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Where You Want to Be: The Relationship Between Music and Masculinity

Dudefluencer: Music and Masculinity

Going through old Facebook statuses is a treasure trove of cringe-inducing self-deprecation and shitty emo-band lyrics. It’s a time capsule to a moment in my life where I was confused, vulnerable, and heavily reliant on the music to tell me about relationships. Now, a 30-something, I’m the old guy who leans against the railing at punk shows reflecting on how music and masculinity were intertwined so much that I can directly correlate many negative behaviors to the music I used to listen to.

As a nonfiction writer, there’s something fundamental about self-reflection. Great personal writing requires the author to confront who they are, and who they used to be. 

For a long time, I was afraid to do so. I made mistakes that affected people I cared about; I was an asshole who thought he was the lead in a romantic comedy.

Emo was punk rock’s confessional brother: it was an attempt at representing male vulnerability through angst-on-your-sleeve lyrics and acoustic guitar. And when I was 18 and felt alone, I turned to these bands, the Fall Out Boys, Taking Back Sundays, and Say Anythings, because I thought they understood me better than anyone in my immediate social circle.

If music was such an integral part of my life, why wouldn’t I think that I was supposed to be the hero of my story? I mean, that’s what the emo and pop-punk albums told the thousands of other young boys screaming at their shows. But at some point, I needed to grow up. If I wanted to be the person that I thought I was, it was time for some self-reflection.

Emo music was part of the problem; I was part of the problem.

From bawitdaba to Good Charlotte.

The transition from middle school to high school  demanded the maturation of my musical tastes. That was easy, since my Walkman in middle school didn’t really play anything other than Creed, Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock albums. If middle school isn’t the worst by itself, I had social anxiety, an earring, and an album collection that holds up about as well as a red backward Yankees cap. I hit the trifecta of self-confusion and disappointment.

I thought my parents had left the house. I put in my Napster mixtape. The track list  included alternative groups like Orgy and The Bloodhound Gang. included three mp3 episodes of the Saturday Night Live Celebrity Jeopardy skit. The album also had Kid Rock’s Bawitdaba, which I absolutely jammed out to. I grabbed my karate boa stick as a makeshift microphone and mimicked every Kid Rock move from Woodstock ’99. And right at the height of my yelp, dad walked in. 

What’s worse: your dad catching you masturbating or your dad catching you sing Kid Rock? I imagine it’s the latter. The only other time I saw that look of disappointment was when I told him I had no interest in tractor pulls and mopped chicken.

Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit and the rest of the rap-rock gang were just rebellious enough for me. I think that was Limp Bizkit’s draw: the music wasn’t creative, the lyrics were horrific, and the aesthetic was embarrassing. Yet, because they were the counterculture alternative to N*Sync and the Backstreet Boys, I felt like I didn’t really have a choice in what music to like. What I mean is boys were supposed to like rock music: it was tough, aggressive and rugged. Boy bands? Those were for the girls. I couldn’t admit to liking LFO’s “Summer Girls” unless I quoted Eminem’s revised version of the lyrics afterward. Liking boy bands in middle school meant immediate isolation from the rest of the guys; your man card would be revoked. It’s my first recollection of music and masculinity colliding.

And come on, it’s just a little music right?

As I graduated from middle school, I left behind JNCO jeans and novelty oversized sunglasses. Instead, I discovered pop-punk on MTV. I remember watching old footage of Green Day hurling mud at concert goers at Woodstock ’94 (who would’ve thought there’d be two Woodstock references in the first 500 words of this piece?); I called into TRL to vote for Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again.” Soon, the pop-punk culture engulfed me. Unlike the goth culture that required UFO pants and bad haircuts, I felt like I belonged wholly in the pop-punk world.

As the fisheye lens closed in on Good Charlotte lead singer Joel Madden, his nasal voice sang out:

“Yeah, this song is dedicated to every kid who ever got picked last in gym class (yeah, 1999)
This is for you
To every kid who never had a date to no school dance (2000 eternal)
This is for you
To everyone who’s ever been called a freak (come with meeeee)
Here we, here we go
What? (y’ all know what I’m talking about, y’all know what I’m saying)”

For the first time, I heard someone talking to me. I couldn’t fully relate to Limp Bizkit cause I wasn’t all about the nookie. But those Good Charlotte guys, they got me. Blue-collar kids from Baltimore who felt out of place, uncomfortable, and searching for a place to call home. It didn’t hurt that the melody was catchy and the speed of the kick drum made for perfect bike riding music.

A couple of years later, someone else spoke to me. I turned on Fuse, and everything changed. Under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge were five boys in swooping haircuts and Flavor Flav. As the guitar intro led the way, the slightly-raspy, trembling, pre-pubescent-sounding howl of the lead singer echoed through my television speakers. I’d become too cool for Good Charlotte. Taking Back Sunday. Yeah, now those guys got me.

You know when you hear a song at the right time and place in your life, when someone’s lyrics just make sense? That was “You’re So Last Summer” by Taking Back Sunday. It’s as if these Long Islanders knew precisely what I was feeling, and found a way to say those words so cleverly that I couldn’t stop listening. The next week I bought their album, Tell All Your Friends, and listened to the Victory Records demo tape included with the record.

From there, I discovered Silverstein and Bayside; my iPod transitioned from Rob Zombie to Brand New. My AOL Instant Messenger Away Messages changed from inside jokes to lyrics like “You hit the road and left me an ocean/ I can’t swim in the silence of your skin- please let me in.” My musical transformation had been complete.

A series of red flags.

I am struggling to write about confronting myself. Where do I begin?

I want to be honest and forthcoming. Still, I’m not sure if the pendulum has shifted too far to the other side, and I am just being cruel to myself because that’s also what the music insisted on.

My friend Max calls me. I tell him I don’t know what I am supposed to write. He says life is about choices. I made a choice to listen to music I’m now ashamed of. I made a choice to be that person. I have long made a choice to be a different person now. 

***

Before we got married, I gave Rachel a copy of my first book within the first few weeks of us dating. She didn’t want to talk to me about it. She tells me now that she had no idea how to tell her new boyfriend that his writings were problematic—that the book was, chapter by chapter, a series of red flags. I don’t know if I would have been able to hear her feedback at the time anyway.

Rachel’s critiques weren’t unique. A previous girlfriend had mentioned similar issues.

“I’d like you to read this twice. The first time I just want you to scan the letters and ink. The second time, I’d like you to pour yourself a glass of your favorite wine, sip it slowly, and let it burn down your throat the same way I want each and every one of my words to burn your eyes as you realize the boy back in the suburbs has figured you out.” These words came from an essay I wrote entitled “Bitter Evenings with a Narcissist.” I realize now that the narcissist wasn’t the person I was writing about: I was the bitter one, I was the self-involved asshole. I cringe thinking about the version of me who wrote that out, and worse yet, thought it was okay for others to read.

Being a nonfiction writer, I can look back at that version of Garrett through the different essays I had written. What I saw was a young man who unfairly wrote about women, who struggled with self-confidence and . I was also not a fully formed human; I lacked life experience and understanding of the world around me. And because of that, I find myself struggling to understand the person I was and the person I am now.

Like Tom in 500 Days of Summer, I thought I was the hero of the story. I often reference 500 Days of Summer because it’s symbolic of how I viewed the world. Before Rachel, I believed Tom was a great guy and Summer was wrong for rejecting him. It was black and white, clear as day. Tom was a good guy and Summer just couldn’t see it—if she did, she would want to be with him. 

Years later, I’m able to recognize the real meaning of the movie. Tom was an asshole and Summer was the one who was always honest with him. He was too caught up in what he thought the perfect relationship was to see what Summer was telling him she really wanted.

Rachel, reading through my first draft, looks up and says, “You really didn’t get 500 Days of Summer?” No, I didn’t. That was me. And that was the message I was getting from the music I was listening to. My beliefs about what it was to be a good man—and what is justice for good men—was chronically reinforced by a surround-sound, multi-media system. I bought in.

Rachel asks me what it means to be the bad guy? I stumble over my words. I’ve avoided answering that question myself.

Leslie, the woman I dated before Rachel, often comes to mind when I think about 500 Days of Summer, and the music I used to listen to. In the short time she and I spent together, I imagined myself being the hero and the good guy. I didn’t realize until a while later that I was the bad guy. I didn’t listen to her when she told me she didn’t want a relationship; I told her I loved her because I thought that would make her stick around.

They don’t call that abuse in the movies do they? If Leslie left, if she didn’t tell me she loved me, she gets all the blame. She’s the one who wronged me. Who would you rather be, the one bearing your heart or the heart trampler? I told myself there’s an injustice here. After all, The Spill Canvas told me “What if I ripped your heart apart at the seams, maybe then you’d know how I feel.”

It was easier to believe I was the victim.

How fucked is that?

In college, I became obsessed with a band called Brand New. The emo/post-hardcore quartet was my go-to band for every milestone of my early twenties. 

And if it makes you less sad
I’ll take your pictures all down
Every picture you paint
I will paint myself out
It’s cold as a tomb
And it’s dark in your room
When I sneak to your bed
To pour salt in your wounds.

I remember my first girlfriend broke up with me on the phone a couple of days before Christmas. We had been together six years, and she told me she couldn’t be in this relationship anymore. I said “Okay.” Nothing else, just “Okay.”

Music taught me to be dismissive. Because she broke up with me, I was allowed to be vengeful: she committed the wrong. Not me. Besides, Fall Out Boy told me “I’m just a notch in your bedpost, but you’re just a line in a song.”

On stage at the Town Ballroom in Buffalo, Jesse sauntered onto the scene with his guitar and played the opening riff to “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad.” Around 3,000 other people were in attendance. I hung onto every word as he howled, “And if her plane crashes tomorrow, she’ll find some way to disappoint me by not burning in the wreckage, or drowning at the bottom of the sea.” On the surface, it’s angsty and immature. What I didn’t realize was that I was internalizing a toxic view of masculinity.

She dumped me, she cheated on me, so the next logical leap is to wish physical harm on her.

How fucked is that? 

We have a choice to make.

I keep reflecting on Max’s words about choice. I had the choice to be who I was, and I now have the choice to do better.

I’d love to tell you that there is a defining incident that caused my reflection, but there isn’t one. There’s a collection of moments from whirlwind romances, to new experiences in dating, and of course, Rachel, that all led me to confront who I was as a partner.

I was a bad boyfriend who didn’t listen to his partners because he was too caught up in his own fantasy of what being in a relationship was supposed to be like. And after a lot of growth and therapy, I’m not that same person anymore. I’ve learned to listen better, I’ve learned about compromise.

As I scroll through my recently played on Spotify, I realized that musical tastes have changed as well. For the last two years, my most played artist has been The 1975, and the year before that was The Wonder Years. Two bands who present a more mature, nuanced approach to life than the music I had grown up listening to.

All your friends in one place
Oh, we’re a scene, whatever that means
I depend on my friends to stay clean
As sad as it seems.

Take, for example, The 1975 lead singer Matt Healy often writes about his struggles with addiction. When he does talk about relationships, they’re presented with an air of tongue in cheek-ness. As for The Wonder Years, most of their albums have been about growing up, their family, and the struggle of trying to figure out who you want to be. Unlike the emo bands I’ve mentioned, these artists often take the time in their music to present a worldview built around self-reflection. And compassion.

While I refuse to listen to Brand New anymore (this article explains why), I have revisited Taking Back Sunday and a few other emo pop-punk band catalogs to see how they’ve grown. In the case of Taking Back Sunday, as the band broke up, reunited, got married, and had children, it’s evident that what’s important to them as humans have changed. The violence and anger towards women are (mostly) gone.

I’ll buy some beat up car, we could get out of here
Some place we can be ourselves
We won’t watch you kill yourself
Or leave you here to rot to death and all of this
I’ll take you anywhere that you want to go
(Somewhere you can be yourself).

Lead singer of Taking Back Sunday Adam Lazzara tells Alternative Press “I know for me, for some of my favorite bands, one of the things that makes them my favorite is that I feel like every different stage in my life they’ve had a record that matched that. It’s almost like we were growing up together.” His statement makes me feel better that I wasn’t alone, but also worse because it wasn’t just me. 

A lot of dudes had a fucked up idea of relationships; it was just that a few of us made our toxic feelings so public.

The relationship between music and masculinity.

As pop-punk and emo music had its revival in the 2000s, there seemed to be an attempt at pushing back on gender norms. In physical appearance at least. Guys grew their hair long, wore skinny jeans, and put on makeup. They told everyone they weren’t like the jocks in school and prided themselves on wearing their emotions. Despite all of that, there was still an issue with masculinity at play.

Whether it was towards their lover, their best friend, or themselves, threats of physical violence were prevalent throughout all of their lyrics. An Ohio based band named Hit the Lights included a hidden track that featured some genuinely haunting lyrics:

But tonight I’ll wait until I know you’re fast asleep
to poison you with memories of you and me
I pray you die slowly so I can be the last thing you see.

Or Brand New’s “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis?”

I got desperate desires, and unadmirable plans
My tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent
Bring you back to the bar get you out of the cold
My sober straight face gets you out of your clothes.

Both songs offer up versions of violence, with the implicit threat of sexual assault as well. I cannot speak for either of these bands and what they intended while writing these lyrics, but the music certainly creates a particular complex for the men listening.

Fans of the band are explicitly told that these are the nice guys, the geeks, the ones that girls should marry. They are not like the asshole jocks. Yet, lyrics like this say otherwise. They play off the idea that they’re breaking social norms while perpetuating the worst of them.

For a long time, I didn’t recognize that. And when I look back on who I was, I’m embarrassed because I let myself be shaped by them. As I continue writing this, I frequently come back to one word Max used: compassion.

Emo and pop-punk music of the 2000s was a facade implying that these men were sooooooo compassionate when the opposite was true. These artists weren’t compassionate towards not only the people around them but also to themselves. Emotional music doesn’t mean it’s emotionally intelligent. Being expressive isn’t enough; you need to have a healthy way of processing.

Lead singer of Taking Back Sunday Adam Lazzara gets asked a lot about emo music. I’m not interested in that. I want to know what 30 year old Lazzara wants to say about 18 year old Lazzara. Maybe it’ll make me feel better. He tells the interviewer “I’m not going to write about the same thing I was writing about when I was 18. Because what would that say about me as a person? I haven’t grown or matured in those years? Nobody wants that.”

It’s true, we aren’t the same men as we were when we were 18. We are all a little bit broken, and imperfect. But as adults, we should also take responsibility for who we were, and strive to not let other kids make those same mistakes.

Now is time to do the hard work.

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If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other pieces here on Dudefluencer:

How The Media Influences Male Body Image
Everything You Need To Know About Positive Masculinity
The Manly Man’s Guide to Surviving the Coronavirus

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2 Responses

  1. What an excellent post, extremely thought-provoking and honest. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I also was a massive fan of kid rock and look back in shame. But again as you said we do grow as people and it’s great we can look back and reflect on our music taste and our previous selves.

  2. An interesting perspective on music and masculinity. Love the thought provoking lyrics and I definitely remember the days of plugging in a Napster playlist.

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