This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, the case for taking pop punk seriously as art.
The first time I heard a song by The Wonder Years, I felt like I’d been cut open.
It felt the way it felt to hear ‘Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down’ just shy of my twelfth birthday. It felt the way it did to hear ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ for the first time. It felt like a punch in the gut, only sweeter.
When I first discovered pop punk – Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, My Chemical Romance, et al. – it was something electrifying, transformative. It felt like someone understood things about myself that I’d never been able to put to words. I used to feel that way about a lot of culture when I was younger – that someone had impossibly felt what it was to be me, and articulated it in a way my child-self couldn’t. I didn’t know if I could feel that way anymore, not with any intensity. The more stuff you’ve heard and seen, the harder it is to find something that cuts deeply in a place you’ve never named.
I was twenty years old. It was the summer after my second year of college, where I’d only just started to feel okay. I’d kind of given up on being happy there, because I’d never heard of someone taking more than a few months to find their footing, and yet the ground under my feet was constantly shifting in a pattern everyone but me seemed to know. I was back in my hometown, in my parents’ house, unemployed and bored and sad. My friends from school had moved on or I’d pushed them away, too embarrassed to let anyone know how much I was floundering. And now I was back home, and I was all alone, with nothing to do but scroll through Tumblr and Twitter and try to keep my head above water.
Then I heard ‘Won’t Be Pathetic Forever’ – a song that didn’t even make it onto an album.
It’s three minutes long, just like a song should be.
Here’s the thing: if I was designing a crash course in The Wonder Years, ‘Won’t Be Pathetic Forever’ would probably not make the cut. It’s a pretty good song, but it’s not an all-timer. If you’ve never heard The Wonder Years before, I wouldn’t particularly want it to be your introduction. But I was twenty, and it was summer, and I was lonely and sad, and ‘Won’t Be Pathetic Forever’ hit like a ton of bricks.
“In this lake of shit we’ve made, I refuse to sink,” Dan Campbell sings, and it felt like something to hold onto. I listened to that one song on repeat for months, and wanted to cry every time it got to “lately I’ve been thinking about being a doctor, or a teacher / lately I’ve been thinking about being somebody else.”
I’m much better at explaining how art makes me feel now than I was when I was thirteen, when I couldn’t explain why it hurt me so much for grown-ups to think that My Chemical Romance wanted me to kill myself, when my mouth couldn’t wrap itself around Gerard Way wants me to stay alive more than anybody. But when I try to talk about The Wonder Years, my tongue gets tied up just like it did then. I love The Wonder Years – with all my damn heart – in a way that feels too personal to articulate. It would expose too much of myself.
There’s something hyper-specific about The Wonder Years, like a band made for me. Ze Frank used to always say that the things that make us feel the most alone have the greatest power to connect us. The not-quites can hurt, though: I sobbed through the first half of Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl, while our protagonist ate bars out of the vending machine because she was too nervous to ask someone where the canteen was, and felt hollowed out when everything worked out for her by the end of freshman year, with not just friends but a boyfriend and the most popular Harry Potter fic ever written somehow or whatever. The Wonder Years put words on not just being from a small town or being unhappy at college, but how it felt for me to be from a small town, abandoned in the wake of the Great Recession by a society that doesn’t care about places like it, how it felt for me to be miserable at college, isolated and out of place.
I was back in my hometown, population 10,310, all boarded-up shops and nothing to do, and I was miserable, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I’d tried escape. It didn’t work.
“Some nights / I fucking love this town,” The Wonder Years sing all together at the end of ‘Won’t Be Pathetic Forever’, “But most nights / I fucking hate this town / I fucking hate this.”
Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing is a very special album, one it took me a little while to learn to love. It’s the middle part of a trilogy: three albums about depression and small towns and trying very hard to get better. I could spend far too long pointing at lyrics and yelling “SEE!” – every business on Main Street collapsed except Morgan’s mom’s place… / the whole town feels dead / I can’t blame it – but one of my favourite things about The Wonder Years is that, in an era of singles, they’re a band who make albums, whose music is best listened to in albums.
I’ve never been to the American Midwest, but I’ve had a weird identification with it for a long time. The sense that if I was American, that’s where I’d be from. Growing up in a small town in Ireland, the upper Midwest felt more warm and familiar than New York or California ever could. Suburbia, I’ve Given You All is about being from a small town in Pennsylvania, but it feels closer to home than anything written about Ireland.
It opens with a song about moving back in with your parents, back to your hometown.
“I guess they call this regression,” Dan Campbell sings. Everything is hard, in a way that it shouldn’t be, in a way that it isn’t for everyone else. I spent this year as a ghost and I’m not sure what I’m looking for. But the song’s title is ‘Came Out Swinging’. If you listen with the right ears, it’s triumphant. “I spent the winter writing songs about getting better / and if I’m being honest, I’m getting there,” Campbell sings, and it’s intense and gut-wrenching and makes you feel completely alive.
The whole album feels like that, like something too close and real and sharp.
The Wonder Years were a tiny speck of a band in the mid-2000s, when I first loved pop punk, when I spent what looks, from 2017, like a truly absurd amount of money on CDs and magazines. I listened to so much pop punk from 2005 to 2008, including a certain proportion of stuff that I can now see wasn’t very good (remember Cute Is What We Aim For? It turns out the pretentious, esoteric wit of Fall Out Boy and pre-split Panic! at the Disco is really hard to reverse-engineer).
But even after I got back into pop punk as an adult, I never got back into the scene. I don’t buy Kerrang! and I’ve never heard a song by Real Friends or The Story So Far. That’s not really a conscious omission, and it’s probably a flaw. I was and am happy to listen to pop punk bands I’d loved before, with back catalogues I’d either missed the first time around or in the interim. I listened to Bleed American for the first time two weeks ago. It’s awesome.
I kind of thought I was too old. That the pop punk of a new generation just wouldn’t vibe with me. I probably let the emo youth’s devotion to Twenty One Pilots, a relentlessly okay band, put me off more than I should have. I mean, it’s not that I like pop punk indiscriminately – I don’t especially care for the early 2000s stuff like Good Charlotte or Simple Plan, which isn’t as fun as what came before or as melancholy and clever as what came after (though it should be noted that ‘The River’ is an obviously great song). I thought the current wave – bands that got big when Obama was president, because pop punk waves sit really neatly into presidential terms, somehow – just wasn’t for me.
Then I heard ‘Won’t Be Pathetic Forever’. And I felt so, so young, in all the best and worst ways.
The Wonder Years are from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, population 16,269. They formed in 2005, but they didn’t really get big – at least, big in a way where I could have heard about them in my small town in the Irish midlands – until 2010, with the release of The Upsides. I missed out on them then, too busy pretending not to like pop punk and listening mostly to Neutral Milk Hotel, the Mountain Goats and the Glee soundtrack.
But if I had heard them then – stretched my window of devotion out into a chunk of Obama’s first term – I don’t know if I would have loved them. Not fully. Not enough.
I wrote before in this series that pop punk is and should be for teenagers, and I believe that. But The Wonder Years are a band for your twenties.
I don’t know if generational demographics are really real, but I think a lot about being a millennial. About what it means. I think about the 2008 crash and the uneven recovery from the Great Recession, and I think about the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay and emigration and zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships. I think about “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. I think about a generation who won’t earn more than their parents. I think about pay deals that ensure that’s the case. And I think about all the countless lazy articles about how millennials, who are disproportionately living in poverty, only want to work at places that give them free ice-cream or whatever.
I’m twenty-three, and it’s summer again. I graduated from university a year ago, almost.
Summer came on way too strong, and the radio played all new songs
so I smile and hum along, I hum along
When I was in school, teachers and careers counsellors would talk sometimes about how people of my generation would change jobs a lot. They always made this sound exciting. That we’d have so many opportunities that we’d never want to stay in one place. Maybe for some people that’s true. I’ve read enough Ask a Manager letters where someone says they’ve been unemployed for a long time and halfway down they reveal that they’ve been doing a lot of temping, actually. I’ve spent enough time scrolling through Facebook and that crock of shit LinkedIn and comparing myself unfavourably to people I studied with. I’ve spent enough of this year having people ask what I’m up to now and not knowing how to answer.
A lot of people complain about the extended adolescence of millennials, usually with a deaf ear to the fact that milestones of adulthood like getting married and buying a house and having a permanent career are things that are either prohibitively expensive or they’ve made structurally unavailable in the way they were for previous generations. Adolescence is unpleasant, and it’s frustrating to constantly see us portrayed as lazy and entitled for doing our best to deal with something inflicted on us.
So much of pop culture “about” millennials isn’t about being a millennial at all – it’s about looking at millennials like something weird and foreign and broken. It’s one of my biggest problems with Master of None, which loves to paint us as vain and selfish and buried in our phones. It makes sense as a problem that TV shows and films would run into, because even as critics go on and on about this being the age of the TV auteur, TV and film are ultimately highly collaborative, and the people at the top of the food chain are almost certainly going to be older, unless they’re Lena Dunham.
Music can be collaborative, too, but one person – or a band – can write a song, and they don’t need to hire a key grip to get it right.
Dan Campbell, the lead singer of The Wonder Years, is thirty-one.
The Wonder Years make albums, but if I had to pick a song to encapsulate everything they mean to me, it would be ‘Hoodie Weather’.
It digs right under my skin.
In This Age of Trump, This Age of Brexit, there’s suddenly a lot of talk about small de-industrialised towns. But those discussions are always abstracted. Even when there’s art about these places, it’s either idealised or demonising, and it’s never in the context of the lack of recovery since 2008. But ‘Hoodie Weather’ is real and alive and personal, and it feels like finding your footing, like refusing to sink.
So when the weather breaks, I’ll pull my hoodie up over my face
I won’t run away, run away
As fucked as this place got, it made me me
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