Listening To My Life: Pop-Punk As Religion

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My best friend lacks commitment to music. He and I shared encyclopedic knowledge of pop-punk trivia and had an obnoxious tendency to speak in music-related acronyms. Plus, he’ll always be better than me at guitar. Still, my adolescence was marred with a series of disappointments after securing tickets to see bands—New Found Glory, Saves the Day, Jimmy Eat World—and then having to go alone, despite the pristinely maintained Nissan Sentra sitting in my best friend’s driveway. He was inevitably too lazy to drive 30 minutes down the Interstate, forcing my poor father to shuttle me downtown and chain smoke in front of the venue for an hour so he could drive me right back home. This occurred so frequently and predictably that my mother turned his name to a verb that she uses to refer to something that was supposed to come to fruition but ultimately does not.

It might not seem like this was the biggest setback in a life otherwise filled with its share of wonder, but it meant that I had to practice my religion alone. Despite an overwhelmingly negative critical consensus, pop-punk is a sacred genre, a fact I will argue until my dying breath (after which “At Your Funeral” by Saves the Day will undoubtedly play as my requiem).

The quasi-mystical aspect of pop-punk is difficult to explain to someone who never experienced it in their youth. You could take a 25-year-old uninitiate to a Catholic mass, and while they would recognize that it’s imbued with ritual and tradition, they will never understand its intricacies like someone raised within that culture and taught to believe it as absolute truth. Similarly, if you introduce someone to this genre after the critical age of 17, the earnestness will simply wall them off from the inner sanctum.

Many people felt strongly about pop-punk in their youth before abandoning it for the ironic distance of indie rock. I see this pop-punk apostasy as a deep character flaw hinting at a larger and more serious inability to commit. Nostalgia is abandoned for whatever idol is currently worshiped by the blogs. Pop-punk is a genre connected to a specific time and place—namely, high school in the young millennium—and it evokes an extremely specific response. In short, I don’t understand how someone could feel something so deeply and then suddenly never feel those things again. One should accumulate emotional connections, not abandon them.

My friend agrees, and this has been an unspoken bond between us for years that time and distance will never erase. There’s nothing like the bond you share with someone who continues to devote themselves to a genre despite being divorced from the original context that made it so relevant to each of your lives.

So when he called me on my birthday to tell me he bought us tickets to see Fang Island, my heart soared. Seeing the pop-punk revivalists would make up for any perceived injustice, I thought. Finally, as adults, we would be able to commune to see a band that distilled the essence of innocence, purity and friendship through virtue of their guitar prowess.

I forgot this was how it always started, though.

About two weeks before the show he admitted he hadn’t actually purchased tickets and intended on bypassing the exorbitant service charges by getting them at the door. This was clearly the first step towards inevitable heartache. This set-back was followed by a series of straight-to-voicemail phone calls and unreturned texts. Fully aware that I had to take matters into my own hands, I recruited another friend to drive to the show, and I procured tickets through my own means. I had been deprived of my most holy sacrament too many times in the past to leave my fate up to blind faith that he would pull through.

We drove to the show with little expectation that my best friend would make an appearance. About half way to our destination city, I received word that he was getting out of his grad school classes soon and would immediately start driving to meet us at the venue.

I had no way of knowing of whether or not he’d end up making this hadj with me, but I came to realize that his presence didn’t ultimately matter. Sharing a blind commitment with others is comforting, but feeding your own soul is far more important.

If I didn’t need music critics to tell me that what I loved was worthy or acceptable, I guess I didn’t need my fellow disciple by my side either. After all, knowing that people think the thing that holds sway over your life is silly, but persevering alone in your convictions is a big part of faith.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe if those grad school classes ended a little bit earlier things would have been different. And I know most people don’t take a gap year to be young and have fun before committing to the real world. I know I tend to feel things too deeply, that I’m willing to go beyond reasonable measure to display loyalty to the things I care about. The sacrifices I’ve made to see live music are six or seven standard deviations from the norm. I also know next year it will be time to reevaluate my priorities, and these pilgrimages will have to take the back burner to reading, writing and studying as if my life depended on it, because it will.

But music—particularly pop-punk music—has always been my religion. The rituals of the call-and-response and the circle pit are essentially retoolings of charismatic Christianity; there’s the pilgrimage and the communal aspect, the respect for tradition, and through appeals to nostalgia and youth, maybe even a suggestion of everlasting life. At the very least, it’s a filter through which I have always been able to order my own existence.

I realize my branch of music-as-religion is basically the equivalent of Scientology—my loyalty will always be toward something that is nearly universally vilified—but I refuse to budge. While I may not believe in the concept of a Sky Dad, I cling to an unpretentious touchstone that helps me keep my life in perspective, and I’ll be damned if I ever give that up, for anyone.