Motion City Soundtrack’s Commit This To Memory is one of my favourite albums: bright, hooky pop-rock with a heavy dose of synth, it’s got some of the most fun songs about anxiety, depression and substance abuse in my collection, and I’m not short of fun songs about anxiety, depression and substance abuse to choose from. Its upbeat melodies, I suppose, contrast the lyrical content, but what’s more impressive is how the sound manages to evoke high anxiety while still being a total blast. Commit This To Memory does occasionally take the time to get dark in its musical tone, not just its lyrical one: after three fantastic pop songs, only one of which is longer than three minutes, we get ‘Resolution’, a noble contribution to the melancholy canon of New Year’s songs, which is slower, longer and much less danceable. The opening three songs on Commit This To Memory are a bundle of nerves, but ‘Resolution’ is lyrically both more removed and more desperately sad: She would tend to my wounds and fill me with food when I’d stumble in drunk for breakfast. She was right to take off before she was consumed.
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.
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.”
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.
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 don’t fully understand music criticism. When I read (good) criticism about a book or a film, I feel like I learn something – either about the book or film itself, or books or films in general, or about politics or culture or the world. Most of the music criticism I’ve read either validates my opinions without helping me learn anything about them, or else it makes me feel stupid. A huge amount of music criticism is underpinned by a dichotomy between what is Good and Okay to Like and what is Dumb and Bad that Only Dumb and Bad People Like. What falls into each category is supposed to be obvious to the reader, because it’s never explained. (Robert Christgau is one of the most acclaimed music critics in America, and he operates on a bizarre and complicated system combining letter grades and emojis.) Declaring something good or bad is the critic’s job, of course, but even when I disagree with a film critic, they’ll still be interesting to read if they’re any good. Roger Ebert was wrong about Midnight Cowboy, but he was wrong in a way that made me think more deeply about the film.