"Those Breakdown Days Are Done": Growing Up With the Bands We Grew Up With (The Nostalgia Trap, Part 3.)
(CW: Eating Disorder)
Sometime in the early aughts, I somehow found myself watching the Superbowl halftime show with my dad. The Rolling Stones were playing; age notwithstanding, they were putting on what looked like a legitimately fun show.
At one point (about 7:00 in the video linked above) in the proceedings, Mick Jagger, clearly enjoying himself, crowed, “This one we could have done at Super Bowl I, you know, but everything comes to he who waits!” before launching into “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” My dad lost it.
My dad had worked for the music magazine Crawdaddy in its heyday. He had, by that point in my life, already regaled me at least once with a delightful tale of Paul Simon literally talking Keith Richards under the table at a “Back to School” party hosted by the magazine. If he cared, he might also have watched Super Bowl I, but I cannot at this time confirm whether or not that happened.
He had been listening to the Rolling Stones, by then, for about three times as long as I had been alive.
The title of this piece is drawn from the lead track of Cursive’s I Am Gemini, one of their more divisive records but a personal favorite of mine. In the song, the narrator — it’s a concept album, because of fucking course it is — is revisiting his childhood home, a now-abandoned orphanage, and reflecting on how much he has changed since the psychologically disastrous days of his youth.
That line hits me like a ton of bricks every time. I have cited it to therapists in outlining my goals. And it seems to be a theme of some of the music I’ve enjoyed the most recently, and about which I have complicated thoughts.
Right now, I am listening to Titus Andronicus’ most recent outing, An Obelisk. It’s a sharp little album: at 38 minutes, I think it might be one of their shortest ones. It’s even shorter than their debut, The Airing of Grievances.
I came across that first album when I was 19. I was living on my own for the first time, more or less — I was in the dorms at a small Methodist college in central Kansas. I was in a relationship that, in retrospect, was disastrous for both of us. I was navigating the vagaries of like, classmates and jobs and stuff, which were proving much more difficult than any of the homework I had that year, after a lifetime of homeschooling and other odd shit. I was also struggling with an eating disorder, about which I was in denial for most of the year, resisting all attempts at intervention. It was a difficult motherfucking time, is what I’m saying, the calendar year of 2009. I made some good friends, and had a few good times, but I was floundering like a jellyfish on the sand.
So the combination of headbashing rock and roll, literary allusions every other line, and the dancey psychological minefield of “My Time Outside the Womb,” in particular, all spoke very intimately to me. The album had, and has, the hurtling energy of a mine cart in a cartoon, careening almost all the way off the rails but staggering back into place at exactly the right time.
I’ll be honest: I couldn’t get into The Monitor, the band’s widely-acclaimed follow-up. It was so big, and so long, and there was a lot going on, and quite frankly, I just wasn’t in the mood. I heard Local Business was underwhelming, and I kinda lost track of them. It was only when an online friend whose taste I tend to trust recommended An Obelisk that I checked it out, a good two weeks after it came out. I had heard nothing about it, other than that it fuckin’ slapped.
It fuckin’ slaps, all right: I mentioned a lot of the more obvious ways above. Apparently it’s also a loose concept album, mostly in that it makes lyrical use of a narrator, and follows a general narrative arc. In a recent interview, Patrick Stickles, the band’s lyricist and frontman (and an English major), said of the conceit:
There are certain things I need to say, or certain tableaus I need to present, where I want it to be clear: This is not necessarily how I feel right now, this is a moment I’ve passed through to get to my current understanding.
In the past, Stickles has also talked fairly openly about his struggles with disordered eating, even going so far as to write a song about it. That song, all 8 minutes and change of it, is almost triumphal in its soul-baring, rambling, and horribly close-angle depiction of disordered eating. In hindsight, it’s probably for the best I never got into that album.
But An Obelisk offers a new view of the embodied self, in the slinky, rangey “My Body and Me.” Clocking less than half the time of “My Eating Disorder,” it paints a different picture of the relationship between the self and the meat (and please just come with me for a minute on the working assumption that there’s a meaningful distinction). Where “My Eating Disorder” decried the body as prison, positioning the self and the flesh in antagonistic roles, “My Body and Me” expresses something almost like exasperation at the continued yoke of the body, as the speaker of the song claims he wants to “leave [his] body completely,” announcing his own supremacy but nonetheless acknowledging that he and his body “each got [their] own demands.” “We’re just two wild and crazy guys,” he caterwauls almost apologetically.
In something as fraught as eating disorder recovery — which, at least in my experience, just means living with it, accepting that it's about fucking thing you have to deal with and moving on — this is progress.
You don’t get too deep into self-identifying as an emo trashcan before you run into The Get Up Kids. Much as with Titus Andronicus, I connected with Four Minute Mile, the band’s full-length debut. When I was getting into them, or trying to, I couldn’t get into Something to Write Home About — again, the sophomore album that put them in the public eye. But for whatever reason, some ten years after its release, Four Minute Mile got to me.
Four Minute Mile is, lyrically, about what you’d expect from an emo band producing content in 1997. The speaker of the songs addresses young women, mostly, begging, for example, “Don’t Hate Me.” It’s very… teenaged boy. Very late ‘90s. Which is not to say it’s bad: it’s very much not, especially once it got remastered. The songs are catchy and honest, or feel honest. Like The Catcher in the Rye or, much later, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it provided a kind of blueprint for a certain kind of guy making a certain kind of music, as well as a certain level of wish fulfillment for me, a person assigned female at birth but never quite fitting in to femininity as I understood it.
When I felt like listening to The Get Up Kids, I pretty much always turned to Four Minute Mile. Until this year, that is, with the release of Problems.
The album maintains the energy and lyrical honesty that has characterized much of the band’s output, while adding a number of elements. And the big one, for my money, is the acknowledgment of personal growth and development.
Nowhere on the album is this more clear than on the second track, “The Problem Is Me.” I’ll be honest: it’s a fucking earworm, for one thing, digging into your brain until you find yourself wondering aloud to your coworkers if it’s super appropriate to be going about your job and singing, “Could it be? / Maybe the problem is me,” to yourself over and over. (Their analysis: it probably is hilariously appropriate, but that might just be those particular guys.) Not that I’ve done that. Repeatedly. For weeks.
But considering the song in contrast to early efforts like “Don’t Hate Me,” it gives us a very different speaker from the young man imploring, “Oh Amy / Don’t hate me / For running away from you / […]’Cause I’m still in love with you.” As the title suggests, “The Problem Is Me” gives us a speaker facing up to a pattern in his relationships, noticing a trend and zeroing in on the throughline. He tells us that he’s “trying hard not to throw [her] under the bus,” and seeking to change the behavior he identifies in the song, while also wondering if he even can.
In the broader context of emo music, as especially its third wave, on which The Get Up Kids were a major influence, and heavy-laden as it is with everything from latent sexism to fantasies of sexual violation, it’s easy to see this as simply a lateral move into the kind of non-apology that turns from a tossed off, “I’m sorry,” to, “I’m a terrible person,” with the latter sentiment the real focus. I mean, maybe it is. But it doesn’t feel that way: “The Problem Is Me” feels like a reckoning, both with the speaker’s personal history and with the influence of the band’s early work. It really feels honest.
What does it mean, to love a band? Like, what does that even mean? In my teens I was somewhat active in the My Chemical Romance fandom — in fact, after watching that Rolling Stones halftime show with my dad, I probably spent a lot of the time on the imnotokay.net forum, deep-diving with a bunch of other sad teens into the lyrics of MCR’s oeuvre. I wasn’t deeply invested in the fandom aspect — I only learned later of the existence of MCR fanfic, for example — but I loved the music. The theatricality and over-the-top imagery of the band’s output pressed a thumb to a bruise that teenaged me didn’t know I had.
But I can’t separate my lived experience in the first decade of the third millennium of the common era from the soundtrack that I curated for it. The music shaped the time, or rather, shaped my perceptions of the time. And had I not fallen in love with My Chemical Romance, I wouldn’t have started self-identifying as an emo trashcan, or have developed the kind of taste that would Titus Andronicus such a treat.
But much as I loved that band, and mourned a little when they called it quits, I’m really excited to see what they have grown into. Frank Iero has had a really delightful musical career; Gerard Way, always a great comic book writer, has turned into a real force in the industry, leading DC’s Young Animal imprint, and helming the best run of Doom Patrol since Grant Morrison did it. I’m happy for them. But because the band did call it quits, watching their subsequent development as individual artists and cheering them on is a very different phenomenon from seeing a band you love or once loved mutate before your very eyes.
When you love a band, when you grow up with them, they become a distant constellation in the night sky of your affection, accreting associations and feelings like a zodiac sign.
So what does it mean to wake up and find your sign has changed?
Nostalgia is a funny thing. Not to be a fucking nerd about it, but the Greek roots mean less “acute homesickness” but rather “the pain of homecoming.”
My family traveled a lot when I was growing up (per the above-mentioned “other odd shit”). And I remember distinctly the first time I felt that classical form of nostalgia: when we finally got back to the south-central PA farmhouse in which I had passed my earliest youth after some months in Europe. I was twelve, and hitting the really awful part of adolescence where you’re still just a kid, really, but all these strange a terrible things are happening to your body — a strangeness compounded by later realizations about gender, but that’s beside the point.
We had arrived home — was it still home? — very late at night, and I was glad to be back. But at the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really “back” anywhere. I had grown, literally and figuratively, in the time I had spent away. The newel post that had seemed monumental mere months before felt diminished, in part because it actually was; my bedroom felt tiny and cloying, where before it had been my sanctum. All the stuff was still there, but all of it was glazed with real dust and what I can only describe as the spiritual version of pulling out a garment you put away months ago, immediately after heavy wear. There’s a smell and a texture. It feels weird, as if it belonged to someone else.
It’s not uncommon for bands — or any intellectual property with which people heavily identify — changing their style to be greeted with dismay from their fans. But what about maturation? What do we do with that?
The connection is there, or can be. Sometimes a band’s later sound really resonates for fans who have grown up alongside them. But because of how reception works, the ultimate outcome of a band’s later works can be wildly hit or miss. Sometimes the timelines just don’t match up.
In both of the songs I’ve talked about here, and, to a certain extent, the albums they come from, there’s a quality that I can only describe as, “Damn, bitch, you lived like this?” It’s a paraphrase of a meme, but bear with me. It’s the only way I can think to describe the aura of embarrassment that runs through both songs — the sonic equivalent of a half-smile and nervous laugh to redirect a conversation from a friend’s anecdote about your youthful misdeeds to literally anything else.
But that description also encompasses a sense of disbelief at your own past. It’s all I can think of when I remember the year I spent listening to Titus Andronicus and struggling a continent away from my family: did I really live like that? It comes to mind, too, in recalling my youthful discovery of The Get Up Kids: did I really feel like that?
And there’s a sense of relief: damn, bitch, you don’t live like that now. Those breakdown days are done — or if they’re not done, at least you can see them coming.