I finally got to see one of my favorite bands from my wasted youth. If you were not a depressed teenager in the early aughts, maybe you don’t know who Motion City Soundtrack is, and I wouldn’t blame you. They had one really big single in 2005 (Everything Is Alright, their cheeriest song, albeit ironically) and maybe two successful albums, one of which was a rock in the emotional storm of growing up for me.
Commit This To Memory was released 17 years ago now, and it’s so well-loved by their fanbase that they’ve devoted an anniversary tour to it.
“This album kept me alive as a teenager,” I told Gray over beers before the show. I’d dragged my partner along despite their lack of familiarity with the band, so I was curious if they would enjoy the music without the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. (They did – halfway through the show, they leaned over and shouted, “This still holds up!” in my ear.)
It was an all-ages show at the Fillmore in Philly, which usually means lots of teenagers, but it was almost entirely a 30-something millennial crowd. I never went to my high school reunion, but this sort of felt like one — a reunion of people who all connected emotionally to the same art at the same time in our lives.
After playing the first few songs from the album, lead singer Justin Pierre stopped to say a few words about how he’d been sending these messages in music form out into the world for years, and getting messages back from people who related.
“Some of them were like, Bipolar 2,” he remarked, going on to say that after years of therapy, he realized, “A lot of them were right.”
I wasn’t expecting to encounter any psychiatric discourse at this show, but what he said immediately cracked something open in my brain. I was also diagnosed Bipolar 2, and also connected to Pierre’s lyrics in a deep, unexplainable way. He perfectly captured my tumultuous feelings and my struggles with substance abuse.
It’s the only way I have learned to express myself, through other people’s descriptions of life, he sings in every alcoholic’s favorite song, Let’s Get Fucked Up and Die, which feels sort of meta to me, because his descriptions of life were how I was able to express myself at a time when I couldn’t find my own words.
Is that just because we both have Bipolar 2? Does putting a diagnostic label on that emotional experience help us understand it any better?
I could explain my distress as a kid by saying it was Bipolar 2, or I could tell you to listen to L.G.FUAD. The song would certainly express my emotional state much better than the DSM label ever could. That’s the magic of good art, really — it can reach across space and time to communicate the most ineffable of shared human experiences.
Diagnoses can provide the illusion of comfort in knowing you are not alone, but I think they fall flat in the meaning department. Using these labels to create meaning in life wasn’t much of a trend when I was a teenager, so it never occurred to me that I should psychiatrize my pain. I had to find solace and sense in music instead.
Times change and with them cultures, and ours has become considerably more diagnostic, with algorithms giving pathologization far more reach into everyday life. It’s interesting that Pierre seems to have accepted the diagnoses his fans applied to his music, because he sounded resistant to medicalization when he did this interview in 2014, expressing a view more in line with the neurodiversity paradigm:
Sadly, I think it is insinuated that you are thought of as less than if there is something about you that isn’t “normal” or doesn’t function in the “normal” way. This is a giant bummer and I call shenanigans on that. I don’t know if there is anything wrong with me now and I stopped caring to find out what it might have been years ago. I choose to define what I may or may not have as, “Idiosyncrasies.” This allows me to move on and simply exist.
I am no expert. But I can tell you this: It took me 20+ years to deal with my shit and it wasn’t until I let go and stopped trying to define things that things started getting really good. I may or may not be bipolar, have crippling panic attacks, and exhausting OCD. I may or may not be an alcoholic. I made a decision to turn my life around and set about it slowly, day after day, step by grueling step, over the course of several years. I don’t know when it changed or how it changed, but it did and it is of no concern to me how that happened or what it all means.
I think people should use the terms and labels that help them, but retroactively diagnosing my connection to this album cheapens it for me. A doctor could look at these songs and recognize behavioral patterns in them that they can slap a label on and try to medicate, but that doesn’t mean they’re “discovering” a disease process – they are, in fact, producing one through medicalization.
Categorizing types of suffering doesn’t help the sufferers understand any of the why’s or how’s of their pain beyond a sort of circular, empty logic: Why was I distressed in this particular way? Because you had bipolar 2. How do you know I had bipolar 2? Because you were distressed in this particular way.
Somehow this has become the only way of legitimizing distress, so much that critics of the neurodiversity paradigm have begun to accuse advocates of being naive or ignoring the reality of mental illness. But I don’t think that’s true. We are being brutally honest about our distress, just not in medical language.
There’s a verse at the end of L.G.FUAD that’s always been my favorite, but at the show I realized I’m not the only one. Pierre stopped singing and let the crowd scream it for him:
I believe that I can / overcome this and be everything in the end / but I choose to abuse for the time being / maybe I’ll win / but for now I’ve decided to die.
What I love about this album is that it’s honest about pain, but there’s hope underneath it. When you’re really suffering, happy music makes it worse. You want to listen to songs that echo your feelings back to you, because it’s a comfort to know that complete strangers feel the same things.
This album felt like being way down at the bottom of a dark, angry hole, rolling over onto my back and catching cracks of light breaking through the walls above me. Knowing that I could get up there into the light one day, just not today, and that’s alright. That was exactly the kind of honesty, acceptance, and hope I needed as a kid, and those are the things that kept me going through my struggles, much more than a diagnostic label.
Toward the end of the show, Pierre pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.
“I’m really nervous right now, but that’s just how I function in the world,” he told the crowd, before reciting what he’d written for us:
I think what this record does more than anything is capture a moment in which everything that once seemed possible shifted to a place where you realize that you’ve already missed moments that can never be recreated, and suddenly you are flooded with a kind of past, present, and future nostalgia all at once. It is overwhelming to try to hold onto all of that. The thought of letting go feels like permanently erasing a part of yourself, but that’s exactly what’s needed in order to grow.
Once again, his descriptions of life were speaking for me. I’d come to this show for some kind of closure, as a ritual of letting go. I needed to tell that scared, sad kid in me that everything is alright now, that we have a future we never expected to get to, that things got better, not by fixing or diagnosing, but by accepting who we are.
I’m a mess / I’m a wreck / I am perfect.
Let's Get Fucked Up and Live