10 Years, 100 Songs: #72. “Hey — Don’t Write Yourself Off Yet…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 20, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
In 2002, I was still at the height of my music snobbery, and would generally only deign to turn on the radio or watch a music video channel as something of an absolute last resort. By the end of the year, though, the seeds had at least been planted for my pop re-discovery, by a couple songs that I caught in passing that just became impossible to ignore. Of these, “The Middle” might’ve been the biggest, as it first emereged as a favorite among my group of high school friends as a song whose stupidity and complete lack of self-consciousness we found absolutely hilarious, until we eventually all had to acknowledge that the fact that the song was actually kind of extremely wonderful just on its own merits. It was a long and not precisely linear path from me embracing this song to me starting to watch MTV again, to me taking notice of the Billboard charts, to me starting a weekly singles column at Stylus, and to me falling in love with karaoke and follow-up flops to one-hit wonders and everything else that pop music had to offer, but you could probably say that without “The Middle,” I wouldn’t be here today.
When “The Middle” started to really cross over in the first half of 2002, it was around the time when bands like Dashboard Confessional and Saves the Day were starting to establish emo as the dominant pop-punk force in modern rock radio, taking the mantle over from the brattier era of bands like Blink-182 and Sum-41. Jimmy Eat World (or JEW, as fans and anti-semites like to call them) were certainly a part of that crest, and their peak-era albums Clarity and Bleed American (the latter of which housing “The Middle”) are still embraced today as classics of the genre, even by scattered indie kids who Should Know Better. But whereas “The Middle” certainly bore some of the genre’s hallmarks–the well-produced guitar crunch, the high-energy delivery, and obviously, the emotive vocals–its unrelenting, bordering-on-grating positivity stood in stark contrast to what was on the whole a relatively morose, self-pitying, weepingly sentimental genre.
Jimmy Eat World certainly didn’t hide their intentions, either. As if the super-peppy, new-wavey double-tracked guitar riff that serves as the song’s intro wasn’t giveaway enough from the getgo, lead singer Jim Adkins lays things on the line with the song’s opening lines: “Hey / Don’t write yourself off yet / It’s only in your head you feel left out / And looked down on.” From there, the song is unremitting in its affirmation, unwavering in its belief, letting listeners know on the explosive, c’mon-you-know-the-words chorus that “It just takes some time / Little girl you’re in the middle of the ride / Everything, everything will be just fine / Everything, everything will be all right, all right.” The only time it takes a break from its message is for a nice meedley-meedley guitar solo, which jumps right back into the first verse. It’s quite near cringe-worthy at points (“Just be yourself!” Adkins exclaims at one point), almost feeling like it was written for a High School Wellness Program, but its genuity always shines through, keeping the song on the right side of bearable. (It’s not a put on, either–Adkins supposedly wrote the song as a message to himself and his band mates after they were dropped from Capitol Records in the late 90s).
However, there are two crucial, very specific details of the song that elevate it from being a smile-worthy toe-tapper to a generational anthem of sorts–the things that ensure the song remains unforgettable to listeners. The first is the little slur note that Adkins does when singing the key word to the chorus–you know what I’m talking about, that little trill he does on “EHH-everything, EHH-everything,” which is the one thing guaranteed to stick in your mind on first listen, and the one thing that makes the chorus a must-sing-along everytime you hear it thereafter. The second is that equally mild-mannered keyboard hook that enters at the beginning of the third verse–that cheesy ol’ dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo part that takes the song’s previous hints of early-80s fun-in-the-sun and catapults the song straight into “Shake It Up” or “Our Lips are Sealed” territory. It’s not huge, but it’s cute, it’s catchy, you know it, you love it, and you’re a bald-faced liar if you say anything to the contrary.
Of course, you can’t talk about “The Middle” without devoting at least one paragraph to the music video, which probably had about as much to with the song’s success as the song itself. In case you were like me and nearly slept through the whole of 2001 and 02, the plot is as follows: Guy attends a teenage house party, and in a neat twist on the dream where you show up at a party in your underwear, he’s the only one who’s wearing all of his clothes. He struggles to fit in and gets the stink eye from a lot of partygoers, and ultimately decides to give up and shed his clothes to be just like everybody else, until he sees a girl going through the same dilemma. They decide they don’t need any of these garment-less idiots after all, and leave with their hands in each others’ pockets. It’s…not the subtlest of music videos, exactly, but you have to be at least a little bit charmed by its sweetness and naivete, and at the very least, it puts image to music in a sublimely appropriate manner. (Two beefs I have with the clip, however. First, why are JEW allowed to stay fully clothed through all this mishigas? Not that anyone’s necessarily clamoring to see Adkins in his skivvies, but it doesn’t really seem fair, does it? Second, why are they allowed to show people making out in a closed refridgerator? Not very prudent, MTV–kids have gotten killed imitating stupider things on television than that)
Jimmy Eat World would go on to have a relatively successful Naughty Oughties on the whole–first with smash follow-up “Sweetness,” whose stop-start intensity I might even prefer to “The Middle” these days, and throughout the course of the decade with such less assuming gems as “Pain,” “Futures” and “Big Casino,” which kept them a constant presence on the modern rock charts. As far as the pop world goes, though, this song was just about the sum total of their 15 minutes, and it’s kind of hard to argue with that–few Reach for the Stars singles from this decade were as giddy, as powerful and as undeniable as “The Middle,” and to ask a primarily underground rock band to repeat that is like chastising Modest Mouse for not churning out a dozen “Float On”s. But we should be thanknful to Jimmy Eat World for giving us an early reminder of how when it comes to emo, hey, happiness and self-confidence can be emotions too.
The List So Far:
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”