“We Could Leave This Town and Run Forever”

During the last month or so, I have dedicated a lot of my listening time to revisiting and reappreciating early 2000’s emo and pop-punk bands, in particular Yellowcard, Green Day, and Blink-182. My path to appreciating bands like these has been untraditional in that it did not begin in earnest until several years after these types of bands had gone out of style. I spent my elementary and middle school years with a unilaterally condescending stance on all pop music: I was disappointed in my peers who enjoyed Britney Spears in 3rd grade, and those who enjoyed Good Charlotte in 5th grade, and those who enjoyed The Black Eyed Peas in 7th grade.

Rather than listening to pop music as a child, I had been raised on so-called “world music”. Like a lot of things invented by the West, the concept of “world music” is pretty unwieldy. Though presented as a genre, it comprises nearly all of the music on the entire planet. This is because it is defined only by that which it is not, namely Western. So when I say I was raised on “world music” I still mean that I grew up with pretty eclectic music taste: I liked Pakistani Sufi devotionals, Peruvian pan-pipe music, Vietnamese folk music, a Scottish band with a djembe, and African pop music, just to name a few. When I wasn’t listening to world music, I was listening to English-speaking artists from an earlier time, like Sting, Tracy Chapman, or Simon & Garfunkel. These, I understood, were not pop artists because my dad liked them, and I knew he didn’t like pop music because he was also disappointed in my peers who enjoyed Britney Spears in 3rd grade (and probably more disappointed, I now understand, in their parents).

Because of all this, I did not enjoy Blink-182’s eponymous album (featuring “Feeling This”, “I Miss You”, etc.) when it came out in November 2003, nor was I particularly aware that it had been released at all. Instead, my understanding of the music world at that time can be efficiently summarized by an experience I had in a Walgreen’s when I was in 8th grade. After being surprised to hear an English-language cover of “Nobel”, one of my favorite songs by Senegalese duo Touré Kunda (which, as you probably know, is originally sung in Wolof), I asked an employee who the cover was by. It was Phil Collins, she said; the song was called “In The Air Tonight”, and no, she was pretty sure it wasn’t a cover. Of course, it dawned on me later that she was correct: it was the other way around. Learning that “Nobel” was a Phil Collins cover elicited a strong enough negative emotional reaction in me as a 8th grader that I clearly still think about it today. Basically I had been tricked into liking pop music. On top of that, I had to accept that my favorite African band liked pop music and maybe was pop music. (Update: it’s definitely pop music, even though it’s in Wolof.) Anyway, to say that my music taste did not include Blink-182 in 2003 is obviously an understatement.

My community when I was growing up was, in general, very supportive of my take on pop music. The cultural belief at my Montessori elementary and middle school was that exposure to popular culture has negative effects on a child’s development because it is extremely adult-oriented and problematic. My parents believed this and adhered to it even more strictly than most parents at my school, and I agreed with my parents. (I actually still do agree with my parents on this, for what it’s worth. The negative repercussions of this parenting decision were virtually non-existent, and I don’t believe it would have helped me to know who Phil Collins, or even Ginuwine, was when I was 9. The important part is that now, in November 2017, I hold as self-evident the following statements: Ginuwine’s “Pony” is one of the best songs ever written, and Phil Collins is okay. Actually my favorite version of a Phil Collins song is The Postal Service’s cover of “Against All Odds”. Apparently, the view that Phil Collins’ songs make great covers is not uniquely West African. But I digress.)

All of this is to say, although the appreciation I now have for Britney Spears and Blink-182 is very real, the nostalgia it is soaked in was fabricated retroactively. This faux-stalgia, if you will, actually stems from the first time I seriously tried to like pop music, which was in late high school. The thing that motivated me to learn about early 2000’s pop music was the only thing that ever motivates teenagers, which is being cool and fitting in. By junior year of high school (2007), nostalgia for “the 90’s” (by which we meant 1999–2004 pop culture) was such an important tool for bonding that I really couldn’t escape it anymore. I needed to catch up, so I invested some time in finding some pop songs that I liked. I underwent a methodical self-education in the pop music of the early 2000’s. Although my main source was Wikipedia, I also asked acquaintances what they listened to in middle school and learned about songs like “Echo” by Trapt and “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. Luckily for me, liking things from five years prior was not the only trend of the time; there was also a popular trend of “ironically” enjoying pop music. This was extremely convenient for me socially, because it allowed me to listen to early 2000’s pop music without losing any friends. If my weird arty friends asked why I was listening to Blink-182 I could say I liked it ironically, but I could also make new connections with people who genuinely, nostalgically liked this type of music. And even though irony was my initial gateway to these songs, I truly enjoyed some of them. (Indeed, in accordance with the zeitgeist, I would have likely said Trapt was “tight”.)

A sampling of 2007’s self-educative phase in what I called “Radio Rock”

After some reflection, it’s obvious to me that as early as 2004 my destiny was to appreciate bands like Blink-182 and Yellowcard. In fact, I basically did already like what they were doing, but I was way too averse to the labels of “pop” and “emo” to give them a chance. The year 2004 is an important time in the story, because it was that year that my parents purchased me a laptop to use for assignments in high school. It was helpful in this regard, especially with my most important high school project, which was self-assigned: shaping my own music taste, one separate from the “world music” and James Taylor of my childhood. Thanks to numerous mid-2000’s sources, including LiveJournal’s “Current Song” feature, iTunes’ free Song of the Week, Myspace, Hype Machine, and several key mix CDs from friends, I learned that I liked songs by “indie” and “alternative” bands such as Death Cab for Cutie, The Postal Service, Snow Patrol, Tegan and Sara, Keane, and Relient K. My favorite band of all during early high school was Coldplay, and in 2005, I used my developing Internet research skills to download literally all the Coldplay songs that existed. When asked why I liked Coldplay, I remember saying, “Their songs start out quiet and then build up and then they’re quiet again.” I also remember being excited when I first learned the word “catharsis” because it’s what Coldplay songs made me feel. If I’m honest, it had become the most defining criterion of my new music taste: whether a song felt cathartic.

I now understand that my music taste during early high school is best defined as “alternative” or “indie” bands with essentially emo sensibilities. Part of what makes a band emo is, of course, the lyrical content: lyrics that focus on the more melancholic side of the feelings spectrum, especially vis-a-vis romantic relationships. But the ethos of emo is also inherently centered on catharsis, provided in its purest, least self-aware form. It makes total sense that this type of music appeals to teenagers, and it’s not just because they have a lot of hormones, although that certainly helps. Primarily it’s because they are beginning the lifelong, impossible project of understanding how complex human emotion is, and no one is helping them. So obviously the first step in such a project is to feel all the different things really hard and then see what you think. Music, especially the emotionally charged kind, not only helps with that project; it also helps teenagers begin another life-long project, which is figuring out how to define their identity as an individual and part of a group. (Do you want to be the kind of person who likes Green Day and 3 Doors Down? Or are you the kind of person who prefers the less mainstream aesthetic of Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie?)

For most people, as you get older, the priorities shift: music can still express intense feelings, but it should probably also be self-aware or at least well-crafted. I believe this is why most people would say the music they listened to when they were 14 is “embarrassing” now. It is widely believed that a “good song” is more than a totally thoughtless blast of emotions, and the issue is that some of the most classic emo and pop-punk songs are just that. They rarely express a novel set of feelings or even an accessible feeling in a new way. It is difficult, even as I write this, for me to argue that melodramatically speak-singing something like “hope dangles on a string, like slow-spinning redemption” is what would traditionally be called “good songwriting”. That’s because it’s cliché, it’s awkwardly vulnerable, and it doesn’t do anything to address the context in which it’s written.

Although I continue to believe that songs are best when they are both expressive and self-aware, I hope the writers of the string simile are vindicated by the fact that there are still times when I find such songwriting indispensable. When I reflect on the times of life that I’ve been most attracted to emo and pop-punk, three times stand out: when I left high school, when I left college, and when I left Minneapolis three months ago. In other words, I have turned to this type of music during the three largest social transitions of my life, and that is no coincidence. For me, each of these transitions has come with an intense return to focus on both of the projects I began in early adolescence: understanding the complexity of my own emotions, and defining my identity as an individual and part of a group.

“Empty Apartment” by Yellowcard has been especially hitting the spot this week. If you ask me why, it’s because it’s really quiet, but then it builds up, and then it’s quiet again.

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Karl Snyder

Karl Snyder

Music moves us through our lives in productive and spiritually significant ways. I write about that. More writing on The Wild Honey Pie, FRONTRUNNER, & Patreon.