In the wee hours of the morning I would pace the living room, bouncing Jacob in my arms, lulling him back to sleep. This was our routine in the winter of 2001/2002, when he was just a baby. Jacob would wake up sometime between one and three AM and I would be there to calm him, walking around with the TV on to keep me alert. At that time of the morning, with the volume down low, I would catch highlights on SportsCenter, watch a portions of great films on Turner Classic Movies, or turn on VH1, which only seemed to air their music videos during that ungodly hour. Not much drew me out of my somnambulist state, save for two or three songs. “Everyday” by Dave Matthews Band stuck with me, as did that pearl of power pop of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle.”
I must admit that what first caught my eye about the video was the provocative images of teenagers dancing around in their underwear at a house party. The joy of those kids and the freedom they expressed made me want to drop trou and jump around in my Fruit of the Looms! Such is the potency of a great music. It wasn’t until the second or third time through the song (I saw it many, many times during the winter of 2001/2002) that really watched the video, especially the end, and was pleasantly surprised that the young male protagonist in the video meets a girl and at the last moment, they decide to be nonconformists and keep their clothes on. Seeing this made me pay much closer attention to the lyrics. I immediately looked forward to hearing the song each night Jacob and I found ourselves wandering through the house in the middle of the night.
At 2:45, “The Middle” is ideal. An instantly hummable melody backed by a driving drum part; singer Jim Adkins sings with emo earnestness, yet he’s never overwrought with emotion; there’s a tight, neat guitar solo; and a chorus that sinks its hooks into you and has you singing it for days on end. And like most of my favorite compositions, you get sucked into this song and just like that, it’s over. The only thing to do is listen to it again, and again. I may be a forty-year-old married father of two, but it’s not too difficult slipping into the skin of my former teenage self whenever I listen to “The Middle.” And while most songs are about the girl/guy who broke your heart or the one you scored with, or about driving cars or the plight of the country, here is a song that tells its listener, “Hey, it’s okay to be yourself. Believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter what other people say.” If you ask me, that’s a message that even forty year olds need to be reminded of sometimes.
Eventually the early morning video hour came to an end as Jacob’s sleeping habits began to normalize. Soon thereafter, Sophie became enthralled with a high energy, brightly colored commercial on Nickelodeon featuring tweeners singing some of the day’s biggest hits. She requested the tape for listening to in the van and thus, we bought her Kidz Bop 3. Some of you may be giving me the stink eye right now, but look, you listen to Barney and The Wiggles enough times and anything sounds better. Anything. Wretched as those compilations are, they do introduce youngsters to many contemporary songs. The kids loved the tape and listened to it constantly; and wouldn’t you know, “The Middle” was one of the songs on the tape. This version is as vanilla and watered down as you can imagine. Listen for yourself! Hearing the Kidz Bop Kids sing it so many times, I took it upon myself to seek out Jimmy Eat World’s original version so that our children would realize that “The Middle” wasn’t written and performed by a bunch of prepubescent middle school children.
We had many good times driving around listening to those songs and the mix CD I made stayed in our van until the day the CD player died. As fate would have it, around the time the CD player quit (and ate that CD) Kidz Bop 3 fell out of favor and “The Middle” seemed to go silently into the night (or early morning).
We all lament the demise of the music industry as we knew it growing up. Because the lack of original radio programming, my children rely on movie soundtracks, television shows, and videogames as their portals into the world of rock and roll (until that day when they steal my iPod in the middle of the night and begin copying files). Enter Rock Band 2, the game that has given our family so much entertainment and once again introduced Sophie and Jacob to music they otherwise may have never heard. Furthermore, the game reintroduced them to an old favorite. As the kids progressed in difficulty through the songs of Rock Band 2, the came up to Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” (which is a blast to play, by the way).
“Why do I know this song?” Sophie asked.
I explained that she used to listen to it all the time except that mediocre children singers were butchering the song (okay, maybe I only thought the last part). Sophie’s eyes lit up with recognition and a huge, excited smile covered her face. The spark of recognition was thrilling to see; I sat back and watched as Jacob nailed the drum part and Sophie sand the words perfectly. Here I was, again, in my living room, listening to Jimmy Eat Word.
This song has circled back into our lives a couple times and I have a feeling it will return again sometime in the future (probably when Sophie is listening to classic rock from the early 21st century). The power and the emotion of the song make it one for the ages as far as I’m concerned. Sophie is at an impressionable age, on the cusp on adolescence, and I worry about her facing the pressures she will face. I hope that at some point the lyrics from “The Middle” will sink in through a moment of self-discovery and she’ll take them to heart. She’d already a perceptive girl; who knows, maybe she’s already processed the words and will recall the message as she reaches junior high. It will certainly make the song more meaningful to her if she stumbles upon the meaning herself instead of me pointing it out to her.
“The Middle” may prove to be one of those rare songs that last with us through our entire lives, conjuring wonderful memories of the past and leading us into the future. Then again, it may just want to make us dance around in our underwear.