Welcome to Pop Prof, a sometimes-feature in which a Matinee Culture writer explores a disparate but interesting aspect of pop culture. Today, Pop Prof looks at a lost art in hit songwriting, as analyzed through the Harry Chapin Classic “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Pop songs can endure for a variety of reasons – and by “endure,” I don’t mean “occasionally be heard on the radio after they’re no longer popular.” I’m talking about a song that people can hear years and years after its “hit” status has worn off, and they’ll still close their eyes and say, “Mmmm. That is a great song.”
The most obvious way a song can do this is through the music, but a song can also be loved primarily for its lyrics. “Back in the USSR” is my favorite Beatles song not only for its rapid-fire guitar riffs, but also for its “California Girls”-satirizing lines and falsely heartfelt requests to “come and keep your comrade warm.”
I’ve often said that when it comes to entertainment and certain forms of technology, I am essentially an old man in a 24-year-old’s body. This is true of the kind of phone I use, the way I prefer to read books, and the way I think about music. I’ve been thinking lately about the power of lyric wording in songs, and I think that some of that power has been lost in today’s popular music.
Obviously, I don’t think that power is gone from music altogether; songs that go nowhere near the Top 40 still have it in spades. But popular – really, really popular – songs from today are generally much more direct than some of their predecessors.
Don’t take this as a line-wide deification of the oldies or a catch-all condemnation of the new. I guess what I’m really lamenting is the slow death of popular music that knew how to convey something through its words without actually spelling it out directly. I just wish that my generation of musical tastemakers could lay claim to making a smash hit out of a song that includes the line “You walked into the party / like you were walking onto a yacht.”
Exhibit A: “Cat’s in the Cradle,” by Harry Chapin
“Cat’s in the Cradle” is a very resonant song to a lot of people, but on the surface it feels like it shouldn’t be. The classic story of man with no time for a kid who eventually has no time for him seems at first to be sappily sentimental to a fault. The twist ending is practically broadcast from the beginning, and the song smacks of emotional manipulation, exemplified by the maudlin strings before the last verse.
And yet, it’s well-loved by many, including me. It’s heartfelt and meaningful, and the language Chapin uses is perhaps the biggest reason why. The key is in the conversational style, both in the way that Chapin tells the story and in the way the father and son talk to each other.
One of the key lines in making the song relatable comes in the first verse, when Chapin talks about his son’s early years. While describing the events that occur in his son’s life shortly after his birth, Chapin mentions, almost off-hand, “He learned to walk while I was away.” The delivery and the placement of the line in the song marks it as an aside, but one that Chapin is almost worried about, as if he suspects that he should be there for more of his son’s life events.
Chapin’s sincerity, combined with the comfortably atmospheric guitar picking, propels the song through the next verse and completes the setup. The two other lines that jump out to me come from Chapin’s son in the second two verses.
In the third verse, the son asks to borrow the car keys. “See you later, can I have them please?” he asks. When I was a kid, this line always bothered me because it’s seemingly backward, but it comes off to me now as an indication of youthful confidence, as if the kid is almost running out the door as he says it. He has no time for this dad of his, and any guilt he might have had over his paternal brushing-off was rendered non-existent by the fact that his father brushed him off all the time. In fact, he thinks it’s appropriate behavior, a successful emulation in a lifetime of saying “I’m gonna be like him.”
We finally come to the last verse, as Chapin’s character is filled with regret as he fears it may be too late to salvage a relationship with his son. As he chats with his son on the phone, his child abruptly, but subtly, tries to extract himself from the conversation: “It’s sure nice talking to you, Dad / It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
The final line is one the son means as a quasi-compliment but mostly as a way to move toward hanging up the phone, but the dad takes it as devaluation. He is worth so little to his son that a three-sentence conversation is enough quality time to tide his once-adoring kid over until the next phone call. His heart breaks at the realization.
Confession: this song has enormous emotional resonance for me, as it’s one of two songs (along with the much less moody but still very fun “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” by the inestimable Jim Croce) that were introduced to me at a very young age by my father. “Cat’s in the Cradle” was one of my pop music introductory pieces, introduced to me by a man very unlike the aloof dad Chapin sings about.
That alone would give the song value in my eyes (ears?), but it’s his conversational nuance, the idea that this could be a real guy, talking about his real kid, that makes the song stick with you. It’s a cautionary tale, but the narrator never tells you that it is. You take the meaning from the way he talks about himself, not from any lesson he explicitly lays out for you. If someone tried to do this song today, it would be a band like Nickelback, and the song would be full of obnoxiously on-the-nose statements like, “My daddy never came home / when I was a kid / I always felt so lonely /from the things that he did.”
The Top 40 can still give you poignancy, and it can definitely still give you raw emotion – just ask Adele. But sometimes, if I’m looking for something on the radio that I can respond to without an anguished singer confronting me with Emotions, there’s nothing that can beat the storyteller songwriters of old.