#5 Gatekeeper (“Millennials Are Going Gray” track by track)

Here we are at blog #5 of 7 in my track by track guide to my new DIY album, Millennials Are Going Gray. Track #5 is “Gatekeeper,” a defiant (but kind of quirky) acoustic punk-ish song about not letting other people define your worth, no matter how cool you might think they are.

For your convenience, you can stream the track on Spotify and YouTube and read the lyrics at the bottom of this post.

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This is a pretty straightforward song. I’m not going to tell the specific story of the people I wanted to like me who were only ever rude to me, partly because the song is a mixture of several real people with a hint of poetic license, and partly because it’s just kind of private. But you can use your imagination to put a disapproving hipster from your own life into the song!

My initial idea (typical for me) was the chorus. I’d been struggling a lot emotionally with one of these people (in this case, a man) who I thought was super cool but who had no interest or time for me whatsoever. I got a little reflective and asked myself, why does this actually matter to me so much? And I sort of said to myself, in so many words, “If he doesn’t think I’m cool or smart, then I must not be cool or smart.” I ended up writing down in my journal, “If you don’t think I’m smart, I’m not smart. If you don’t think I’m cool, I’m not cool. If you want nothing to do with me, I swear to God I am not worthy” (which was only changed slightly for the final song). Somewhere in the back of my mind I wanted it to be a song, but I mostly wrote it down at that moment so that I could see how stupid it sounded, laid out so clearly like that.

If you have fragile self-esteem like I have and find yourself in a situation like this, you might also be familiar with the sense that one cool person liking or disliking you can make or break your entire social life. At one word, all of their dozens and dozens of cool, popular friends will either become your friends too, or write you off entirely. I set my initial lines aside for a while and let my subconscious work on them, and eventually I came up with a response that satisfied me: “But hell if I’m just gonna let you be the gatekeeper to a world that doesn’t want me” (hence the title), along with the turning around of the chorus. Basically, if you don’t like or respect me, I will just have to like and respect myself instead.

By that point, I was definitely thinking of it as a song, and at some point that gave rise to the bridge. In my opinion, the execution of that part wasn’t perfect, but the idea was to lightheartedly point at evidence that I actually am smart and cool. It turns out that it’s really not that easy to do effectively without sounding like a douche, I think I erred on the side of not sounding like a douche but sounding a bit silly instead.

The verses are probably the least personal part. I wrote them last, at a time when the whole idea was feeling a bit abstract — like I said, I was no longer thinking of one person and one story by that time, but just the general idea of being defiant in the face of a “cool” person who doesn’t approve of you. I did my best to personify that idea, and that was that.

Upon finalizing my usual unimaginative chord progression and melody (I’m always ready to admit my lack of musical creativity, but I’m working on it!), I was hoping to do something different with the rhythm. I happened to be at Frank Turner’s songwriting camp around the same time, and one strum he discussed that caught my interest was the one he does on “I Am Disappeared” (I’ve also seen him use it randomly during solo acoustic sets, I’m assuming to add interest).

In my last blog I said I’d come back to the fact that Frank claimed to have stolen the “Be More Kind” guitar figure from John K. Samson, who apparently stole it from someone else, and I stole it from both of them. It’s funny because, when I heard Frank (multiple times) excitedly tell the story of emailing JKS to apologize for “stealing,” I kept thinking, hmm, it kind of sounds like he knew it wasn’t really stealing and just wanted JKS to hear his song. But it’s nice to know he still fanboys. But the funny thing is that I ended up doing the exact same thing by emailing this “stolen strumming pattern” song to Frank, only recognizing the irony in hindsight. And if you’re not convinced that he knew it wasn’t stealing, his reply to my email was (and I quote), “No such thing as stealing a strumming pattern, it’s all fair game!”

My dream is that someday some young songwriter will send me their song and say, “Sorry I stole the strumming pattern from you,” to which I will have to say, “It’s okay, I stole it from Frank Turner,” and it will be BEAUTIFUL!

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LYRICS

I see you and I want to know you
You’re hot and you move and socialize with such grace
Good at everything and you’re well read too
Got your shit together in a worthless place
I watch and I daydream and I work up the courage
And if you pushed me away, then it would devastate me

If you don’t think I’m smart, I’m not smart
If you don’t think I’m cool, I’m not cool
If you want nothing to do with me
There can be nothing in the world of which I am worthy

When you finally condescend to meet me
You’re not giving me a lot but I’ve still got hope
Every day’s a new day when you might see
What you never see, that I’m worth getting to know
I laugh and tell stories when I know you’re in earshot
But every time it’s worse when your interest never stirs

If you don’t think I’m smart, I’m not smart
If you don’t think I’m cool, I’m not cool
If you want nothing to do with me
There can be nothing in the world of which I am worthy
But hell if I’m just going to let you be
The gatekeeper to a world that doesn’t want me

And as I read the highbrow papers
With my morning oatmeal like I’ve got some direction
I think how there’d be nothing cooler
Than for me to shrug off an inconsequential rejection
And I don’t care how far this cost has sunk, I’m done
And I know that even if I can never attract you, I have value

If you don’t think I’m smart, you’re not smart
If you don’t think I’m cool, you’re not cool
If you want nothing to do with me
Then I’m the one who decides that I am worthy

#4 Brianna (“Millennials Are Going Gray” track by track)

Welcome to blog #4 of 7 in my track by track guide to my new DIY album, Millennials Are Going Gray. Track #4 is called “Brianna,” it’s my first finger picked song and it’s actually a true story dating all the way back to my preschool years!

For your convenience, you can stream the track on Spotify and YouTube and read the lyrics at the bottom of this post.

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This actually tells the story of quite possibly my earliest real memory (i.e. one that I can be sure didn’t come from seeing a photo or from an older person telling me about it later).

In my preschool class, the first girl to turn 5 (in early October, if I remember correctly) was Brianna. It was a tight-knit class, so we all started chatting. For some reason, one of the other kids became really interested in whether she had magically developed the ability to tie her shoes now that she was 5. We all thought about it and it kind of made sense: None of us 4-year-olds knew how to tie our shoes, but the 5-year-olds in kindergarten usually seemed to know how — there must be a reason for that. Even Brianna got hopeful. She fumbled with the laces, but sadly shook her head after a few moments, almost ashamed, when she realized she still had no idea how to tie them. We were all pretty disappointed, to be honest.

I think we were close enough friends at the time, but I haven’t seen her since preschool ended. So, much like the friend from “We Were Pioneers,” this memory (which I’ve thought about quite a bit actually, and had wanted to write a song about for years) made me think about how my life has developed. And, again like “We Were Pioneers,” it lent itself well to a philosophical analogy.

Obviously, as an adult, it seems ludicrous (though sweet and endearing) to think that someone could magically develop a new practical skill just by having a birthday, without any training or practice. However, people of all ages still seem prone to thinking that life’s lessons and milestones are meant to come to us effortlessly when we reach certain points in our lives. We think we’ll find the perfect jobs or partners on our first tries, for example, without ever experiencing the embarrassment of failing at getting what we want or the pain and suffering of dealing with a bad choice.

I’m sure that new versions of this fallacy come with age, but I can only say from experience that by the time I hit my mid to late 20s, I thought I would have just magically settled into a successful and fulfilling life. And while I’m not unhappy or unfulfilled, I’m far from successful or settled. This is a theme that comes up throughout the album, but juxtaposing it with this concrete story of 4-year-olds, I think, lends it a new angle.

I had been meaning to write a finger picked song for a while, something new to me even though I’ve been able to finger pick passably since taking classical guitar lessons 10 years ago (!!). Guitar techniques are like vocabulary words: your vocabulary is usually much bigger than the words you actually use, because most people are just going to stick to what they’re comfortable with most of the time.

This particular style, I picked up from Frank Turner’s “Be More Kind,” which he apparently stole in turn from his idol, John K. Samson, who apparently stole it from someone else (I’ll have more to say on this in my next post). I learned to cover “Be More Kind” and enjoyed playing that style so much that I started practicing it all the time, and it ended up naturally completing this song that I’d been stuck on. I love it when things work out.

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LYRICS

Remember the day you turned five?
The rest of us thought you were the oldest girl alive
We asked if you could tie your shoes now
You fumbled with the laces, then you bowed your head down

Oh Brianna, are you looking out your window like I’m looking out mine?
Just like that our faces age
Sitting here waiting out the rainy days
Oh Brianna, are we ever going to be okay?

Now that we’re old or so it seems
Isn’t it time we should’ve captured all our dreams?
All we wanted when we were young
I almost can’t remember, it’s been so long

And I know the truth
We’re never, ever, ever going to catch up over tea
And I know that’s youth
There’s no more hand to hold, but we’re free

Brianna, are you looking out your window like I’m looking out mine?
Time has passed but we’re the same
Lost and unskilled, and waiting to be trained
Oh Brianna, but it’ll be okay

#3 Millennials Are Going Gray (“Millennials Are Going Gray” album, track by track)

Welcome to blog #3 of 7 in my track by track guide to my new DIY album, Millennials Are Going Gray — almost halfway there, yay! Track #3 is the title track “Millennials Are Going Gray.” At least one person has mistaken this one as a pretentious attempt to “define a generation,” so I assume some others might be thinking the same thing. But make no mistake, I’m not claiming to speak for anyone but myself. Just like everything else I’ve written, everything in the song is true and personal to me, and I felt that some of my memories and stories about growing up around the turn of the century were worth telling. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people around my age can relate to them, but it would be a bonus. I’m still just telling my own stories for my own purposes, not for someone else to validate them.

For your convenience, you can stream the track on Spotify and YouTube and read the lyrics at the bottom of this post.
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This all started as a joke song to poke fun at people who don’t know what a millennial is, both colloquially and in the media. For quite a long time after millennials began ageing, people were still using it as a synonym for youth. They weren’t understanding that just like baby boomers or any other generation, we age with our generation, not out of it. Now that the “Generation Z” label has become more popular over the past year or two since I wrote my first draft of this song, people seem to be starting to learn the difference between the two generations, so the song doesn’t seem as useful, but it still stands.

At first I thought it was going to be a very silly, lighthearted song (like “Live Music Makes All My Decisions” or “The Old Lady at the Open Mic”), but I needed to fill in the details of the song because, “Hey… we’re not actually teenagers?” does not a song make. And as I started thinking about what we’ve been through as a generation, shit got kinda real. I’ve since dubbed it my “lighthearted acoustic emo song,” which I think is accurate.

The two most obvious defining moments were 9/11 and the financial crisis, so I brainstormed some of the thoughts, emotions, and stories surrounding my experiences with them.

I can still remember 9/11, I was in middle school. I had to run an errand for my teacher in the school library, and the librarian was watching the news on TV, where some building was on fire. Even after I found out it was the Twin Towers, it didn’t really mean anything to me. Then some shitty person (probably a child) called in a bomb threat to our school and we all got evacuated and sent home. I was already slightly confused and afraid by that point, but when I got home my entire extended family was over and glued to the TV news. The adults were clearly agitated and anxious, so I took on the same emotions, not really having my own understanding of what was happening. For some reason (maybe because my family enjoys drama), they thought it was a good idea to drive over half an hour to the ferry in Hoboken just to watch the smoke rise across the river with several young children in tow. Personally I don’t recommend doing something like that, especially in hindsight, but it did give me a much more vivid and poignant memory of the event, handy for songwriting.

As for the financial crisis, I started college around the beginning of it, and when I graduated unemployment was still high and underemployment for young people was through the roof. Even talented people with experience were having trouble finding decent jobs, and I was competing with them, looking for my first full-time job. I did not get one, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I must have sent out 50 applications for entry-level jobs around graduation time (most of which “preferred” at least five years of experience?!) and didn’t get a single interview, despite having excellent grades and experience with work, professional internships, academic research, volunteering, and leadership. I’d also spent quite a bit of time reading about resume and cover letter best practices and maximizing every detail of mine, all to no avail. I even got passed over for more experienced workers for several retail jobs until I finally got a part-time job stocking shelves overnight.

That job sucked in certain ways, but it definitely “built character” as they say, and it gave me a lot of mindless, solitary time to think. You know what it taught me, right or wrong? That “doing everything right” and sacrificing your dreams for stability and “growing up” was bullshit. Doing everything right doesn’t actually guarantee stability, so you might as well just live the way that seems right to you and hope it works out in the end. I don’t even think my life would necessarily be worse if I’d gotten a stable job right out of college and never pursued music seriously. It would just be different, and I suppose actually better in certain ways. But I literally find it impossible to get into the “stability” mindset after what I went through when I entered the workforce. Regardless of whether I’ve been misguided or not, I don’t think I can ever unlearn what it taught me. And anyway, in my life right now I have no idea what will happen in the future, but I spend nearly every moment on something that’s important to me, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

I’m in the middle of the millennial age range, so some were a bit older or younger than I was when these events occurred. They were still all in their formative years though, so again, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them could relate to a lot of these thoughts and experiences.

Bonus fun fact: if you enjoy this song but you’re one of those silly people who’s offended by the F word, there is a secret clean radio version available. Feel free to ask me nicely for a download of it.

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LYRICS

“I don’t know,” they told me when I asked if we would be okay
Watching the world burn slowly
We drove to Hoboken and watched the smoke rise
Just staring speechless at a terrifying sight
I was very young, wondering how much closer I was to dying
But then we’re all dying

Millennials aren’t the children, we remember 9/11
It was decades ago now
Millennials are going gray, just another generation trying to make our way
Millennials are going fucking gray

And I’ve got two gray hairs
Right in the center of my scalp, bold and ready
For my enemies and friends to stare down
And the baby that I babysat is smoking lots of weed
Down in the shadows right behind my high school bleachers
I’m getting older, wondering how much closer I am to dying
But then we’re all dying

They try to tell us we should be chasing an elusive stability
That when we’re old we’ll want the money
And we won’t give a shit about these dreams
It’s like they’ve never seen those deathbed surveys
And when you graduated college when there were no jobs anywhere in sight
It’s only natural to wonder, what do I really want to do with this short life?
And if you’ve never wondered that then you’re not living it right

Millennials aren’t the children, we remember 9/11
It was decades ago now
Millennials are going gray, just another generation trying to make our way
Millennials are going fucking gray
We’re never gonna be perfect but we’ll find our way
Millennials are going fucking gray

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