This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, My Chemical Romance as armour in a world full of misery and cruelty.
It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time it was quite a thing for a pop punk band to write a downbeat song about depression. Pop punk has always had a deep and abiding commitment to sincerity, but the genre’s early breakouts, especially Green Day, generally maintained a weird ironic distance from their feelings even as they exorcised them. “Basket Case” is a typical example: it’s not that it isn’t upfront about its subject matter – the sense of disorientation and purposelessness that is most definitive of Gen X alternative rock – but it’s delivered with a kind of self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek, throwaway attitude that’s very hard to describe and very uniquely pop punk.
Partially that’s a product of the inherent irony of pop punk as a genre – the tension of sad lyrics over upbeat music – and partially it’s a product of the pervasiveness of irony in Gen X pop culture at large, from Kurt Cobain deadpanning positivity slogans to the relentless cynicism of Seinfeld, which is one reason the balance shifted heavily (but never completely) towards sincerity as this early wave of pop punk bands were succeeded by bands like My Chemical Romance, Paramore and Fall Out Boy in the noughties. Though mostly not millennials themselves (MCR’s Gerard Way is only five years younger than Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong), their fanbases are, and these bands were at the vanguard of millennial pop culture’s reaction to the excessive and counterproductive irony of much Gen X art, a reaction that came to include Green Day themselves with American Idiot (2004).
Several successful singles from the turn of the century played a big part in that reaction: “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World, “Perfect” by Simple Plan, and the first and most devastating shot, “Adam’s Song” by Blink-182, one of the most perfect songs ever written.
“Adam’s Song” was the third and final single from Blink-182’s Enema of the State (1999), an album whose shadow looms so large over the development of rock music this century that I’m hesitant to describe its influence in case I sound like a mad person. “Would there even be popular rock music anymore if not for Enema of the State” is a real thought I’ve had on more than one occasion, and I’m not even the world’s biggest Enema of the State guy, it’s just true. Ian Cohen of Pitchfork listed it with The Offspring’s Smash and Green Day’s Dookie among “records that served as beginner’s manuals and inspired musicians in great numbers to buy their first guitar”, and it’s not hard to see why.
Enema of the State was an album about the lives and concerns of teenagers and young adults. There’s the fear that growing up will kill our joy (“with many years ahead to fall in line / why would you wish that on me? / I never want to act my age” from “What’s My Age Again?”) and the anxiety about growing apart from childhood sweethearts after high school (“I skipped my lecture to watch the girls play soccer / is my picture still hanging in her locker?” from “Going Away to College”). And let’s not forget the general panic-inducing dread in the face of the broken world we’ve inherited (“you don’t belong / you left the kids to carry on / you planned their fall” from “Anthem”). It showed kids across America and the world that well-written, heartfelt music wasn’t the sole domain of adulthood, that maturity wasn’t a necessary threshold to make music that mattered, because the feelings of young people were just as profound and interesting as adult feelings, even if expressed in no small part via dick jokes. There’s probably no better summation of pop punk than “bouquet of clumsy words, a simple melody” from the chorus of “Going Away to College”. Enema of the State is, quite simply, a peerless and quintessential album that will echo through pop culture for decades.
Though not as commercially successful as its previous singles, “What’s My Age Again?” and “All the Small Things”, for my money, “Adam’s Song” is the album’s standout track and probably the best song Blink-182 ever recorded.
There’s a slight tension in my appreciation for Blink-182 in general and my adoration for “Adam’s Song” in particular that I want to clear up right away. I love Blink-182 because so much of their music is joyfully juvenile, not in spite of it, so it might seem a bit weird to love “Adam’s Song” most of all their work. It’s their darkest and most serious song by some distance, and there’s often a tendency to treat the most tonally serious work of artists who are otherwise tonally unserious as their most artistically serious work. People never talk about Jim Carrey’s performance in Liar, Liar as if it’s in the same league as his performances in The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind even though it’s one of the most unique and electrifying performances in the past thirty years of comedy movies, just because it’s a very straightforward and silly comedy, and not even one of the artsy comedies or comedy-dramas that sometimes manages to slip through the cracks. Charlie Brooker gets more acclaim for his largely dramatic TV series Black Mirror than for comedies like Nathan Barley, Dead Set or A Touch of Cloth. Adam McKay won his Oscar for The Big Short, not Step Brothers, and I love both those films, but only one is a once-in-a-generation comedy that should have received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
“Adam’s Song” is a very dark and very serious song about suicide and depression. It’s written like a suicide note: “I’m too depressed to go on / you’ll be sorry when I’m gone” and “please tell Mom this is not her fault”. But the lyrics are also peppered with immature references that make it clear this isn’t a break from Blink-182’s usual subject matter, but a natural extension of it. The chorus starts with a masturbation joke (“I never conquered / rarely came”) and it has a very sweet, awkward line about a memory of spilling a cup of apple juice. “Adam’s Song” is very specifically about suicide and depression among young people (“sixteen just held such better days / days when I still felt alive / we couldn’t wait to get outside”), a song that doesn’t turn away from the core of Blink-182’s music, but takes a necessary step into the darkest part of that core. I’ve written before about the epidemic of mental illness and suicide among young people in the context of Paramore, and it’s no less true in the context of Blink-182. Even a band as generally light-hearted and jokey as Blink-182 couldn’t possibly deal with the themes at the heart of their music without making at least one song this dark (see also: “When We Die” by Bowling for Soup). Enema of the State works in large part because it takes a little time to go dark, and especially well because it goes dark between a song called “Dysentery Gary” and the sickly-sweet “All the Small Things”.
When I say “Adam’s Song” is probably Blink-182’s best song, it’s not because it’s their most serious work. It’s because it’s so well-written and so well-produced on every single level, from the mixing of the guitars in the soaring second half of the chorus to the Nirvana reference (“take your time / hurry up / the choice is yours / don’t be late” from “Come As You Are” becomes “I took my time, I hurried up / the choice was mine, I didn’t think enough”) that explicitly places it deep within the reaction to Gen X alternative rock. But the magic moment of “Adam’s Song” that elevates it beyond almost any other pop punk song about suicide is the change that happens in the final chorus. I want to break that change down on three levels to show why it is one of the most utterly transcendent musical sequences in pop music: the lyrics, the drums, and the piano.
The lyrics are the most obvious element, so I don’t have a lot to say about them, but it’s important to lay them out in order to see how they work with every other element of the song to create this perfect moment of transformational hope. Here’s how the chorus goes the first two times:
I never conquered, rarely came
sixteen just held such better days
days when I still felt alive
we couldn’t wait to get outside
the world was wide, too late to try
the tour was over, we’d survived
I couldn’t wait til I got home
to pass the time in my room alone
This version of the chorus pines for bygone days, and tells a story about what the present is like just through description of what the past was like, some of it blunt and straightforward (“days when I still felt alive” therefore I don’t feel alive now) and some of it subtle and evocative (“the world was wide” therefore now the world is narrow, constricting, closing in on me). The double meaning of tour (i.e. a literal concert tour vs a metaphorical tour of duty) makes the song simultaneously personal to its writer, co-lead singer and bassist Mark Hoppus, and open to easy identification from an audience who feels trapped in a constant trial by fire. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted chorus that would make “Adam’s Song” just crushingly depressing if it ended on that note. But in the final chorus, the lyrics shift, and despair becomes hope:
I never conquered, rarely came
tomorrow holds such better days
days when I can still feel alive
when I can’t wait to get outside
the world is wide, the time goes by
the tour is over, I’ve survived
I can’t wait til I get home
to pass the time in my room alone
Again, some of the changes are blunt and straightforward – “days when I can still feel alive” even announces itself with some slightly clumsy syllable-cramming – and some are subtle and evocative. A lot of what makes it work is what stays the same. “I never conquered, rarely came” has not changed at all, and the lyrics that were already the most ambiguous are the ones that have changed the least – “the world is wide” again, and survival is more recent now, but so is the hardship of the tour. I’m still passing the time in my room alone. I think a big problem with modern pop songs about depression and suicide and stuff like that is it presents what comes after despair as ecstasy, when it’s really more like mild contentedness at best. Katy Perry is the easy example of that tendency, as Bo Burnham viciously deconstructed with his song “Kill Yourself”, but I always think of the less iconic but more quotably silly “Let In The Sun” by Take That, in part because I know the band’s main songwriter, Gary Barlow, has suffered from depression, which makes it all the more baffling that it acts like (1) depression is something you can shake off with perseverance and determination (more on that later) and (2) if you shake off your depression, this heavenly scene awaits you:
Open up, open up
From high above
Feel the love
Open up your windows
To put it bluntly, recovery from depression isn’t a flip from staring hungrily at a bottle of pills to an explosion of confetti and light. That’s a manic episode. Recovery from depression isn’t even waking up one day and not wanting to kill yourself – it’s more like gradually wanting to kill yourself less and less until one day you just go “huh, haven’t thought about killing myself in a while, that’s neat”. The lyrical shift in “Adam’s Song” is genius in large part because it’s not that big of a shift, both in terms of the words themselves and in terms of what they mean. But, of course, from the perspective of a depressed, suicidal teenager, that shift is the difference between life and death, so “Adam’s Song” would be doing them a disservice by not making that shift seem like it mattered. I mostly think the tendency to overstate how great recovery from mental illness feels in music stems from ignorance, but I’m sure a lot of it is also based on the assumption that an honest depiction of recovery might not be very good at making people feel hopeful. I don’t know if that assumption is true or not, but it does create a bit of a catch-22 in songs about mental illness that very few artists really try to resolve (outside pop punk, at least). There’s a pretty consistent dichotomy between vaguely affirmative pop music that says things are gonna be great any minute now, and alternative/indie music that doesn’t pretend it can promise you that.
Possibly the only time I’ve ever seen anyone square that circle is “Adam’s Song”, where Blink-182 use their music to create the swell of hope in your chest that lyrics alone can’t really sustain.
The drums are the lead instrument of “Adam’s Song” and I won’t hear otherwise. The guitar and bass are simple, repetitive and monotonous, deliberately so, to express the cyclical nature of despair – where there are variations in the loop of the music throughout most of the song, they come from the drums, where Travis Barker alternates between four different cymbals (china, ride, hi-hat and splash) in different measures. You might think this suggests the drums act as a kind of counterpoint to the guitar and bass, suggesting life underneath the darkness, but the cymbals are almost always hit on the downbeat or between beats and rarely on the upbeat, which is very frustrating for the ear on a subconscious level, because we expect the cymbals on the upbeat at least some of the time. There’s not supposed to be so much activity everywhere except the upbeat – it’s not how people are programmed to expect rhythm to work.
Rather than balance the relentless dull throb of the bass and guitar, the drums actually add even more layers of frustration, especially during the second half of the chorus. While the first half just has a fairly straightforward (albeit simple, repetitive, monotonous) marching beat, when it hits the second half and the four layered guitar parts blare out, the drums do just about the most frustrating thing I’ve ever heard in a song. On the last upbeat of every second measure, or just when Mark is getting to the end of a line (i.e. “too late to try”, “we’d survived”, “til I got home”), Travis does a brief drum roll that we’d typically expect as a build-up, but here it’s the ending. The effect throughout the first two iterations of the chorus is a repeated build-up to a climax that never comes. You don’t notice it on a conscious level, but your brain does, and it adds so much texture to the song right up until the final chorus.
In the final chorus, two things happen with the drums. First, the frustrating drum roll from the second half of the previous choruses moves to the first three-quarters. Second, all that frustration finally pays off in the last quarter of the chorus, when Travis doubles up his drum rolls and moves them to the downbeat, finally giving us the release we’ve been waiting for. Where the drums used to go “dada-dum-dada-dum-dada-dum-dadadadadada”, they now go “dadadadadada-DUM-dadadadadada-DUM” as they punctuate “I can’t WAIT til I get HOME / to pass the TIME in my room ALONE”. The fulfilment of the promise the drums have been making us throughout the song gives us a sense of relief right as we hit the end of the song and the change in the melody from “I couldn’t wait” to “I can’t wait” (i.e. “badada-dum” to “bum-bum-BUM”) make us think of an excited shout – “I can’t WAIT!” – that provokes a joyous response in us to what is hardly a euphoric ending.
So that’s how “Adam’s Song” uses music to resolve the contradiction at the heart of songs about depression and suicide, but what about the other problem? What about when songs tell you how you’re going to get better even though they really have no idea?
It’s time for some goddamn piano.
There is no more universal sign of a pop punk band getting serious for a minute than some plaintive piano. Blink-182 do it in “Adam’s Song” and “I Miss You”, Fall Out Boy do it in “Golden” and the start of “Disloyal Order of Water Buffaloes”, My Chemical Romance do it in “Cancer” and the start of “Welcome to the Black Parade”. You get the idea. Some dramatic, yet softly sad piano is the secret weapon of the discerning pop punk band, and “Adam’s Song” has one of the genre’s great piano interludes.
There are lots of ways that poorly-written pop songs about suicide and depression lie to you about how you’ll recover. There’s songs like “Let In The Sun” that tell you it’s all on you, you just need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. Those are the most overtly horrible because that’s not how mental illness works. As it’s said, no one would tell you to just “get over” meningitis, but people say to just “get over” depression, anxiety and the rest all the time. They’re illnesses and, worse still, they’re illnesses whose biological mechanisms aren’t well-understood, and which don’t consistently respond to at least one of a narrow range of treatment options like most illnesses. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating mental illness, there’s not even a some-sizes-fit-most approach. No one knows right away how you’ll get better, and it’s dangerous to tell mentally-ill people, already prone to self-doubt and self-castigation, already stigmatised and exposed to constant messaging that tells them their feelings don’t matter, that they’re solely responsible for their poor mental health, that they could resolve it immediately if they wanted, so either they don’t want to get better, or they’re too stupid/lazy/useless to do it, and regardless, it’s their fault they’re sick.
“Adam’s Song” doesn’t do that – there’s an interlude with a lovely piano riff and when it comes back for the final chorus, everything is more hopeful. That might seem vapid and empty, but it’s actually the exact opposite. The piano is an unforeseen element that enters the song and causes everything to change: the guitar, bass and drums start building alongside the piano in new variations that don’t appear anywhere else in the song. When the piano fades away, the music returns to its familiar patterns, albeit in different combinations, and the lyrics have shifted to a more hopeful point of view. Essentially, the piano interlude serves as an unforeseen point in time after despair (the first two verses and choruses) but before hope that mysteriously and inexplicably transforms fatalism into optimism. The piano interlude is the lynchpin of the shift because it’s Blink-182 giving hope without selling false promises.
Just as with the lyrics of the final chorus, the non-specific element that brings about a shift towards hope (and recovery) should be underwhelming. The most extravagant claim made in “Adam’s Song” is that it’s possible there’s something out there that will make things better, but it’s precisely in presenting that pure inexact possibility that it creates the space for hope. When I can name the specific thing that’s supposed to help me and it doesn’t (which is the most likely result of any given treatment for mental illness – there’s a lot of trial and error), the only result is a slide back into despair and possibly an increase in self-loathing. When social messaging about how we should all be able to make ourselves better makes me wonder obsessively why this thing that’s supposed to help me doesn’t, I will almost inevitably conclude that I must be the defective element, irreparably broken, deviant and wrong.
“Adam’s Song” doesn’t give me that opportunity to attack myself, because it’s not a song about how I will get better or must get better or even should get better. It’s a song about how I can get better, somehow, and it’s always managed to make the mundane reality of recovery seem like such a bright horizon without ever selling me the false promise of a euphoric, utopian future. It’s the future now, and I don’t have some fantastic joyous life. But, against whatever odds I thought possible, I seem to be in recovery, somehow.
Just a bit of the credit for that needs to go to “Adam’s Song” for always hitting that perfect little spot between hope and false hope. I still listen to it every day, and there’s still nothing like that interlude, the dramatic build-up to the brave new world of being just about okay.