Saint Lady Bird of Sacramento

I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.

The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.

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Don’t You Want To See What Happens Next?

American Animals is a documentary. It’s built around interviews with four men who robbed a university library in Kentucky in 2004, interspersed with the most elaborate, well-made recreations you’ve ever seen.

American Animals isn’t a documentary. Its structure is basically the same as I, Tonya: a narrative interspersed with after-the-fact interviews, but in the case of American Animals, the interviews are with the real people, not the actors portraying them.

Whether American Animals is a documentary is irrelevant. It’s a film that collapses any difference. It’s a film about the relationship between reality and the representation of reality: reflecting and refracting through each other, as we watch a heist movie about a group of teenagers who rent out Reservoir Dogs and Point Break and Rififi to learn how to do a heist, as what they (and we) remember, or choose to remember, makes reality contentious, as the lines between the film’s documentary and fiction elements blur and break down.

“So, this is how you remember it?” Warren (Evan Peters) asks his real-life counterpart, Warren Lipka, who has suddenly appeared beside him in his car.

“Not exactly,” Lipka – who thinks this conversation that’s about to happen took place at a party, not in a car – says, “But if this is how Spencer remembers it, then let’s go with it.”

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Car-Crash Rhetoric

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, a selection of pop punk albums that aren’t the best, the most essential, or even our favourites, but are very, very good.


Cars have been a part of American pop culture pretty much since they became a mass-produced and mass-marketed product, but they became particularly central in the 50s and 60s as the post-war economic boom lifted more and more families into the middle class. Americans owned about one car for every three people in 1960: at a time when one third of the population were children thanks to the post-war baby boom, and around seventy percent of adults were married, that meant most families had a car and some had two.

That second car is very important to the story of cars in American popular culture because they were the cars of older teenagers, or at least ones they could borrow. Most US states then, and now, issue driver’s licenses from the age of sixteen, and the car presented teenagers with a rare opportunity for independence and autonomy. Even if it was just for a few hours, they could decide where to go and what to do, and could take their friends, or their date, with them. They were free from the supervision and surveillance of their parents, able to put more space between them and their family in less time than on foot. They could explore their little piece of the world, stray off the beaten path and find secret places all their own.

Teenagers were obsessed with cars, and pop culture reflected it. Archie and the Gang in his rickety old jalopy, Wally buying his first car on Leave It to Beaver, the Beach Boys cruising up and down the coast. Tom Wolfe describes the saturation of car culture in his seminal essay “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…”: “Thousands of kids are getting hold of cars and either hopping them up for speed or customizing them to some extent, usually a little of both. Before they get married they pour all their money into this…Even the kids who aren’t full-time car nuts themselves will be influenced by which car is considered ‘boss.’”

The picture is very different nowadays. The rate of teen licensing in the US has plummeted over the past few decades and become ever more stratified along class lines. The AAA Foundation found in 2012 that while, overall, seventy percent of 18-to-20-year-olds had a license, less than fifty percent of those with a household income under $20,000 had one, compared to almost ninety percent of those with $100,000 or more.

But the decline in licensing and car ownership among teens hasn’t eliminated the car from teen pop culture, just changed it. Cars are one of the most common and prominent lyrical motifs in pop punk, that most teen of genres, even though pop punk rose precisely as the decline began. I’m fascinated by pop punk’s use of car imagery for a whole host of reasons, particularly how it is deeply embedded in the history of popular music and yet also develops an approach to cars that is very much its own. Not different exactly, but unique in how it joins two warring tendencies in the portrayal of cars in popular music: cars as a source of freedom and cars as a source of tragedy.

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What About Me? What Am I Going To Do?

Rewatching The Inbetweeners in 2018 has been full of surprises. Mostly, I was taken aback by how evocative it is of its time. I rarely think of the late 2000s as having any kind of distinct culture – it seems most of the time that we haven’t had a decade, in a cultural sense, since the 1990s – but The Inbetweeners looks and feels like a show made very specifically between 2008 and 2010, like a weird kind of time capsule. The cringe comedy, the music choices (remember The Wombats?), an honest-to-God reference to Crazy Frog. There’s some stuff that hasn’t aged well – the voiceover narration always struck me as gratuitous, but I think I’d blanked from my memory how every episode ends with basically a highlight reel – but mostly it made me feel very fond. I love teen movies and shows, but rarely because they remind me of my own teenagehood outside of the broad emotional strokes. The Inbetweeners feels like a show about kids that I grew up with: there’s a relentless ordinariness to it, and a disgustingness that feels, watching it as an adult, surprisingly, sweetly innocent.

The Inbetweeners follows four teenage boys in some anonymous small suburban town in England: Will, a posh ex-private school wanker moved to a comprehensive after his parents’ divorce; Simon, who initially seems like “the normal one” but quickly reveals himself as probably the most fucked-up of all, short-tempered, needy and incredibly sensitive; Neil, who is basically a complete idiot but probably the most together of the four when it comes to actually interacting with other people; and Jay, self-appointed sex expert and pathological liar. They want to get drunk, and pull a girl, but mostly just hang around, talking shite.

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Fleabag, Can’t Cope Won’t Cope and The Case for Self-Denial

Here’s a terrible advertisement for Diet Coke:

 

There are so many things I hate about this ad. That it contains the term “ath-leisure.” The background music. That it’s painfully obviously a line-for-line recreation of an American ad, because no English person would use the phrase “yurt it up” (the American version, for the record, was directed by my old nemesis, Paul Feig, for some reason).

But the thing I hate the most about it is “If you want a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.” Life is short, is the ad’s premise, so do more things you want to do: live in a yurt (whatever that is), run a marathon (though it backhandedly suggests you probably shouldn’t bother), drink a Diet Coke. But drinking a Diet Coke isn’t like living in a yurt or running a marathon, because Diet Coke is bad for you. The actress in the ad says that it makes her feel good, which it might for a moment. And according to the ad, that doesn’t just mean it’s okay and you shouldn’t feel bad about it, but that you actively should drink Diet Coke, whenever the thought occurs to you.

The thing I hate the most is that the ad treats all wants as basically the same. That pursuing all those wants amounts to making the most of life, or being true to yourself.

But, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, that thought has a brother: that if you do not pursue all your undifferentiated wants, you aren’t making the most of life, and you are not your authentic self.

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I Took My Time, I Hurried Up

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me 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.

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Never Be Afraid Again

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, Paramore and demanding the time and space to deal with emotions that we’re shamed for expressing


My Chemical Romance existed to save lives.

It’s hard to talk about with the uninitiated. It’s not unlike talking about faith to unbelievers: when you have to describe it out loud, you can hear how bizarre it is. A believer can hold their faith and their knowledge of their faith’s absurdity together without contradiction, but an unbeliever cannot understand that. CS Lewis wrote about faith as completely derived from reason, and sure, he was a lot more educated about theology than me, but that’s nonsense. Faith isn’t rational, and it wouldn’t matter if it was. “No one could have in a billion years of their gripping testimony or by showing me a radiant life of good deeds or through song or even the most beautiful of books brought me to Christ,” Nicole Cliffe (from The Toast, now sadly defunct) wrote about her conversion, “I had to be tapped on the shoulder.”

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You Can’t Tell Me to Feel

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, The Wonder Years as a band for your twenties in the post-recession era.


Like most people my age, the first Paramore song I ever heard was “Misery Business”.

“Misery Business” is a great song, but its lyrics haven’t aged well. They’re pretty nasty towards the other woman, e.g. “she’s got a body like an hourglass / it’s ticking like a clock” and other comments shaming her appearance or sexuality. That’s not terribly surprising given half the band were still minors when their sophomore album, Riot!, was released, but that hasn’t stopped people from making lead singer and lyricist Hayley Williams spend the past ten years apologising for “Misery Business”.

Except Hayley Williams won’t apologise, not because she doesn’t understand the misogyny of a lyric like “once a whore, you’re nothing more / I’m sorry that’ll never change”, but because she refuses at twenty-eight years old to beat up on her teenage self for being a teenager, for having ugly feelings or dumb thoughts. As she wrote in a Tumblr post two years ago: “those words were written when i was 17… admittedly, from a very narrow-minded perspective. it wasn’t really meant to be this big philosophical statement about anything. it was quite literally a page in my diary about a singular moment i experienced as a high schooler.” Even if it wasn’t a shining moment, it was a necessary step to work through the hurt she felt at the time, and she’s not about to martyr herself over not already being a mature adult when she was still in the process of growing up.

We live in a world that demands we schedule our emotions around the convenience of others. No feelings at work, at school or in polite company. We are expected to be perpetually pleasant in public and limit any displays of emotion – particularly emotions that might make other people feel uncomfortable – not just to the private sphere, but to our most private selves. We’re constantly told it’s unhealthy to bottle up our emotions, but let even a little pour out and we get strange looks. We’re told to pull it together, not because it’s harmful to express ourselves, but because it’s bad manners.

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I’m Not Sad Anymore, I’m Just Tired of This Place

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me 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.

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