The Reckoning of Jesse Lacey and the Emo Zeitgeist

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Photo by: Brennan Schnell / CC 2.0

Jesse Lacey (frontman of Brand New, one of my top two favorite bands) is the latest public figure whose past sexual misconduct has been brought to light. I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past couple days because I admire his songwriting and what I perceived to be a brutally honest brand of authenticity. A deeper exploration of his early work sadly reveals that the writing had always been on the wall. It’s not really a secret that Lacey is a world class asshole, but these revelations about how an entitled rock star took advantage of underage girls shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I’ve thought quite a bit about what it says about me as a fan of his music.

My favorite song when I was in high school was Weezer’s “Across the Sea,” which is about Rivers Cuomo’s longing for a Japanese teenager who has sent him fawning fan mail. The 18-year-old me found this song impressive because Rivers displayed a reckless courage in spilling his guts and laying out his ugly insecurities, impulses, and neuroses for all to see. I saw this as art: the tragedy of our faults and an exploration of the self-loathing that emerges from them.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that albums like Weezer’s Pinkerton (and by extension, songs like Brand New’s “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis“) didn’t seek out solutions to the problems laid out. Consequently, the underlying themes of objectification and self-loathing became glorified. The lesson was that it’s okay to harbor unhealthy notions about sex and relationships as long as you acknowledge how miserable all that sexual frustration makes you. It’s never about trying to get better or trying to be better. These messages are toxic nectar for emotionally immature young men struggling to navigate the murky waters of manhood. 

What does it mean to be a man? How does one’s relationship to masculinity impact one’s self-perception? What roles do women play in shaping masculinity? These are questions that rack the minds of hormone-infested young men. When young men lack positive male role models in their lives (and therefore lack guidance for how to navigate adult sexuality), they turn to artists for clarification of how to fit into the greater culture.

This is why critics need to adopt an ethical lens when they analyze work: Artists must be held accountable for what they enter into the cultural record. Josef Stalin liked to think of poets as the engineers of the human soul, which is why he employed so many artists and playwrights in his propaganda machine. Popular culture shapes people. In some ways this is obvious, in others more subtle and insidious; its ubiquity quietly determines the things we value. Artistic fame, for instance, establishes a tacit endorsement of that which begat said fame. When a musicians finds success on the back of a puerile sexual perspective, that perspective becomes further entrenched in our cultural character.

This is not to say art cannot be edgy or provocative. This is merely to say that we need to be cognizant of what sort of art we choose to imbibe. If the goal is to teach young men not to mistreat women, we need to begin with a full audit of all the elements around which young men construct their sexual identity. I wish someone had taken me aside as a young man and taught me lessons I only learned later.

And the first lesson would have been not to listen to people like Jesse Lacey and Rivers Cuomo.

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Thoughts on José Fernández, joy, humanity

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The sudden and tragic death of Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez on Sunday has impacted me more than I expected for someone I never knew.

I realize there are plenty of reasons for this: He was young and full of joy; he was a Cuban-American who looked like me and my family; he was an elite athlete destined for greatness; he left a loving mother, abuela, girlfriend, and unborn child. And now he’s gone.

This enthusiasm has been extinguished:

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What a gift, to be capable of such unbridled happiness.

There have been plenty of touching tributes to Fernandez these past two days. The one linked at the top of this article is one of the best; Dave Cameron of Fangraphs explains why he hopes his son can grow up to love life as Fernandez did. I recommend it.

Another great one: Grant Brisbee at SB Nation, “Jose Fernandez was pure joy.”

The aforementioned Cameron appeared on the Fangraphs Audio podcast yesterday with host Carson Cistulli to discuss what Fernandez meant to baseball. They expressed their hope that Fernandez’ sense of joyousness represents the future of baseball, replacing the rigid “unwritten rules” culture of the game. I commented on the podcast page, but figured I’d put it up here as well:

Great podcast, guys.

While listening, I thought of Brandon McCarthy’s poignant tweet Sunday:

You get the feeling that there are so many players who wish they could display the enthusiasm Fernandez showed, but for any of a myriad of reasons, can’t. We often forget just how much work and strain goes into becoming a major leaguer. The sacrifices. The training. For a guy like McCarthy, the struggle coming back from injury. Baseball is special to people like McCarthy, but is it fun anymore? It’s their job, after all. The sheen must wane after a while for most.

So I think this is what made Jose special: It’s not so much that he chose to have fun playing Major League Baseball — something so hard that only a thousand people in the world are able to do it — but because we was *capable* of having fun. Something innate, not elected.

A very special case, and a ray of light far too soon extinguished.”


I want to share this tweet below, featuring what is also my favorite photo of Jose Fernandez. I think it demonstrates the incredibly likable person he was.


Anna and I watched the Marlins/Mets game last night. If you missed it, you missed some of the most touching and beautiful human drama I’ve ever seen. Fernandez’ teammates took the field for the first time without him, on the day he was scheduled to pitch, each wearing a jersey with his name and number on the back, and won 7 to 3. Dee Gordon came up to bat in the leadoff spot, took a pitch from the right-handed box while imitating Fernandez’ batting stance, and then hit a monster home run (his first of the year) from the left-handed box. We were speechless. Gordon cried all around the bases and then bawled his way to the dugout. Within, his teammates embraced him one-by-one.

That was just one moment in a very special night. In a show of empathy and brotherhood, the Mets walked out to the middle of the field pre-game to comfort and embrace the Marlins. During the game, several of his teammates imitated Fernandez’ over-the-top dugout celebration. After the victory, the Marlins circled the pitcher’s mound arm-in-arm before leaving their hats on the rubber.

I’m going to get a little sanctimonious here for a second, and I apologize for that, but much of this was happening at the same time as the presidential debate, which I’ve not been shy about decrying as a toxic spectacle.

And it struck me that this baseball game, which was a moving display of human grieving and catharsis, could be happening at the same time that a bloodthirsty nation watched (and hate-watched) a reality show featuring two candidates who more resemble totems of societal rage than anything else. I could put more thought into what this means as a whole (I’ve toyed with an idea that Aristotle would have much preferred the baseball), but I’ll leave it at this: I’m glad I skipped the depravity of #debateculture in favor of a night of humanity.


To an Athlete Dying Young
BY A. E. HOUSMAN

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.