Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Twist the past and reward the arrogance

A constant question I ask myself when I write is, "Why do I say that?" Maybe that's a holdover from college with all the papers I had to write, but the question definitely makes me think more and more about certain subjects over time. One question I think I haven't fully answered is why I don't like Andy Greenwald's Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. I've blogged about my feelings on this book a few times (previous one found here), but I think I have some more explaining to do.

Have I read Nothing Feels Good from start to finish yet? Nope. Why? Because trying to read this book still makes me angry and annoyed. Why am I angry and annoyed? I have several reasons.

First things first, let me describe what this book is and isn't. Andy did not set out to write a history of emo, post-hardcore or hardcore. He makes no secret in his preface that he is an outsider to this genre. Seeing all these young people come out to CBGB's for a Dashboard Confessional show, his quest to understand why emo is popular with young people begins. From there, he interviews several teenagers and college students, writers (like Jessica Hopper), label people (like Darren Walters from Jade Tree), musicians (like Jason Gnewikow of the Promise Ring) and various other people.

With chapters looking at the loose origins of hardcore in the '80s and the '90s, who are modern day fans, which record labels are really popular, how these young people feel about the music, what some of the most popular bands are about, and finally, a look at sites like and This rundown sounds more like I'm OK You're OK than Our Band Could Be Your Life, but both of these books ring truer for me than Nothing Feels Good.

When I try to read a chapter out of Nothing Feels Good, I keep getting the sense that this is a look at what the mainstream version of emo right now . . . in 2002. In other words, a lot of this stuff feels dated and stale. When I read something out of Our Band Could Be Your Life, it feels vital as it rings true for me. Sure, the topic is on bands in the '80s, but they weren't written about in a style that's steeped in the '80s.

The storyline and approach of Our Band Could Be Your Life is one that is in a classic style; talking about events, activities and mindsets that have been around for ages and are still around. Nothing Feels Good is more based in the ephemeral and always-changing nature of the whipped cream of life. Using the disposable nature of pop culture as a base, I can't help but feel there is more of the pie to describe (especially the bottom crust).

What really bugs me in Nothing Feels Good is the lack of quality sources. Sure, Darren Walters and Jason Gnewikow have some great things to say, yet the book is littered with these random quotes from random fans. Yes, the fans' voices need to be addressed for this topic, but for myself, I don't really care that a Jawbreaker fan thinks Jets to Brazil's music is pretentious. I care way more about who the bands and labels are. I want to know about their lives and philosophies. I want their perspectives while also telling a story that I want to read.

A point of frustration I have is this rather voyeuristic approach to looking at life. This isn't just in Nothing Feels Good; this is everywhere. Do we really want to share all of our warts in public? Not me. I'm not hiding from anything here on this blog, but there are certain matters that I don't feel are worth talking about in this arena. Sure, I'll talk about my frustrations with finding a new job, my experiences with writing a book, the music I like, the aspects of culture that interest me and so on. However, I don't want to go into topics that are best reserved for a therapist's office and/or a diary. Living in a culture where people have private phone conversations in spaces where many people can hear them, I choose to keep certain matters as private as possible.

That said, Nothing Feels Good represents some of the worst aspects of modern day surfaceness. Here is this outsider looking at a genre from the mainstream/commodified part and going kind of inward. Since he wrote a book about this genre, he obviously knows what he's talking about right? Well, I wouldn't say he's off in what he found on the modern day culture, but I feel there is way more deeper stuff to talk about.

I joke that after my initial attempts to read Nothing Feels Good, I felt that the bar for writing a book on emo/post-hardcore had gone down so low that a traffic reporter with no professional writing experience could do this. Taking the lessons I learned with my own experiences and the experiences that Our Band Could Be Your Life talks about, I realized that it was up to me to do something about this. So many people are fine with the fast-food culture they can get easily. For me, the stories of the Promise Ring, Dischord Records and Jawbreaker are incredibly inspiring even if you don't care for the music. But you have to search these things out.

As somebody who has liked this loose genre for well over ten years, I think the stories behind these bands are even greater than the music. This is music that still strikes a deep chord with me, but I know it doesn't with a number of people. I could spend 300+ pages about how Jimmy Eat World and the Get Up Kids got me through such-and-such times with such-and-such people in college, but those are my own private experiences. I've had plenty of experiences since then.

Ultimately, I feel the stories behind these people are way more interesting than my own. Sure, I blog about what I like and don't like in a conversational way here, but this a blog, not a book. With a blog, you can read as much as you want for free. With a book, speaking only for myself, if I were to spend some money on one, I'd rather read about Jawbox's decision to go to a major label rather than someone's experience of learning "Savory" on guitar at home instead of going to the prom.

1 comment:

jen said...

i didn't care for the book myself either, but then i don't know exactly what i was expecting. but, to a certain extent, he was at least trying to express something outside of facts and figures. i think it was good idea in theory (because anyone can read about/hear about the history of these bands anywhere) but, he focused too much on one particular time/type of fan -- it was more about these fans than anything else, and, had it been promoted as such, would have been easier to swallow.
you have cheesy diary on one side and textbook on the other -- the right thing to do lies somewhere smackdab in the middle.