I was thinking about the concept of “Dad Rock” and what it means, and when it is that a previously popular and/or relevant band goes full Dad Rock, and I realized that there was a particular song from a particular band that crystallized the Dad Rock Moment, as it were, for me: “Vertigo,” by U2, off the band’s 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
What’s wrong with the song? Well, there’s nothing wrong with it. If you were to present it to someone who had no other context for the song or the band, it would probably come across as a nice, chunky rock song. It’s solid if not spectacular, the sort of song that a band with a long discography would trot out at the two-thirds mark of a concert. It’s the song that’s no one’s favorite but that everyone likes well enough, to pad the playlist until they get to the songs that will build to the end of set. It’s not a song one would put in the encore. It’s good! Which is fine. Or more accurately, it’s fine! Which is good.
In context, it’s the sound of U2 standing pat. U2 became the Biggest Rock Band in the World in the late 80s with The Joshua Tree, then freaked out a bit about that in the 90s, releasing a trio of albums (Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Pop) that increasingly strayed from their previous iteration before releasing 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which married the two previous eras into a “return to form” album that got them back to Biggest Rock Band in the World status.
So what did the band do for Atomic Bomb? Well, they stayed where they were and just worked that for a while.
“Vertigo,” the album’s first single, typified that. It’s a U2 song that sounds like a song that songwriters and musicians who were not U2 would make if they were told to make a song that sounds like U2. Bono is in full “arch lyric” mode, the Edge is sawing away but also doesn’t forget to drop in his signature chiming guitar in the right places, the rhythm section is doing its uncomplicated but solid thing. The video is grandiose and also tongue-in-cheek about it, to variable success.
All of which was a solid commercial choice: Atomic Bomb sold ten million copies, won nine Grammys (three for “Vertigo” alone), and started the band on its profitable relationship with Apple, which would culminate rather infamously with the band’s 2014 album Songs of Innocence being stuffed into everyone’s iTunes collection whether they wanted it or not (this was the uber Dad Rock maneuver, the tech company equivalent of making your kids listen to the classic rock station against their will as you drove them to school in the minivan). No one could fault U2 either for “Vertigo” or Atomic Bomb. From a sheer numbers point of view it kept the band on the top of the rock heap.
But for me it also meant U2 stopped being a band that would surprise or inspire. They became predictable, and comfortable, and less memorable. And indeed that’s where the band has stayed in the sixteen years and three studio albums since. The albums since have varied from “meh” to “not bad,” and each has a song or two worth revisiting. But when I think about the band, “Vertigo” is a hard frontier for me: What came before it could be flawed (boy, could it!) but wasn’t boring; what comes afterward might be good but isn’t essential.
And fundamentally this is what “dad rock” means to me: it’s when a rock band whose audience is mostly male stops challenging that audience and starts maintaining it instead, even if they release new work. Or as Bono himself might have put it, in the bridge to “Vertigo,” speaking as U2’s audience: “Just give me what I want and no one gets hurt.”
I’m noting U2 here because it’s a band relevant to my own life, but certainly they are not the only example. The Rolling Stones went Full Dad with Undercover in 1984; Genesis in 1987 with Invisible Touch; Metallica with Death Magnetic in 2008; Coldplay with Viva la Vida, also in 2008. Paul McCartney went Full Dad the instant he left the Beatles; likewise the Foo Fighters (who, by the way, I love) appear to have been intended as Dad Rock from day one. Most bands associated with the Album Oriented Rock era of music have been Full Dad since the early 90s; Journey, which was one of my favorite bands growing up, has a concert playlist that is stuck in amber — the band members call their greatest hits “the dirty dozen” and play them every show. Likewise pretty much every heavy metal band that started up in the 80s; when I went and saw Iron Maiden’s Legacy of the Beast tour last year; that “greatest hits” concert format, while entirely awesome, was also the epitome of Dad Rock.
(Let us not speak of KISS.)
Dad Rock is clearly used as a pejorative, and my personal definition of it isn’t particularly complimentary either, but allow me for a moment here to give at least a half-hearted defense of dad rock. First, look: There’s nothing actually wrong with producing a reliable creative product for an identifiable audience, said the man who got a thirteen-book publishing contract specifically because he is able to produce reliable creative product for an identifiable audience. If the worst thing that can be said about your new work is that it’s rather a lot like your old work, only more so, you’re probably going to be able to make your house payments (or castle payments, in the case of U2).
Second, it’s not just the bands and musicians staying pat. Rare is the music listener who is as adventurous with their tastes at 38 as they were when they were 18; even more so at 48 or 58 or further on. At a certain point people know what they like and they want more of that, and if the bands they already like keep putting out work that’s in the same vein, album after album, then guess what? Those fans are going to stick around.
Which brings us to a third point, which is that after a certain bend in the demographic curve, most musical artists aren’t picking up new listeners anymore, or at least, younger listeners; they work with what they have. If you’re lucky you become retro, or (in the case of U2, the Stones and probably Coldplay) you were so big at one point you could lose much of your audience over time and still fill stadiums. But most performers work with who they accrued in their heyday. Those kids who were your fans became dads, your music became Dad Rock, and you know what? That’s fine. We can’t all be David Bowie, innovating literally until the day we die, and it’s worth remember even David Bowie went Full Dad for a while there (See: Tonight and Never Let Me Down), and otherwise benefited from a catalogue that gave him the wherewithal to do other things later without regard as to whether an audience would follow.
Finally: Hey, combining constant innovation while maintaining a non-trivial level of popularity is hard. Shit, producing merely adequate creative product while staying popular is hard, which is why so few people actually manage even that, particularly in music, in which what is popular can become obsolete almost literally overnight (See: The extinction event of 80s hair metal bands known as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991). It might be unfair to demand constant innovation from musicians, especially when coupled with their need to, you know, move units (or, these days, shift streams).
To go back to “Vertigo,” it might be the sound of U2 standing pat, but it’s also the sound of U2 being as U2 as they could possibly be, for an audience who wanted that and was, for the most part, glad to keep getting it. It might be that U2’s greatest moments of creativity, innovation and popularity are behind them and they just keep doing more of the same between now and whenever. But let us also acknowledge that there are worse fates, for both a band and its audience, than becoming Dad Rock.
Earlier this month, there were media reports that Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly had posted to Facebook advocating the anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, as a treatment for COVID-19.
Kelly went so far as to suggest Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews might have to do some solid prison time after blocking its use. It might be recalled that Kelly’s preselection for the federal seat of Hughes had been in some difficulty before the last election, until he was reputedly saved by his leader, Scott Morrison.
What was remarkable about Kelly’s recent intervention in favour of a drug advocated by Donald Trump, but whose efficacy is not supported by research, is not that it was out of character. Kelly has said many outrageous things over the years. Rather, Kelly’s comments seemed to belong to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, to those olden days before the pandemic changed the world.
Back then, expert opinion was bunk, saying the unsayable could get you a week of media attention and a regular gig on breakfast television, and you could be confident that you were doing your leader a good turn by revving up the base while he went after the middle ground in his baseball cap and rugby top.
As I said, avant le pandemic.
In Australia, the hyper-partisanship of those times now seems to be confined to the fringes of mainstream politics – and the Liberal opposition in the Victorian parliament.
Scott Morrison has resisted promptings from his own side of politics to attack Labor state premiers, including Andrews during Victoria’s current ordeal. The anti-science, anti-reason discourse that wrecked climate change policy has never been as at home in the world of COVID-19 in this country. It instead finds its place among a sprinkling of “sovereign citizens”, social media obsessives of a certain kind, and in the occasional newspaper column that few read and fewer still take seriously.
Pessimism about the state of Australian politics over the past few years has obscured a significant point that the pandemic has shown up starkly: the centre has held. The historian Stuart Macintyre pointed this out as long ago as 2017, in his Geoffrey Bolton Lecture. Australia, along with Canada and New Zealand, have from time to time experienced right-wing populist mobilisations – think Joh-for-PM and Pauline Hanson – but these have been “ephemeral”. That is also true of the right-wing insurgency of the recent past.
That insurgency contributed to climate policy failure; although it would not have achieved that result without the Murdoch media and the resources industry. It helped destroy Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership; but he also had a big hand in that himself. It helped get Peter Dutton within five party-room votes of the prime ministership; yet that would not have happened without the spinelessness of some of Turnbull’s erstwhile allies. It got Pauline Hanson’s One Nation a few seats in the federal upper house, where they subsequently managed to persuade Coalition senators that a resolution proclaiming “it’s OK to be white” was worthy of affirmation. But the Coalition soon changed its collective mind and, with Labor’s cooperation, was able to vote the other way the next day.
Still, it has been a politics of stunts and pinpricks rather than of transformation or revolution. And while Australian survey after survey has in recent years revealed disillusionment and distrust with politics and politicians, there is no evidence Australians generally gave up believing that government capable of looking after them.
Australian governments are good in a crisis
Historically, Australian governments have done better at dealing with crises than managing prosperity. The 2019-20 bushfire crisis and COVID-19 pandemic, especially the latter, have largely conformed to this pattern. Governments of all stripes have made many mistakes. But most Australians are sufficiently aware of what is happening elsewhere in the world, and what a worst-case scenario might actually look like, to realise that while their governments could be better, they could also do a whole lot worse.
For the time being, this attitude is a boon to incumbents. For Morrison in particular, it has been a very good pandemic. The man who went to the last election making a virtue of having little to offer except that he would stop Labor coming after your money now had serious work to do. And he has generally muddled along well enough. Sometimes, he’s needed to resist his worst instincts and sometimes, as when attending a Rugby League game as a new wave of infections hit Melbourne, not quite managing to do so.
If the Churchillian qualities identified in political commentary of the sub-literate kind are there, Morrison keeps them well hidden. Rather, if you enjoy comparison with British politics, Harold Wilson would be closer to the mark. Morrison improvises as each crisis comes along, without too many backward glances at what he claimed to believe wholeheartedly yesterday. The policies are sometimes bad, sometimes OK, and sometimes confused and confusing. But they are always well calculated to get him through to the next crisis – and with a sly peak ahead to the next election.
The various twists and turns of federal government policy on JobSeeker, JobKeeper, childcare, superannuation and so on keep the show on the road, especially while eyes are turned to each day’s announcement from Victoria. The reduction of parliamentary sittings has reduced opportunities for the pyrotechnics that oppositions need if they are to get any public attention.
Most politicians want to be seen to be cooperative and constructive, even when it is their job to hold the government accountable. Scandals such as “sports rorts”, which would otherwise have been a running sore, fail to regain traction. Journalists are more interested in pursuing the Andrews government over failures in hotel quarantine than the Morrison government over failures in aged care. Labor leader Anthony Albanese keeps a low profile in a time dominated by those with the power to make decisions.
And after the pandemic?
None of this seems likely to survive the end of the crisis signalled by the Victorian outbreak. At that point, Australians are likely to become more insistent on what the federal government will do to alleviate unemployment, business failure and household insolvency. They might also expect it to take a stronger hand in the matter of whether state borders remain open or closed. On this matter, the only consistency in its position has been its lack of consistency.
Can we afford, possibly for the next couple of years or more, to shut down a border every time the infection rate moves into double figures in a state the size of New South Wales, as Queensland has just done? Or to close down travel to Queensland from the Australian Capital Territory, which has no active cases at all? Can this really be consistent with section 92 of the Constitution? (We may soon know.)
Much in our lives that we took for granted before the pandemic is likely gone forever. But the one area in which snapback is likely to apply is the daily humdrum of Australian politics. In recent months, our politicians have had seriousness thrust upon them, following more than a decade in which there was almost no issue they were unwilling to leave to the future to solve.
In the COVID era, the future comes at you quickly.
Frank Bongiorno does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
RU-OK Day has been growing steadily in Australia over the last few years. It's a highly important mental health initiative. Teaming up with Kit Kat to put their message on pack is going to give their awareness a massive boost. Kudos to everyone involved in putting this brand collab together.