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Ten years of Fall Out Boy

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Fall Out Boy’s first benchmark album, Take This To Your Grave, was released 10 years ago this week.

It holds up beautifully, though my filter is skewed: In 2003, folks forget, Fall Out Boy was the indie alternative to the mainstream power pop of bands like New Found Glory or the balladry of Chris Carrabba. 1  Their reputation sold on the notion of punk purity: words that try, mosh pits that sweat.

In 2003, major labels (remember those?) had signed a network of punk and emo bands and were in the process of unsheathing talent onto the greater high school populous. By the fall, Dashboard Confessional would go electric, Saves the Day got ambitious, and even the lefty politicos in Thursday had the jocks screaming in mosh pits.

To be young and in a band meant to sing phallocentric lyrics about crushes and hope your Purevolume page garnered enough clicks for a Drive Thru Records rep to notice. Even if you were classically trained performing arts students like the bros in Yellowcard.

If Senses Fail can pull it off, how hard can it be?

It worked in terms of trends and setting some sweaters on fire, but the fallout has been so negative toward the genre that it’s impossible to measure these bands as anything less than a collective failure. When a bomb of decade lists dropped at the end of 2009, emo may as well have been afro-jazz, and these recordings became trivia.

Brand New wrote the best album of the aughts that fall (Deja Entendu), and it isn’t an argument I can make in public. Forget that The Strokes have been nearly as uncool for the last ten years, or that Brand New songwriter Jesse Lacey tried way harder. 2

In the late ‘90s, acts like The Promise Ring and Texas Is The Reason struck minds, flamed out before the gold rush, and remain as respectable tattoos. 3 Jimmy Eat World had a David Letterman appearance, and cast a vast net with their admittedly major money-polished sounds.

While the sea changed in pop, Fall Out Boy began as an inside joke.

My buddy Mike had this idea in high school to start an aggressively emo band that would make fun of the eyeliner jokesters like Story of the Year. Each song would have a comically long title; the band would be called The Long Version of a Short Story. 4 The hook was that most of us actually had a huge sweet tooth for emo and the show “Jackass”—clunky songs would write themselves, he thought.

Fall Out Boy had the idea first.

Pete Wentz was a hardcore punk scene veteran who tutored young guys that he met, if I remember correctly, at a Borders in suburban Chicago. Their drummer, Andy Hurley, has like three degrees. They were sharp men and boys that knew a sound and set this blender of power pop ideas in motion.

In the summer of 2004, I interviewed Wentz for my college newspaper. I liked the guy a lot. He was earnest, nice, and answered honestly. He talked about the sessions for what would become Take This To Your Grave—how they recorded in attics, and he said something like the album was a product that came from a great deal of deadline stress, lack of budget.

“Calm Before the Storm,” with its cuckold narrative about losing a girl to a more popular dude and watching them have sex from a tree, is a page straight from Dude Ranch-era blink-182. “Tonight the headphones will deliver you the words that I can’t say” is a lyric that was sung. Songs began with dial tones.

TTTYG—put out by secretly-well-funded “indie” label Fueled By Ramen—was a series of thickly worded pop tarts the teenagers ate up. Capitol Records hired kids to hold signs that touted the arrival of The Beatles, but this felt less honest. Fueled By Ramen fronted as a punk hive that cultivated talent organically—but it was a boy band factory in black.

Fall Out Boy was supposed to be an over-the-top pop exercise, and business got so good that they stuck with the scene. They were the punk nice guys that would hang out with fans and chat about homemade signs over cookies.

Wentz had a brief role on “One Tree Hill,” and the band assembled the most impressive army of MySpace Music to date. Punk spreads by word of mouth, and this pop-punk did the same, only via a label that targeted specific, youthful archetypes who would become indirect informants. If you liked Hurley, lip piercings, and LiveJournal—have we got a band for you (tell your friends!)

It was a calculated plan to brand Warped Tour caricatures before they blew up so that kids wouldn’t lose interest when they made it to MTV. They’d be invested. I’d go to “punk” shows in venues like Emo’s in Austin, TX, and there would be Mountain Dew.

My scene was a farm league.

I remain somewhat of an apologist for Fall Out Boy because they were quick to embrace the money invested in their success. When we spoke, Wentz even said something to the effect of “it’s weird to have this 40-year-old guy with his job on the line.”

But the pop hooks were undeniable. Patrick Stump’s reckless abandon 5 toward his vocal takes remains inspiring. There’s no pretensions to album opener “…tell that Mick he just made my list of things to do today.” 6 It’s a cannonball dive into the idea, and friends that don’t like it can drive off bridges. If you don’t want to jump in place, up and down, during this chorus, you’re probably a flightless bird.

Slowly but surely, bands like Saves the Day and Say Anything hit a commercial ceiling on their sound. They live in relative comfort today playing whatever strikes their fancy. Fall Out Boy was never into pop-punk to begin with, so they decided to make their cause a Lost Boys rally for fun in the name of being outsiders at the soiree. This meant Jay-Z on the intro to 2007’s Infinity On High, and cosigns from reality TV stars.

I don’t have an issue with any of this, except that today, Fall Out Boy is a decade older and their fan base is even younger. I’m not calling for a return to roots, but I can’t help but wonder why guys so talented keep making bullshit.

Notes:

  1. Of course, if you were over 22, it was all a blender of corporate noise with little enduring substance
  2. The English missed the scene politics and judged the music alone, which is probably why Brand New can still draw upper tier billing on this summer’s Leeds and Reading festivals.
  3. Or joined the Foo Fighters.
  4. Copyright: Michael Milazzo.
  5. Sorry, another fucking blink-182 song title.
  6. I wasn’t playing about the long titles.

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