct left, and everyone who ever fundraised for the PMRC. The song hits its greatest heights after Slim Shady has recounted his mother's endless popping of prescriptions pills in the kitchen and flashes back to a childhood where he was constantly accused of stealing her shit at home. As heavy as Mathers gets when suggesting that no one (including Debbie’s grandchildren) are going to be at her funeral, it gets even heavier when things turn to the real-life death of his Uncle Ronnie. That Marshall and Mathers reconciled after she was diagnosed with cancer (check out “Headlights”) speaks volumes about their ability to put an ugly-on-all-fronts past behind them.
SAMPLE LYRIC: You selfish bitch, I hope you fuckin' burn in hell for this shit/Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me?/Well guess what, I am dead, dead to you as can be!