10 Years, 100 Songs: #54. “We Were Both Sixteen and It Felt So Right…” h
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 19, 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.
As I’ve no doubt referred to earlier on this blog, my favorite song of the 90s was the Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy.” The reasons why are innumerous–certain lyrical phrases, vocal inflections, guitar sounds, associated memories, etc. But if I had to pinpoint the main explanation for my love, it’d have to be the song’s overall sense of urgency. The song was basically about a bleary-eyed booty call, and with a different tone and delivery, it could’ve sounded sarcastic and sleazy. But writer Doug Hopkins and lead singer Robin Wilson gave the song such passion and vulnerability, that it ended up seeming like a matter of absolute life and death–like either the girl in question gives Hopkins/Wilson one last chance at this very second, or both will be destined to live the rest of their lives loveless and alone. And from the reved-up intro to the shambolic ending, every second of “Hey Jealousy” is imbued with that gigantic sense of feeling. (Do I need to link to the video? Yeah, sure, why not. Watch it again, please.)
It’d be hard to ask any song from any decade to live up to that kind of example, but in my opinion, the song from the Naughty Oughties that came the closest to matching “Hey Jealousy” pound-for-pound would have to be Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue.” The song, which follows a teenage relationship that for whatever reason (Going away to college? Betrothed by parents to marry others? Living in a society where members are killed as soon as they turn 20?) is destined not to last, “Ocean Avenue” packs that same kind of urgency, that same kind of titanic importance placed on one single moment of romantic action. It also has a similarly fantastic chugging guitar riff, and shout-it-out-loud chorus, as well as a couple assets that not even the Gin Blossoms could claim–a fantastic video, a brilliant, game-changing bridge and a musical secret weapon (more on that later).
The song opens by explaining the relevance of its title–“There’s a place on Ocean Avenue / Where I used to sit and talk with you.” Ocean Avenue was a place in the suburbs of Yellowcard’s native Jacksonville, and it’s a great titular location–sounding dreamy and nostalgic on its own without any further elaboration. Lead singer Ryan Key sings about the beginning of his relationship with the girl (“We were both 16 and it felt so right / Sleeping all day and staying up all night”), establishing a tone of time-frozen, woozy young love. We get a second verse before a first chorus, one which relates a similarly idyllic memory (but which takes it to the next level by adding a fantastic backing harmony to the line) but now flashes forward two years (“We were both 18 and it felt so right”), also raising the stakes by making it clear that we’re getting closer to modern day, where things are surely not quite so perfect.
Then, the chorus, which shows that the relationship has since ended prematurely, but that Key still holds out hope for an eventual, if unlikely reconciliation (“If I could find you know, things would get better / We could leave this town and run forever”). It’s a gloriously naive and romantic-sounding chorus, but as great as the lyrics are, the song isn’t what it is today without that most unusual of pop-punk musical accompaniments–the violin. Yellowcard were pioneers in busting the ugly, long-standing fallacy that you can’t look like a legit rocker with an electric violin under your chin, as backing vocalist Sean Mackin would prove time and time again in each of Yellowcard’s videos. Does it actually add that much to the song? Well, depends on your definition of “that much,” but no. It did give Yellowcard that little something extra to differentiate them from the rest of the Floridian pop-punk scene, though, and for that we should be somewhat appreciative.
The song’s real biggest threat came with the bridge, which is what really provides “Ocean Avenue” with that now-or-never “Hey Jealousy”-like mentality. The song’s tone changes instantly with the first line, “I remember the look in your eyes / When I told you that this was goodbye”–not only bringing the song to a modern-day setting, but addressing the girl for the first time in the song, giving the bridge a feeling of personal intimacy not previously present. Then in the final lines, “We’re looking up at the same night sky / We keep pretending the sun will not rise / We’ll be together for one more night somewhere, somehow,” it becomes clear that the entire relationship has come down to this moment, which for reasons unexplained is the last that the two will spend together (while a super-emotional “ahhh-ahhhh” backing vocal begins to wail in the background). I dunno, but it seems to me that it’s an emotional climax you’d probably have to be pretty cynical (or, I suppose, just over the age of 25 when it came out) not to get a little choked up by.
The emphasis that “Ocean Avenue” puts on the here-and-now, on this one super-important moment, is cleverly and moderasubtly reinforced by the song’s TRL countdown-topping video. The clip apes the Run, Lola Run style of showing the same scene three times over with one tiny adjustment at the beginning that ends up wreaking havoc on the rest of the scene, as Ryan Key flees from pursuers in the hopes of catching up with his love (bolting from the scene of their recent tryst for an undisclosed reason). The first time, he doesn’t make it and is (presumably) killed by the men chasing him, the second time he makes it a second too late and gets run over by the girl, and the third time, he gets there just in time and escapes with girl in tow. The implication is simple, and re-inforces the song’s main theme–one moment in a relationship can really change everything. Hard to argue with that.
Interestingly, original Yellowcard guitarist Ben Harper (no, not that Ben Harper, I checked) claims that the inspiration for “Ocean Avenue” is not actually any particular relationship a band member had, but just a general bandwide lost feeling of youth and simpler times, as Ocean Avenue was one of the band’s main hangout locations as young’ns. If anything, this just makes me appreciate the song more, as it really hit big in the spring and summer of 2004, around when I had graduated high school and was preparing to go off to college. I wasn’t in any romantic relationship, but I was in love with my friends and my hometown and the feeling of being young and totally free (I must have had a job of some sort, but if so I can’t really remember what it was). The “Ocean Avenue” sensation of knowing that the moment was coming to an end, and just wanting to savor it and make it last as long as humanly possible…yeah, it probably hit home a little at the time.
Just as the Gin Blossoms could never quite reach the heights of “Hey Jealousy” again (though they came closer than you might remember), Yellowcard never made another “Ocean Avenue”–only the next album’s “Lights and Sounds” even scraped the heights, and now the band is on indefinite hiatus. But then again, with a song like this, it’s probably better to stay associated just with one place and time, to never have a string of weak comeback attempts to dilute the glory of their moment in the sun. Besides, you can only take that violinist seriously so many times before you just want them to start breaking out “Flight of the Bumblebee” covers.
(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)
The List So Far (Now With Links!):
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”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie”
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure”
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite”
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get”
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity”
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly”
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem”
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday”
55. Darude – “Sandstorm”
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue”