This article is part of In Defense of the Genre, a series of critical and personal essays in praise of pop punk. Previously, Say Anything’s final album, Oliver Appropriate, and its position in the marvellous history of challenging, transgressive, vulgar queer art.
I found The Summer Set the same way everyone found their favorite band in 2007: on MySpace. Coincidentally, it was also MySpace that would lead to the formation of The Summer Set.
Formed in Scottsdale, Arizona, The Summer Set was born from remnants of Last Call for Camden. After releasing one album, Last Call for Camden disbanded and drummer Jess Bowen, bassist Stephen Gomez, and guitarist John Gomez put an ad on MySpace for a lead singer. Enter Brian Dales. Together with guitarist Josh Montgomery, they formed the lineup of The Summer Set from 2007 to when they took a hiatus in 2017.
Most of the time when talking about the heavy hitters of pop punk, The Summer Set aren’t included in the conversation. They have spent their entire career trying to bridge the gap between the two worlds. Sure they were staples on Warped Tour for a few years, but they were also crowned the winner of Macy’s iHeartRadio Rising Star Award. It was a combination that didn’t make much sense. One day, they’d be sharing a stage with Sleeping With Sirens or All Time Low and the next, they’d be opening for The Backstreet Boys.
They were both pop punk, but they summed it up best in “Figure Me Out” with the opening lines: “I’m a bit too pop for the punk kids / but I’m too punk for the pop kids / I don’t know just where I fit in / ‘cause when I open my mouth / I know nobody’s listening / to the words of a prophet / who still can’t turn a profit.”
It’s frustrating to be in that position of not fully existing in either world. Part of this conflicting pop punk personality comes from their plethora of musical inspirations. They would list off New Found Glory, Blink 182, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, The Last Five Years Broadway musical, Sarah Bareilles, Bright Eyes, Green Day, A Goofy Movie soundtrack, Something Corporate, Taylor Swift…and somehow all of that came together into their ultimate style of ‘80s-twinged arena anthems with pop punk energy. As someone who grew up loving ‘80s power ballads and pop punk, The Summer Set felt they were made especially for me.
When I was sixteen, I went to Best Buy and purchased The Summer Set’s debut album, Love Like This, as a birthday present to myself. The album was raucous and rowdy, so clearly influenced by the Arizona pop punk greats the band members grew up listening to like Jimmy Eat World and The Format. The album starts off with “The Boys You Do (Get Back at You)”, the sort of tongue-in-cheek song “Sugar We’re Goin Down” perfected, and there’s an out-of-control party music video to accompany it. Released mere months after The Hangover, the music video shows band members recreating the scene from the beginning of the movie. They’re waking up with missing teeth, poker chips in their mouths, and cuddling various oversized stuffed animals. (Notably, female drummer Jess Bowen is absent here.) The music video turns into a flashback of the previous evening, where the guys are all hitting on the same girl. Before the video ends, the band is back in the present, with the girl from last night waking up in Jess’ bed.
Jess didn’t come out until a few years later, and guitarist John Gomez came out a few years after that. I watched that music video as a teen trying to figure out if she was gay, and it was the first real representation of a lesbian that I could kind of see myself in. It felt genuine in a way that a lot of LGBT representation didn’t at the time. Take The O.C., for example. For about two episodes, Marissa (Mischa Barton) finds herself dating Alex (Olivia Wilde) before never mentioning it again. No real rumination on what this relationship meant for Marissa or Alex, just a fun little meaningless story that made me feel like a queer identity was something that didn’t last. Jess was (and is) so cool and confident. She wore clothes that I could see myself wearing, just simple button-downs and jeans. Even that felt extraordinary. I was a drummer in the middle school and high school bands, too. It felt world-shifting in a way that’s hard to understand if you’ve never been a teenager grasping at any sort of something that will make you feel like you aren’t the only one.
“Chelsea” was my favorite song. It’s infectious, energizing, and the equivalent of that moment in a high school rom com where the guy jumps up on a table and asks his crush to go to the prom with him. The bridge, “and if it’s worth your time / I got ten digits I’d like you to find / but oh I won’t get that call / you’ve got so much to give / I’ve got nothing at all,” is the perfect summation of self-deprecating, so-far-out-of-your-league crush feelings. And then to have “Girls Freak Me Out” later in the album with a chorus that goes “gonna take you out / and take off your clothes / baby, I’m nothing but bad news.” The nervous boy in “Chelsea” can only exist as the same boy in “Girls Freak Me Out” during those confusing teenage years when you’re trying so hard to be things you’re not, desperate for some sort of acceptance.
There are moments in Love Like This that seem to foreshadow the path of The Summer Set’s subsequent albums. Less focus on partying and more heartsick lyrics. Songs like “Where Are You Now?”, “Can You Find Me?”, “Passenger Seat”, and even “This Is How We Live” are windows into the earnest feelings they focus on later. “This may not be love / but when I’m standing at your door / you’ll know” felt to me like another way of expressing the sentiments in Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”. Both songs have the singer showing up to their love interest’s house asking for a chance at love. Both exuding confidence and fear. Confidence that their love interest will choose them and run away with them, but there’s also the fear of what love is. Wanting to fall in love, of trying to mimic love they’d seen in movies, but having no idea where to begin. They desperately want to be alive and in love, whatever that means, as they stand on a precipice they don’t fully understand.
I fell in and out of love for the first time in my life, and then Everything’s Fine came out. That relationship answered some of my questions about love, but left even more unanswered. At nineteen, my breakup felt like the end of the world. Everything’s Fine was my balm, because everything was not fine, at least not then. But once upon a time, everything had been perfect. This album played to both sides of that coin.
Starting the album off with “About a Girl” was such a stark contrast to “The Boys You Do (Get Back at You)”. “About a Girl” was a thesis statement for an album about exactly what I was going through. Loving and losing. “About a Girl” is the song I go back to most often. It’s a soaring declaration that everything, every song that is about to follow, is for “you.” We all have a “you” that comes to mind.
It was at this time in my life that I started really writing, as one does when freshly heartbroken. Fiction, non-fiction, anything except poetry. I loved the sentiment that those devastating feelings were caused by someone else, and that I could use them to make something good. This creativity from a broken heart is where Everything’s Fine was written from. In interviews promoting the album, the band members kept coming back to the idea that this was them “growing up.” I listened to this album from start to finish over and over, refusing to play it on shuffle. Aside from a few out-of-place songs, the album plays like a relationship, from the glorious highs of “Someone Like You” to the gut punch of “Mannequin”. You can track the beginning feelings of falling in love during spin the bottle in “When We Were Young”, the honeymoon-us-against-the-world feelings in “Thick as Thieves,” and the post-relationship hopelessness feelings in “Begin Again.”
Everything’s Fine is an aching desire to be remembered, to have this person who is no longer in your life acknowledge that what you’d shared meant something. It’s important to have mattered to someone else. The album starts with “come close and I’ll whisper a secret / a story about a girl” and ends with all the music cut away and a wall of voices echoing “gone, gone / will it ever come back.” It feels cinematic, like he’s running through an airport after a girl already lost. Wondering if this taste of love is all he’s ever going to get. It’s a feeling I was very well acquainted with.
The Summer Set’s next album, Legendary, came into my life when I moved to Florida. It’s a joyous album with only a few sad songs, the opposite of Everything’s Fine. “Jukebox (Life Goes On)” may be one of the only songs ever written that name drops Dawson’s Creek in a positive way. “She says I can’t sleep alone / I really like The Stones and I hate TV / Well, I must confess / I’m a little obsessed with Dawson’s Creek.” “F**k U Over” is a winking return to their Love Like This roots. “Lightning in a Bottle” is sheer exuberance, a love letter to the handful of perfect days we get in a lifetime. “Rescue” has a drum beat that feels like it belongs on Phil Collins’ Tarzan soundtrack. And I mean that as an absolute compliment.
As an album opener, “Maybe Tonight” feels like an honest continuation of where Everything’s Fine left off emotionally. But where Everything’s Fine is stuck in the heaviness of it all, “Maybe Tonight” moves forward with hope. A sense of loss clouds everything until one day, when the clouds finally break. It’s not immediately sunshine and rainbows, but it’s a start. “Maybe tonight we’ll start all over / like it’s the first day of our lives / right here and now, second chances / maybe we’ll finally get it right.”
Florida is the Sunshine State, and as much as I hated its swampiness and oppressive humidity, I have to admit that it brought me my clear sky. I started a new school, got a job at Disney World, and met friends I love dearly to this day. Friends I talked with through the night until we saw the sun rise. Friends who sang karaoke with me. Friends who have fallen in love and gotten married. I was re-evaluating what mattered to me. Every time I sang along to the chorus of “Rescue” as I was driving on I-4, it felt like a promise to the platonic loves of my life. “When you’ll need me I’ll be there / A friend in the eye of the storm / And when all the lights burn out / I’ll carry you out of the dark / I’ll come to your rescue.”
“Legendary”, the titular song, lays the groundwork for their next album. Before they officially released the song, Brian and John would sometimes play it acoustically after their show, outside the venue. Brian would introduce it as a song about How I Met Your Mother, Peter Pan, and trying to be a better person. “I swear that I could be amazing / I just need a little help.” But there’s something missing in “Legendary.” It has too much production; it’s all talk and not enough action. Wanting to change and actually changing are two vastly different things. People want to change all the time, but it doesn’t stick because it’s hard. And Legendary is wanting to change, but not quite getting there.
Stories for Monday was the last album before The Summer Set’s 2017 hiatus, and their best album yet. It was so self-assured, it’s hard to imagine that it was produced by John and Stephen Gomez in their Arizona home. They came in, piano blazing, with “Figure Me Out”. I think I listened to that exclusively on repeat for at least a month. It came out within weeks of my college graduation, when I was supposed to have things figured out. In actuality, I was twenty-two with a hospitality management degree and no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
“Figure Me Out” felt like a rallying cry, especially the final bars of the song, accompanied only by the piano: “I just want to fall in love before I’m dead / so I can make my parents proud / hope my feet don’t fail me now / cause it’s time for me to figure me out.” It was like hearing all of my fears and hopes laid out in front of me.
The rest of The Summer Set’s discography feels urgent, like if they don’t do everything now, then what was the point of anything. Stories For Monday is the first time they take a breath. The first time they romanticize the unknowable future. It felt like the massive perception switch I was going through too. For the past five years, things had been go, go, go. I had classes, exams, projects, essays, and jobs that filled my days, and then, suddenly, nothing. Those days after college broke me. All of a sudden, I had to figure out how to spend my time on my own. I worked at jobs that didn’t fulfill me, and I couldn’t help but reminisce about the days and the good times that were gone.
I was drifting and depressed and knew that something had to change, so I picked up and moved my life to California. A cross-country move perfected by thousands, maybe millions, of people before me who were searching for some kind of meaning in the haziness of Los Angeles. I lasted four years and, depending on the day, I’ll either say I hate or love LA, but I think that just comes with the territory.
What I did love was that it was my choice and my life. I listened to Stories for Monday pretty consistently while living out there because I needed reassurance, and encouragement to do the things that scared me. To take this life and make something of it that made me proud. It’s a battle that’s ongoing. Some days I’m winning, other days I get my ass handed to me. I’m less afraid now. So much of music, pop punk especially, has this Peter Pan mentality of never wanting to grow up. The only reason to be afraid of the future is if you have not learned from your past. Now, I let big, beautiful emotions overwhelm me because I want to feel them and I want to grow old. I will be so lucky if I get to grow old.
Stories for Monday ends much like Everything’s Fine, with a group of voices echoing a final verse as the music fades away. But the lasting impression on Stories for Monday is one of looking to the future. The party’s over and you’re seeing things in the light of the morning. In previous albums, there was a fear of the proverbial morning, because that marked the ending. But the party ending in Stories for Monday is triumphant. Yes, we’re all growing older, and in a perfect world this life could go on forever, but that’s not the hand we’ve been dealt. The party ends, the lights come on, we all get older, but “youth wasn’t wasted on us.”