Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #2: Fall Out Boy

SNITCHES & TALKERS GET STITCHES & WALKERS
(a preamble.)

I made a mistake when I began this column last week with Panic! at the Disco. You see, I was thinking about all of this in the wrong way. I thought the right way to introduce people to this idea was to admit embarrassment and move past it, as a mood-setter of sorts. Unfortunately, as the response to that post proved, it looks like I’m going to be doing that exact same thing every week for the foreseeable future. Let’s assume beforehand that every band we talk about here is embarrassing and shameful, because that allows us to avoid the caveats and just plow into an intellectually honest engagement with the music. With that in mind… Fall Out Boy.

Fall Out Boy is probably the band that I should have started with, because arguably the entire scene that this column will ostensibly be discussing revolves around them, whether that be through tour cycles, Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen, or just plain following in their footsteps in every possible regard. To tell you the truth though, a critical analysis of this band just results in an abject fucking mess. The story of Fall Out Boy and my relationship with them encompasses: the journey of a band going from four dorky Chicago hardcore kids to potentially the most savvy and adventurous pop songwriters of their generation, then breaking up, then getting back together and becoming potentially the worst pop songwriters of their generation; an endless list of business decisions made by Pete Wentz that influenced the landscape of alternative rock for a solid decade-plus; an endless list of personal decisions made by Pete Wentz that make it difficult to reconcile my love of this band with my ethics; and a whole shitload of Gay.

Unlike most of these bands, who I hid for my love for like it was Anne Frank, I was loudly and unapologetically a fan of Fall Out Boy from the get-go, which means I was there for all of it– all the blog posts on FriendsOrEnemies.com, all the arguments about which ex each album was about, and the Summer of Like on Warped Tour ’05. So, fellow Overcast Kids, zip up your Clandestine hoodies and strap in for this one, because it’s gonna be more long-winded than a Fall Out Boy lyric and more confusing than the first time I saw those infamous dick pics on Oh No They Didn’t!.

xSTRAIGHT-EDGE SOFTCOREx
(the music, part one; hardcore is so two years ago.)

If you’re a regular reader of mine, you probably know by now how much I like to harp on the subject of hardcore kids starting pop-punk bands and gaining so much success that everyone forgets about their roots. Luckily, I don’t have to talk about most of that here, since I wrote this handy-dandy No Echo article that should bring you up to speed. With their only real competition being New Found Glory’s connection with Shai Hulud, Fall Out Boy is the one band whose hardcore roots are pretty well-known. My friend and number-one Fall Out Boy stan Kendra, who is otherwise a complete normie, actually knows who fucking Racetraitor is because Andy from Fall Out Boy drums for them.

In case you need a refresher on how the Fall Out Boy members spent the 90s in Chicago, Patrick Stump played drums for grindcore and powerviolence acts like PDI, Patterson, and xgrindingprocessx, Andy Hurley played drums for the ass-beater metalcore bands Racetraitor and killtheslavemaster, and Pete was in a variety of bands as a bassist and/or vocalist, including Birthright, Extinction, and Yellow Road Priest.

By the late 90s, Wentz had ended up as the vocalist for Arma Angelus, with future Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman on bass and later lead guitar, as well as future underground stars like Tim McIlrath (Rise Against), Jay Jancetic (Harms Way), and Daniel Binaei (Racetraitor) making appearances. Arma Angelus also played host to Andy Hurley and Patrick Stump on drums occasionally, and in its final iteration housed Chris Gutierrez on bass– Chris was of course eventually made famous on “Grenade Jumper,” before he and the Fall Out Boys suffered a nasty falling-out.

The thing you need to understand about Fall Out Boy is that they are, first and foremost and in their own words, “hardcore kids who couldn’t quite cut it as hardcore kids.” The influence of bands like Dag Nasty and Gorilla Biscuits permeates throughout their pre-hiatus material, and even by the time of a stadium-pop behemoth like Folie à Deux, they were still throwing in nods to their roots (check the screams on that record’s phenomenal closer, “West Coast Smoker”).

Fall Out Boy’s earliest material, however, is a mixed bag. They weren’t quite yet sure how to go about incorporating their more overt hardcore influences or their more ambitious pop influences, so they leaned full-force into the pop-punk and emo elements of their sound, resulting in songs that are less than the sum of their parts.

Their first release, a split with fellow hardcore-kids-turned-pop-punkers Project Rocket, was given an infectious energy courtesy of drumming (and decidedly less-energetic production work) from Jared Logan of Midwest melodic metalcore legends 7 Angels 7 Plagues. Unfortunately, the other performances are sloppy as hell (the guitar at the beginning of “Moving Pictures” straight up sounds like an outtake or scratch track), and this iteration of the band had an extra guy, TJ Kanusch, on rhythm guitar, leaving Patrick Stump to occupy the space of frontman, a role he’s never been comfortable with.

Their next effort, Evening Out with Your Girlfriend, didn’t fare much better, despite the addition of Mike Pareskuwicz (ex-Subsist– good luck finding material from that band) as drummer. Patrick hadn’t yet refined his vocal style, and wasn’t putting much effort into the lyrics (as made obvious by the horrific one-two punch of “I served out my detention/and in the end I got an honorable mention” and “I can be your John Cusack” in opener “Honorable Mention”). Meanwhile, the performances still lacked both nuance and confidence, potentially because no one was particularly enthused about playing music that sounded like a watered-down, keyboard-less version of the Get Up Kids’ early work.

There are some people out there who, to this day, claim that the Project Rocket split and Evening Out are their favorite Fall Out Boy records. I would hate to imply that those people are lying about their musical tastes in order to sound cool, so I’ll just straight-up say that they are lying about their musical tastes in order to sound cool.

So here’s where shit starts to get a bit sketchy: the band boots Mike and TJ, moves Patrick to rhythm guitar and has him take vocal lessons, and introduces their secret weapon, Andy Hurley, on drums. Meanwhile, they also leave Uprising (the label started by Sean Muttaqi of Vegan Reich) for Fueled By Ramen.

The band scraps almost everything from their prior records (except for a reworked version of an especially weak old track, “Calm Before the Storm”– more on that later) and begins to write new material with Hurley that’s sonically transcendent in comparison to their old shit. They proceed to record the ensuing record, Take This To Your Grave, in nine days, subsisting entirely on cheap sandwiches provided by their label and sleeping on their friends’ floors. Their initial goal is to create an album that stands on par with Saves the Day’s legendary Through Being Cool. The result is a record that is an objective pop-punk masterpiece, for reasons that are three-fold.

Firstly, the performances are just better, tighter, somehow both bigger and more subtle. The band seems to finally click with each other and understand how to rip through songs together.

Secondly, it’s around this time that I think Fall Out Boy made a conscious decision to include more hardcore influence in their music, or at least that’s the only way I can explain the caffeinated boost in speed and weight to their sound (aside from Hurley just being a superior drummer). Compare the best track from Evening Out, “Short, Fast, and Loud,” with Grave‘s opening track, “Tell That Mick He Just Made My List of Things to Do Today,” and it’ll be obvious what I mean. If you don’t think that’s fair, compare the two different versions of “Calm Before the Storm.” The Grave version is just better, due to both intangible improvements in the band’s performance and the addition of an absolutely sick hardcore bridge, courtesy of Wentz. “Grand Theft Autumn” coasts on its Earth Crisis-gone-top 40 chug, and “Saturday,” “The Pros and Cons of Breathing,” and “The Patron Saint of Liars and Fakes” all benefit from the contrast between Stump’s saccharine vocal hooks and Wentz’s filthy hardcore vocals, while “Reinventing the Wheel to Run Myself Over” is the Lifetime song that never was. No wonder they started to call themselves “straight-edge softcore.”

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, are the lyrics. While Wentz hadn’t completely taken over the lyrics yet, he ran all of Stump’s through his inimitably cynical filter, and the result is a set of lyrics rife with black comedy (the Chris Conley-influenced chorus of “Tell That Mick”) and turns of phrase that are equal parts clever and insufferable (“My pen is the barrel of the gun/remind me which side you should be on” from “Breathing”). Other songs, like “Homesick at Space Camp” and “Sending Postcards from A Plane Crash (Wish You Were Here),” are elevated from their status as traditional pop-punk filler tracks by their particularly incendiary lyrics. Of particular note here is all the ways that Pete’s witticisms are tied into pop culture references– the title of “Tell That Mick” is a quote from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, for example. I’ve always loved that detail of Fall Out Boy, the way that all the in-jokes and references end up helping to paint the picture of the emotion in the music rather than just serving as a way for the band to point out how hip it is.

Grave also began the band’s trend of including their peers in scene-stealing cameos– Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Pierre provides the lyrical assault during the bridge of “Chicago Is So Two Years Ago,” while Knockout’s Jeff Warren plaintively extends an olive branch during his appearance on “Grenade Jumper.” Fall Out Boy would take this habit to borderline-incestuous lengths on their later records, but here it’s not just tasteful but legitimately exciting to hear these guest appearances, like you’re part of a special club that no one else knows about. That feeling is only enhanced when you see old videos like this where Fall Out Boy is playing at a fucking stacked hardcore fest, confronting the audience with beautiful vocal hooks and Pete’s even more beautiful visage.

Take This To Your Grave isn’t top-to-bottom perfect– the inclusion of obnoxiously obvious radio bid “Dead On Arrival” in the track two slot damn near threatens to ruin the momentum of the whole record– but it’s as close as Fall Out Boy would get at this point in their career, and it’s a stratospheric leap forward from where they were at.

Okay, so remember how I said they signed to Fueled By Ramen for Take This To Your Grave? That wasn’t entirely true. You can find more details here if you’re interested, but the short of it is that Fall Out Boy were actually already signed to major label Island Records by the time of Grave. However, in an attempt to build cred and hype, they released Grave on Fueled By Ramen (which, by then, Island had a controlling interest in) and toured relentlessly on the smaller club and Warped Tour-type circuits. As we know now, that shit paid off in spades. 

They released one more record on Fueled By Ramen, the all-acoustic EP My Heart Will Always Be the B-Side to My Tongue (aside from the irritatingly precious title, it’s also a clear attempt to emulate Saves the Day’s acoustic EP). I’ve always wondered why they didn’t include their popular Christmas song, “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out,” on this release— it’s acoustic, was written and recorded at around the same time, and at least as good if not better than the other acoustic original included here, “It’s Not A Side Effect of the Cocaine, I’m Thinking It’s Love.” The EP is rounded out by a rendition of “Grand Theft Autumn,” early versions of “Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner” and “My Heart Is the Worst Kind of Weapon,” and a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Cute, but mostly inessential.

By early 2005, it was clear that the band had enough to upstream to a major label, and the stage was set for From Under the Cork Tree.

I know that in the eyes of DIY purists, all that would be enough to condemn Fall Out Boy for eternity, but fuck it, From Under the Cork Tree is a goddamn masterpiece. In fact, I’ll say it: in 2005, this was the farthest anyone could push the genre of “emo pop” without becoming something else entirely. It’s a pitch-perfect fusion of hardcore dynamics and energy, the sweetest and most addictive of pop melodies, and acrid, extremely literate lyricism.

There are a few things that make From Under the Cork Tree a distinct entity from Take This To Your Grave. The first is the songwriting itself; while the base was the same– chiming guitar melodies laid atop chugging rhythms, songs with the energy of restless leg syndrome– they tightened up the screws and made the hooks more bombastic and ineffable. There’s also a willingness to play with the form, from the ballad-like “I’ve Got A Dark Alley and a Bad Idea That Says You Should You Shut Your Mouth (Summer Song)” to the literal waltz that informs “Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying (Do Your Part to Save the Scene and Stop Going to Shows).” The hardcore influences are back in full force, too, as Pete provides memorable vocal performances in several spots on the album, most notably the bridge of “Get Busy Living” and the Chad-Gilbert-assisted tag-team breakdown in “I Slept with Someone In Fall Out Boy and All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me,” a song that’s somehow both one of their best originals and an over-the-top Taking Back Sunday parody.

The heavier elements of the album work because they’re juxtaposed with the strongest set of pop songs that the band had written to date. “Of All the Gin Joints In All the World” begins with an infectious “Oh, oh, oh” refrain and only gets poppier from there, while others here flex the band’s newfound talent at dynamics– “Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner”‘s destructive bridge, the loud-quiet punchiness of “Sophomore Slump Or Comeback of the Year?”, the brawny Green Day-on-PCP anthem “7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen)”, the way that “Champagne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends” goes from minor-key menace to beautiful triumph, and the absolutely gorgeous, octave chord-drenched climax to closer “XO” all deserve to stand with the band’s finest musical moments. And of course, the record has three of Fall Out Boy’s most timeless singles: the four-on-the-floor rave-up “Dance, Dance,” the instant pop classic “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More Touch Me,” and that most unlikely of radio hits, “Sugar, We’re Going Down”– a song that balances an ungodly heavy hardcore chug with Patrick’s candy-coated vocal hooks, some shockingly “twinkly emo” guitar work, and a frankly stunning set of mordantly funny and caustically biting lyrics.

Patrick’s vocals are instrumental to making these songs work. He’d had standout moments of excellence before (the falsetto at the end of “Saturday,” for example) but by From Under the Cork Tree, he’d started to develop into the full-ranged white boy soul that the band would forever build its songwriting around. He can hit the highs, he can hit the lows, and his emotional control is unparalleled. Check the way that he volleys from the reserved first verse to the unrestrained lashing out of the bridge in “Dance, Dance,” or the slow build to explosion throughout “Summer Song.” I also had to have it pointed out to me that it’s Patrick who duets with Pete during the bridge of “Get Busy Living”— it’s really neat to hear him try out screaming for himself. Patrick’s delivery is everything– he manages to be knowing of the lyrics’ wry jokiness while taking them seriously enough to sing them with 100% commitment, and his inherent likability softens the blow of some of Pete’s more trenchant and acerbic lyrical indictments (of both others and himself, it’s worth noting).

The fact that Pete took over the lyrics entirely is perhaps the element that most shapes From Under the Cork Tree. Patrick has stated before that his goal became to create great vocal melodies while changing Pete’s lyrics as little as possible, and that comes through in the positively over-stuffed lyrical acrobatics of… well pretty much every song on the record. Pete also completely subsumed Patrick as the frontman; due to his offstage antics and business endeavors, it was hard not to view Fall Out Boy as The Pete Wentz Show, despite Patrick’s voice, Joe’s guitar ingenuity (the jangly, Johnny Marr-cribbing fills in “Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner” is a master class in how to rip on guitar without a solo), and Andy’s absolutely heroic efforts on the drums (this record is literally nothing without the atmosphere and energy that Andy expertly provides, track by track) all being vastly more essential to the band’s sound than Pete’s competent but uncharacteristically reserved bass work.

Ultimately, though, almost 15 years on from the record’s release, the thing that we’re left with is the songs. And what a wonderful set of songs it is. Opener “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued” (original name: “My Name Is David Ruffin and These Are the Temptations”) switches from meaty gang vocals to a suicide joke (“the ribbon on my wrist says ‘do not open before Christmas'”) on a dime, accompanied by the introduction of one of Cork Tree‘s biggest lyrical themes, Fall Out Boy’s anxieties about even the possibility of fame. It’s hard to get much more insecure than making the main hook in the first chorus of your major label debut “We’re only liars, but we’re the best/We’re only good for the latest trend.” This theme pervades every aspect of the record and at least five of the songs are about this and this alone: “Summer Song” is about comparing oneself’s success to everyone else’s; “Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year?” is about living up to the public perception of being “therapists pumping through your speakers” and worrying about being found out as inauthentic liars; “Champagne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends” (an oblique Tom Waits reference) is an ahead-of-its-time condemnation of parasocial relationships (“We’re friends just because we move units”); and “Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying” (a Shawshank Redemption quote) is… well, I’ll just put the poignant passage here and let you unpack it for yourself.

This has been said so many times that I’m not sure if it matters
But it must be said again that all us boys are just screaming
Into microphones for attention
Because we’re just so bored
We never knew that you would pick it apart, oh
I’m falling apart to songs about hips and hearts

Pete Wentz’s fundamental lyrical conceit, self-awareness twisted inwards until it becomes painful self-consciousness, has matured into an overwhelming leitmotif. Even songs unrelated to the record’s running theme of the band grappling with its own success find ways to squeak references to it in– the otherwise straightforward break-up song “I Slept with Someone In Fall Out Boy” has its title and the sardonic line “I’m the first kid to write of hearts, lies, and friends” acting as a postmodern puncturing of the mystique inherent to major-label artists, and “7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen),” a song ostensibly about Pete’s suicide attempt, gains greater resonance after you learn that part of his motivation was the pressure to create a hit record.

It’s also worth giving a listen to the bonus tracks for the album included on the Black Clouds & Underdogs deluxe edition, which includes three of the band’s most hardcore-influenced songs as a sort of farewell to their days of underground stardom. The breakneck “Snitches & Talkers Get Stitches & Walkers” and the High Fidelity-referencing “The Music Or the Misery?” (which contains probably my favorite Wentz-ism: “I got your love letters, corrected the grammar, and sent them back”) stand with the best songs they’ve ever written, and it’s definitely worth giving a listen to the full-band rendition of “My Heart Is the Worst Kind of Weapon,” previously an acoustic track on My Heart Will Always Be the B-Side to My Tongue. The subdued, dissonant way the song originally trailed off is transformed into the most monstrous breakdown the members had ever constructed, either in Fall Out Boy or any of their various hardcore outfits. There’s also a few dance remixes included, a neat foreshadowing of the way the band would play with electronic influences on their later work.

There are some more thorny themes to explore in the lyrics here (“Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner” becomes almost irredeemably icky once you know the backstory) but I’ll postpone discussion of those until later. For now, all you need is that this record catapulted Fall Out Boy to the type of TRL and Billboard infamy that would inform the rest of their output from here to eternity. This record’s requisite cameos are also representative of the band’s eye-on-the-prize ethos; aside from New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert providing a moment of screamy hardcore heft, the band finds time to allow two of Pete’s most recent signings to Fueled By Ramen/Decaydence to show off, with William Beckett of The Academy Is… popping up on “Sophomore Slump” and Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie lending his voice to “7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen)” a full six months before his band’s studio debut. The message was clear: we’re going to rule the world, and we’re bringing our posse with us.

DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I THINK I AM?
(the music, part two; when pop culture references become solipsism.)

Between From Under the Cork Tree and Infinity On High, Fall Out Boy had obviously become superstars. Some would argue that this was based on the strength of the songs, while others maintain that it was a result of Wentz’s tomfoolery in the public sphere; from his business acumen in starting the Clandestine clothing line and running the Decaydence label imprint (displaying an almost uncanny eye for young talent) to having his dick pics leaked onto LiveJournal, starting the band member-focused MySpace competitor FriendsOrEnemies, and becoming romantically involved with Ashlee Simpson (after an extremely messy and public breakup with his longtime muse Jeanae White– I promise all of this teasing will pay off), Pete Wentz was the type of person who seemed ready to get into A-list celebrity scandals before anyone even knew his name.

Of course, the answer is that it was a result of both. As much as it seemed like Wentz was a fame-whore who swallowed any attention thrown his way and took the focus away from his arguably-more-musically-capable bandmates, he was a natural born talent at self-promotion and a charismatic gadfly, fully deserving of being the spokesperson the nascent scene at the time deserved. His position as a flashpoint did indeed introduce more people to the band’s (extremely good) music, his internet addiction did foster the type of connection with and devotion from fans that any band would fucking kill for, and interviews would inevitably turn to topics the rest of the band was passionate about, like Andy Hurley’s commitment to vegan straight-edge ethics and Patrick Stump’s aspirations to become a producer par excellence (which he achieved).

Still, like with every Fall Out Boy album, the band recorded Infinity On High with something to prove. And while musically it’s probably the band’s messiest, least focused, and least confident album, the opener “Thriller” does a pretty good job of reconciling the band’s past, present, and future: Over a gorgeous, arpeggiated guitar melody, Jay-Z, Hov himself, introduces the album by giving a middle finger to the haters, symbolically announcing Fall Out Boy’s arrival to the top-tier of celebrity. The band then launches into a major-key mosh riff so heavy that the members of Four Year Strong and A Day to Remember were surely seething with envy. As a side note, pay close attention to Andy Hurley’s double-bass work here– that man is a god.

“Thriller” is a microcosm of the album as a whole. Infinity On High is a lot to unpack, rife with self-contradictions, steps forwards and backwards, and yet a new evolution in the band’s playbook: plagiarism. Wesley Eisold, the poetic troubador who put a raw, seething voice to a different kind of teen angst in the seminal hardcore band American Nightmare, was credited as “Inspirador” on From Under the Cork Tree, a nod to both the band’s roots as well as tracing a direct line between Wentz’s affectations and the ground broken by Eisold. By the time of Infinity On High, he was suing Fall Out Boy in court and getting songwriting credit for lines Pete cribbed from him. It’s hard to imagine what it feels like for either a world-famous band to steal lyrics you wrote as a teenager in a hardcore band or for one of your musical idols and major inspirations to sue you, but it’s probably complex as fuck.

Still, when Infinity On High shines, it does so brightly, especially in the back half of the album. “Carpal Tunnel of Love” is a suitably catchy pop-punk banger suffused with the now-predictable tinge of hardcore growls, “Fame < Infamy” is a punchyhefty number that features the funniest one-liner in the band’s repertoire (“I’m alright in bed, but I’m better with a pen”), and closer “I’ve Got All This Ringing In My Ears But None On My Fingers” is a fantastic, lushly produced R&B track masquerading as a pop-punk track. My personal favorite song on the album is penultimate track “You’re Crashing, But You’re No Wave,” which tells the tragic story of black activist Fred Hampton, Jr.’s arson trial with poignance and righteous fury. I never thought Fall Out Boy could write a political track with the grace and passion of Sarah Kirsch’s most incendiary material (that track is about Fred Hampton, Sr., by the way), but it turns out that color looks quite good on them.

The singles on Infinity are also mostly pretty good; “Thnks fr th Mmrs” fuses strings and high-octane pop-punk to strong effect, while “The Take Over, the Break’s Over” melds an extremely funky verse section with Patrick’s powerful vocals and a layered guitar solo courtesy of Ryan Ross and Chad Gilbert. “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race” just might be the most exciting of Fall Out Boy’s singles, a drum-sample-heavy dance verse leading into a sugary popcore chorus with some of the most incisive lyrics Wentz ever wrote.

But man, when the record slacks, it slacks hard, mostly due to the band’s awkward inability to properly sequence the record. Why follow the bright, effervescent “Arms Race” with the ugly, Maroon 5-aping “I’m Like A Lawyer with All the Ways I’m Trying to Get You Off (Me & You)”? The most poignant of Wentz’s attempts to articulate his brush with suicide, “Hum Hallelujah,” successfully marries a gospel choir rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with thick and chunky pummeling, but it’s followed by the overbearing and mawkish piano ballad “Golden.” “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?” holds down the sagging middle section of the record well enough with its adherence to tried-and-true formula, but “The (After) Life of the Party” wastes a stunningly committed vocal performance from Patrick and remarkably understated and pretty guitar work from Joe in favor of a go-nowhere song structure and sacrifices Andy’s endlessly inventive and tasteful drumming for pretty disappointing drum loop. “Bang the Doldrums” buries a solid Pete growl and an enjoyably off-kilter, claustrophobic verse and pre-chorus under a decidedly non-endearing pirate-shanty hook, coming off weak and rote in the process.

Ultimately, Infinity On High is just confused, despite its many obvious strengths and Fall Out Boy’s new enthusiasm for breaking the bounds of their genre. Guest producers abound (superstar producers Babyface and Butch Walker only serve to muck up the mix with syrupy tackiness) and Wentz’s lyrics have begun to take on a stream-of-consciousness quality that sacrifices his heart-on-sleeve theatrics for an insular solipsism. He’s said that he took lyrical influence from Lil Wayne for this record, but Lil Wayne’s lyrics during this era only pretended to be inscrutable underneath his drawl– Wentz’s at times are an inchoate mess of impressionism and esotericism. Wentz here is in love with his image as the hoodie-wearing, broken-hearted spokesman for the emo masses. Downright evocative turns of phrase like “They say the mind is a prison/and these are just conjugal visits” or the therapy reference “Fix me in forty-five” end up subsumed by the self-important self-pity of lines like “I saw God cry in the reflection of my enemies.”

The bonus tracks for Infinity On High, “G.I.N.A.S.F.S. (Gay Is Not A Synonym for Shitty)” and “It’s Hard to Say ‘I Do,’ When I Don’t”, are suitably crunchy throwbacks to the style of From Under the Cork Tree, left off for the purpose of preserving the cohesiveness of an ultimately non-cohesive record.

If all of these elements failed to come together on Infinity On High, they do come together to both breathtaking and frustrating effect on the band’s pre-hiatus swan song, Folie à Deux. An album of both unbearable excess and unbridled creativity, Folie represents the height of the band’s obsession with itself. There’s the cribbing back in full-effect (the piano strikes during the intro of opener “Disloyal Order of Water Buffalo” nakedly copy the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” while “I Don’t Care” swipes its “I don’t care what you think as long as it’s about me” refrain from Nirvana’s “Drain You”) and the guitar sound is borderline hair metal in its glammy stickiness.

Still, as always, the exhilarating moments make all the bullshit worth it, and shockingly enough the cameos actually elevate the songs rather than distracting from their worth. “Tiffany Blews” somehow manages to make a collaboration between Lil Wayne and the Cab’s Alexander DeLeon make sense, the jaunty and endlessly fun “20 Dollar Nosebleed” utilizes Brendon Urie as much as he is needed and no more, and the phenomenal closer, “West Coast Smoker,” enhances it’s dark melodies with, ambitiously, both a guest appearance from Debbie Goddamn Harry and the last appearance of Pete’s growls.

Sure, there’s a very weird hit-miss ratio. The hits include anthemic opener “Water Buffalo” and the pop-punk throwbacks “The (Shipped) Gold Standard” and “(Coffee’s for Closers),” as well as the rock star early-death ode “27” and the thrillingly experimental “w.a.m.s.” The misses include the muddled “Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown On A Bad Bet,” the forgettable “She’s My Winona,” and the downright gross, almost Lenny Kravitz-esque singles “I Don’t Care” and “America’s Suitehearts.”

And of course there’s the symbolic cap to this era of Fall Out Boy’s career, the absolutely beautiful album centerpiece, “What A Catch, Donnie.” An Elton-John-esque piano rock ballad, the song manages to overcome the confusion of its central conceit (a metaphor for the band’s inner tensions that references Roberta Flack, kind of?) with several incredible vocal performances, anchored by Patrick Stump’s most impressive singing yet and bolstered by a guest spot from Elvis fucking Costello (reprising the chorus of the substantially weaker “Headfirst Slide”), as well as an outro where seemingly all of the band’s proteges (including Urie and DeLeon as well as William Beckett, Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy, and Midtown/Cobra Starship’s Gabe Saporta) join in a celebration of all of the band’s past hits, even throwing a short nod to one of their disowned earlier songs, “Growing Up.” Self-aggrandizing and overly indulgent? Yes. A thrilling payoff for seven years of loyalty to the band, and a surprisingly loving send-off to their first and best era? Also yes.

If it seems like I’m giving short shrift to Fall Out Boy’s post-From Under the Cork Tree material, I definitely am. While there’s certainly some excellent moments, both records lack the consistency of Grave and Cork Tree, and as I’ve already said, Pete’s lyrics became an intricate web of word salad that was nowhere near as fun to parse as his more bitter and personal material on the earlier records. They had to know this– while Infinity and Folie by no means were financial failures, and the band had relocated to much ritzier homes in LA after years of living with their parents, they decided to go on hiatus in 2009 in order to get their heads together.

Before they went, they released the greatest hits collection, Believers Never Die. It’s a solid enough collection of their hits, notable for the inclusion of their last two pre-hiatus originals. The first, “Alpha Dog,” is a wretched and disgusting song that sounds like a somehow worse version of “Headfirst Slide.” The second, however, is “From Now On We Are Enemies.” I’m not sure exactly when this one was written or recorded, because it’s a pretty interesting mash-up of ideas they’d explored on all of their major label albums— it’s got the heaviness of Cork Tree, the speedy harmonies of Infinity, and the playful song structure and pop experimentalism of Folie. It’s definitely worth a listen, especially for the shockingly gorgeous bridge.

But the story of early Fall Out Boy definitely doesn’t end here, so let’s dissect some of the messes they made along the way to their success.

FAME < INFAMY
(an exhaustive list of everyone who needs to get a clue.)

Musically, Fall Out Boy’s influence is fairly obvious– many bands that took their cues from them ended up on Pete’s Decaydence roster, after all. But their non-musical influence on the scene is practically incalculable, and is certainly the reason for the scorn heaped upon the band, much more than their music.

First, the fashion. If we’re being honest, the whole “girl jeans/architecturally impressive hair/studded belts buckled on the side” look was codified by bands like Atreyu and Eighteen Visions before Fall Out Boy had even formed, and even they were just doing a more well-groomed version of the whole Justin Pearson/Spock Rock scene that was happening in San Diego circa 1997 (see this post for more details). However, it’s impossible to deny that Fall Out Boy were the band that really codified and popularized the look. Even before Clandestine brought hoodies and tight jeans to malls all across America, the band’s brand of raccoon-eyes eyeliner and swoopy, dyed hair proved an extremely hot commodity. Along with help from AFI’s Davey Havok and, to a lesser extent, Eighteen Visions’ James Hart, somehow emo went from its original “handsome Midwest boys in sweaters singing emotive punk songs about girls” meaning to a mess of self-harm and fashion accoutrements that were fueled by androgyny. Fall Out Boy’s acute skill at propagating this look should came as no surprise. After all, they always told us they had such good fashion sense.

Frustrating as this shift may be to some purists, this was undeniably a moment in American culture, one that laid the groundwork for millions of kids to discover these newer, more polished bands and delve backwards into their more obscure influences. Fall Out Boy covering “Start Today” on Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland was just the tip of the iceberg in a world that would soon see kids who got into emo through Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance eventually forming the basis of an entirely new DIY movement defined by previously-unthinkable twists on pop-punk formulas and unbearably precocious lyrics, one that many of us now call home. The late-2000s pop-punk movement that saw bands like Title Fight, the Wonder Years, and the Story So Far taking more overt influences from the world of underground hardcore can also be traced back to bands like Fall Out Boy shining a light on those connections, too.

The tactic that Fall Out Boy pioneered with Take This To Your Grave, cynically using major label money to make an indie record become larger-than-life, was one that was copied by bands for the rest of eternity, from Paramore to Fredo Disco, and it’s probably Fueled By Ramen’s most tried-and-true method for breaking bands. Call it gross if you want, but I doubt it would have been financially viable were it not for Fall Out Boy taking that step.

And then, there’s the fans. A horde of children fueled by both Wentz’s looks and lyrical prowess, I’d argue that one of the biggest reasons Fall Out Boy was (and sometimes still is) condemned by the world of “real rockers” (yuck) is because they primarily appealed to young kids, and especially young girls. If you want to see misogyny in action, look no further than bands that teenage girls are in love with. The hatred heaped upon them is pure projection, a desperate attempt to defend masculinity against the encroachment of resolutely un-macho expressions of pure vulnerability and the embrace of that old vanguard of “rock is dead” scapegoats– young women.

THE MUSIC OR THE MISERY?
(teenage sexuality and you: a play in two livejournal accounts.)

CW: Some pretty frank discussion of self-harm, underage sexuality, and other uncomfortable shit herein. You’ve been warned.

Let’s talk about LiveJournal. If you’re either young or unfamiliar, think of LiveJournal as a primordial version of Tumblr– a platform on the internet that catered to the artsy, emotional, and feminine more than other, more male-dominated spaces. In theory, I’m all for it, but much like Tumblr, LiveJournal also attracted a set of people who used the inherent inclusiveness of the community to create a hub of truly toxic elements. LiveJournal users didn’t just refuse to deal with their mental health problems, they glorified and encouraged things like self-harm and eating disorders to an audience of young kids who were just looking for a place where they didn’t feel alone. If you’re familiar with the mess of horror that became the Final Fantasy House, it should come as no surprise that those people met on LiveJournal, and LJ was also the place where I first became aware of that most disturbing of internet phenomena, otherkin, in the form that it’s recognized in now (for the uninitiated).

It might seem like small potatoes in comparison to the things I just mentioned, but in many ways, the fanfiction community that sprung up on LiveJournal and mainly focused on writing stories about real people in bands like Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco having sex with each other (and thinly-veiled stand-ins for the authors) was ground zero for all of these problems– stemming from a rigid refusal to actually engage with the underlying issues and instead make them points for communities to rally around– and, unfortunately, was pretty fucking damaging to a lot of people’s perception of their own sexuality, myself included.

LiveJournal intersected with the proto-MySpace, emo-dominated social media platform MakeOutClub in a lot of interesting ways, the most dominant of which is that they were both hotbeds of confused teenage sexuality and served as ways that kids with lip piercings and a love for bands as disparate as Glassjaw, the Juliana Theory, and the Hope Conspiracy could meet up and act that confused teenage sexuality out.

See, Fall Out Boy was the center of this universe, at least in my experience. My AIM away message was usually a Fall Out Boy quote. As a kid who didn’t know whether I was a boy or a girl, gay or straight, whatever, the first time I saw Pete Wentz’s dick pics, it triggered something within me that took me over a decade to come to terms with, despite Pete being so open about being “gay above the waist” and consistently refusing to quell rumors of a relationship with My Chem bassist Mikey Way (the aforementioned Summer of Like on Warped Tour ’05). There was an intertwining of Pete’s very real sexuality with the fetishization of that sexuality within the fanfic world, and with the incorporation of some pretty disgusting elements within those stories (the amount of times I ended up reading a story where a Fall Out Boy member kissed the still-bleeding self-harm wounds of either another Fall Out Boy member or a member of a related band would make your fucking head spin).

I’m not necessarily faulting the kids writing these stories, at least not entirely; when you’re coping with the discovery of your sexuality and the onset of some pretty serious mental health issues, with no one to talk to and no real understanding of a healthy way to express these things, it’s pretty easy to fall into outlets for those feelings that only end up reinforcing them. The self-flagellating lyrics of Fall Out Boy (and of course many others) just played into it, kids lashing outwards and inwards and seeking refuge in the emotional honesty and openness of their favorite band.

The band was in no way responsible for this binge-purge cycle of physical and emotional self-abuse– for as much as Pete interacted with the fanbase through the band’s message boards, he wasn’t exactly encouraging of “slashfic” and, in all honesty, did his best to demystify and destigmatize conversations about mental health and sexuality in interviews, often openly talking about his struggles with bipolar disorder, his suicide attempt, and his bisexuality. If it weren’t for the fanbase poisoning the well, I probably would have gotten a lot of validation and affirmation from Fall Out Boy. But of course, we can’t have nice things, and the band’s intentions were quickly and violently tossed aside in a Death of the Author moment that never subsided, and was only magnified in later years by increasingly predatory “hopecore” bands like Memphis May Fire or whoever blatantly exploiting their fans’ insecurity and using their positions as figures of comfort to get money and, in several cases, emotional labor and sex from those fans.

Plus, on both the LiveJournal and MakeOutClub communities, there was the ever-present “fully grown adult in arrested development who should know better” element. These were the people who didn’t say anything to help the kids dealing with this shit, who at best allowed the kids to stew in their issues and at worst used those issues to position themselves as “older, wiser” guides to the world and groom the kids for their own needs. I was lucky enough to not have too many experiences with these types, but I had too many internet friends to count who fell victim to these motherfuckers who infiltrated communities, ones based on a youthful enthusiasm for alternative music, and took advantage of the openings in our self-esteem to squeeze themselves in and take what they wanted, whether that be emotional or physical or both.

Sorry to get this intensely personal, but talking and thinking about Fall Out Boy and this moment of my life is inextricable from these more disturbing and dark elements. For as much as Fall Out Boy and their peers helped me and others find ourselves, they inadvertently fostered a world of hurt for us, too.

I SLEPT WITH SOMEONE IN FALL OUT BOY AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS STUPID SONG WRITTEN ABOUT ME
(the pete wentz problem, or how we all learned to internalize misogyny and weaponize it on the internet.)

If you’re thinking that perhaps I went too easy on Pete Wentz in that previous section, rest assured that I’m about to rip that man to pieces. An earlier draft of this essay had this section subtitled as “the Jeanae White problem,” which is both harmful and inaccurate. To insinuate that the problem lies with the teenager who was in a relationship with a mid-twenties person in a popular band is deflection at best, victim-blaming at worst.

The urban legend telling of this part of the Fall Out Boy story has Jeanae White and Pete Wentz starting to date before Take This To Your Grave‘s release in 2003, when she was 15 and Pete was 23; the last time I brought this up on Reddit, a wild Pete Wentz stan appeared and linked these exhaustively-researched Tumblr posts that assert 1. Jeanae White was in fact, of legal age when she and Pete started dating (though, admittedly, still in high school) and 2. Take This To Your Grave was not written about Jeanae but is instead a mish-mash of one of Patrick’s ex-girlfriends and an older flame of Pete’s, someone named Morgan.

These two posts alleviate two of the main concerns about Jeanae and Pete’s relationship. First of all, it means that Pete didn’t commit statutory rape (although the power imbalance was definitely still there and should probably make any rational, empathetic person uncomfortable). Second of all, although some of the lyrics on Grave are still pretty unnerving (see “Tell That Mick”‘s simultaneously clever and stomach-churning lines “Let’s play this game called ‘when you catch fire’/’I wouldn’t piss to put you out’/stop burning bridges, and drive off of them”) they weren’t actually violent rhetoric aimed at a sixteen-year-old.

Still, that leaves us with a wealth of uncomfortable facts, so here’s a few. Pete Wentz has bipolar disorder (“I fully admit that I have a manic personality. I’m either on or I’m off… I have the ability to make a room go cold”). Pete Wentz is prone to impulsive and dangerous behavior (his suicide attempt, as documented in “7 Minutes In Heaven” and “Hum Hallelujah”; the Rolling Stone article previously linked details how Pete has a habit of punching through windows during fights with Jeanae). Pete Wentz can be extremely manipulative (from “Sugar We’re Going Down”: “I’m dying to tell you anything you want to hear/because that’s just who I am this week”). I’d also like to mention “Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner”– that “I’ll be your best-kept secret and your biggest mistake” line in the chorus, in conjunction with the “So wear me like a locket around your throat/I’ll weigh you down and watch you choke” line in the bridge, is unsettling no matter how old the subject is, but especially so when they haven’t even hit 20 yet.

Pete’s been in a shitload of therapy, and he and Jeanae are now on as good and healthy of terms as any couple with that public of an ugly breakup could be. These are possible reasons we haven’t seen as much of an explicit call for accountability as other frontmen in the same scene who have demonstrated similar behavior (Jesse Lacey of Brand New and Cam Boucher of Sorority Noise, for example). Despite my discomfort with the things I have laid out, I acknowledge that Pete doesn’t have any record of similar behavior and it’s more than likely he’s done the work to better himself, as well as that Jeanae has never accused him of abuse. This doesn’t quite cross my personal line.

But– and this is a huge but– let’s go back to those LiveJournal fanfic people real quick. You know who took the breakup between Jeanae and Pete personally? Those fans. You know who took Pete’s angry, extremely visceral lyrics to heart? Those fans. I’m not necessarily saying that Pete or any of the other Fall Out Boy members are misogynists, but they did say misogynist things and a generation of teenagers, especially teenage girls, internalized that negative energy and thought it was acceptable to direct that energy towards another young woman. The bile spewed at Jeanae over the years (one memorable comment accused her of shitting on William Beckett’s dick while they were having anal sex) is probably the worst taste left in my mouth when reckoning with the history of Fall Out Boy and my personal attachment to the band. Can I reconcile this with myself, personally? Yes. I’ve outlined a pretty fair rationale, one that neither makes excuses for Pete nor demonizes Jeanae.

But I can’t abide the wave of internet hate that was directed at Jeanae, and I can’t let it continue to not get talked about when we’re still unlearning this shit years later. Damaged men shouldn’t get to put all their shit on teenage girls, and although Fall Out Boy weren’t necessarily the ones mobilizing the internet hate machine in Jeanae’s direction, it’s pretty indicative of a deeply-rooted cultural hatred of women when the impulse of every one of their fans is to protect the man in the situation at all costs. We’re only a little over a decade past this situation, and we can still see this pattern of “thorny situation between man and woman=woman getting punished for existing on the internet,” and it unnerves me that these situations align in such a close parallel. At the end of the day, it comes down to parasocial relationships borne out of emotional connection to art. I don’t really have any answers, but I like to think we’re slowly getting better.

THE PHOENIX
(the music, part three; anyone born after 1996 should be shot in the face.)

This article is a novel already, so I won’t mince words: Fall Out Boy’s comeback is horrible, musically. Collectively, on the three albums they’ve released since reuniting, they have failed to write even one song that doesn’t make me want to gouge my fucking eyes out. Fall Out Boy’s reunion is notable for two reasons only: it’s insane that they are somehow more popular than ever (probably due to an insanely good ear for musical trends and a willingness to adapt themselves as such), and it’s insane that they are now part of a new musical wave that they themselves played a huge part in inspiring, much in the same way that Panic! at the Disco’s early work paved the way for nü-pop outfits like Billie Eilish and Twenty One Pilots to explore darker topics within their work and adopt a superficially alternative aesthetic to give their particularly over-produced brand of pop some sort of identity.

Note: I’m not necessarily saying that Eilish or Pilots are bad artists, per se, but I am saying the trick they’re pulling is easy to identify. I actually really enjoy a lot of this current wave of pop/trap music that aesthetically pulls from mall-emo; I recommend 93FEETOFSMOKE for the more pop-oriented set and SCARLXRD for the more hardcore-oriented set. And it’s particularly fitting that one of Decaydance’s newest signings, nothing,nowhere., is part of this scene and that he has a collaboration with Dashboard Confessional.

Both Fall Out Boy and Panic!, along with Paramore, have ably inserted themselves into this crowd, with no one seeming to notice that there’s been a seismic shift in both the sound and goal of their music. Paramore have managed to avoid the trap of becoming a complete vanity act by continuing to push new boundaries with their music, while Panic! and Fall Out Boy, by contrast, just seem to have gotten better at finding what the zeitgeist is. Fall Out Boy in particular have been very good at it– Twenty One Pilots are signed to Decaydence, after all, and they’ve even released a posthumous collaboration with my favorite of the emo rap wunderkinds, Lil Peep. As time goes on and more and more of the kids who would have been making emo, pop-punk, or hardcore in years past gravitate towards this new wave of pop and trap, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Fall Out Boy are simultaneously an influence on and an inextricable part of this new musical landscape.

It makes sense why Fall Out Boy’s reunion seems to shirk the guitar rock of their past for more abstract pop soundscapes. The band members have managed to eke out spaces for themselves in the heavy music scene– Patrick did guest vocals on the Weekend Nachos song “Jock Powerviolence,” Andy drums for hardcore bands like SECT and Racetraitor– so they can keep that part of themselves fulfilled. It seems to be working out pretty well for them, but it does often leave me wishing that they would just make a goddamn pop-punk record again.

FRIENDS OR ENEMIES
(a conclusion.)

I can already tell that the process of writing this series every week is going to be pretty fucking soul-corroding. I hope y’all enjoyed this extremely long and occasionally far too personal essay on Fall Out Boy and what they mean to me. I think this will probably be the longest article for a while, so please don’t get too used to this length (I can imagine that’s a relief to those of you who have actually made it this far). Am I embarrassed by the fact that I adore Fall Out Boy? The answer is no, but I am embarrassed to be a Fall Out Boy fan.

NEXT WEEK: We explore addiction and trauma with the Used. Stay tuned.

3 thoughts on “Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #2: Fall Out Boy

  1. I really, really enjoy your writing although we seem to disagree greatly on what are the best Fall Out Boy songs. I also feel really bad that you had a traumatic and upsetting experience online with the community in those days… I spent so much time reading Ryden slash and chatting on the FOBR message boards and it was always just fun and harmless. I feel terrible for anyone who went through the stuff you described. I agree that their new sound doesn’t do it for me either… although I think AB/AP is the best of the three and I absolutely love it despite the few weak songs on it. MANIA is horribly produced but I still enjoy it (especially Last of the Real Ones) even with it’s cringy “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker colour” lyric. It also disappoints me because I know Patrick is capable of great production and song writing, which is evident with his solo “Soul Punk”. I don’t understand why they are making blown-out power-pop now, but I still love them to death even if I don’t listen to their newer music.

    Like

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