Going Down Swinging: The Emo Songs that Defined My Preteen Years

The year was sometime before Obama and sometime after I discovered that being a preteen girl meant something very different than being a preteen boy. The place was my body, growing around me in ways I couldn’t predict, somehow still a whole vessel, as I added and subtracted parts of me to see what might fit.

The creaking metal basket we swung in on the Ferris wheel at our county fair lurched toward the top. My friend and I looked out to a dark scape, lit by bright and rickety rides, as the smell of funnel cakes and popcorn mixed with manure in horse stalls.

On our way up, we sang, “Oh, well, imagine / as I’m pacing the pews in a church corridor / and I can’t help but to hear / no I can’t help but to hear an exchanging of words.”

We could see everything: the building that used to house my hastily done 4-H projects; the stalls where my friends kept their pigs; the masses of shadowy people milling about on a humid summer night.

Here on this machine, we were seated on the top of the world, so high up, so far gone we had to whisper-shout, “I chime in with a “Haven’t you people ever heard of / closing a goddamn door?!”

This lyric was the closest thing I knew to freedom.

“I Write Sins Not Tragedies” by Panic! At the Disco was the only song I knew that mentioned church and used curses, the only song for which I gladly wrapped my lips around the word “whore.”

This eruption of a line repeats over and over. It was the outburst that thrilled me. In all areas of life, I was taught that outbursts were not something afforded to me. I was a goodBlackChristiangirl in a white town. And this meant containment. When I cracked, what escaped was a whisper-scream at the top of a Ferris wheel, a declaration I could never make myself, but that, when belted by a white boy with thick eyeliner, could temporarily be mine.

As these words flew from my lips, I felt like it might just be a possibility—me unbuckling from the ride, straightening myself, and screaming in such a way that everyone must listen. I could be the person bursting into a wedding in a red jacket and top hat. I could be the one causing a scene.

In other songs, other sad white boys gave me words that I could never say myself—and not only words but visions. “Check Yes, Juliet” by We The Kings is exactly what you expect: throwing rocks at the window, sneaking out, running away into the night.

It was ordinary, but it was a fantasy. Who would throw rocks at my window and at what time? How would I know to be awake? Where would we go?

When they sang, “Run baby run, don’t ever look back / They’ll tear us apart if you give them the chance,” I wanted nothing more than to run.

It was true, in my limited experience, that many people and many things could and did tear people apart—from themselves and others—in ways both insidious and overt. This song allowed me to dream of escape. I only knew temporary escape. I could close my eyes and imagine people in other worlds. I could run through the alley to the next street over. But this song allowed me to envision distance. I imagined myself somewhere else, where there was more than one Walmart in town, where it was too busy for the Amish buggies, where people wanted to be.

It was similar to the place I imagined when I thought of the Ocean Avenue of which Yellowcard sang. It was a place “where I used to sit and talk with you / we were both 16 and it felt so right / sleeping all day, staying up all night.”

In “Ocean Avenue,” they also sang of a Cherry Street, where “We would walk on the beach in our bare feet.” I had only been to a beach once, and it seemed so far away. It was so far away.

In this song, too, is the motif of running: “We could leave this town and run forever.” I wondered why they would want to leave such a place, with a beach, where people surely wanted to live. In many ways, these lyrics felt like the ending of “Check Yes, Juliet” even though “Ocean Avenue” came out five years earlier. They had run, they had tried it, and now, in this song they’ve said goodbye.

Even though the song is laced with regret, the possibility captured my imagination. Everything that seemed possible to me was small. It was possible that I might join an extracurricular activity. It was possible that I might get an A on the pre-algebra test. But the fantasies in these songs were beyond the scope of my small and hemmed-in life. The music allow me to imagine risk in ways I could not otherwise.

The songs, themselves, were a risk. A goodBlackChristiangirl should have been listening to Christian music, but if I insisted on listening to something else, it should have at least been “Black.” But here I was, caught up in the fantasy of thin white boys with swoopy hair, who sang about love and alluded to sex and painted visions of teenage resistance. The music felt like a forbidden fruit. And I took, and I ate.

When I think about the songs my brother helped me download from LimeWire onto my mp3 player with the cracked screen, I am reminded of Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar We’re Going Down Swinging.”

It always seemed like an eternity, waiting for those 18 bars of introduction to hear Patrick Stump come in over the drums and demand, “Am I more than you bargained for yet?” He sang in the stylized almost-British accent characteristic of many emo and pop punk bands at the time.

It is, again, a question I could not imagine asking of myself. Of course, I would be what you bargained for. Of course, I was what I was needed to be. Being a goodblackChristiangirl necessitated this. When I sang this song, I imagined, for a second that maybe I, too, could be more.

In the bizarre music video for this song, a boy with antlers falls for a girl and her father disapproves. Eventually, the father tries to shoot the boy with a bow and arrow but is run over by a car, revealing that he has hooves. The last shot shows the boy and girl together, with the hooved father looking on in approval.

The music video is fitting for lyrics that make sense in a way but leave much room for ambiguity. Is the relationship really doomed? Is it even a girl he’s singing about? “We’re always sleeping in and sleeping for the wrong team” leaves room for doubt. Though the song is coded as heterosexual, it could mean something else.

What I love most about the song is the persistent triumph in the face of clear defeat, as they sing in the chorus, “We’re going down, down in an earlier round, and sugar we’re going down swinging.”

At the time, I knew much of defeat. I knew less about going down swinging. These emo, alternative, and pop punk songs gave me words and melodies to dream about fighting in ways I did not dare imagine myself. With these songs, I saw, briefly, a future me who loved unabashedly, who gladly occupied space, and who dared to risk.

The version of me who only caught these visions in the span of 4-minute songs sticks with me. I could sing to her, Yellowcard’s lyrics, “There's a piece of you that's here with me / It's everywhere I go, it's everything I see.”

I could also sing to her, “Sugar We’re Going Down Swinging” with the knowledge that the fight would be worth it.