The Death of Conformity

On my first day of sixth grade in August 2001, I looked so ridiculous that 9/11 was justified. If you had seen me then, you would have thought, “that child must grow up in a world of pain and fear and I will do whatever it takes to make that happen,” and then you would kill 3,000 innocent Americans and yourself.

Here’s a run-down: I was about 5’2″, just over 200 pounds, with a perennially red face and hair that I spiked straight up like a prediabetic Bart Simpson. Even worse, I was in my “punk” phase—I wore No Fear shirts, blasted NOFX from my bright yellow Discman, and carried a giant black Trapper Keeper with “DEATH TO CONFORMITY!” scrawled across it in gel pen to clarinet practice.

"Call Mossad. We have terrorism to stage."

Unbelievably, this wasn’t even the horriblest of it. I was trying to have my snotty rebel image-cake and eat my pastor’s kid uptightness, too. I once walked out of an English class analyzing Lennon’s “Imagine” because it was “too godless,” but had no problem blasting System of a Down at home. I scribbled anarchy As on everything and rambled about creationism in science class. Two wars and a Patriot Act don’t seem like such a high price now, do they?

Tragic though this time was, without it I never would have transitioned into an almost-regular person. This is the story of how I decided dyeing my hair blue was a good idea, and how if it weren’t for a kid at church named Johnny and his shitty taste in music, I might have been uncool forever. (I am very cool now.)

The bad guy from The Karate Kid agrees.

I don’t feign ignorance of popular music. For music made after about 2004, I have no excuse—I’m just a cheap beer-swillin’, ukulele-playin’, ex-Apple Store workin’, filthy hipster. This is not a label I’m proud of, but at least I understand what I am. A few weeks ago, I read a Pitchfork review that said the word “hipster” is “passe” and “2009,” probably to assure its readers that they aren’t that thing that gross employed 26 year-olds call them. Here is some math:

  1. Their readers are reading Pitchfork.
  2. They hate people who read Pitchfork.
  3. Q.E.D. we should all hate ourselves and each other.

I would never lie to you.

For music made before then, though, cut me a little slack. Why? Well, let me explain. On Friday night, I went to a karaoke bar for a friend’s birthday. Any readers who were sheltered as children are probably nodding right now, because karaoke is the definitive expression of missed cultural experience that we have to pretend to be as nostalgic for as everybody else. For a pastor’s kid, walking into a karaoke bar on a Friday night is like being the offspring of slave-rape trying to pass as white and walking into a job interview in the Reconstruction South.

"Do you have any references, Mr. Hemings?"

See, popular media is The Devil’s Work, and, more than anyone, pastors must Protect Their Children. If the pastor’s kids are seen huffing reefers and spraying Marilyn & Manson logos in the baptismal, how can he be trusted for advice on how to keep your grandkids out of a sex gang? So us PKs all have giant gaps in our cultural knowledge—gaps that don’t even necessarily correspond to popularly sinful things, as a lot of innocuous stuff gets filtered out too.

In other words, when the karaoke DJ announced that coming up next was a jumbo-sized block of Hall and Oates, everyone else in the bar cheered and I muttered “awwwwww fuck.”

If even one drop of your blood does not love Hall and Oates, you will be shot.

It’s not just music, either. Sure, I still don’t know if Buffalo Springfield was a band or just a guy with a weird name, and I think every CCR song is a Lynyrd Skynyrd song and vice versa, but that’s only the beginning.

People my age: what’s your favorite formative years-nostalgia TV show? Chances are I’ve never seen it. Yeah, I watched some cartoons, and Fresh Prince was okay for some reason, but everything else is as hazy as an explanation of contradictions between gospels. So if you reference Saved By the Bell, Full House, The Wonder Years, Boy Meets World, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Clarissa Explains It All, Step By Step, Family Matters, Sister Sister, or any Disney Channel original movie around me, expect a nervous laugh, some stuttering, and maybe the distant stare of a father being told his autistic/dying son will never play football.

Sort of like this.

By 1998, the tide was poised to turn. Like many kids of the late ’90s, I swooned for Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” without understanding a word of the lyrics. The song’s about how meth abuse and constant sex ruined the singer’s capacity to feel love. I liked the “do do do” part. So my brother and I got a copy of the cassette for our July birthdays, only to have our mom immediately confiscate it when she saw the lyric sheet burn a hole in a Bible.

Oddly enough, my liberation came from someone even more repressed than I was. His name was Johnathon and his parents couldn’t fucking spell. More importantly, he was the sole kid around my brother’s age to attend our church in those days, so by the Law of Children they had to be friends.

"Soon we'll grow apart. Only one of us will handle it!"

One week in 1999, they decided to exchange their favorite tapes. My brother’s was the censored version of Third Eye Blind’s self-titled first album*, and Johnny’s was MXPX’s Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo.

MXPX, for those of you lucky enough to be unfamiliar, was one of the 90s’ nominally-Christian rock bands deemed acceptable by religious parents who wanted their kids to almost fit in. They had a minor hit in 2000 with “Responsibility” and were briefly on the verge of being one of those bands like Switchfoot or Relient K whose songs you can’t name but whose logo you recognize because a lot of eerily friendly people at your high school wore it.

"Wanna come to our teen club on Wednesday night?"

Their music wasn’t and isn’t good, but by golly we’d never heard anything like it! They played hard, fast, and anti-authoritarian, plus if you didn’t like a song it’d be over in two minutes. We spent the next week tearing through that cassette, committing this strange new artifact to memory like it was boobs. (One other huge event of 1999 was the birth of Napster and its clones, with which my brother and I spent the next year melting our friend Bruno’s internet connection. How else would we get to hear Enema of the State?)

Don't give this to your nine year old. "Adam's Song" is way too sad!

Considering our enthusiastic response, we figured Johnny would love Third Eye Blind too, right? Wrong! When Sunday School rolled around and it was time to swap tapes, he handed us ours with a forlorn look and said, “Sorry guys. Can’t listen to it.” Why not? “Secular.”

“Secular.” I’d never heard the word before. A metaphor for how sheltered I was? Maybe, but this thing’s already 1,300 fucking words long so let’s get out of here. If I stay in one place too long the student loan toughs start pawning my food. At the same time as I was flabbergasted by his weird parents’ decision to let him only listen to bands that thanked Jesus in the liner notes, I respected his commitment to the faith. In fact, I decided then and there that I wouldn’t let something as silly as music lead me astray.

It didn’t last. I slogged through a solid two or three years of MXPX, Five Iron Frenzy, and (shudder) P.O.D., before giving myself completely to Tony Hawk soundtracks, Epitaph Records samplers, and MTV’s pop-punk flavor of the week—sometimes literally. Gradually, semi-rebelling against culture led me to learn what it was in a way that being sheltered from it never did. Maybe someday I’ll figure out when I’m supposed to clap in “Private Eyes.”

Which one's George Michael?

Sorry for this rambling nostalgia bait. Next week I’ll write about the top ten gayest things my gay mom did in church and also how I was fat. (Preview: 10. cut hair above shoulder length, 9. laugh, 8. I used to spend 30 seconds catching my breath on landings, 7. vote.)

*The same tape as before, but we were forbidden from listening to “Narcolepsy,” because it mentions demons, and “Losing a Whole Year,” because one of its verses is about how his girlfriend’s vagina won’t get wet. What I’m saying is that Third Eye Blind never get any credit.

One thought on “The Death of Conformity

  1. [...] of stories about my sexual inadequacies would be over-sharing, even by my standards, not to mention disjointed and amateurish. Instead, here’s a story about how both of these seemingly opposite currents from my [...]

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