Kurt Cobain would not approve, but privately I wondered if there wasn’t space for a beloved burnished thing in my new and improved pop pantheon.
Tragic KingdomEnema of the State
So Much for the AfterglowSparkle and Fade
I am still living with your . . . ghost,
Don’t worry, that’s just my heroPlus, I’m pretty sure if he met me in real life, we’d fall in love.
. . . but not so with Everclear.
In the Lester Bangs (as played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous) sense of the term, Everclear was not cool, not quite. And despite my eighth grade affectation for carrying around cameos of my famous rockstar would-be lovers, I wasn’t cool either.
Rather, I was the only black girl in a magnet program catering to the arts and humanities. Odd girl out in a private program within a much larger, public one. I was also becoming aware of the invisible forces that served to stratify me and my peers. Some of us knew things—like what sex was, what boys tasted like, and why some of us were worth the sexual attention of certain boys when others were not. Some of us had things—like money, cool parents, our periods, flat hair. It was difficult, at first, to intuit which knowledge or objects would determine one’s place in the hierarchy. But we worked with what we had. It got ruthless. At twelve, Paige and I had a bad falling out, and I made new friends—a motley mix of malcontents who bonded over our dorky proclivities, ethnic lunches, and the shared belief that our more popular peers were out to get us.
Some of my new friends had a deeper (read: better) taste in music. Pull the thread on the Foo Fighters, they said, and you got to Dave Grohl, which could lead to Nirvana, which could lead to Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead. Go back further, and you have classic rock. Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the black people they stole from—and then forward again to folk, Motown, rap. Had I heard of Native Tongues? We turned off VH1, making fussy personalized mix-tapes for one another, instead. High school started and it became clear (ha) that Everclear—indeed, a lot of what got played on the radio—was to be enjoyed a little glibly, like something you’d sing along to at somebody’s bat mitzvah.
Snug in my attic bedroom, I still relished their albums. But my new musical education had lead me to notice the paradox between what I’d learned to call Everclear’s “derivative” power pop melodies and the band’s occasional flashes of self-awareness. Take this chorus, from the 1997 single, “Everything to Everyone:” “You do what they tell you to do/you say what they say/you try to be everything to everyone.” Or the coda in “Father of Mine:” “I will never be safe, I will never be sane, I will always be weird inside, I will always be lame.” With my music collection expanded, I could no longer argue—compared to Nirvana or The Roots, Everclear was uncool—but, somewhat endearingly, they seemed to know it. Revel in it, even.
Everclear wanted to swim out past the breakers and watch the world die. They wanted to buy—not build, not blow up, but buy—my new life.They were not out to topple The Man, but appeared to be on a more general sating mission. Kurt Cobain would not approve, but privately I wondered if there wasn’t space for a beloved burnished thing in my new and improved pop pantheon. Into high school, my little torch for Art and the gang stayed lit. I just learned to move it out of sight.
In high school, music only got more important. For a certain sect of the malcontents, being hip to the right sounds was tantamount to a personality. I was personally in love with all of them: Robert Plant, Julian Casablancas, Andre 3000, Jenny Lewis. It’s scientifically established that there’s no kind of band-love that matches the initial band-love, the songs we grow up with and frame our firsts around. But unlike the middle school songs, songs I found in high school heralded a new kind of want. I no longer needed to carry Tom DeLonge around with me like a human purse. Instead, I needed to jump his bones.
This is to say I mostly couldn’t separate my lust for life with a growing interest in my lust for the architects of that life. Music, its makers, the people who sang it—it all became sex. Singers and the songs they sang were to be beheld, feared, and longed for with one’s every fiber. And meanwhile, I was a quivering virgin.
It was a rarity—and something of a relief—to love a band that I didn’t want to possess, or feel possessed by. Recall that Everclear’s biggest song in the new millennium was the one designed to scoot you through your parent’s divorce. In high school, so many of my bands—so many boys—seemed to want things from me and my friends. Julian Casablancas said to wait. Andre 3000 said to shake it. But what did Art Alexakis want? Nothing. Merely my joy.
I went to college and began to study actual Art, which was not to be confused with Entertainment. As in middle school, there were implicit rules to the hierarchy. Some of us intuitively knew things—the names of the right artists, theatres, clubs. And some of us had the right things—money, privilege, confidence. In some ways, college was less punishing on the axis of cool vs. uncool. It seemed less common to form crews based merely on the suspicion that all other people were out to get you. Even so, I was learning to marry my artistic likes to the language of my creative career. We were always being asked what kind of art we wanted to make back then, and we all wanted to be taken seriously; ipso facto, one had to prioritize Serious Art.
Nonsense and half-hour comedies, it was understood, were uncool. Commercial musicals, uncool. Romance novels, uncool. No one said these things out loud, but the dominant pedagogy said that Art-making (or at least the kind of art-making that lead to Good Art) required some sort of aesthetic or personal risk; merely sating wasn’t enough. It would be hard to argue that Everclear was good, let alone cool, by this college metric. After all, they made radio-friendly, three minute pop songs about the more banal disappointments in adult life. The band’s aesthetic contributions seemed destined for the dreaded un-Serious pile. That they were fun to listen and dance to was beside the point.
And for many of us, the college years marked the beginning of a very worthy investigation into why one ever liked X thing in the first place. In my case, the question lingered: Why had I, Brittany, lent so much love to white men who could play three or more chords on a guitar? I felt I had my reasons. Blame magnet school, the world I was raised in. Yet no one was wrong to point out that Everclear sounded an awful lot like ten or so other bands on the radio, and had merely their cheek to recommend them. No one was wrong to question the squirmy lyric in “Father of Mine,” “it wasn’t easy for me to be a scared white boy in a black neighborhood.”
Initially, I had loved the band for Paige, then my own secret, attic self. But in college, some full-blown guilt tiptoed into the pleasure. I wanted to be serious, after all. I wanted to possess myself alone.
A few years after school, I was working at a now-defunct sports bar in the East Village where I made peanuts and acted a regular fool. I was then in a version of the life I’d hoped someone would buy me when I was eleven: living with friends in a ramshackle apartment, saying yes to many adventures that would later seem ill-advised. My days were split between pursuing dubious, vague “life experience,” which might be funneled into my art, and working with a self-serious devised theatre company some friends of mine had started. Yet I often felt at odds with my stated mission: to make of my experiences good and serious plays, or good and serious books for serious people about serious things. I’d had it drummed out of me in art school that there was any kind of merit in the middle-brow, or indeed any art that did not aspire to transcend its braces, rattle the cage.
First friends stick on the skin just like first songs, and I was glad to be transported back to the living room.
One evening after a shift, I was looking for something to do and found a listing on the concert website, OhMyRockness.com. Here for a one-night stand at the Gramercy Theatre: Art Alexakis and exactly zero other original members of the band. Not sold out, of course. My fanship had lapsed terribly over the years, so I was surprised to see their names on a marquee. It seemed impossible that this group from the back of my dusty CD case could be on tour in the new millennium. But I was feeling restless and impulsive and a little bit lonely; the tickets were cheap. I bought one and walked the nineteen blocks.
I’d never been to a concert alone before, and didn’t quite know what to do with my hands. This adventure was unlike other moments in my live-music going. I’d spent the previous three summers at Bonnaroo, stoned and rapt in fields with my best friends. We’d leave those festivals on fire with a feeling that was magnified because we knew it to be temporary—some of the electricity lay in our knowledge that The Flaming Lips would someday stop touring, and probably well before that day we’d stop being the types of people who couldn’t miss one of their shows. But an evening with Everclear did not have such dire connotations.
I felt the lure of nostalgia, sure. When the band played “Wonderful,” I thought of Paige’s living room for the first time in years. I remembered the sweet shape of that initial friendship, before I’d driven it sour, before adolescence with its rude hierarchy had pushed its thorns into us, before forces had come to stratify. First friends stick on the skin just like first songs, and I was glad to be transported back to the living room. Art made it easy; after twenty years, he still sounded just like the record.
But as the evening went on, a different wire was tripped. I sang along to everything, shocked to realize I still knew the words. I bounced on my toes. I didn’t speak to a soul or buy a drink, I just stood there absorbing, and knew the most serene pleasure. Because Everclear bopped. And I didn’t need the band to love me back or shake me awake or confirm myself back to me. I didn’t even need them to play an encore, although they did.
Art prefaced “Santa Monica” with the bright proclamation: “Okay we’re gonna play the song that’s bought me a few houses, and then it’s off to bed, you guys. I’m an old man!” I was so amused, I whooped. Here, in a nut, was the antithesis to my whole artistic education. And was it sexy, was it arty, was it “good,” was it “serious”? No, not quite, none of the above—but precisely because the show was not these things, spectating felt pure, a breezy joy. Listening to Everclear, I never needed to fear or categorize my delight. I could just feel it. Because Art Alexakis knows who he is and who he’s singing to. He is having fun up there, and that kind of joviality demands no blood and creates a most soothing invitation.
That show ended at midnight on the dot, and I walked to the train buzzing in a contained way, entirely in my own skin. I thought about silliness, the pure joy that comes with being uncool and accepting it, plainly. Then I resolved to put some of these qualities back into my own artistic and life mission.
When you are an art person, especially an art person who’s consistently mining their own back catalogue for material, love for the sake of the thing and in spite of the culture gets harder and harder to come by. I know I have loved for community. I have loved with my body and without my mind. I have loved the idea of things more precisely than the things themselves, but not so with Everclear. On bad days and good days and in-between days, I’ll listen to “Santa Monica,” or “Strawberry” on my headphones. I’ll listen when I want to feel alone, but un-lonely. I’ll listen when I want to sit squarely in the middle, feel pristinely myself.
Brittany K. Allen is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer and library goblin. Her prose appears or is forthcoming in Catapult, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Kenyon Review Online, and Longreads, among other places, and her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her stage plays have been produced and developed at Portland Center Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and elsewhere.