Pop Adolescent: A Personal History, With Lawnmowers

It wasn’t until about the fourth time that I drove back from New England to the Philadelphia suburb where I grew up that I began to notice the thickening light. It’s a subtle phenomenon. The visual recalibration doesn’t really kick in for sure until I’m past New York City, driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, and watching pine trees rush by on either side of the car. In Boston, the sunlight is pure and thin, and in the late afternoons it comes slanting in at a low wintry angle and turns white steeples the color of cantaloupe flesh. Mid-Atlantic sunlight is more substantial stuff––yellower, too––and it’s rich with dust or pollen or rain vapor. I like each kind at different times. If I’ve been home for more than a few weeks I get anxious to leave, and the splashes of northern light that set the Maples ablaze every fall are refreshing to the point of disorientation or even joy. But the light holds more in Wallingford––more heat, more water, but also some twenty years of layered familiarities, all of which fan out and crowd in every time I drive back. Home is uncomfortable, but it’s my everyday jacket.

The first time I heard the band Neutral Milk Hotel was in a high school philosophy class. Each student brought in a recording of what they thought was a good pop song, specifically good in that it measured up to David Hume’s criteria for aesthetic excellence (for public school, this was a pretty creative class). I brought Bruce Springsteen. My friend Peter brought Neutral Milk Hotel. He played “Holland, 1945,” the sixth song from their second album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It begins with a second or two of upbeat strumming, and then there’s a goofy little count-off––“two, one-two-three-four”––at which point the song really begins with what sounds like a fuzzy explosion. The low-fidelity sound is completely intentional. Released in 1998, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was recorded on a four-track tape machine, and there are moments on many of the album’s tracks when a high vocal line or screaming brass chord will overload the apparatus and set the whole sonic space buzzing, which is exactly what happened to my seventeen-year old brain as I sat in philosophy class listening to “Holland, 1945.” I could not have articulated the transformation, but I was aware that something inside had come wonderfully unhinged.

I bought the CD as soon as I could, and for a year or two In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was the greatest music I had ever heard. My mother, who sometimes tried to be interested in the music I liked, hated Neutral Milk Hotel, which was an added bonus. She hated everything about it that I liked: Jeff Mangum’s keening vocal overconfidence, the way the instruments whip every song into a frenzied volume contest, the insane melodicism. My father heard Neutral Milk Hotel one time that I can remember, and only just the first thirty seconds or so before he reached for the volume dial on our car stereo. I don’t think we said a word about it, and future car trips were soundtracked by an innocuous mix of Bob Dylan, The Who, and Steely Dan. The album did what it was supposed to do to my parents: it pushed them away. Liking music that makes the veins bulge in Dad’s forehead is one of the things that makes being a teenager worthwhile.

Pop music is generationally specific, much more so than other kinds of culture. Moviegoing is a lifelong habit, and children actually spend a lot of time trying to sneak into the violent, sexy films that their parents go see on the weekends. (The MPAA ratings system, authoritative and opaque, adds to the mystique; I remember shutting my eyes in the theater when Kate Winslet disrobed in Titanic, thinking that PG-13 made it literally illegal for 12-year-old me to be seeing her breasts.) Literature is either neutral or shared ground. Catcher In the Rye and On the Road have been teenage bibles for more than 50 years. I have the sense that I missed out on the real golden age of teenage rebellion, the ’50s and ’60s. Then, adolescents were members of the first generation to be fed on the explosion of pop culture that took place in the wake of WWII. As the Hollywood Production Code withered until its death in 1968, movies, which had always managed violence, began for the first time to get bloody. The Sexual Revolution had literature to match. Philip Roth and Bonnie and Clyde stirred up levels of parental outrage and indignation that I do not know and cannot really imagine. My bloody movies look like my parents’ bloody movies, only a little more so, and as a teenager my books were mostly theirs to begin with.

Pop music is the exception. The last three cultural figures who really made parents angry––the rapper Eminem, the rock musician Marilyn Manson, and Britney Spears––are all pop musicians. This has something to do with the nature of music, which, as sound, can never be completely ignored (there is no aural equivalent to shutting your eyes). The phenomenon isn’t only physics, though. People tend to figure out their musical preferences by the time they can’t go on calling themselves “young”––somewhere around age thirty––at which point the individual canon gets closed down. New music agitating for admission runs up against ears that are not only deaf but hostile: “Turn that crap down,” or, in my father’s case, he turned it down for me.

 He would never have unplugged the DVD player, and my mother never snatched a book out of my hands. For kids growing up in the last years of the twentieth century, pop music was the only available way to piss off your parents with culture.

The other part of what gets parents so mad about music is the fact that pop songs inspire teenage devotion in ways that books and movies can only dream about, and although taste differs wildly from teenager to teenager, everybody falls in love the same way. A 17-year-old who gets into Japanese art rock and a screaming tween at the Jonas Brothers concert are going to be completely different kinds of cultural adults, but they have more in common than they realize, and neither one could begin to articulate or justify their taste in a meaningful way. Teenagers who can explain what makes the music they like good are improvising liars. Their words are vague units of praise that filter in from friends and media. Their words should not be taken as anything more than affirmations of love.

But despite the fact that adolescents and language have a hard time getting along, teenagers are very good pop music listeners (they are also frequently great pop music makers). People become better readers, watchers, and lookers with age, but the ability to hear pop songs honestly decays over time and, almost always, eventually disappears completely. What makes adolescence and pop so well suited to each other is that inarticulate love, because pop songs are also bad with words. Lyrics matter to an extent––and, because they can be quoted, they’re much easier to describe and talk about than beats and tones––but even the greatest songs turn into crude sentiment when reduced to words on a page. Some musicians don’t realize this and become awful poets. (Joni Mitchell, from her poem “Bad Dreams Are Good”: “We have poisoned everything / And oblivious to it all / The cell-phone zombies babble / Through the shopping malls.”) What matters are the sounds. The explanatory power of a pop song operates largely outside language, and teenagers, who have no idea how to articulate the biological and emotional lurchings going on inside them, were made to have their lives explained by music. In the little office where my high school newspaper was edited and laid out, I worked with three guys who became some of my closest friends, and when they began to listen to The Magnetic Fields, I knew that I had to do the same. When I began to actually like The Magnetic Fields, I knew that something good was happening. Pop music told us that we fit together, which is something we could never have told ourselves. When adolescents fall in love, they make mixtapes. Pop music is teenage talking.

Jeff Mangum has said that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was vaguely written around dreams he had about Anne Frank and her family during WWII, but lyrically this almost never gets more specific than on the first song I heard, “Holland, 1945,” where Mangum sings,

The only girl I ever loved

Was born with roses in her eyes

But then they buried her alive

 One evening, 1945

With just her sister at her side.

That the album would be about Anne Frank makes sense in that the catastrophe of her adolescence was reflected in the catastrophe of history that trapped her in that little attic. On the album, this collection of personal and historical earthquakes leaps out of the speakers like a circus. Mangum loved the carnivalesque aesthetic of early twentieth century Penny Dreadfuls, the kind of vulgar gothic atmosphere suggested by woodcuts and hand-set type, semi-handmade products of an industrial age. The album’s lyrics were printed on a single sheet of paper––broadside style––rather than in the traditional tidy booklet. The record’s influence has turned out to be huge. In the late eighties and early nineties, the sound of indie rock was a kind of self-conscious laziness, an awkward, witty ugliness that viewed the tidy traditions of pop music as lame jokes. Neutral Milk Hotel, at the very end of the century, took that sound, that racket, and wrote pop songs with it, songs with melodies and sing-along choruses. What’s followed in the last 10 years has been a much prettier kind of indie rock. Many of the bands following in Neutral Milk Hotel’s wake, however, have nostalgically treated history as a simpler time when communities were close-knit and knitting was an everyday practical task. Neutral Milk Hotel looked back and saw a chain of disasters, one following another in horrible inevitability. They channeled that kind of history––itself trapped in a perpetual, thrashing adolescence––through sex, confusion, and longing.

None of this occurred to me at 17 because none of it needed to. Nobody ever asked me to justify my musical preferences and as long In the Aeroplane Over the Sea kept explaining me to myself on a day to day basis I was happy. The everydayness of pop music is built into the medium; since most albums are a little less than an hour long, it’s possible to listen to a record hundreds of times in a single year, at which point the music enters into a kind of symbiotic relationship with the people and situations it renders intelligible for the listener. People pay an enormous amount of attention to the specifics of their listening: cracks in a CD jewel case, abrasions on the sleeve of a vinyl LP, the way a car stereo’s cheap speakers warp the sound of a particular song. This turns into fetishism at a certain point, but what lies at the root of all this obsessing is the fact that music refuses to be heard in a vacuum; it lives in its contexts. When I listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, part of what I’m hearing is this:

The house here I grew up is a colonial pile of fieldstone with a big lawn, and it was my job to mow it during the summer. For the parts tucked in close to the house, I had a gray push mower with a black nylon bag hooked to the back which trapped the cut grass. Depending on how long it had been since I last mowed, I could walk back and forth for about 15 minutes before the bag filled up. Then I would roll the mower to a patch of woods that sloped down from the edge of our driveway and tug out clumps of grass with my free hand. This usually made me sneeze, and sometimes I would itch all over. For the more open spaces of the yard, though, it was possible to use our riding lawnmower. It had a yellow seat and a green chassis, and although it was also equipped with bags and a black chute which could be set up to collect the grass, I was usually allowed to leave them in the garage, which meant I could mow whole sections of lawn in big, uninterrupted swoops. I did this once or twice a week.

By the time Mr. Adams’ philosophy class and the school year had ended, I had memorized every word of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The difficult part was finding a time and a place to sing along. Singing in the house, where any family member could have heard me through my bedroom door, was out of the question. I could sing while driving a car, but everyday drives never lasted for more than 10 or 15 minutes, and what I wanted was to yell my way through the album from start to finish. At the beginning of the summer, I bought an iPod.

Once I wheeled the John Deere out of the garage onto the driveway, once I made sure to fill it with gasoline from the plastic tank with the yellow nozzle, once I was perched up on the seat, I threw a pair of enormous headphones over my ears, the kind that make big foam half-spheres and do a fair job of blocking out noise. With the album beginning to play, I stuffed the iPod into a cargo pocket and drove around to the back of the garage, where I began to mow the lawn.

The riding mower’s engine was not quiet, and with the blades turned on the machine made an incredible noise, which meant that I had to jack the volume all the way up in order to hear the music. More importantly, the mower’s racket made my own singing inaudible to anyone other than myself. It was actually more like halfway melodic screaming. Mangum’s voice peaks about two or three whole steps out of the highest parts of my vocal range, but the lawnmower gave me the luxury of not having to quiet down when my high baritone gave out. I sang in choirs in high school and never quite learned not to jut my head forward and tighten up my neck trying to sing high notes. Yelling incomprehensible code at nothing in particular, with those big headphones strapped from ear to ear, I probably looked like an autistic war veteran up close. From any distance, I was just somebody mowing the lawn, the big machine’s insect hum as appropriate and unremarkable in the suburbs as traffic in a city or surf on a beach.

Even with his voice like a fractured air raid siren, Mangum’s melodies are muscular, and so the songs on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea are desperate but sexy. It is not easy for teenagers to feel sexy, and Mangum is wonderfully gentle and strange about how two people learn to use their bodies. On “Two-Headed Boy” he sings, “Catching signals that sound in the dark / We will take off our clothes / And there’ll be lacing fingers through the notches in your spine.” He knows that sex is a threat, ominously repeating the words “semen stains the mountaintops,” on the song “Oh, Comely,” but he also understands adolescent sex as an alternate world, a woods, an attic. My girlfriend and I would set alarms all senior spring, waking up at four in the morning in her basement or our guestroom, and drive one another home, our fathers both inconveniently early risers. My house is old—it makes noises when you breathe, and so I had to work out a way of climbing the stairs slowly, resting my feet on the outer edge of each step and trusting as much weight as possible to the less creaky railing. I don’t have to sneak out of people’s houses anymore, and I don’t get grounded for staying out late. But fear and magic are partners, and one disappears with the other. I learned this riding the lawnmower, with headphones. 

I haven’t listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea very much since I finished high school. I hear “Holland, 1945” at parties a lot, almost always near the end of the night when everybody is dancing and wasted. Usually I dance along and yell the words, but one time I threaded my way out of the crowd and found my coat, and it wasn’t troubling at all. I had something else to do. What makes you dance is a song’s visceral relevance, and when I hear Neutral Milk Hotel now I almost always think about mowing the lawn. My listening doesn’t free-associate anymore. It has lost its creativity. My listening has lost its creativity. Nostalgia always does this: think of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, angry and boring, drinking his way through “As Time Goes By” over and over. Listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea now feels almost tacky, which is not to say that I don’t do it. Listening to it in Wallingford would be nearly vulgar.

I was at a recent holiday party when I heard that Neutral Milk Hotel’s guitarist, Julian Koster, would be showing up to sing Christmas carols. He walked in wearing a festive sweater––ironically festive?––and sat down near the piano, and then presented us with his saw, which he had named Badger. Using a bow, he played Christmas carols on the saw at an easy tempo. Between songs he would bend Badger towards the audience––his way of “bowing” to our applause. In an incredibly soft, childlike voice, Koster told us that Badger was eight years old, and that, like all saws––and surely we knew this, being educated college students––Badger would stay the same age for his entire life. He also told made-up stories about each of the carols, how they had been smuggled across the borders between European countries, cherished by clockmakers and peasants, and how the songs had eventually made their way into his possession. Right before I left, at the end of Badger’s third song, I thought to myself, “This may be related, in a distant way, to the music you made back in 1998, but it has nothing to do with the music I heard.” I left with two friends, and I walked back to my room through the cold to study. When I hear the album now, and especially when I hear the song that inaugurated my relationship with it, I hear it through the wavy haze that comes off the summer suburban asphalt. I see myself drenched in mid-Atlantic light. And I wake up from the adolescent fever dream––if only halfway––and I listen to something else.