Which came first, the music or the misery?

On High Fidelity, Queerness, Emo, Fall Out Boy, The Strokes, Bernie Sanders, and Judith Butler.

This newsletter is quite late and I’m sorry and I hope you were not anxiously waiting for it. I’m both swamped but also staying up until 3 am watching TV shows like Hulu’s High Fidelity remake starring Zoë Kravitz. So maybe my exhaustion has a source, but who could say? One aspect of binge-watching that doesn’t get mentioned much is the real sick feeling you get in your brain and tummy after watching television that sustains your attention for hours and how similar it feels to eating a large popcorn by yourself at the movies. When I was a young teenager, I adored both the Nick Hornby novel and the John Cusack-led 2000 film adaptation, but I don’t think I got it. Much like how I didn’t get Fight Club at 14 because how the hell could I have? I might’ve had my nose higher at a younger age with music and movies and art or whatever but there’s no way I could’ve picked up all of what those two books were throwing down at that time. At least now I’ve got some experience with heartbreak and getting crushed by the expectations of masculinity and consumerism, so it’s a bit easier to relate.

While there are several changes made to the source material to modernize it for our 2020 prestige long-form television sensibilities, High Fidelity’s most significant shift is probably the queering up of some of its major characters, especially Rob (played by Kravitz). Among her Top 5 Heartbreaks are her best friend who comes to terms with his own sexuality shortly before their break-up, and another female love interest of her’s — someone who never made her feel good enough, she reflects. The show at times felt fittingly and unforcefully retro. Rob as a character is technophobic, nostalgia-obsessed, sentimental, and self-obsessed. It’s a profoundly modern show, aware of the inefficiencies of its world’s idiosyncrasies, but for a drawn-out remake, it did not feel like the waste of time it could’ve. That popcorn-tummy feeling is real, tho. Hey Siri, add ‘better sleep habits’ to the to-do list.

Rob’s constantly sifting through the records and relationships of her past to make sense of her future, while wholely ignoring the present in front of her. She buys American Spirits when she’s stressed out, and lights up a Bowie record and a joint first thing in the morning. In an effort to get over her Number One Heartbreak, she serial dates but remains commitment-phobic, holding out for them to eventually come around. The lens of nostalgia can be sepia-toned or rose-colored, but it nevertheless distorts and less frequently informs our present than we think it does. Which I guess is why I feel so comfortable with identifying as Queer and not a more rigid label like gay, straight, bi. It’s an anti-label label that acknowledges the adversity of its past, while not discounting any possibilities in the future.

Today, actress and girlfriend of Senator Cory Booker Rosario Dawson vaguely came out as ‘LGBTQ+.’ She’s never had a girlfriend or a “relationship in that space, however.” This news has been taken better than Jameela Jamil’s similar coming out because with Dawson, it’s not perceived as damage control. It more just… an interesting fact about her? Jameela took on the queer label at least, despite that only publicly manifesting as a rainbow emoji next to her name. Does any of this matter? Is queerness something to prove or something to own and gatekeep like a record store? Is queerness a fleeting feeling or a permanent, rageful fixation? Where does that rage go more productively, other than in politics, music?

Speaking of rankings, Ian Cohen ranked the 100 best emo songs for Vulture, while also providing some long-overdue critical analysis of the genre and its emotional, political origins. He writes on the early Washington D.C. emo music scene, and how its popularization paved the way for more ‘hard-core emotional’ media. A new public emotion was validated and normalized largely through emo music: ‘demonstrative sadness.’

In the past 35 years, the meaning of emo has become almost completely inverted — it’s more likely to mean “hard-core emotional” in the public discourse, extending beyond punk or even music itself as shorthand for anything defined by a kind of hyperbolic and demonstrative sadness. Drake is emo, Game of Thrones is emo, the Beach Boys and Shakespeare are emo, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is emo. It’s now a fixed concept within popular culture and a resilient mode of expression. What could better appeal to teenagers than a genre accused of being overly serious and painfully self-aware at the same time? Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, who eventually became best known for his work in Fugazi, was viewed as an ethical barometer when he claimed emo was “the stupidest fucking thing I’ve heard in my life,” and since then, the line has been repeated by just about every emo band to warrant the distinction. Anyone or anything can be emo, and yet almost nobody claims making it.

Which brings me to one of my favorite High Fidelity quotes and Fall Out Boy songs,

What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?

Maybe the 2020 reboot question is, “Which came first — the queerness or the misery?”

It’s been a week since The Strokes played in New Hampshire in support of Bernie Sanders and premiered their latest song “At The Door” with anime-like visuals while a stream of donations and good vibes came in. Watching it live on YouTube was mesmerizing, and I can only imagine what it was like in person. Luckily, Luke O’Neil of Welcome to Hell World was there and made imagining easier. The energy in the arena itself, the zeal of the speakers — AOC, Nina Turner, and Sanders included, with just a dash of Julian Casablancas acting like a classic arrogant rockstar. The Strokes ended the night with “New York City Cops,” inviting the crowd onstage to the point where real cops had to intervene. Still, neither The Strokes or the cops recognized until it was way too late that the arena was singing and shouting, “New York City cops, new york city cops, they ain’t too smart.”

The whole thing was surreal and punk rock as heck, and it felt like getting a “5 min away” text from a future you forgot was on its way over.

Like, remember when I started the year (and this newsletter public diary thing) pissed off? Calling myself a dirtbag leftist or something because I felt disenfranchised by pretty much every community or identity I tried to own? That’s pretty Emo. I thought to myself, why not bitterly reject all of them back? Mostly, I felt I was in constant contention with these communities I’m a part of, calling out hypocrisy and double standards. In the Queer community, I feel solidarity — to the point of being able to call it a community, at least. But the label ultimately is so loose and so many are resistant to it that despite the validation some get from it, others are reminded of the slur it once meant. We’ve learned that men can definitely be gay and not queer, so can straight women be queer and not gay? Could queerness simply be the acceptance of possibility? The potentially weird or unknown?

Maybe this all started Thursday when my writing mentor linked me to this interview with Judith Butler on rage. Perhaps best known for her work in gender theory, Butler in her new book The Force for Nonviolence writes some Matrix-ass heavy ‘there is no spoon’ shit, but it’s just what I needed to hear right now. Almost immediately, I picked up The Force for Nonviolence and binge-read it this weekend mostly while I was doing political canvassing for a local election. More on that later. But in the article, there’s a tidbit on dependency and the potential shame that comes from identifying as vulnerable or dependent.

We are all, if we stand, supported by any number of things. Even coming to see you today—the pavement allowed me to move, and so did my shoes, my orthotics, and the long hours spent by my physical therapist. His labor is in my walk, as it were. I wouldn’t have been able to get here without any of those wonderful technologies and supporting relations.

Acknowledging dependency as a condition of who any of us happens to be is difficult enough. But the larger task is to affirm social and ecological interdependence, which is regularly misrecognized as well. If we were to rethink ourselves as social creatures who are fundamentally dependent upon one another—and there’s no shame, no humiliation, no “feminization” in that—I think that we would treat each other differently, because our very conception of self would not be defined by individual self-interest.

I’ll spare you most of my highlights from the book itself, which you can read over on Goodreads cause I read it on my Kindle. I blazed through it this weekend in a way that only a few books have ever captivated me.

One of the main arguments presented in conceptualizing a world without violence, Butler says there must first be an examination of the self and the other. The grievable, the lives we consider to be losses when they’re gone; the ones we love. And the non-grievable, those whose lives we see as expendable or invisible. So long as we continue to justify violence of any kind, we continue to view some lives, many lives, as non-grievable people, or living creatures we wouldn’t miss if they were gone. For a genre obsessed with loss, pain, and grief, Emo is definitely about the realities of grievability.

To be grievable is to be interpellated in such a way that you know your life matters; that the loss of your life would matter; that your body is treated as one that should be able to live and thrive, whose precarity should be minimized, for which provisions for flourishing should be available. The presumption of equal grievability would be not only a conviction or attitude with which another person greets you, but a principle that organizes the social organization of health, food, shelter, employment, sexual life, and civic life.

You really should read this book but in regards to flawed communities containing flawed people, it seems to be a universal truth that we should treat others the way we’d like to be treated.

We do not have to love one another to be obligated to build a world in which all lives are sustainable. The right to persist can only be understood as a social right, as the subjective instance of a social and global obligation we bear toward one another.

If we’re to live in a peaceful, nonviolent world someday we must operate under the assumption that we live in one already. We have to assume that all life is valuable and grievable and make our decisions based on that. You’d think that’d be non-negotiable but we negotiate other’s grievability for our own comfort all the time. I don’t know the best way to assert this reality in the real world, but maybe ensuring every life has access to medical care is an excellent place to start?

This piece is a mess but maybe you got something out of it. Right now I’m waiting for texts back from like five people, and I think I’m gonna listen to emo music until someone gets back to me.


Tyler Scruggs is a writer and musician living in Atlanta. When he’s not churning out internet content, he’s paying too much for coffee and buying movie tickets weeks in advance. Feel free to validate him on Twitter (@TylerScruggs), Instagram (@Scruggernaut), and YouTube.