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10 Songs About Complicated Father-Child Relationships

Few songwriting subjects are quite as intense as fatherly abandonment and disappointment. Yes, fathers who abandon or let down their children have been pilloried in songs extensively, and now that my son has begun to pick at his grandfathers' extensive collection of acoustic guitars, I fear that if I let my son down there's a chance I, too, will become the kind of disappointing dad my progeny gets revenge on in song—like the underachieving fathers chronicled in the 10 songs below.

  1. "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone", The Temptations

The king of all fatherly disses, The Temptations' 1972 classic "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" is a cold-blooded, powerful and unsparing indictment of a father who lets his son and his family down in every possible way. Over a musical backdrop at once funky and orchestral, intimate and sweeping, the band sings of a father who begins the song by dying an unmourned death. It then travels back in time as the group's singers take turns articulating the absent and migratory father's myriad shortcomings as a father and man. They sing witheringly and bitterly about his laziness, womanizing, his hypocrisy, his drinking, his stupidity and his unconscionable abandonment of his family. The kicker lies in the chorus when the band sings of their ultimate fatherly inheritance, "When he died, all he left us was alone."

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2. "Poppa Was A Playa", Nas

Nas collaborated with his father, legendary jazz musician Olu Dara, a number of times over the course of his career. He was understandably and justifiably proud to be the son of such an accomplished musician. Yet on "Poppa Was A Playa", (which was co-produced by a young, pre-stardom Kanye West) a spiritual descendent of "Poppa Was A Rolling Stone," he makes it clear just how complicated and sometimes dark their relationship was. Nas raps eloquently about his parents' non-stop fighting, how his mother would weep over the stress of having to raise her children pretty much by herself, as well as his father's womanizing, his cocaine and pot use, and ultimately how he left his family to pursue a life of women, drugs and misadventures. There's a lot of love in the song as well, as Nas wrestles with the poignant contradictions of his father's life and his father's shortcomings. Nas understands that being a dad is many things, but simple it is not.

3. "A Boy Named Sue", Johnny Cash

Written by Shel Silverstein and made famous by Johnny Cash during his legendary "Live At Folsom Prison" days, "A Boy Named Sue" proves that tales of fatherly abandonment can be funny, quirky and breezy as well as painful and traumatic. The song begins with the narrator's negligent father walking out on his wife and son when his son was just three, leaving behind just an "old guitar and an empty bottle of booze" (a common trait among the bad dads here: a love of the hooch that overwhelms their wavering sense of fatherly responsibility) and a name the narrator rightfully views as a curse he rues every damn day of his life: Sue. The narrator's life is predictably tough and hardscrabble, as he takes on an army of bullies who view him as an irresistible target because of his womanly moniker.

Sure enough, the boy vows revenge on his not so dear old dad for burdening him with a girl's name and one day he tracks him down at a watering hole and a scuffle ensues. The angry young man finds some healing, however, when his father explains that he gave him his unlikely name as a way of ensuring that his son would be tough enough to survive an often cruel world. The son seems reassured, but he nevertheless ends the ditty by vowing to give his own son, should he have one, a name that is anything but "Sue."

4. "Cat's In The Cradle", Harry Chapin

Fathers don't necessarily have to be mean, abusive or drunken to disappoint their children and leave a hole in their lives and their souls. Sometimes they can accomplish that unfortunate feat just by being too busy or distracted by work to be present, literally and emotionally. That's the case in Harry Chapin's male tear-jerker "Cat's In The Cradle." The song is sung from the perspective of a father who is just too damned busy and occupied with work and his other responsibilities to be there to play with his adoring son at the times when it matters most. The son vows to be just like his dad, and in a bleak, if predictable, irony when the roles are reversed and the lonely father wants to spend time with his now-grown son, it's his son who is just too darned busy and preoccupied to be able to spend time with him.

5. "Papa Don't Preach", Madonna

Unlike so many of the fathers in these songs, the father in Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" isn't absent or abusive, drunk or stoned. But you don't need to be M.I.A or lost in drunken haze to disappoint and frustrate your child. Madonna sings from the perspective of a young woman who gets pregnant unexpectedly, something that complicates and darkens a relationship with a father she grow up looking up to and admiring. This pregnancy puts a terrible strain on their relationship once she defies her father's wishes and decides to keep the baby of a boyfriend her father encouraged her to break up with. It's a song rich with ambivalence and moral ambiguity, as a young woman in a terrible bind defies the wishes of the people she loves most and asserts her autonomy and independence in the face of fierce parental opposition.

6. "Papa'z Song", 2Pac

Early in "Papa'z Song", 2Pac angrily tells his father, "We been getting along fine just without you" but the rage that follows strongly suggests otherwise. 2Pac delivers the word "Pops" with poisonous irony; like so many of the delinquent fathers on the list, he is a father in name only, a perpetual absence in his son's life who leaves his boy pining for a surrogate father figure only to see the men in his mom's life walk away, intimidated by the prospect of having to take care of another man's son. The father makes intermittent attempts to be part of his son's life, but that just exacerbates the pain of being abandoned. "Papa'z Song" wasn't an anthem like "Dear Mama," 2Pac's loving tribute to his mother, but that might be because people tend to like songs about parents to be sweet and sentimental instead of angry and full of Old Testament wrath.

7. "Biological Didn't Bother" Shaquille O' Neal

Shaquille O'Neal seems like a chipper, happy-go-lucky fellow, but even beloved, wildly successful and rich man-children are not immune from the pain of parental abandonment. On "Biological Didn't Bother" an uncharacteristically introspective Shaq raps about the angst he and his mother felt after Shaq's father, lost in a world of drugs and selfishness, abandoned him while the NBA superstar-to-be was just a little boy.

But even here, Shaq finds a way to be positive. The song is more of a tribute to Shaquille O'Neal's stepfather, who moved into a tough situation and proved to be the stern but loving and committed father and role model the rapper/actor/basketball player's biological father refused to be. Shaq's birth father pops up late in the song, appearing on "The Ricki Lake Show", and angling for a payout from his rich and famous son, but by that time it's too late. Being a father isn't a matter of biology, it's a matter of love and responsibility, and as Shaq insists over and over again, that the title and honor of "Father" was one his stepfather earned and his birth father lost.

8. "Father Of Mine," Everclear

Everclear's best song (granted, it does not have much competition) is a hooky, infectious and emotionally direct exploration of the emotional devastation a father's abandonment can wreak. The song starts off on an upbeat note, with the singer recalling how his father's smile as a child could make the whole world seem bright and kind. He revels in his father's kindness and warmth and it's this early adulation that makes the eventual abandonment and betrayal hurt even more. The song grows darker and angrier until the singer is bitterly demanding, with a voice raw with righteous rage and indignation, "Father of mine, tell me how do you sleep? With the children you abandoned, and the wife I saw you beat?"

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9. "All I Want For Christmas Is My Daddy", Buck Owens

Yuletide tear-jerkers don't get more shameless than Buck Owens' maudlin story song about a little boy who doesn't want a new bike or action figures for Christmas. No, as the title betrays, this sad little boy just wants the Christmas Day return of a father who walked out on his family while he was still a young boy and whose absence never stops being a source of tremendous pain to him and his mother. Alas, there are limits to even Santa Claus' power, so it's doubtful the young boy will wake up to find his errant father underneath the Christmas tree (and honestly, it'd be a little freaky if he did).

10. "Christmas Without Daddy", Loretta Lynn

In this depressing country song, Lynn sings from the perspective of a mother who must answer her children's questions about why their daddy isn't there, on Christmas, or any other day. This abandonment lends an overwhelming air of sadness, loneliness and melancholy to what should be the most joyous day in a child's year. As in "All I Want For Christmas," the sad little boy writes to Santa asking for the impossible gift of Daddy's return. That seems unlikely, however, so the narrator resigns herself, and her family, to a "Christmas without daddy" that will be "blue and all alone." Bummer city.

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Photograph by: Rex Features/Getty Images

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