For the last two-plus years I lived in a very, very small town at the literal edge of America. Living in such a small town, I saw primarily the same people day in and day out with little variation: my girlfriend, my co-workers, my neighbors. This repetitive familiarity has a way of shrinking the world until all that remains are the people and places at your fingertips, and all else seems distant and out of reach. And so it came to be that the small coterie of friends and acquaintances that I saw regularly became the entirety of my day to day world. It’s not that I had forgotten about all the other types of people in the world, it’s just that, for a while, they weren’t relevant to my everyday life. I knew that outside my small group of adult professionals there were people from all ethnicities and races, ranging from infants to decagenarians; I just couldn’t see them with my own eyes anymore.
Well, I’m back in a populous part of the world now, and over the weekend I was reminded of a segment of the population whose existence I hadn’t forgotten, but whose actual tangible being had drifted out of my experience. When retail needs drove me to the mall, it all came back to me; they were everywhere, their shrill voices ringing in my ears. My eyes were shocked by their ostentatiousness, a trait that could only be due to a severe lack of self-awareness and either too little or too much self-confidence. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about teenagers.
I had forgotten that unique affliction for which the only prescription is time: being a teenager. I felt old. I didn’t quite need a LifeCall necklace yet, but I certainly felt much, much older than the little sprites that were whirring around me. Their exuberance and ridiculousness seemed foreign, as if I had never known it myself. How could I have forgotten the responsibility-free euphoria of my teenage years? I, like the parent of a new high schooler, needed a primer on teenage life. Fortunately, I knew just the thing to put me on level ground with these strange pseudo-people.
When I got home I pulled out three CDs, all consecutive releases by one artist. After the 90 minutes it took me to listen to them, I once again understood the mind of a teenager. So which three albums did I listen to? What block of music so completely represents the teenage experience? I thought you’d never ask. (Though this is a music-based website, so asking seems like a pretty reasonable thing for you to do.)
You see, if you boil it down, the teenage psyche can generally be described as follows: a flair for melodrama punctuated by exaggerated portrayals of longing, heartbreak, and goofiness, all blanked by an absurd level of self-absorption. And what three albums not only share similar descriptors but could be said to exemplify them? A three-album run by no less than the personification of teenagerness itself: The Ataris. The albums in question are, and really could only be, Look Forward to Failure (1998), Blue Skies, Broken Hearts…Next 12 Exits (1999), and End Is Forever (2001). The Ataris, it turns out, have written the guidebook to being a teenager.
My remembrances and personal experiences aside, let’s take a look at the musical elements that make The Ataris, during that four year span, so well equipped to embody the teenage condition. Keep in mind that my argument isn’t that all teenagers should like these albums, it’s that all teenagers are these albums. I think you’ll agree. Unless you are a teenager, in which case you are much more likely to give me the finger and blast some more Skrillex.
We’ll start with the genre: The Ataris released those three albums at the peak of the pop-punk/emo movement and it’s pretty easy to see why it was a genre that connected with a large number of teenagers – it’s a form of music that’s more aggressive than traditional pop-rock while being less aggressive and confrontational than full-fledged punk. It’s also a style built primarily around power chords (AKA the first thing every teenager that picks up a guitar learns) so it was easily imitated by kids in their basements. So now we’ve got a sonically accessible, vaguely rebellious, and easily reproduced base. Plus we have the oft-imitated half-whiny-half-raspy voice of vocalist Kris Roe (who was actually a very good pop-punk vocalist despite that description); a vocal style that managed to radiate from its very timber the mix of semi-violent angst and immature youth that fits the unruly teenage years. Most importantly though, in order to understand why these three Ataris albums are the perfect fit for describing teenagers, you need to take a look at the lyrics of all three albums. Their mix of melodramatics, humor, and shamelessness does a pretty remarkable job of accurately describing the development of adolescent thought.
Look Forward to Failure begins with ‘San Dimas High School Rules’ which is, of course, a song about a romance that can only be described as young. Here’s the gist: Guy likes Girl; Guy is stuck in the dreaded friend-zone with Girl; in an attempt to woo Girl, Guy writes a confessional love song asking Girl to dump her current boyfriend and go out with him. (Sample lyric: “Just dump your boyfriend and go out with me. I swear I’d treat you like a queen.”) There are so many pop-punk songs that fit that description – shit, there are so many Ataris songs that fit that description – that I could probably fill an entire article with just those. (Editor’s note: Brennan is not allowed to write an entire article about those songs.) It’s not Romeo & Juliet but, in our modern world, it’s more applicable – what high school kid hasn’t had that experience? The next track, ‘Not A Worry In the World,’ is literally a nostalgic ode to being young. And speaking of Romeo + Juliet, ‘My So Called Life’ is a campy, comic love song to pre-Homeland Claire Danes, and it is exactly the type of over-the-top and overdramatic (albeit intentionally comical) kind of thing that seems custom-written for a high school audience.
The most revered of the three albums, Blue Skies, Broken Heart…Next 12 Exits has a smattering of songs (‘Your Boyfriend Sucks,’ ‘I Won’t Spend Another Night Alone,’ and ‘The Last Song I Will Ever Write About A Girl’ for example) that really pound away on that angst-ridden, unrequited teen-love thing that does such an admirable job of encapsulating the teenage condition. ‘I Won’t Spend Another Night Alone,’ for instance, is lyrically such a preposterously immature song1 that it seems like it must be a joke…but I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s just like every poem you scrawled in the margins of your notes in high school. (You guys did that too, right?) It may very well be that a part of the reason that Blue Skies is the album that most Ataris fans seem to connect with is that it’s an album about failing to get the girl, not knowing who your friends really are, and being pissed at the authority figures in your life; it’s like a DSM guidebook definition of adolescence.
Finally we come to my favorite Ataris record: before they tried to up the maturity (barely) with So Long, Astoria,2 they had one last angst-centric album that dealt with the same issues we had seen before but with just the tiniest dash of maturity and worldliness (really just a tiny, tiny dash). On End Is Forever, we’ve got a song that makes fun of a guy for being a weightlifting douche, replete with dying-deer sound effects (‘You Need A Hug’). Goofiness: check. We’ve got a song that suggests that one incidence of infidelity is enough to swear off of the idea of love forever (‘Giving Up On Love’). Melodrama: check. We’ve got a song about playing a basement show because, fuck adults, that’s why (‘Teenage Riot’). Angst: check. And we’ve even got a couple of songs about some of the serious and difficult developments of growing up…which are handled with about as much maturity and dignity as you’d expect (‘Fast Times At Dropout High’ and ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’). Self-absorbtion: check.
Over that three album stretch, every song is essentially about a crush, or failed romance, or some other trivial concern that is of little concern to anyone save those directly implicated – and even those participants will have moved on to other problems by the end of the song, given the fleeting nature of relationships at that age (at least three teenage relationships have started and ended since you began reading this article). But the thing of it is: problems like that are all-consuming to a teenager. It seems both silly and self-evident to say that, but it really is true. Which, again, is crazy given that absolutely zero is at stake in any of the circumstances that Roe is describing. To an adult, these are not real problems3. But to teenagers they really and truly are. Just put yourself back in the shoes of your high school self, and I imagine that you’ll find all of The Ataris’ lyrics hitting close to home. The Ataris understood, that to a teenager, even the smallest problem or briefest crush is the most passionate and significant issue that the world has ever seen. So while I may not be able to hide from the existence of teenagers any longer, I can at the very least always pop in a couple of discs and understand them again. And that’s something.
1. Now seems like a good time to mention that I’m not trying to tear down The Ataris with all this stuff either – I still love these three albums.
2. That tiny town I lived in for two years? It was just south of this album’s eponymous Astoria, OR.
3. Let’s go to Nic Newsham and Princess Dinosaur’s ‘Hares and Bears‘ for a lyric that I feel accurately represents an adult view of the matter: “She loves without seeing and I think that’s crazy. ‘Cause I need a little more than that. Because puppy love is fucking dumb. I was fourteen once, I remember.”
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