This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, a deep-dive on the image of the car in pop punk.
Fall Out Boy are (for me, and precisely no-one else) a band uniquely burdened by history. There isn’t a band I’ve written about more – in MySpace bulletins and Tumblr text posts and diaries that I inevitably abandoned and destroyed – and there isn’t a band I find harder to write about. I can’t be objective: I mean, I don’t really believe in looking at music “objectively”, because art is about subjectivity, but to the extent that objectivity is a possible and desirable thing in criticism, here I have none. Every time I listen to a Fall Out Boy song, it’s the hundreds of times I’ve listened to it before – on the CD player in my childhood bedroom, on MP3 players and iPods and phones, on my laptop in the apartment where I lived in my first year of college – compounded.
Nothing sounds like being thirteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like being eighteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like right now like Fall Out Boy.
I’ve often joked that you could graph the history of my mental health pretty accurately based on how much Fall Out Boy I was listening to. I listened to them obsessively in my early teens, angry and sad and self-loathing, looking for Japan-only bonus tracks on LimeWire and scrawling lyrics on my arms and in my copybooks. I drifted away from them shortly before their hiatus in 2009, and it wasn’t long until I felt embarrassed by my love of them, and the awful poetry and asymmetrical studded belts that went with it. Then I went to college, and I was so sad and lonely that I got back into them. It seemed like something that happened to me instead of something I did myself, like the lizard part of my brain said things are really hard right now, and this is the sound of survival. It didn’t feel like nostalgia; it felt like discovering that what you needed you already had all along. Fall Out Boy were my ruby slippers, and Patrick Stump singing “eighteen going on extinct” hit me like a ton of bricks.
Fall Out Boy got back together shortly after I came back to them, and I couldn’t help feeling like I’d willed them back into existence.
If you were an emo kid in the mid-2000s, one of the major bands were your band: of course you listened to Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance and Panic! at the Disco and Paramore, but one of them were yours, were the without-hesitation answer to the favourite band question. I can’t even imagine someone asking me who my favourite band are now, but in my early teens, it felt like the most important question in the world, a definitive statement of who you are as a person.
In hindsight, My Chemical Romance seem like the obvious choice: they have a good shot at being “objectively” the best, but mostly, they felt like the figureheads of a subculture even as they crossed over into stardom. My Chemical Romance were something to believe in. They wanted to save your life. I love MCR, and seem to only love them more as I get older. But I was a Fall Out Boy kid, through and through. I heard ‘Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down’ on the second CD of a Now That’s What I Call Music compilation when I was twelve, and that was it for me. I’ve loved a lot of bands, but only Fall Out Boy were ever mine.
Fall Out Boy aren’t about something in the way that My Chemical Romance were. Fall Out Boy was started more or less as a joke: a bunch of hardcore kids who started a pop punk band to goof off, because they grew up on Green Day and the joy of that still lingered somewhere inside. Fall Out Boy have cycled through sounds and genres and aesthetics their whole career, but they’ve always been the pop-punkest band in the whole damn world: always ironic and always sincere, always angry and sad and always infectious good fun, always ready with a witty one-liner in one ear and suicidal ideation in the other. Fall Out Boy are a pop punk band because it’d be something to do, and maybe kinda funny, and that might be the most pop punk thing I’ve ever heard.
Take This to Your Grave – which isn’t their debut album but feels like it is, because the world has collectively and correctly decided that Evening Out with Your Girlfriend, like Eminem’s Infinite or Quentin Tarantino’s My Best Friend’s Birthday, doesn’t count – isn’t the best pop punk album ever, or even my favourite, but it might be the most pop punk album. When I think about everything that makes me love pop punk, I think about Take This to Your Grave, and not just because it’s Fall Out Boy’s most conventionally pop punk-sounding record. Take This to Your Grave is lashing out at the world: the opening track, ‘Tell That Mick He Just Made My List of Things to Do Today’, is a spiteful murderous wish with a chorus that goes “His smile’s your rope / So wrap it tight around your throat”. “Breaking hearts has never looked so cool,” Patrick sings, “As when you wrap your car around a tree / Your makeup looks so great next to his teeth.”
It’s a very angry album, but also, at times, elatedly happy. It ties the two feelings together, a collage of friendship and fighting and heartbreak and hometowns. Take This to Your Grave is “you can thank your lucky stars / everything I wish for will never come true” and “these friends are, new friends are golden” and “you were the last good thing about this part of town”. Take This to Your Grave is simple, blistering pop punk built with poetry and rage; it’s Pete Wentz’s hardcore screams playing off against Patrick’s falsetto. I love lots of angry music, but Take This to Your Grave pulls a harder trick. If you feel angry, it meets you where you’re at, giving you a place to release all your anger. But it also makes me so, so blindingly happy. Not in a way where it tries to cheer you up or tell you things aren’t so bad: aside from some odes to friendship, the lyrics are more or less universally about how everything’s shit. It’s in a way where you scream-sing out until all your bad feelings are gone and all that’s left is a pop song chorus to sing along to.
It sounds, more than anything, like being young. That’s what all pop punk sounds like to a certain extent – pop punk is teenage music, and rightfully so, an in-between genre for an in-between time – but the permanent adolescence of Blink-182 (or lesser bands like Simple Plan or Good Charlotte) was always an affectation. Tom DeLonge was writing songs about getting grounded and sneaking out of your parents’ house well into his twenties. I love those kind of songs – I sincerely believe ‘Going Away to College’ is the most romantic song ever written – but if you want to be cynical about it, it seems like pandering. On Take This to Your Grave, Fall Out Boy never affect the persona of teenagers: even though lead singer Patrick was eighteen when the album was being recorded, there are no songs about parents or high school. It sounds like being young because it feels everything with total intensity, because it climbs inside how it feels to be young without needing to make any declaration about it.
Todd in the Shadows once said that what set Fall Out Boy apart from the rest of the mid-2000s emo scene was how they seemed like assholes: really catty and really mean. And he’s definitely not wrong – “I hope you choke on those words, that kiss, that bottle” is not a particularly nice thing to say about someone – especially when the other bands of the time leaned more heavily into the soft, sad, sensitive boy angle. But Fall Out Boy is also absolutely unadulterated soft, sad, sensitive boy music: not just underneath the spiteful, bombastic topcoat but right alongside it, integral to it. The meanness is contingent on the near-suffocating emotional pain. The bridge in ‘Chicago Is So Two Years Ago’ goes “You want apologies / Girl, you might hold your breath / Until your breathing stops forever,” but it wouldn’t land so hard if the opening line wasn’t “My heart is on my sleeve / Wear it like a bruise or black eye.”
That tension – between the bombastic, spiteful narcissism and desperately sad, self-loathing sensitivity – is a defining feature of Fall Out Boy’s discography, right up there with car crash metaphors and swapping words in juxtaposed phrases (“drop a heart / break a name”). It’s a tension that animates their best album, Folie à Deux, which sets out to interrogate American narcissism (“Media please / Let’s hear it for America’s suitehearts! / But I must confess / I’m in love with my own sins”) even as it reflects on what it means to process your pain publicly and permanently (“You can only blame your problems on the world for so long / before it all becomes the same old song”). But it’s a tension that came to the forefront on From Under the Cork Tree.
From Under the Cork Tree was Fall Out Boy’s breakthrough record, the album that gave us ‘Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down’ and ‘Dance, Dance’, the album that turned them into stars. It’s the first album where Fall Out Boy’s core song-writing partnership was solidified: Patrick Stump writing music, Pete Wentz on lyrics. It’s the album where they perfected the excessively long song title.
I love (almost) everything Fall Out Boy have ever done. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen asleep to Patrick singing “We only want to sing you to sleep” on Infinity on High, and I’ll never, ever forget the euphoria I felt listening to Save Rock and Roll for the first time, and I am the world’s foremost defender of American Beauty/American Psycho. But if you asked me to pick one, just one, there’d be no hesitation. From Under the Cork Tree has meant more to me than more or less any piece of art. It’s a part of me, like when a tree meets an object and grows around it.
From Under the Cork Tree takes the angry lashing out of Take This to Your Grave and turns it inwards into sadness. It is, to a large degree, an album about sleeping around and becoming famous, on which it is always wry and knowing, but it’s mostly an album about the blackest holes of sadness and self-loathing inside. From Under the Cork Tree is “I’m the first kid to write of hearts, lies, and friends” and “Please put the doctor on the phone / ‘Cause I’m not making any sense / Blame everyone but me for this mess” and “I’ve got headaches and bad luck but they couldn’t touch you.” It’s slit wrists and car crashes and pointless movie references. It’s got the crunchy guitars of their hardcore influences but is more produced than Take This to Your Grave, using lots of dramatic fades and echoes, though not yet the slick pop polish of their later work. It’s theatrical in a way Take This to Your Grave is not – “Brothers and sisters / Put this record down” – even as it uses Pete’s hardcore screaming more than any album they’ve recorded.
From Under the Cork Tree takes that tension between the bombastic, spiteful narcissism and desperately sad, self-loathing sensitivity and reveals them to be the same thing. ‘Dance, Dance’ says “She says she’s no good / With words but I’m worse” and “These words are all I have so I’ll write them / So you need them just to get by”, and never winks about the contradiction. The two emotions twist up together, inseparably, until it’s impossible to hear the self-aggrandising as anything close to played straight. ‘7 Minutes in Heaven (Atavan Halen)’ starts as a I-like-to-fuck song – “I’m sleeping my way out of this one / With anyone who’ll lie down” – then deconstructs it to reveal the sadness underneath – “I’m not going home alone / ‘Cause I don’t do too well on my own”, which feels so much like an understatement it aches – before culminating in Pete’s real-life suicide attempt: “I’m having another episode / I just need a stronger dose.”
As a sad teenager listening to From Under the Cork Tree, I connected, of course, to the straightforward moments of aching. ‘I’ve Got a Dark Alley and a Bad Idea That Says You Should Shut Your Mouth (Summer Song)’ gave me “my back has been breaking from this heavy heart” and “Force our smiles, baby, half dead / From comparing myself to everyone else around me”, and put words on feelings I’d never been able to. The lyrical track underneath the last chorus of ‘Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down’ – “Take aim at myself / Take back what you said” – still cuts straight through me, it’s so simple and direct. (‘Sugar’, for the record, is the best queer angst song by an ostensibly straight man in an era teeming with them.)
But the declarations of arrogance felt powerful, like a fantasy of invulnerability. I was so sensitive and felt so vulnerable, and I’d listen to Patrick singing “they call kids like us vicious and carved out of stone” and light up something inside me. It’s like it’s written in a language that I can’t translate back to non-speakers: a language where you talk about breaking hearts when the only heart you’ve ever broken is your own, where apparent contradictions dissolve without explanation. “I’m the first kid to write of hearts, lies, and friends” is a gag, fundamentally, but there’s something true in it, too: because everything that happens to you as a teen feels like the first time it’s happened to anyone. Because I was thirteen, and Pete might has well have been the first kid to write of hearts, lies, and friends. Because I’m twenty-four, and it still feels like he might as well be.
Fall Out Boy never had a mission. But on From Under the Cork Tree, they stumbled into one. In that meld of irony and sincerity, in that meld of self-aggrandisement and low self-esteem, they declared:
We’re the therapists pumping through your speakers
Delivering just what you need
I find it so hard to describe what Fall Out Boy means to me, has meant to me. I’m too close to it to talk about it. I feel ridiculous about it not infrequently. But Fall Out Boy are my band, my forever band, there to get me through some shit. They’re the sound of survival. And I can’t say that they were my therapists, pumping through my speakers – it’s too cringingly earnest – but again and again, they delivered just what I needed.
5 thoughts on “The First Kid to Write of Hearts, Lies and Friends”
I completely understand when you say that some of these bands just feel like yours. I also remember a time when I was crazy obsessed with Fall Out Boy and could easily say they’re my favorite band (I’m still just as big of a fan today, though, so nothing’s changed). I loved reading your article this, I can relate to a lot of things you mentioned here!
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