Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" Is a Father's Nightmare -- And We Need More Songs Like It
A father's fears generally fall into two loosely defined, ever-expanding categories. There's the keep-you-up-at-night, bite-your-nails-to-the-quick worries that focus on money, job security, and child safety. Meanwhile, there's the slightly less hardcore stuff: meetings with school principals, base-loaded strikeouts in final at-bats, that sippy cup full of milk that hasn't been seen in three months.
Harry Chapin in 1978
I bring this up because there's a paternal fear that exists beyond categorization, one that is infinitely more potent and gripping than the examples listed above: stumbling upon Harry Chapin's soft-cock, MOR classic "Cat's in the Cradle" during a moment of solitude. How dad hears the song (terrestrial radio, Pandora, when the iPod's shuffle function kicks in) or where dad hears the song (in the garden plucking weeds, washing dishes in the kitchen, sitting in the car at a traffic light) is altogether inconsequential. The effect is always the same. At best, dad feels like his heart is being slowly pulled through his intestines and out his ass. At worst, dad feels like even John Phillips would best him in a Father of the Year contest.
The power of "Cat's in the Cradle" to induce bouts of blubbering and boohooing in fathers is inescapable. This is lip-quivering, sad bastard pop at its finest; it chops down even the most stalwart dads. Darryl McDaniels -- DMC from the seminal hip-hop group Run-DMC -- once confessed to hearing the tune while grocery shopping and getting all teary-eyed in the dog food aisle. (Quick aside: "Cat's in the Cradle" playing at a supermarket? Unfuckingheard of.)
Chapin's 37-year-old song is emotionally emasculating despite lyrics that sound terribly dated. The narrator's son wants to toss around a baseball. Nowadays, dad and junior no longer have a catch outdoors; they do it while sitting on the couch and playing MLB 2K11. Later in the song, the rapidly-becoming-insolent, college-aged son wants to borrow the old man's wheels. What a load of antiquated crap. Today's kids are too "green" obsessed to be borrowing automobiles; instead, they covet dad's kick-ass Segway. The song's climax occurs on the telephone, the father recognizing that his son's indifference is just as robust as his own. In 2011, such an exchange would be done with text emoticons -- in this case, lots of puffy, bright-red, angry faces. Hell, even the game of Cat's in the Cradle is archaic. Kids would rather play Angry Birds.
The lyrics are credited to Chapin's wife, Sandy, who allegedly penned the song following the birth of the couple's first child, worried that her husband's strong commitment to recording and touring would impede on fatherhood. (Quick aside, part two: Despite her explicit warning, Chapin still wasn't around to raise his kids. At age 38, he died of a heart attack while driving on the Long Island Expressway. That's cosmic-level fucked up. Somebody upstairs has a particularly twisted sense of humor.) The lyrics are maudlin and sermon-level preachy, even a touch predictable the first time you hear them. They hint at a middle-class torment privileged white men in tucked-in polo shirts can best articulate.