‘Cats in the Cradle’ was originally recorded by Harry Chapin, in 1974, featuring in the album, Verities & Balderdash. Although originally intended to be poem, its lyrical and rhythmic nature has led to it becoming regarded as one of the most successful folk rock songs. Its success was evident with the single topping the Billboard Hot 100 in December the same year of its release. ‘Cats in the Cradle’ starts out with a natural harmony that depicts the tale of a father with his newborn son.
The first verse introduces the subject matter indicating the troublesome relationship shared between father and son, “He came to the world in the usual way, but there were planes to catch and bills to pay. He learned to walk while I was away”. It is clear that although the father provides the necessities for the child, his career driven lifestyle restrains him from spending quality time with his son. The lyrics continue to follow the growth of the child in rapid stages, subtly indicating the lack of connection with the father. “My child arrived just the other day” which then moves to the second verse, “My son turned ten just the other day”.
Following this path of progression, the father has now retired and can allocate time for his son. Unfortunately, a similar process is repeated as the son grows into a similar life role as his father, ringing true the recurring verse, “I’m gonna be like you Dad, you know I’m gonna be like you… ” The direct impact of a bad role model is made evident as the song reaches the fourth and final verse, featuring the powerful lyrics “As I hung up the phone it occurred to me he’d grown up just like me, my boy was just like me. ” This line conveys the father’s realizations that his behaviours have been mimicked by his son.
The message is interpreted as a criticism to society identifying a common challenge each generation is facing. The songs intention is to make the listener think about the balance of time spent with the family and earning the adequate money to support their family and lifestyle for there are no second chances. Understanding, a target audience is an essential tool for many artists as all factors need to be based around that specific audience. Harry Chapin has clearly recognized his target audience and has crafted the song to appeal to those listeners.
Although it is difficult to accurately define who actively listens too and enjoys ‘Cats in the Cradle’ it can be assumed based on statistics and information gathered that adults within the age bracket of 25-50 appreciate this lyrical piece. This demographic suggest that children during late 1970’s (based on the 1974 song release date) would have grown up actively hearing through various means of media specifically, Radio. Another factor is during this era folk/classic rock popularity was at its peak with numerous bands such as the The Rolling Stones, Beatles and The Who.
These bands all feature a similar age demographic to Harry Chapin which aids the theory that the music children grow up with tend to be preferred during their adult years. The content of the lyrics have also been altered to identify with the target audience, many listeners feel an attachment to this song as they can relate to the characters. Harry Chapin has utilized numerous musical elements to enhance the storytelling and themes. It is catchy and interesting yet accompanied simply by an acoustic guitar that follows a steady beat.
The classical nature of the song is evident through the melodic rhythm and lyrics. This steady lyrical flow leads to a staccato nature which contributes to its overall interest. The dynamics and tone are simple and follow a more solemn and steady style, with its softness conveying regret and sadness. In order to appeal to the target audience, Harry Chapin has recognized many important techniques and utilized them; The length of ‘Cats in Cradle is based around 3:20-40 which tends to be the appropriate time frame as the whole song can be played on the radio and reach a point where it becomes dull for the listener.
The lyrics have been crafted for easy understanding and comprehension; therefor allowing for a broader audience to appreciate his music. Likewise, Harry has cleverly chosen simple clothing during the video clip that specifically relate to the song message to reinforce the stereotypical idea of a solemn father. There are various symbols and imagery in the lyrics. The repetitions of “the cats in the cradle” – indicate the child is at home alone – “and the silver spoon” which is a symbol of wealth the father has to earn.
The “little boy blue” is the child that is sad because his father is away, while the father is represented by “the man on the moon” – the one far away who is unreachable, idealized by the child who sees the father as his male role model. These lyrical metaphors describe the pairs of opposition the song is talking about. Fortunately, the repetition does not lead to a dull or tedious song as it follows the growth of child creating an interesting story that maintains the attention of the viewer. The quick leaps of time from each verse continue to reinforce the idea that little time is spent with the child.
This lack of time for the father is demonstrated in a number of lines. “He learned to walk while I was away” and “I said not today, I’ve got a lot to do… ” Harry Chapin has used classic ways of thinking and performing to enhance the listening experience including the manipulation of the subject matter and musical elements to successfully appeal to a range of audiences. The main success behind this song is a combination of numerous elements that all lead to successful and unique lyrical piece that is backed by a strong moral message.