I have a crystal clear memory, which I may have completely made up, of my mom dancing with glassy eyes and a smile in the kitchen, holding a glass of wine at a risky angle, grooving to the Rolling Stones‘ 1978 song “Miss You.” That leery disco track will always remind me of my mom, and I don’t even know if it’s a real memory or just something I’ve projected onto my brain for years. It’s a moment I have ascribed to her, and to an extension, all moms, as the genesis for ‘mom rock.’
As is typical, mom rock does not have the kind of cachet that ‘dad rock’ has. Dad rock even “had a moment” last year, according to Billboard.While dad rock has become a somewhat pejorative term to sling at white guys playing guitar in a classic rock kind of way, the term ‘mom rock’ I felt had a somewhat looser definition. Was it Train? Was it Mary Chapin Carpenter? Was it Haddaway? Was it “Miss You”? There was something porous about the definition that I wanted to explore.
So I called my mom.
Kathy was born in the early 1950s, grew up and spent most of her life in Wisconsin. After three decades in the education system as a teacher and a consultant, she now has her own business coaching educators around the state. She loves music in a deeply personal and uncritical way that I adore, and her taste has trickled down into mine over the years. Crucially, she also is a certified Zumba instructor.
I asked her about mom rock and how she’d want to define the term. What started as a sort of an irreverent stunt for Mother’s Day, turned into perhaps the best definition for mom rock that I would not, could not have ever imagined.
Kathy: Hi Jer.
So there is this semi-established genre that people talk about in some music circles called ‘dad rock,’ and naturally my question is, what is ‘mom rock’? I figured I would ask my mother.
OK… [laughs]. I don’t even know what the context would be.
Here’s the context of dad rock: It’s music dad’s would listen to. So, without giving it away, what do you think dad rock would be?
Ohhh. OK. For my generation, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. For your dad it was Leonard Cohen, the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker. I would look at what he was fascinated with, and it was more rock, definitely. He loved Bob Dylan and hated the ’80s. Hated them, hated disco. The Gibb Brothers…Andy Gibb…who are they? Jimmy Fallon makes fun of them all the time….
The Bee Gees?
Yes, he hated all that. Being a mom, I would think about the songs I loved since being a mom with you. The first song I ever saw you respond to was “We Are The World,” the one with all the people?
Yeah, oh god.
And I remember you having a cold—you loved it. You somehow responded to that song in a way that soothed you. You had your first cold ever, and holding you in your arms, and you melted into my shoulders, and I’ll never forget that experience. You know when somebody totally relaxes after being kind of miserable? That was the song that did it for you. So if I were going to say that was my ‘mom rock’ song—it’s from a mom’s point of view of that song helped me be a good mom to you. So there you go. I’m going to put it in that context, is that OK?
Yeah, so if you were to describe mom rock songs, you would describe them as healing songs that you have a personal relationship to?
I would call them songs that I could relate to with my children. It doesn’t necessarily have to be their songs, it’s songs that all of a sudden connected us together. The other one would be “Johnny B. Goode,” oh my God. That is a mom rock song, because I watched you totally get it, and rock with it, and as a [3-year-old] kid knew all the lyrics. As a mom I enjoyed it because we all enjoyed “Johnny B. Goode” with my generation. But that you would enjoy it as a kid, and then sing it in the way that you did—you mimicked it from Back to the Future, but it was like, “this kid gets rock.” So that’s a mom rock song because something connected us, generation-wise.
So unfamiliar with how the term is used colloquially, just naturally you tie it to songs that you and I connected with?
To me, that’s what it would be. For me, I wouldn’t have known those songs if I weren’t a mother, but they allowed me to connect with you. And when you started to get into heavy metal? For me, that was foreign to me. Mom rock became stepping out of my comfort zone to learn about something my son finds interesting. Heavy metal music has a connotation, and I had to go beyond that. My best experience with that was when you asked me to stand in line to have Megadeth sign your Megadeth CDs while you were at soccer practice.
For me there was no reason not to support you.
I can think of a lot of reasons in hindsight.
Well, it was about getting to know that I had a bias about music. The bias was broken standing in line at Best Buy in my teacher-consultant clothes after working, looking like I don’t fit here with the long-haired, studded, metallic-looking kids who looked like they were going to be tough but were actually the kindest kids.
This really is the softest metal story ever.
Everybody was awesome to me, I was treated like a princess! The bouncer was not going to let me sign more than one thing, and then…Dave Mustaine? Am I right?
Yes, you are right.
He was like “Let her go.” And everyone in line took a picture of me with Dave. You gotta let that barrier down.
It’s remarkably sweet that you relate this to me. But outside of your relationship to me, what would you call mom rock? What music would you relate to other moms, the National Coalition of Moms? The music that moms listen to.
Instead of going with moms, because that’s a role, I would say before we were moms we were women. And when we became moms, we had a genre of music that led us to that. So I’m going to use that as a segue: I’m going to guess most women who’ve become moms have a genre of music that turns them on and makes them feel like, “Wow I am someone special who can rock this music,” or there’s something special about this music that makes me feel very alive and beautiful and awesome.
For women it is a sensual kind of thing. If you see them on the dance floor, women love to dance to music that makes them move. For me, it’s always been rhythm and blues. If you put on a song, I can’t sit still, I’m going to get up and move.
Kathy, the author’s mother (photo courtesy Jeremy D. Larson)
My idea of mom rock, is and I have this memory of you, and I may have made it up, of you drinking wine and listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.”
Mmm hmm. I probably have. You have this feeling about you that is earthy and sensual and sensuous and a song will resonate with you in a way, and I would say that is mom rock. It has a belly-ache of this is going to make me get up and move that makes my femininity and my motherhood go, “whoa.”
When I was growing up you were listening to a lot of Enya and Enigma, but that doesn’t make you want to get up and move around?
No, it calmed me down [laughs]. I think the issue of those things is that you realize after you’re a mom, you need some soothing. You know, in doing Zumba, I have a pregnant woman in my Zumba class right now, and this music is sort of a resonance of the same thing I’m telling you. It hits women in a visceral way. And she’s there in her beautiful little belly and she’s twisting and moving and gyrating and moving around and saying, “I feel alive with this music.” It is the dancing that makes you feel alive.
Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” was another song I heard a lot around the house too.
If you were to generalize the difference between dad rock and mom rock, what would that be?
I think for women it would be more bass, more grind. Although many women are interested in country music, too. We don’t care necessarily about the lyrics, we care about the bass, the way that it makes us feel in terms of the rhythm.
I feel like you really liked Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason”?
There were several, yeah. Sade? She had another one. And Joni Mitchellhad several songs I liked. We move through several things that inspire us. For a woman to become a mother, I narrowed the definition: To become a mother, you have to have a relationship with someone else, and the music helped define that. Dad rock? That music defined them as males. Mom rock defined me as a female that led me to be a mom. I’m dealing with it from a feminist point of view. And I can’t fully define mom rock without who you are?
Are there any other people who you would qualify as mom rock? I was thinking that there really aren’t any women in dad rock.
So dad rock is really just guy bands?
A lot of dad rock is defined as “white men,” if you’re using the general colloquial term of it.
Ok, may I ask you another question because that baffles me a bit and I become curious. Have we asked black dads what dad rock is?
That is an incredibly great question, and I can only answer it by saying, most of the people who talk about dad rock signify dad rock as a white thing.
Here’s what I’m going to say about women: I don’t think women care. I think they’ll go with Rihanna, they’ll go with Kanye, they’d go with Pitbull, they’d go with any singer who would make them feel the way I defined it. I may be wrong, I’m not saying I’m global. Although what I’ve been experiencing in Zumba is global music and it has that same formula. It defies that kind of boundaries in terms of guys. I think it would be a wide range of artists—it would not be defined narrowly. Which is kinda cool! There will be some who love folk music and all that, but none of that will make me feel like Marvin Gaye. It’s a visceral kind of thing, and I think women feel that.