The Deconstruction Of Popular Music: “Cats In The Cradle”, by Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin

‘Cats In the Cradle’, from the album Verities and Baldersah, is one of those songs with a catchy melody and familiar words that hooks the listener and encourages them to sing along by drawing on images from childhood.  The lyrics, however, are sombre and problematic.  It is a first-person narrative where an absentee father seems to have convinced himself, and vainly tries to convince the listener, that he laments not having time to spend with his son. He fantasizes that his son looks up to him while ultimately becoming like his father.  This, upon closer examination, is the delusion of a father with zero parenting skills.

The opening verse sets up the narrative, as the absentee father describes how his son “learned to walk while” he was away and then rationalizes  his absence: “there were planes to catch and bills to pay”.  At the end of the verse, we are introduced to the refrain that will be repeated throughout, as the narrator boasts how his son used to say: “I’m gonna be like you, dad”.  The chorus is then introduced, and the son asks: “When you comin’ home, dad?”, to which the absentee father states “I don’t know when”, promising that when they do get together they will “have a good time”.  This turns out to be an empty promise, because the narrator is clearly a self-absorbed, heartless piece of shit.

The cover for the album "Verities & Balderbash" featuring "Cats In the Cradle".

The cover for the album “Verities & Balderdash” featuring “Cats In the Cradle”.

The second verse notes that the boy has turned ten, but little time has been shared between father and son.  The father buys his son a ball, as though he could buy his way into fatherhood.  When the son asks his father to play, the narrator replies: “Not today.  I got a lot to do”.  This time, there are no excuses such as “bills to pay” or “planes to catch”, just an off-hand comment devoid of substance.  The narrator then boasts that as the child walked away he still insisted that he was going to be like his father.

A very literal interpretation of the song title "Cats In the Cradle".

A very literal interpretation of the song title “Cats In the Cradle”.

The third verse moves into the college years and traces the pattern of the relationship.  The son has come home from college and the father tells him that he is proud of him, as if he had had anything to do with how his child was brought up.  When he asks his son to make time for him, it is clear that as a young adult, his son perceives that time with his father is meaningless. Instead, he asks for the keys to the car.  Again, we see that this instance of fatherhood is defined not by intimacy and trust, but rather by what the father has to offer; in this case, it is a car.  In both the second and third verse the father attempts to buy into his son’s good graces.

A 19080 Volkswagon Rabbit, very similar to the model in which Harry Chapin was killed in 1981.  Though the accident was determined to be his fault, his wife sued the other party successfully for 12 million dollars.

A 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit, very similar to the model in which Harry Chapin was killed in 1981. Though the accident was determined to be his fault, his wife sued the other party successfully for 12 million dollars.

The final verse is where the father’s ignorance (or arrogance?) is most glaring.  He boasts that he has retired and his son has moved away, and now that he has some time he decides to call up his son and say he would like to see him.  The son responds that he does not have the time as his “kids have the flu”, but reassures his dad that it was “nice talking to” him.  This is the most troubling part of the song.  The father then concludes that because his son does not have time for him, that his boy had grown up just like him, referring to him as “my boy”.  The “my boy” phrase is problematic because it is condescending.  It fails to acknowledge that the child has grown up and become a responsible adult and also implies that the narrator has some sort of ownership over him with the employment of the possessive pronoun “my”.  The narrator also concludes that the son had turned out just like him, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The son does not have time for his absentee father because he is making time for his children who have the flu.  The son, knowing the pain caused by an absentee father, laments the pain he endured as a child and seeks to be a better father for his own children, being sure to make time for them and spare them from the pain he suffered.  His father gave him no lessons, yet the father takes credit for the responsible adult that his child has become.

The cover of the self-titled Faster Pussycat album featuring "House Of Pain", which came out 15 years after "Cats In The Cradle" and tells a similar story from the child's perspective.

The cover of the self-titled Faster Pussycat album.  Their second album would feature “House Of Pain”, which came out 16 years after “Cats In The Cradle” and tells a similar story from the child’s perspective.

The narrator is an arrogant, selfish prick who fails to see the pain he has caused. He imagines that he was a great role model for his son, who has succeeded in life by patterning himself after his father. He rationalizes away the reasons why he was absent, taking no responsibility for his failure to be there for his child.  There is also an absence of the maternal in the song, which serves as a failure to recognize the contributions the mother makes in the rearing of a child.

For those who would like to check out the version of a similar story, from the child’s perspective, check out this video from Faster Pussycat:

Interesting side note, Michael Bay directed this video.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. I agree that by today’s standards the dad in this song is not exactly a paragon of dad-hood. However, if we view the song within the context of the early 70s, he was Every Dad, just fulfilling his prescribed role and doing his duty. Dads were supposed to bring home the bacon, and moms were the primary parents. It was not uncommon back then to hear people say things like, “I love my mother and respect (or admire) my father.”

    Folk-rock artists were trying to shake things up a bit by making the general public, ordinary people, question the status quo. Ballads like “Cat’s in the Cradle” worked like little parables to promote the radical ideals of peace, love and equality. (Think of “One Tin Soldier,” which actually starts with “Listen, children, to a story …”). Chapin’s audience was not the dads of the time, who were too busy working toward that golden handshake and who hated that “loud rock ‘n’ roll garbage” anyway; his audience was the youth, especially the late baby boomers for whom the messages in those early seventies folk songs became moral hard drives for life. Those kids listened to the song and said, “Wow. Heavy. That’s not gonna be me, man.”

    And in those early days of feminism (“women’s lib”), Chapin could have made the song about how unfair it was to make women shoulder parenthood alone; instead, he cleverly showed how much men were missing out on by not being more hands-on with their kids. By making his traditional dad a tragic figure, Chapin and others influenced subsequent generations of men to try to do better, so much so that now the dad strikes younger listeners as a big jerk.

  2. Joseph Moser says:

    Apparently the creator of this article had a bad relationship with HIS father, clouding the intent of the song’s author, which was to show the fruitlessness of promises not matched with real actions. Unfortunately, the original father has passed down his inability to fully grasp – until it is too late – the importance of ,making time for the REALLY important aspects of fatherhood. The guy is NOT a selfish prick – just a misguided man attempting to provide for his family in the way he knows best – financial support.

  3. Actually, I have a very good relationship with my father. Thanks for the analysis Freud.

    As to the ‘misguided man attempting to provide for his family’, that might be the case for a working-class father, but not so much for an independently wealthy musician who is just going out on tour to satisfy his own ego. Nice try though.

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