Older Brothers, Pop Punk, and the Flaccid Inevitability of Cool
Oh, the archetypal older brother...
That mansion on the hill of masculinity, that gatekeeper of "cool," the champion and the fuck-up. Older brothers are responsible for a whole litany of the word's passions and sensibilities. Accordingly so, I would not be here today if it weren't for my older brother Alex. Four years my senior, Alex provided a clear picture of success in my preteen mind as he spent his high school years establishing a unique teenage identity for himself, a life that I spent a great amount of time daydreaming about as I pictured myself in his shoes in my own upcoming teen years. All the while I was blissfully unaware of the fact that the whole thing–the scene, sensibilities, and identity for which Alex found himself–would quickly be rendered extinct by the swift tide of popular culture and the frivolous nature of "cool."
You'd be hard pressed to call Alex a nerd. He rode mountain bikes, looked people right in the eye, and his existence had a funny way of inciting freshman girls to write paint pen love notes all over his Nissan Pathfinder. He had friends, lots of them, and some of them even had vaginas. He was voted "Most Attractive" in his senior yearbook; the result of a vigorous campaign by his mischievous friends, but an undeniable testament to his overall popularity regardless. Despite all this, somehow, someway, the climate and sensibilities that defined youth culture in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina from 2003 to 2007 allowed a popular teenager like Alex to spend his weekends moshing at NC Hardcore shows, driving cross state with attractive girls to see bands like Jack's Mannequin, and skanking across dance floors at amateur Ska shows. In a feat made possible by an early preoccupation with Minor Threat, inherent pressure surrounding his status as the first kid out of the gate in our family, and a lingering private school imposed skittishness regarding illicit substances, Alex did it all sober as a whistle.
Alex's friends had an aforementioned Nth wave Ska band called the BFGs. After their occasional shows, Alex and his friends would drive across town to Cookout (North Carolina treasure, Fast Food Mecca, Drive Thru Only) and at least once, he brought me along. I remember sitting in the back seat, sweaty from the physical toll Ska demanded that night, watching him and his friends intently as I dreamed about my turn at the car, the cool friends, the cute girls, and the basement shows. Just then, two of Alex's friends pulled up next to us in their car, triumphantly blasting Brand New's "Seventy Times 7"–quite possibly the best Emo diss song ever–as they passionately shouted lines from the song at Alex, who returned the favor. The same kids had a garage band of their own and they tried out for their high school talent show with a cover of "Seventy Times 7" but were disqualified for that pesky line where Brand New's JesseLacey implores former bandmate/Taking Back Sunday's Syd Barrett, John Nolan, to "have another drink and drive yourself home," and to "think of me when you forget your seatbelt and again when your head goes through the windshield." Brand New was cool. Alex was cool. They were all so fucking cool.
I was thirteen.
Alex showed me who I could be and the Warped Tour showed me who I was. Determined to define myself through the pages of Alternative Press magazine, I spent hours combing forums for New Found Glory b-sides, bee-lining through Borders and Best Buy in search of the CD racks, and sitting alone in my bedroom writing sappy emails of adoration to the members of Yellowcard. All the while, each and every year from age 11 on, I attended the now infamously shitty Vans Warped Tour. Somehow, I had managed to establish my identity through a world that was neither cool nor smart, and I couldn't have cared less. I placed my coveted Fall Out Boy hoodies and macabre Senses Fail t-shirts front row center in each and every single yearbook photo without question. I had somehow found confidence in the individualism afforded to me by one of the biggest rip-off scenes in the history of guitars. The Warped world gave me a confidence that manifested itself in the form of the Taking Back Sunday t-shirts (plural) I wore to school damn near every day and that time I gave the Queen Bee of my 8th grade class Panic! At the Disco's A Fever You Can't Sweat Out for her birthday. Hell, I even dabbled in a Hot Topic studded belt from time to time. Fuck 'em.
When considering the years of my life as a nerd, the years wherein Warped Tour was king, I am disturbed by the warmth of my nostalgia. Despite the fact that my life between the age of eleven and fifteen involved the most self-loathing and alienation I have experienced in my entire life, I have no doubt those years were the purest time of my life as a music fan. Physical media was dying and I was coming alive. Still, the wheel of popular culture moved on and it wasn't soon before I started hanging out with kids who listened to Arcade Fire, unbeknownst to the fact that I was about to truly understand the consequences of cool.
I didn't care much for 2007. The year marked the moment where American Pop Culture in the 2000s finally got the hangover it deserved, facing the repercussions of a half decade spent upholding a pop landscape wherein bands like Fall Out Boy, Green Day, and even Bowling For Soup stood and sold alongside artists like Kelly Clarkson and Justin Timberlake. Sure, The Offspring and Green Day cashed their fair share of checks in the nineties, but we're talking about a time where My Chemical Romance's "Helena" played in dentists' offices for pete's sake. Songs about driving fast in the summer and crying on bloody sleeves got very, very popular which of course lead to them being very, very hated, especially by the nerds of the Indie Rock world. As I was wearing checkered Vans slip-ons to school dances and fighting the good fight without shame, the musicians in my favorite Warped bands–many of whom started out as teenagers themselves–were nervously changing their sound, style, and haircuts in a desperate attempt to combat the critical cries of sad nerdy music critics. Despite all the exasperated tears and emotional anthems the scene churned out over the years, every artist seemed dead set on finally becoming "serious." New Found Glory replaced screeching synths and snotty kiss-off anthems with Benmont Tench assisted lounge piano ditties. Brand New, a band once capable of producing a line like "drop me like a brick off a rooftop of your high school," left the overpasses, mix tapes, and magazines of Long Island in favor of making The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, a record as bloated and disingenuous as its title. The scene upon which I formulated my entire identity had become such an embarrassment that its own leaders rejected it publicly in the form of the "serious" follow up record, a feat only ever really pulled off with integrity by Blink-182.
For a year or two I eschewed new albums entirely, floating in a purgatory of endless listens of Catch-22's Keasbey Nights. At fifteen, I felt like I had voluntarily tied myself to the mast of a sinking ship, blind with loyalty and devotion, only to witness the captain abandon his helm entirely in order to spend his time churning out half-assed murky instrumental explorations of white dude existentialism. As I stared into the incoming abyss, I wondered how cold the water would be, realizing my fate was plainly due to my steadfast allegiance to the ship, the scene, the whole thing that almost every single person in my life found childish and irksome. Icy water lapped my face as the tidal wave of high school social life rose in front of me yet still, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what people saw in those bearded mopes in Fleet Foxes.
There's another kind of older brother. The kind who read James Joyce recreationally, identifies "cool" as a product of inaction rather than action, and considers the preservation of good taste within the family to be an imperative, damn near an heirloom of self-respect that was worth fighting for. That was Graeme for ya. Three years older than his brother (and my best friend) Harrison, Graeme made it through Dylan's discography before leaving for college and his teenage angst was soundtracked by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. One time I was sleeping over at their house and he woke me up in the middle of the night to hand me a Dave Eggers piece about The Flaming Lips and the concept of "selling out," inexplicably printed out and delivered to me for reasons that were and are beyond my comprehension. Years later in my twenties, I asked Graeme about the incident and he couldn't recall it ever happening. He never seemed to care much for me and in those years I never knew what to make of him. But to Harrison–my best friend and his baby brother–he was fucking cool.
No one wants to hear what the guy in the Motion City Soundtrack shirt has to say about Sufjan Stevens. For me, this lesson became strikingly clear upon entrance to high school as I surrounded myself with timid proto-Hipsters like Harrison and confidently asserted things like "Arcade Fire sounds like U2 recorded through a bathroom wall and I really fucking hate U2." I would say that I spent that year fighting with Harrison about records like Funeral, Come On Feel the Illinoise, For Emma Forever Ago, and Ragged Wood, but typically arguments need more than one participant. He valued my opinion of his music just as much as he valued my music, meaning not at all, which wouldn't have been an issue had I not valued his opinion on absolutely everything more than anyone else's in the world. For months, I stood fast behind the "Arcade Fire is bathroom wall music" position, a sensibility linked to both my fondness for the lyrical specificity of pop-punk and aversion to the mounds of reverb that laced Indie Rock at that (and most) times. Perhaps I was fumbling with the wiring Alex installed within me years before, trying to hear past the unfortunate echoes of what was formally cool.
Then one night it snowed in our sleepy Southern town and I trudged through the moonlit roads to the tune of Arcade Fire's "Tunnels." It was beautiful and I felt like an asshole. Yeah, it was bathroom music but that wasn't going to keep me from sitting on the pot a little longer. I considered forgetting all about my attraction to "Tunnels," bunny hopping over the rabbit hole, renewing my Alternative Press subscription for life, and getting a nautical star tattoo the moment I turned 18. You see I was scared to admit I was wrong, scared to give up power to Harrison's taste, and scared to abandon the musical world that made me who I was.
But I didn't forget about it. I returned again and again and soon devouring the whole record. This snowy moment and the weeks that followed marked my first formal introduction to indie rock, a world immediately defined by controlling feelings of perceived ignorance and the corresponding guilt and shame they create. I wore Funeral down and quickly began gathering some opinions on other hip records at the time: Bon Iver (sleepy but not boring) and Sufjan Stevens (wordy, weepy, reminded me of Forgive Durden's Wonderland). Proud of the hard listening I had put in, I went to Harrison and began our first of many shop talks. Like a dentist trying to talk shop with a doctor at a dinner party, I engaged Harrison sloppily. He humored me, opting to reply not with antagonism but with watered down discourse. I felt like an idiot but it felt good to fit in again. That night, we drove with our friends around town, down the same streets Alex did to "Seventy Times 7," except now "Rebellion (Lies)" played and I sang along in the backseat.
Surprisingly, Hipsterdom at seventeen actually offered me the same freedoms and independence I had witnessed in a teenage Alex. Harrison's voracious taste and commandeering influence turned his trash-laden BMW into a classroom, offering lessons on '60s Soul, Bowie, Animal Collective, "96 Tears," LCD Soundsystem, Clipse, Deerhunter, My Bloody Valentine, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, and the untouchable Pet Sounds. We spent countless hours driving cross state to see bands at Carrboro's Cats Cradle and Asheville's The Orange Peel. Years after the BFGs were defunct, my own high school friends started a garage band called Graham & The Crackers and managed to book some local shows, covering songs we loved like Twin Shadow's "Forget," and Phoenix's "1901," and drawing a significantly less raucous crowd in the same venues my brother skanked about in.
Although Harrison's taste was my north star of sorts, I did manage to find some of my own musical loves during those years. Drawing upon my Warped predisposition for the loud and the snotty, I poured over records like Jay Reatard's Blood Visions, unlocked mixtape rap with Lil Wayne's Da Drought 3, and came full circle with my pop-punk past via Wavves' King of The Beach. I grew to approach my scene kid shame by out right pretending the Warped Tour never happened. I bought Vampire Weekend t-shirts and frequented Good Will, leaving the merch table purchased punk shirts that comprised the entirety of my wardrobe for years untouched on my shelves. After four years and a couple tense moments–most notably a drunken spat over who "discovered" Illmatic first–me and Harrison's strict power dynamic, that master/pupil relationship, faded. I might not know more than him but I knew what was cool, cool enough for the two of us.
As far as I was concerned, Graeme and his subsequent influence on Harrison were a far cry from Alex's brotherly influence on myself. Maybe it was Alex's fault for the identity issues I suffered at the hand of cool growing up. Graeme was preternaturally opposed to the kind of loud, sleezy, whiny, youthful amateur hour culture upon which Alex built his entire independence. He taught Harrison to be a discerning listener, to begin a life-long dig in search of hidden classics within the annals of popular music, and to value taste above all. This gentle brotherly air of musical supremacy may have saved Harrison from the four MxPx albums I bought in the 2000s. It certainly kept him from the Hawthorne Heights show I went to in lieu of a school dance when I was thirteen. However, if given a chance to go back and do it again, I wouldn't change a goddamn thing.
Alex introduced me to the singular pleasure of belonging–sweat drenched and hoarse–amongst a community of individuals bound by nothing more than unquestionable love of somebody else's noise. Harrison introduced me to the treacherous reality of belonging that lies in the the inevitable exclusionary element that occurs when those on the inside confront those looking in. Years later, the whole thing looks silly. Pitchfork is writing articles about the absolute uncoolness of Sufjan Stevens. The biggest DJ in the world in the world is the kid from From First to Last. Tide comes in, tide comes out, and this lesson in cool made me realize that as long as it feels good, it is good. This ethos was delivered through mosh pits and side-swiped bangs and directly led to my love of both pop and dance music. Never again will I whole-heartedly define myself through the taste and sensibilities of another, not a big brother, a best friend, or a band, for that feeling of belonging that leads one to a scene or identity can be beautiful and all encompassing but it is always inevitably fragile. What Alex could have never taught me was the treacherous part of belonging that lies in the inevitable exclusion of those who don't belong. I had to come upon this realization myself through harsh experience from the inside and outside of a scene, an experience specific to my passage through the Warped world that would have been completely absent had I been cool since day one, reared on Brian Eno straight out of the womb. All the studded belts, Hot Topic trips, Senses Fail t-shirts, and Warped Tour dates meant something. As important as punk was for the creation of my personal identity, this failure of cool was even more integral. The wheel of pop culture moves on and the coolest thing I can do is take it all in.