what to expect when mom & dad take the aux
I’m pretty lame. The highest my pulse rate has been all year was probably when I read that Travis Scott had a new single coming out.
My parents are lame, too, but in a sadder way. They haven’t even listened to pop radio since before I was born; maybe your parents haven’t either.
Musical complacency can seem like a fate worse than death, but should we really expect our parents to have hot takes on YoungBoy Never Broke Again or Lil Tecca? Looking 20 years down the line, I can hardly hope to keep up with my best friends from high school, let alone the music I liked; it’ll be a miracle if I know that Jaden Smith’s son, Ninja Qwest Smith, is spearheading the 2039 trap-disco revival.
Whenever I get in the car with my parents, my ears may resent their choosing to play Bob Dylan Christmas charity albums or the EDM remix of Paul Simon’s Graceland, but my soul makes me grin and bear it. The artists that soundtracked their carefree youths remind them of a time before the grind of adult life. I can’t take that away from them.
On the occasion of Family Weekend, I present a guide to the most notable recent releases in parent-music (colloquially known as “dad-rock,” but that’s a restrictive category in more ways than one). Each record has been rated on two scales: one assessing its musical quality and another grading its potential to facilitate cross-generational bonding.
Hopefully you’ll luck out and get handed the aux cord. But if not…
Tool and its rabid fans make for disgustingly easy punchlines and I will have no part in it. Instead, I’ll say that the parent who explains to their captive child how their Lateralus album incorporates the Fibonacci sequence is likely the most passionate music fan you’ll find in this guide. Tool began the 1990s making dingy, dive bar sludge rock before somehow levelling up into alternative metal’s reigning Galaxy Brain. Fans obsess over their complex rhythms, unique time signatures, and pseudo-intellectual references to Carl Jung, Aleister Crowley, and German weed cookies. You could probably turn in one of their lyric sheets and get a B in a high school philosophy class.
There’s not, however, a substantial amount of harmonic variation in their basement-dwelling sound. At first blow, each song is the same sludgy nightmare of chunky bass riffs, plunky drums, and preening vocals. Things start to deepen if you have time to learn where all the guitar solos come in, but that’s simply not possible in a single car ride to Boston.
Thankfully, you’ll have your parents to guide the way. Fear Inoculum, the band’s latest opus, comes after 13 long years of feverish anticipation (presumably, they were meticulously timing each drum solo to correlate with Kabbalah numerology), so any devoted fan has likely spent a lot of time with it already. I’d recommend faking intense interest as your parents rave about Danny Carey’s expensive sonor acrylic drum kit and point out the secret messages the band has hidden in their time signatures. After all, didn’t they listen when you tried to describe your thesis?
Musical Value 7/10 Bonding Value 9/10
Black Keys—“Let’s Rock”
On the one hand, the band plays a strain of backyard barbeque blues that is perhaps the most deeply normal and archetypical rock music I can conceive. There’s a reason they’ve always been the de rigueur soundtrack to car advertisements. Squint your eyes, and their latest album will again conjure images of dusty roads, flatbed pickups, and 1.9 percent APR rates. But viewed another way, this band makes deeply surreal, uncanny, and downright odorless music for alien life-forms. Of another human being, has anyone ever sincerely thought they “get low like a valley / Then high like a bird in the sky?” What would it mean to “shine a little light on” another person’s “soul?” Is that…does that mean sex?
Sure, they’re not the first band to write almost exclusively in rock cliche. But with the Keys, there’s no dangling humanity—no passion, hedonism, or romance to suggest they’re leading a life that would make someone reach for rock trope in the first place. It’s music that only reveals itself as bad when you ask yourself why anybody would want to make it—besides ad revenue, that is.
Assuming it was played willingly, this is the album I would be most concerned to hear over Family Weekend. Best case scenario, your parents have found new jobs in marketing; at worst, they’ve completely disengaged from all human experience (these could admittedly be co-related elements of the same scenario). Send for help, regardless.
Musical Value 4/10 Bonding value 1/10
Nas—The Lost Tapes II
“I don’t want to go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall!”
That’s underground rapper and proud Marxist Billy Woods, coming off his track “Spider Hole.” It’s a great line, which I’ve determined is the result of two factors. One: It’ll make you feel better if you sing it after your debit card gets denied. Two: It encapsulates why it’s so hard to care about Nas these days. He’s too rich.
Of course, rappers are supposed to get rich. That’s half of their superhero appeal; they sweep up the listener and make their conquest ours. But unlike, say, his enemy Jay-Z (example chosen to piss Nas off, should he be a Herald reader), the guy’s never really known how to make himself a legendary character. At his core, Nas is just an excellent journalist: intensely mouthing off about whatever’s in front of him.
On 1994’s timeless Illmatic, recorded when he was a teen living in New York housing projects, that meant matter-of-fact documentation of crime, strife, and Nas’s determination to escape both. On 2019’s time-stamped The Lost Tapes II, it means dry boasts about investing in tech startups, handing luggage to his bellhop, and winning divorce settlements. Whereas even mediocre rappers know how to ride their wealth like a rickety rollercoaster, giving it real stakes and excitement, Nas turns his into a bland human interest story.
If anyone could relate, though, it’s probably your parents. From their point of view, Nas building his own venture capital firm is no different than any other “Dad’s got his groove back” move—the rich person equivalent of leasing a sports car or cheating on your wife. We all have to block out the ever-encroaching void somehow. Should The Lost Tapes II come on, it might be wise to feign encouragement the same way you do when your mom talks about her macrame. Try, “Wow, Nas sure does have great really lawyers” or “It’s cool Nas still finds time to read the Wall Street Journal every morning.” You never know; to mock his mid-life crisis might be to mock theirs.
Musical Value 5/10 Bonding value 6/10