How It Feels to Be Something On

Band: Sunny Day Real Estate
Album: How It Feels to Be Something On
Best song: “Guitar and Video Games” is my favorite.
Worst song: “Two Promises” has lyrics I can’t support, but is otherwise a decent song.

When I was in junior high, I was an avid watcher of Saved by the Bell; just about everyone in my generation watched that show. I was absolutely convinced that SBTB was the template by which my upcoming high school years would follow. I expected to be Zack, to find my Kelly and to have a friend like Slater. I wanted to hang at the Max. I don’t think I was alone in this.

Undoubtedly, this was a stupid notion.

But, nevertheless, that show was a cultural touchstone for my generation because it made a very superlative guy into a somewhat ordinary guy. Mark-Paul Gosselaar‘s character was relatable in a way that nearly no others were for an early adolescent; he was our aspiration. He was charming and handsome, but awkward enough to learn the all-important life lessons at the end of the show. He bridged the gap between the social classes at Bayside, hanging with the jocks and nerds equally. He played — and excelled at — sports, music and school, despite not really seeming to put forth much effort.

But, most importantly, his parents weren’t a huge part of his life.

There’s two sides to this: The first is that a lot of kids of my generation were either of “broken” homes — i.e. the product of divorce — or latchkey kids. The notion that the entire world of Zack and the gang — unlike that of our parents’ childrens’ TV or even of Beverly Hills 90210, a somewhat contemporary program for our older siblings — barely interacted with their parents. The question of Screech’s parents was barely raised, so maybe his parents were divorced or left him alone after school. We didn’t even get to know that Slater had parents until he was thinking about college admissions and his father wanted him to join the service.

This plays into the second side of this: There is nothing a junior high or early high school student wants more than to be parent-less. Like Jim Morrison’s claim that he had no parents, kids on the precipice of adulthood want nothing more than to be unique individuals, void of steering influences.

The characters on the show developed independent of their home life, in many ways. The principal of the school was their guiding force, their teachers mere blips on the radar screen. Their friends were the core group and that, to so many of my generation’s young people, was wildly attractive. Zack’s life was constructed by Zack, not by Mr. and Mrs. Morris or whoever or whatever raised him. Slater’s breaking free from his father’s chains was a revelation and something we aspired to. Jessie’s drug problem was not her parents’ concerns; it was Zack’s. Friends came before everything.

Some people escape into TV. We wanted to be TV.

I bring up Saved by the Bell to simply say this: Junior high was the first time that I desperately started to look forward. In junior high, I wanted nothing more than to be in high school. At the start of high school, I desperately wanted to be an upperclassman, thinking it would be more like TV. As graduation neared, I wanted nothing more than to be in college. In college, I wanted nothing more than to be out of college, on my own and a “real adult.”

Looking back, the summer of 1998 was, likely, the best time in my life, or close to it. It’s not unique like other times are, but it’s the first time in my life that I had little to no responsibilities, yet could understand my place. I knew I had it great. I wasn’t as hormonal and obnoxious to think I was the only person in the world who ever felt sad. I had great friends and had fun. I saw the light of being outside my parents’ house and looked forward to it. I wasn’t taking college entrance exams and I wasn’t working at a real job. I wasn’t in college and preparing for my future. I was truly in between childhood and adulthood.

I miss it, on some level. The innocence and burgeoning knowledge is impossible to repeat.

I became myself during this time. My self-doubt turned into a bitterness and curmudgeonly spirit that has not completely left my personality. Self-pity became self-deprecation and I found friends in this notion.

I dove into radio and indie rock, taking trips to Dr. Wax as much as possible. I started therapy with a counselor and found that my brain was not a rampant wasteland of insanity, but rather a young man struggling with emotions I wasn’t completely able to understand. I found solace in Elliott Smith and Smog and Tortoise and Braid and post-rock and emo and whatever I could find.

I was introduced to Sunny Day Real Estate by a guy called Brian a few years earlier at our high school’s radio station. Brian was a pretty strange dude and I’d hardly say we were best friends, but I’m forever indebted to him for introducing me to a band that defined the second wave of emo for me in many ways.

SDRE’s breakup happened before I got into the band, so the band’s reformation was a revelation to me. How it Feels to be Something On has some of Jeremey Enigk’s jesusfreak nonsense on it — “Two Promises” is clearly a religious song — but the vast majority of the record is a testament to the band’s ability to squeeze poetry out of the musical style they helped invent.

“Roses in Water” is based on a twirling guitar riff, while “Every Shining Time You Arrive” is a sweet acoustic ballad. “Guitar and Video Games” is an extension of the brilliance of LP2, while “The Prophet” crashes against the beat, like Coheed and Cambria would try to do so many years after.

Enigk’s lyrics are veiled and difficult, making lines sound lovely with multiple meanings. William Goldsmith’s striking beats match the Enigk/Dan Hoerner guitar swirls and acoustic twirls. Enigk’s croon, of course, fills the songs out in a way that defines the genre; he’s as much Morrisey as he is Ian McKaye.

Being 17 is an odd time. No longer the zitfaced bag of adrenaline that defines early teenage years, I was still oily and unkempt, learning my body’s ways. In that time, I developed my personality in a way that I’m glad happened. It was ugly, but it’s turned me into who I am today, as a nominal adult.

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  • By Sing the Sorrow | Albums That I Own on August 2, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    […] mentioned, I spent most of the youth desperately yearning for the next step, whatever that step would be. Upon my graduation from college in 2003, I was finally at the next […]

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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