puddlejumper – you were my october, or emo and the cultivation of character

so the other night i went to my first punk show in my new summer location. i heard some tunes (too loud) and met some local weirdos, but much more importantly, i was made privy to yet another subtle way in which i am an asshole.

but this is a good thing. confucius tells us that the process of self-cultivation is lifelong, and that true knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. and seeing davenport, IA’s puddlejumper cleared a stride of the mist obscuring the boundary of my understanding and added several cryptic points of light suggesting a young constellation to the hazy night sky that constitutes the visible universe of my Self.

puddlejumper played, and i felt a distance. in the songs was a familiar vernacular of pop rock that i had practically been raised on, the carefully aligned stops-and-starts of post-dude ranch blink182 and the coarse emotionality of a half-minute arc connecting pretty girls make graves to their shameless – if more successful – imitators in paramore. the sense of craft is impeccable, no song a measure too long, the sincere affection for their forebears matched only by the humble exuberance of their performance. it’s kind of music i like, if not overmuch; enjoyable to see live (for reasons beyond the music as much as the music itself), though maybe slightly embarrassing to listen to around friends. the moment i formed this conclusion, though, i couldn’t help but ask myself: embarrassed? why?

after the set my sense of distance only increased. i had wanted to approach the guitarist and main songwriter to surreptitiously dredge him for info i could write into this article, but he was wholly engaged in a conversation about bands with the drummer of the night’s headlining act (who were so insultingly terrible as to not be worth the dignity of a mention by name), which normally wouldn’t be a problem except that i hadn’t heard of a single one of the bands they were talking about with such enthusiasm. i attempted once to insert myself when i thought i heard one of them mention pavement, but i was rather roundly rebuffed – my awkwardness at being shut out mingled with a twinge of guilt for all the times i have probably projected the same iciness to well-meaning strangers – and had to slink away to the back patio for a smoke. all the rest of the night i caught glances of this conversation continuing practically unbroken against the backdrop of the much shittier music than puddlejumper’s, its participants showing off the same intricacy of knowledge and narrativized obsessiveness that i have cultivated about indie rock and implying a depth and richness of culture completely incompatible with any opinion of emo i have ever expressed or encountered. the experience was humbling, and being alone at the show that night i was left with a lot of time to reflect. whatever disdain i or anybody else held for the genre’s perceived tendencies toward goofy histrionics and sad-bastard miserablism, it could no longer be denied that emo was qualitatively no different nor less rewarding of obsession than any of the other post-punk music nerd subcultures i had deemed worthy of immersing myself in.

in the course of my reflections a series of memories occurred to me out of order. i remembered being a sullen and moody high school student who favored obscure music and androgynous fashion; i remembered the feeling of having my physical boundaries trespassed with impunity by people who called themselves my friends; i remembered watching the girls laugh to each other through mouthfuls of cafeteria french fries about how “sexually tense” i was, as if i wasn’t even sitting right there in front of them, and the inevitable “look what happens when i try to hug him!” followed by piercing and snorting cackles; and i remembered trying to explain why i felt the way i felt, why i liked some things and not others, why i wanted to look the way i looked and listen to the music i listened to and speak the way i spoke, and having the whole package written off in one stroke: “emo kid,” breathed through a laugh. i wasn’t alone, either. many sad or disaffected kids who thought they might be able to share their feelings of negativity with the larger group – and we were adolescents in the avowedly “uncool” group, so one would think there would be a lot of this about – would be met with shockingly crass pantomimes of wrist-cutting and perhaps a dramatic recitation of some jack’s mannequin lyrics. it shocked me then as it shocks me now. i’m not afraid to admit i went through most of high school being mostly disgusted with most of the people i knew. i can’t even think of anyone who would have actually willingly worn the “emo” tag in high school – even among the outcasts, being emo was a free pass to humiliation.

and with this context established there was another memory. feeling so alienated and yet so lonely as i did, as a teenager i spent countless nights staying up until all hours of the night glued to the internet and my TV, waiting for some imaginary thing to happen that might make me feel satisfied enough with the day’s progress to let me go to sleep. most of these nights would be spent watching the N (now TeenNick), whom most kids of my generation would remember for being the place to catch “degrassi: the next generation” in the united states, but late at night would often rerun shows like “the adventures of pete and pete” and lightly censored “daria.” in this headspace, they provided a mild, if temporary, analgesic to my disaffection. and as the N at that time was a young cable network that had yet to add outside advertising to its programming, to kill time between TV shows late at night they would play music videos instead, mostly by emo bands like the starting line and the all-american rejects (and sometimes, if i was lucky, a sanitary-but-still-hip indie rock band like longwave). in spite of how silly i found most of that music, i would never change the channel from these videos, nor would i even mute the TV; something about those videos and those songs resonated with me then. i remembered watching that starting line video and wishing i felt comfortable enough with myself to enjoy performing as much as they appeared to, settling for vicariously enjoying the abandon of playing rock ‘n’ roll through them despite myself – any such attempt at unabashed exuberance on stage in real life would lead to relentless teasing (a rule which experience bore out). i still have a deep affection for AAR’s video for “the last song” – as a sad kid watching the sun rise behind my television screen after a long night of wishing i had someone i wasn’t too afraid to talk to about how i was feeling, i found something beautiful in the innocent abandon of their performance, and somewhere in me i found some small comfort in the conviction that one day i could write my “last song” to encapsulate the frustration of growing up in my stupid hometown and finally show everyone how little i respected them for not even trying to understand who i was.

and finally i confronted directly the issue that to this days gives rise to my discomfort with emo music: the histrionics, the “tear my heart open just to feel”s, the “cut my wrists and black my eyes”s. part of me feels as though i forfeited my right to take issue with such flagrant soul-baring when i decided that i love the smiths (though not to draw a direct comparison), because – and this is the real issue with emo i think – hawthorne heights and morrissey both have their lyrics attacked on the basis of sounding like the words of “fourteen year old girls” or some other familiar and condescending construction. here we have raw emotion for its own sake being denigrated (not to mention feminized, a whole other level of problematic offensiveness i don’t have time to address here) simply for the discomfort engendered by its directness. if the criticism were framed in terms of a lack of sophistication then it might hold more water (though if someone were to accuse morrissey of an unsophisticated approach they either haven’t actually listened to his words or look down on him for some other unfair reason), but instead the critic associates the sentiment with a group of voices that is dismissed out of hand only for its superficial characteristics. whatever you may think of a fourteen year old girl’s lousy poetry, why attack it on the grounds that the writer is a teenager, or female, rather than the fact that it just might be lousy? and keep in mind the kind of sentiments that come from smiths and emo music alike – sexual confusion, peer pressure and ostracism, hormonally charged depression, frustrated love, all things today’s crusaders for righteousness demand that society at large learn to respect. doesn’t all of this mean that, rather than be dismissed for it, emo should be celebrated for the discomfort it creates in the people who don’t understand it? isn’t that what fucking punk rock is supposed to be all about?! and before attacking that statement, remember that “emocore,” the generic term that directly preceded “emo” in the Asshole Critics’ Dictionary, was originally coined to describe the flailingly emotional and desperate performances of minor threat and rites of spring (though in true emo fashion the musicians themselves disdained the term).

and so the other night at the puddlejumper show i learned that, though the mirrors that line the endless tunnel of my Self are askance at however many dozens of degrees represent the “punk” angle enough to reflect my self-satisfied grin into my personally skewed infinity, there is one less than zero reasons good music should be denied.

and did i mention they have a trumpet player?

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