It’s 1998 and Rob Thomas is pleading with you.
“Please don’t change, please don’t break,” he says, a southeastern twang straining through his teeth from somewhere deep in the back of the throat. “You’re the only thing that seems to work at all here.”
Thomas is 26 and his band is still riding high off the release almost two years prior of its debut album Yourself or Someone Like You, which will eventually go on to sell over 10 million copies in the United States. At the time this song was written, though, he was a nobody — a high school dropout shuttled too often between the homes of his single mom and grandparents in Florida and South Carolina, respectively. College wasn’t an option. There was no safety net. It was make it big or bust.
“I wonder what it’s like to be the head honcho,” he says, to himself this time. “I wonder what I’d do if they all did just what I said?”
“Real World” was the fourth single released from YSLY, which had already produced its biggest hits, the bar ballad “3 A.M.” and the angsty “Push.” But the song, with its buoyant guitar riffs and cathartic hook (“I wish the reeeaalllll world, would just stop hassling me”) performed respectably on radio, getting frequent spins on Alternative Rock stations like Houston’s 104.1 KRBE The Buzz. I probably heard it there by accident, or maybe while being chauffeured in the back of a sport utility vehicle by a friend’s parents on a summer movie outing. But wherever I first heard it, the song itself will be etched in my brain forever. It’s the first rock song that I ever, truly, rapturously loved.
From what I know about Martin Douglas, our upbringings differed in ways that seem significant. His parents were early and passionate fans of hip hop, which drove him into the flannel-clad arms of Kurt Cobain. My parents, both Nigerian immigrants, couldn’t stand rap, but Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre were at my door. We’re also a few years apart. I had no real cultural awareness during the grunge era (unless you count Animal from the Muppet Babies).
And yet I’ve been the Black Guy At The Joanna Newsom Concert. I know the feeling of name checking TV on the Radio (the closest thing I have to a favorite band today) and then immediately scanning the face of the person across from you for revealing physiological tells. I am someone who understands the vexing identity politics of occasionally finding your heroes on the other side of the color line. All of which is to say that, like a lot of people, I was moved by this essay. But it also irked me.
For all the confessional ink spilled, Douglas opts not to reveal his true developmental history as a rock fan. The progression he suggests in his piece (Nirvana begat The Velvet Underground begat Beat Happening begat Sonic Youth begat TV on the Radio) is plausible but obviously curated and sanitized. The author makes no attempt to hide this fact. At one point in the story a young Douglas, at the height of his awkward teen years, is pressed by populars to name his favorite bands. He describes what happened next this way.
“I rattled off Nirvana, the Ramones, and a host of third-tier grunge bands whose names I’m now far too embarrassed to mention publicly.”
It’s no surprise that Douglas would feel embarrassed — that he would succumb to smoothing over the unsightly acts in his personal anthology like so many pimples. Among obsessive music fans, including some who write about the art form for a living, there is a constant demand for authenticity, which is unfortunately often confused with purity. But no one is born with “perfect” taste. Particularly at times when we are first exploring new genres, the likelihood of embracing generic, and therefore more popular, artists is high. It’s a messy business. The road from early aughts hip hop and R&B to late aughts indie rock, just to take an example, inevitably includes at least one John Mayer album and lots and lots of Coldplay. Why do you think Jay and Kanye love them so much?
Matchbox 20 begat Goo Goo Dolls begat Carlos Santana (“Maria, Maria” could still make it’s way onto a barbecue playlist). Though my first loves were Boyz II Men, SWV and Warren G., TRL introduced me to Weezer and I spent months falling forPinkerton. There was a long period of Radiohead worship, which led to Wilco and, for a split second, Muse. But then the New York renaissance came along and changed my world. Turn on the Bright Lights, Is This It, Fever to Tell, Return to Cookie Mountain. I obsessed over these albums and their musical heritage. The destination makes the journey meaningful.
Unlike sex, music fandom carries no risk of transmittable disease. There shouldn’t be a stigma for youthful indiscretions or sustained promiscuity. We shouldn’t feel compelled to cover our tracks for the sake of saving face. After all, coolness and fandom have always made strange bedfellows. That’s why poseurs (and more broadly, if unfairly, hipsters) are so universally reviled.
Recall that true fandom of any kind has always been an inherently graceless and embarrassing enterprise unsuitable for polite company. If your employer knew some of the things you were willing to do in the dark of an arena while surrounded by a few thousand like-minded souls, she’d deactivate your floor pass. This is how it should be. If you aren’t doing anything you might regret later, you’re doing it wrong.