Kicking Butt on "Cat's in the Cradle"

As far as I can tell, I might be the only person on the planet who absolutely detests this song. If you're unsure which song I mean, you can listen to it below. For me, hearing just the first few notes alone makes me nauseated, so I won't be playing it, but feel free to listen to the whole ugly thing if you want to:



Fair warning: if you love this song, stop now. Don't read this post, because I'll probably ruin the song for you forever. Seriously, stop reading right now if you have fond feelings for it.

Still here? Okay . . . you've been warned. I heard it at the grocery store the other day, gripped the cart harder, and I think my lip turned up in a snarl. Blog it! came to mind, so you can thank Albertson's for today's post (and my overly loud opinions) for the chance to get it off my chest once and for all.

So many people think "Cat's in the Cradle" is such a great, nostalgic piece, a song that not only has a simple, wonderful tune with clever lyrics, but it serves as a warning to parents to not throw away the time we have with our children. To relish the now.

Wow. Sniff. Let's wipe away a tear.

Or something.

Then, for good measure, there's a nasty little warning thrown in: if you don't spend time with your children, they'll turn out just like you, the person who threw away cherished time! (THE HORROR!)

Obviously, I'm being snarky--evidence that I have issues with the song.

First off, I prefer any work (song, book, etc.) to not browbeat me with the message. If there's a message, fine. But don't use a hammer to slam me over the head with it repeatedly to make sure I not only got the message but feel totally guilty for any parenting mistakes I've ever made.

Let me figure out the message on my own, thanks. Assume I have a brain. That way, not only will it stick better, but I won't feel preached down to. I swear, this song is one of the most didactic, preachy things I've ever heard. (Message: guilt, guilt, guilt!)

Second (and this is where I get REALLY annoyed), the song's own lyrics don't hold up what it's trying to preach.

Let's take a look-see:

The father is a self-centered, immature dork. I don't think Harry Chapin himself would argue that, since it's sort of the point. The father has no time for those he loves, as evidenced by when his son repeatedly comes in each verse asking to spend time with his father. Of course, each time the father blows him off.

At the end of each verse, after being denied time with his father, the son turns back and says the haunting little promise/threat, "I'm going to be like you, Dad. You know I'm going to be like you."

So here's the big question: Does the son turn out like his dad?

The song declares that he does. I say he doesn't.

Okay, sure, the son's a bit self-centered in the verse where he's in college. But all adolescents go through the stage where friends become the center of their lives and parents tend to become less important. That's actually rather healthy, as much as we parents don't like it when our kids become independent and take on their own lives.

But it's the next part that really gets me: it's where the son is a husband and father himself.

Is he really like his dad?

I say, no way.

Here's why:

The tables have been turned. The father is all proud and decides that now he wants to spend time with his son. In other words, the father is still a self-absorbed, immature dork. He still wants things to happen on his timetable, and to heck with everyone else's.

He calls (by all accounts, out of the blue) hoping to spend time with his now-grown son. He doesn't ask to see if there would be a good time to get together. He tries to get together right now. Today.

The son says he'd love to see his dad, but right now isn't the best time because:

1) He has a new job keeping him hopping and

2) The children have the flu.

Both very good reasons not to meet now. Let's look closer at the son's reasons:

1) He is a mature man who understands that supporting his family is of the utmost importance, especially with a brand new job.

(I'm sorry but who in their right mind would blow off the duties of new employment just to do lunch with Dad? And what older parent would expect such a thing from his son except for an immature, stupid jerk?)

Plus:

2) The children have the flu. The son is obviously helping his wife take care of their sick children. Which means he is spending time with his children, something his own father never did. Hello?!

Both of the son's reasons for saying no reveal that he never did turn into his father.

He's a better man, a better father than his own. He's not a selfish dork whose life revolves around himself. Instead, he's a mature man whose life revolves around the family that he's currently raising.

His life just doesn't happen to revolve around his self-centered, egotistical father.

And that is exactly as it should be.

If the son had answered the phone call with, "Sure, Dad, let's go out to a movie," and left his wife alone to care for the feverish, miserable kids by herself, he would have deserved a smack upside the head.

But he doesn't do that. He knows his duties as a father and a husband and stands by them. To heck with Dad, who was never there for him when he was a boy. Instead, he is there for his own wife and kids, thank you very much, probably cleaning up vomit right next to his wife.

In the meantime, the father is still immature and selfish, expecting the world to revolve around his desires, expectations, and timetable. If he can't have what he wants when he wants it, then whiny, whiny, whine, my son's grown into a selfish person. Um, no. But the father can't see beyond himself.

This is why I cannot hear the song without wanting to tear my hair out.

One of the last lines just kills me: "My boy was just like me."

No! No, he wasn't.

Mr. Father Idiot, don't flatter yourself. You got lucky. Your son turned out great in spite of you. Just because your son isn't going out to dinner with you or otherwise hanging out with YOU (a person who totally neglected HIM) doesn't mean he isn't cuddling next to his feverish daughter with a book tonight, and it doesn't mean he isn't playing catch with his son tomorrow after a hard day's work at his new job.

You already know from his own mouth that he's taking care of his children in ways you never took care of your own.

This may come as a surprise, but that's how real parenthood works: it's about the children, the next generation. It's about sacrificing for them. It's not about you. It never has been.

Get over yourself.

Phew. Glad I got that off my back.

There are ways to write a song that make a parent want to grasp every minute with a child without preaching and without guilting them into it. (And without using faulty logic.)

The one below is one of my favorites. It could be because I have three daughters, but I weep every time I hear it, and it runs through my head often on school-day mornings as my girls walk out the door with their "school bags in hand." It makes me want to be a better mother, to "capture every minute."

Much better than that "Cat's in the Cradle" nonsense. Amazing that the two songs were written all of seven years apart from each other and have such different views of a similar topic (scare tactic versus uplifting and encouraging).

I'll take ABBA's perspective any day.

Comments

Kristina P. said…
Wow, you really do hate this song!

I just like the music.
Erin said…
I have a piano students who is obsessed with learning to play this song right now. The problem is that he can't get the rhythm right, no matter how hard I try to explain, tap the beat, count out loud, etc. So I hear this song once a week being butchered. Ugh!
Lara said…
I like the music of the Cat's in the Cradle, but never did much care for the message. And, you have analyzed it so completely...I never really got that far. The lyrics just bugged me.

The other one makes me cry buckets too (so I'm not listening to it here!) and so I kind of hate it. But love it at the same time. Another one is "Turn Around" by Harry Belafonte.

And just THINKING about those songs I'm sitting here crying. I don't even NEED to hear them. Off to play with Sophie. :)
Teri said…
I'm glad I'm not the only one that HATES that song! You brought up some of the same points that I've always considered....the kids with the flu, self-centered college kid, as well as some I hadn't thought of. I remember learning to sing the song in second grade, a really long time ago, and us singing to our parents in a program. Can we say, guilt trip? I've never been a fan of causing that much guilt to wash over an auditorium of people. That cemented my view of it from then on.
Jenn said…
I hate the song, but love the string game!
How've ya been?
Kimberly said…
I have absolutely loathed that song since I was about seven years old. I didn't fully grasp it then, but it seemed like such a dark, negative piece and it made me feel squirmy every time I heard it (I grew up listening to the oldies station on the radio). And I just love that you pointed out all the things that as an adult I absolutely detest about it. Brava!
Josi said…
I"ve always liked the song--but I picked up on the contradiction the very first time I heard it. That does bug me, but for the message is more about the fact that if I don't work on having a good relationship with my kids now, they won't value me when I feel like I have 'time' for it. It's a good lesson for me--as is the ABBA song as well--both bring on introspection.

However, I fully support your decision to hate the son. Don't Fear the Reaper is one I absolutely despise despite the great tune and the fact that I love Blue Oyster Cult--And Wind Beneath My Wings makes me want to hurl. So I hear you on having an opinion :-)
I just learned a whole lot about that song that I had never thought about. I think it's too long and dark for me to have really paid attention. I have no attention span :)
Blondie said…
I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with your analysis.
Yeah this song is sappy and maybe it's preachy but it's reality!
The only real difference between the messages of these two songs is that one is about a dad and the other is about a mom.
In the first line of the "ugly" song he states that he "has bills to pay." He's trying to provide for his family. Dads have heavy responsibilities to take care of their families and that leads to tough choices. Imagine the dad in this song was in the military. Soldiers miss milestones in their kids' lives all the time but you would never call their dedication to their jobs selfish. Just because dads have to miss stuff doesn't mean it doesn't kill them inside every time they have to do it. You can't assume the dad in this song enjoys it when he has to blow off his son's requests for time. Dads often don't have the luxury of spending time at the breakfast table like moms do--they've already left for work!

I'm not actually a fan of this song and I' not trying to defend it, but I guess the message is different for everyone depending on their own perspective.
Annette Lyon said…
Blondie,
I can totally see your point. In fact, I really have no problem with the first half of the song, with the bills to pay and all that. It kinda works--it's dark and bangs you over the head with its message, sure, but it works to a point.

If the song ended there, I wouldn't hate it. It's the second part that drives me crazy, where the father expects his son to drop everything for him instead of focusing on the son's own children. The son should be a good father, and HE IS, but the old father can't see it. THAT is the problem.

The father seriously expects his son to leave grandchildren who have the flu to spend time with him? REALLY? The focus shifts from what it means to be a good father to wanting to be get the attention himself--and without justification for it (and at the expense of someone else who needs the attention more than he does).

THAT is where the song falls apart.
Anonymous said…
The after my first son was born, my husband heard it on the radio. So, instead of straightening up the house for our return from the hospital and changing the sheets on our bed (where my water broke) he guiltily rushed off the to hospital. When we got home I burst into tears. I'm not exactly fond of that song either.
Blondie said…
But I don't see where the statement "I'd love to see you, if you don't mind" means he is being self-absorbed and demanding of his son's time. That's a pretty huge jump.
A jump that would have to be based on the assumption that he was being selfish in the first place. If you take out that assumption out of it, all you have is a grandfather who would like to come visit and a son who is too overwhelmed with his own family (as he should be!)to make time for his dad.
Or in other words, the story of our lives around here!
Tell us how you really feel, Annette Excellent rant. I think I'm like another person who commented - I like the music and the artists who perform it.

One of my pet peeves is Christmas music performed by artists who really should leave it alone (the horror!), and being blasted by it everwhere I go, starting in October . . . . I'll listen to my own collection, thank you very much.
Annette Lyon said…
Okay, I see your point. But I'm still lost on how he can say, "My boy was just like me" when his son is taking care of children who are SICK rather than finding time to see his father.

I get what Chapin was trying to say--I really do. And I do see what others see in the song (my own husband loves it).

But it just rubs me the wrong way. (Obviously. :D) The message just seems skewed.
Blondie said…
THAT I can agree with!
(By the way, message aside this song--music, voice, annoying chorus etc.--totally bugs me!)
Jordan said…
I like the song, but it doesn't bother me that you don't. I just like to sing the chorus anyway ;) .

But my favorite story of this song was the time when someone (with a very thick Southern accent) (and monotone) read the lyrics over the pulpit as if it were . . . well, worthy of reading over the pulpit. (Maybe like President Monson—with the pauses, but not with inflection.)
That Girl said…
Okay, this cracked me up more than anything else.

I still like it. Mostly because it reminds me of Girls Camp. Good times!
Sarah M Eden said…
Me, I'm just bugged by the fact that some poor kid not only has a cat in his cradle, but also a spoon, a little boy dressed in blue and the man in the moon. That is where the real tragedy is. That kid deserves a less crowded place to sleep!!
Cheri Chesley said…
I'm really neither here nor there about the song. Not having grown up with a dad in the house, I have my own perspective.

But I have to say, I love how you express your opinion!
Charlie Moore said…
Initially, I was going to make some dumb comment about how you must have taken your LDS cap off for this post because it's so negative and us LDS'ers aren't supposed to be so negative, but I figured that would be too preachy and I'm not the preachy type (well, kind of, according to my wife), so I started reading through the comment trail and when I got to the Josi comment my spirits were lifted up once again ... a Blue Oyster Cult fan, one of my all time favorite songs is Astronomy (no, I don't worry too much about messages, it's just a great song.) Now just tell me your a Rush fan, too, and I'll buy your new book. Well, I'm going to buy it, anyway. Already bought, read and nominated yours, Annette. Now that's positive.

By the way, did old Harry turn over in his grave? Probably not.

Charlie
Rachel Sue said…
I don't think that I have ever put so much thought into the lyrics of any song ever.

And I will admit it. When I watched that scene from Mama Mia, I may have cried more than a little.
Shelley said…
Have you read "Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs?" It's a favorite.
Mikki said…
I really do love that song. Even after reading through your post. I'll respectfully agree to disagree.
I absolutely, positively agree with you on the ABBA song though. That one makes me cry Every. single. time! I love ABBA.
Mikki said…
Cr*p! I had to push the play button!! Two lines of that song!! That's all it takes to make the tears start. Always makes me think of my sweet Ashley. She's growing up way too fast!!!
Luisa Perkins said…
It's a hateful song. Didactic songs are a pet peeve of mine, which can make Sundays difficult for me at times.
L.T. Elliot said…
You're not the only hater. An old friend of mine hates it too. His father...not such a great man. My friend hates it because, to him, it says that one cannot avoid being like their parents. He's determined to be anything BUT his father and hearing that song just puts a bee in his bonnet. Although, I'm sure he wouldn't like that I said he wears bonnets. I should tell him.
Annette Lyon said…
Charlie, You cracked me up, because I was unaware that being LDS required me to be positive all the time . . .
wonder woman said…
I love rants! I love this one, because I've always thought that was such a horrible song. It's so bittersweet......or maybe just bitter. Levi would reference it every now and then in a sunday school lesson about being busy with work and kids growing up and never getting to see them.

Yeah. I'm really not a fan of that song.
Charlie Moore said…
Thanks Annette for seeing the tongue and cheek approach of my comment. I'm certainly not positive all the time. I'm glad I cracked you up, I just hope I didn't anger you.

Charlie
Annette Lyon said…
Charlie, No worries--it would take a whole lot more than that to anger me! And hey--you nominated me. How could I be mad at someone who did THAT?!

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