Every morning, I wake up to a message from a past self. I usually cringe. Facebook’s “On This Day” feature tops my news feed with posts from younger versions of me, girls I hardly recognize. Anything from before 2013 is more often than not a depressing song lyric, likely a cryptic signal to an unrequited crush. I know I’m alone with or without you. (I need to stop checking social media first thing in the morning.)
Through evolving mediums, I’ve relied on song lyrics to express my most intense emotions to the public. I used to write them on the tips of my Converse All Stars.The invitation to my Sweet 16, which I handily crafted on Microsoft Paint, featured a line from an obscure Blink-182 song, a reference only a few of the invitees might have understood. As a hormonal teenager, my feelings erupted faster than my ability to articulate them. When I couldn’t find the words, I could just use someone else’s. It meant, like Bowie said, I wasn’t alone.
Just a few days after I turned 16, Green Day released American Idiot, an album billed as the first “punk rock opera,” another year’s worth of whiny Facebook statuses on a platter. Wake me up when September ends, I’ve posted in more than one September. American Idiot was enormously successful, winning the Grammy for Best Rock Album and introducing Green Day to a younger generation yet to be concerned with the concept of “selling out.” It has since been adapted for Broadway, though curiously, is billed as a rock “musical” instead of an “opera.” Stylistically, the music in American Idiot is pretty much the same as every Green Day album before it, except the guitars are a bit louder and the tracks bleed into each other. There are characters, and a vague narrative, but calling their concept album a “punk rock opera” is mostly a nod to the Who’s Tommy, one of Green Day’s chief inspirations. Andrew Clements, classical music critic for The Guardian, dismisses the rock opera trend as “a new-fangled genre, with its vaguely subversive label—the revolutionary language of rock imposing itself on the apparently elitist world of opera.” I’m sure the decision to drop the “rock opera” tagline on Broadway was purely for marketing purposes. Musicals sell out, operas do not.
Green Day, like most pop-punk bands, is not known for poetic lyrics. Billie Joe Armstrong’s crowning achievement on American Idiot is a protest song called “Holiday,” what he has deemed a direct “fuck you” to then-President George W. Bush. The lyrics reportedly took him two months to write:
Sieg Heil to the president gasman
Bombs away is your punishment
Pulverize the Eiffel towers
Who criticize your government
Pause for a second. Look at the words above, look at how inadequate they are on their own, without context or chords or Billie Joe’s faux British sneer. Maybe you know the song—it’s on the radio all the time—and could hear it in your head as you read. If you haven’t heard it, maybe you felt compelled to find the song and listen to it. Or maybe you just kept reading, completely unmoved. A lyric without music is merely a phrase; by transcribing it, you are removing something fundamental. Certainly, some lyrics stand well on their own; Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But as Shakespeare is meant to be performed, songs are meant to be sung. Writing them down is almost violent.
I went to the opera for the first time recently: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which I only really wanted to see due to its significance to ‘90s rock. Much of Weezer’s sophomore album Pinkerton is based on this work, with references to its characters and themes throughout (Rivers Cuomo initially conceived the album as a rock opera of his own, and the song “El Scorcho” mentions Green Day and Cio Cio Sans in the same verse). Sung in Italian, this production of Madama Butterfly projected English subtitles on a banner screen at the top of the stage. To keep in time with the music, each verse faded quickly, fluttering like tweets. Halfway through, I stopped reading entirely. The story wasn’t in the lyrics—it was in the instruments, in the power and vibrato of the vocals. Unencumbered by words, I let the sound wash over me. It was like I had relearned how to listen to music.
I recently noticed a tick in my writing, one I had to consciously avoid in drafting this piece: I like to embed song lyrics into my sentences, whether or not I’m writing about music. I haven’t grown out of co-opting lyrics after all, I’ve just picked up a bit more subtlety. Obviously I didn’t invent this trick; a lot of music writers do it, Rob Sheffield better than anyone else. On the one hand I’m showing off my music knowledge, an attempt to be clever while proving that I’ve done the research. But I think there’s more to it. The impulse comes from a larger desire to live rock ‘n’ roll, each song an instruction manual. I act out song lyrics all the time. I have little-to-no musical talent, but I’ve sat beneath blue suburban skies on Penny Lane in Liverpool. I’ve played the Paul Simon album on a road trip to Graceland. I once made my dad stop at a Tastee-Freeze in New Jersey so I could suck on a chili dog. Because rock ‘n’ roll makes even meat-topped-meat seem glamorous.
I read through the lyrics of American Idiot to see what turns of phrase I could quote at the end of this essay to drive home my point about lyrics and self-expression and the fantasy of rock ‘n’ roll. I thought maybe I could instead quote from the final track of Pinkerton, bringing it all back to opera:
Maybe I need fantasy
A life of chasing Butterfly
But it’s not quite right, is it? Too many steps for the reader. I want it to fit, so life can feel like a rock song for just a few beats. But I’m starting to realize that my words can be enough.
...my words can be enough. That was how I wanted to end this essay until a suicide bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, and now what can I say? “I don't have words,” is how Ariana ended her heartbroken statement to her fans.
I write this while waiting for the names of the dead to be released. We do know that most of those who attended the concert were girls under the age of 18, who donned bunny ears and body glitter and recognized themselves in the lyrics of pop songs.
I thought about scrapping this draft completely. My self-centered ramblings about Facebook statues and pop punk seemed trivial only days after such horror. But as grief runs its course, the songs will stay stuck in your head. The bass will drop, and Ariana will perform again, swaying her ponytail from side to side. Keep listening, keep posting. And when a past self taps you on the shoulder, be kind to her.