I was in the eighth grade when Ashlee Simpson’s album Autobiography came out. It was 2004, and I was just creeping into my “alternative” stage — black eyeliner, Chuck Taylors and all. I’d already filled the sides of those shoes with Sharpie-inscribed Dashboard Confessional lyrics, a statement I thought to be subtle, yet poignant. But the day I heard “Pieces of Me” on the radio, I was seized with regret that there was no room left for Ashlee on my shoes. Talk about screaming infidelities (sorry, I had to).
I remember the day I fell in love with the album. It was a Saturday, and my best friend Nicole had convinced her mom to let us splatter-paint her bedroom. We moved her furniture into the hallway and covered the carpet with trash bags and old sheets. We invited our three other BFFs over, ordered a pizza, and put Ashlee Simpson on repeat in the boom box.
There is no right way to splatter-paint a bedroom. We had a handful of brushes, three cans of neon paint — green, pink, and turquoise — and zero structure or reason for how to fling it. As an adult, this lack of structure is my nightmare. But as an angsty eighth-grader deeply affected by music, this was freedom.
We became increasingly reckless, painting with sheer abandon as “Pieces of Me” poured from the stereo. It felt like a music video. Paint flying everywhere, colors clinging to the walls and our clothes and our hair. We were screaming the lyrics — feeling an intensity, a rawness, that still seems so new at that age. There’s a certain energy that builds when a moment or a song hits at just the right angle and makes you feel just a little better in your own skin.
That energy was building. And then it redirected and strengthened as the song changed. “Shadow” started to play and I had to sit down. I felt so much connection with that song. I didn’t have Jessica Simpson for an older sister, but I did have an older brother who was bipolar and the “shadow” thing still seemed to apply. Ashlee put words to the things I’d been feeling for years and didn’t know how to say.
“Somebody listen please, it used to be so hard being me.”
“I am moody, messy, I get restless, and its senseless, how you never seem to care.”
“All the days collided, one less perfect that the next, I was stuck inside someone else’s life and always second best.”
My friends continued to swirl around me, singing along contentedly, studying the walls for what color was needed next. And I sat in the corner and cried. The energy of feeling understood, feeling less alone in that battle with my brother, overwhelmed me. And then overflowed into fat, unapologetic tears. I was completely engrossed in it, completely unashamed.
The energy of feeling understood overwhelmed me.
That’s the thing about being 14 — every feeling and experience feels so real, so consequential. Everything is still so new. At 14, I didn’t yet know that those moments of intensity, moments of weight-bearing emotion were not unique to me. I didn’t know there’d be more of them, and certainly not how often. But mostly, I didn’t yet know that somewhere along the way I’d lose the purity of them. That self-awareness and cynicism and a paralyzing fear of being trite would taint such moments of emotion, shifting my response to them from song lyrics on shoes to the quieter, ever dangerous act of internalization.
But at 14, I was green with the purest form of angst, crying in a corner while Ashlee Simpson sang my emotions. I was completely lost in her words, unconcerned with what my friends might be thinking, unaware that I’d one day be averse to such whiney, heavy-handed music and would one day be mortified at the thought of showing my emotions that way.
I wonder when that shift happened — when it stopped being OK to cry in a corner in front of your friends or when I did start to care what they thought. I wonder when I learned that apathy was the better emotion, and who gave the word “angst” a connotation of childish frivolity.
I’ve gathered enough beige apathy to not cry in corners and to be socially relevant now.
It’s been 10 years since we painted that room. Nicole’s family moved not long after and I’m sure those walls have been painted over a number of times since then. But as I look back, I still feel like that girl in her bedroom, clinging to anything that makes me feel a little better in my own skin. I still feel things that deeply. I still feel angst about a lot of things, and often. I’ve just lost the ability to openly fall apart like that. I’ve lost the purity of desperate, earnest emotion without a mounting pressure to feign indifference or a hysterical need to hide.
I don’t write song lyrics on my Tory Burch flats and I finally have the eye-liner thing under control. I’ve gathered enough beige apathy to not cry in corners and to be socially relevant now.
I just don’t know why. It seems a lot harder this way.