Jimmy Eat World's most popular song is also my least favorite.

Some thoughts about the song that made stars out of one of my favorite bands.

Hello and welcome to REPLY ALT, the greatest newsletter about music in the entire world. Before we get to today’s topic, a few housekeeping items…

Number one: THANK YOU SO MUCH for all the nice messages about the SELLOUT announcement last week. All the notifications and texts and emails started piling up and my brain is just incapable of allowing me to enjoy compliments in a healthy way so I had a big freakout where I turned my phone off for the day and took a long walk while listening to Okkervil River. So I am genuinely sorry if I didn’t get back to you but I really appreciate the support. If you haven’t pre-ordered it, you can do so at sellout.biz. (Sorry but I paid like $20 for that domain and I’m determined to get every penny’s worth.) 

Number two: Mercifully, I am gonna hold off on doing press-type things until closer to the release date in October, so I will refrain from begging you to watch/read/listen to me blab for a few months. BUT I am going to be a guest on Jim Ward’s Instagram Live show this Friday. Jim is a big part of the book and I really enjoy chatting with him. (I’m also a huge fan of his music—not just his work in At the Drive-In and Sparta but that solo album he released back in 2011 is a nice little gem in his catalog.) He invited me and I said sure. So check that out. The show is called Friday Beers and even though I don’t drink, maybe I will get all hecked up on cream soda and spill some book details early.

Hey speaking of people who were interviewed for My Book, all four members of Jimmy Eat World kindly agreed to let me badger them with questions for months at a time. Overall, I find them to just be generally nice men. So, for today’s REPLY ALT, I thought I would repay the favor by being a real jerk and writing about why I’m not a fan of their most popular song! (But ayyy no disrespect to them!) 

Oh! And one last thing. I recorded a podcast episode last week wherein both myself and my guest started crying. Crying! Like, actual tears. It was a very sincere and emotional (but also fun) episode and I’m excited to release that later this week. Listen to all past episodes in the meantime, on Apple or Spotify. Anyway, enough rambling! Let’s get to the “point”…

Living in “The Middle”

I’ve been thinking about Jimmy Eat World a lot lately. I spent many weeks writing about them in the chapter dedicated to the band in my forthcoming book (SELLOUT by Dan Ozzi, in stores October 26, for more info visit sellout.biz). I was also lucky enough to be invited to participate in their full-album performance of Clarity this month which, as far as being stuck at home during a pandemic goes, was about as good a time I’ve had looking at my computer screen in months. And, as one of my longtime favorite bands, I’m usually listening to them on a weekly basis normally, so I’m generally always sort of thinking about them in some form. And since today is the anniversary of Clarity, I thought I’d dig into my favorite debate to have about the band. 

No, the debate is not whether Clarity or Bleed American is the better album. That’s a real Sophie’s choice that I go back and forth on routinely, and usually settle on whichever album I’ve most recently listened to as the victor. Clarity has heart, but Bleed American has riffs. Clarity is epic, but Bleed American rocks. Clarity has a 16-minute closer, but Football in the Groin has a football in the groin. Ah yes, I have deflected with Simpsons references yet again. Back to the music thing. The Jimmy Eat World debate I really want to have is around “The Middle,” which is by far their most popular song (400 million Spotify plays!). So, naturally, this leads me to have the audacity to ask... Is it any good?

Wait, hang on, stop throwing banana peels and used coffee filters at me. Let me explain. Jimmy Eat World are one of the most consistently solid album writers, and Bleed American is a top-to-bottom powerhouse, no question. Perhaps one of the best rock records of this century. No, in fact, definitely one of them. It starts like a punch in the gut and ends like a lullaby tucking you into bed, and there is so much priceless gold in between. The back and forth between Adkins and Linton on “Get It Faster” is a top-five Guitar Moment in their catalog (and is even better live). The verse on “A Praise Chorus” where Jim sneaks in references to his love of Madness, Motley Crue, and The Promise Ring is such a clever little piece of songwriting that it makes me want to shit. The acoustic songs like “Your House” and “Hear You Me” somehow fit in seamlessly among the rock ragers and look, if you’ve heard the album even a single time, you don’t need me telling you how perfectly it all fits together.

But then, seven minutes in, I get to “The Middle” and it’s one of the few times, not just on the album but in their entire discography, where I am routinely moved to hit the skip button. As soon as I hear those muted opening chords, I instinctively move on. At this point, nearly 20 years after the album’s release, I genuinely can’t tell anymore whether my aversion to the song stems from its complete oversaturation in pop culture or whether I don’t like it as a piece of recorded music. Sonically, it is not the worst song I’ve ever heard. Given the choice between listening to “The Middle” or literally any Top 40 radio schlock, I’m gonna choose “The Middle” ten times out of ten. In fact, just to be sure, I turned on the radio just now and the first song that came on was celebrated domestic abuser Chris Brown singing about how great it would be to “dick you down.” (His poetry, not mine!)

So why don’t I enjoy listening to “The Middle” when it comes up on Bleed American then?

I guess to answer that question I’ve got to go as far back in my mind as I can to try to remember hearing “The Middle” before it was a Top 5 radio hit and… I just can’t! As far back as I can recall, it has been a massively popular song. I genuinely don’t remember listening to it unencumbered by its pop culture baggage.

I do, however, distinctly remember the year Bleed American came out. At the time, I was working at the place where kids go to have their dreams fulfilled and adults go to have their days ruined, Toys R Us. If you’ve ever worked in retail, you know that each season or so, the twisted fucks who run the corporate office determine the playlist of songs that will be played over the loudspeakers in all the stores all day every day. Back when I worked there, these songs were on a CD, which couldn’t have amounted to much longer than 45 minutes. So, you work an eight-hour shift and you’re bound to hear each song, uh…[slept through rudimentary math classes to become a failed music writer]...like, at least a dozen times. Even in the break room when you’re trying to just sit there and eat your vending machine lunch (one can of Coke + a bag of Funyuns) and avoid small talk with your coworker Sheila, the song plays. Over and over and over, it plays. As such, I’ve built up a collection of songs in my mind that I truly, deeply, with every fiber of my soul, detest. Anyway, at some point, “The Middle” got added to that playlist. Or perhaps it was on the soundtrack to a movie whose commercial played on an endless loop on one of the TVs around the store. I don’t remember. Toy stores have endless ways of subliminally boring things into young customers’ brains. Either way, there was a period of time where I heard it at work over and over again. And over again. And over again. I’d go home at night and as I was laying in bed trying to fall asleep I’d hear Jim Adkins’ voice say “everything eVErYThing will be all right all right all right all right all right all right all right all right all right all right all right!”

It wasn’t just the repetitive grind of my day job. The song became culturally ubiquitous that year, and has sort of stayed that way ever since. It was on the radio constantly, it got played at baseball games, it was a question on Jeopardy!. And then there was the whole T*ylor Sw*ft commercial with Ap*le in which she says of it: “Oh my god I love this song. I used to listen to this in middle school.” (Clearly, T-Swift did not spend those years helping shithead customers try out bikes off the top rack at Toys R Us that they were never gonna actually buy. Otherwise, I do not feel that she would have the same fond recollection of it.)

I guess if I had to pinpoint what irritates me about the song, that’d be it. It got lifted from its slot in an otherwise perfect rock record and repurposed as another vacuous pop song someone like Taylor or Maroon 5 would sing in a Pepsi commercial. It’s got that saccharine chorus, the uber posi messaging that assures the listener that everything will be OK. I realize that at the time, the song was perfectly timed to soothe an anxious nation in a post-9/11 world, but looking back on it now, ick. It’s all very thematically similar to “Shake It Off,” actually. I don’t think it’s necessarily a hard outlier in the band’s catalog, but it’s certainly one of their more mawkish songs, and is made even more so in comparison to the heartbreak that follows on the subsequent track, on which Adkins pleads: “If you love me at all, don’t call.” Regardless, the song helped contribute to the popifcation of Jimmy Eat World. 

(The other funny part of all of this is that, in my mind, the better single was sitting right there with “Sweetness”! To me, “Sweetness” has the better hook, it has the better music video [ayy no disrespect to the underwear hotties], and it has more sincerity behind it. DreamWorks tried “Sweetness” out on America, and people liked it, but not as much as they liked “The Middle.” So, clearly, I’ve been proven wrong here.)

Now, normally, a band transcending the indie world thanks to the runaway success of a hit single is sure to turn their diehard fans off. (That’s sort of the premise of my entire book—SELLOUT by Dan Ozzi, in stores 10.26.21, for more info visit sellout.biz.) So, you’d think that, being the contrarian prick I am, I might begrudge the song for stealing the emo scene’s precious hidden gem and handing them over to the unappreciative masses. But, ironically enough, I am so grateful to “The Middle” for making Jimmy Eat World stars. Without it, who knows if the band could have been able to endure for much longer. Making cult masterpiece albums like Clarity is nice and all, but being a band’s band doesn’t pay the bills. Cred doesn’t cover mortgage payments. “The Middle” took Jimmy Eat World from their status as a band of Southwestern twenty-somethings who couldn’t even sell 10,000 records and turned them into them a household name. Undoubtedly, “The Middle” is the reason we got another six well-produced albums out of Arizona’s Finest. So, how can I fault “The Middle” for that? 

And, really, Jimmy Eat World has enjoyed the best possible career trajectory since “The Middle.” They’re not a one-hit wonder like so many others who lucked out with a radio hit and still desperately cling to their 15 minutes of fame. (Or worse, lean into Being Extremely Online for relevance.) Sure, maybe to most casual music listeners who don’t know Jimmy Eat World as more than a Jeopardy! clue, they will always be known as The Middle Band. But to longtime fans, they’re respected for consistently releasing records that range from very good to excellent.  

In my heart, I know all this about “The Middle.” I know that I should thank it for the last 20 years of Jimmy Eat World and everything it did for them. But even listening to the song with this appreciation in mind, as I am doing right now, I still can’t shake all its cultural associations enough to like hearing it. I often wonder: If “The Middle” had not become so huge, would I still press the skip button on it? Perhaps one day, years from now, I will be driving and it will come up on my car’s speakers and I will finally have enough distance between the song and the late nights in which it soundtracked me getting demeaned by middle managers to enjoy it. Maybe, someday in the future, I’ll get there, but not yet. It just takes some time.

Hey I think I forgot to mention but Jimmy Eat World is featured in my forthcoming book SELLOUT, which contains ZERO of my horrid opinions about their music. Just insightful interviews from the band members and their friends and other Emo Notables spun into engaging and easy-to-read narrative. How can you pre-order such a thing? Wow thanks for asking. Here you go:

PRE-ORDER: Indiebound | Amazon | Books-A-Million | Goodreads

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