Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.
You know that band that you can listen to, whether it’s their latest album or one that’s more than ten years old, and instantly be transported back to who you were at 16, or 18? For me, that band is Panic! at the Disco.
Panic! at the Disco, for those who don’t know, hit the emo scene in its heyday of 2006. Both Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance had gained mainstream popularity (measured by the only music-monitoring system that mattered to me at the time, MTV’s Total Request Live aka TRL) with “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” and “It’s Not Okay (I Promise).” At 16, I had already transitioned to Full-On Emo Teenager by way of Taking Back Sunday, Dashboard Confessional, and Hawthorne Heights; I was fully equipped with heavily-Photoshopped Myspace photos taken at odd angles — actually, I think I used some early version of Photoshop like Paint Shop Pro, but that program never earned its own verb form — and moody song lyrics written in my high school assignment pad.
So, with all my emotions running on high thanks to both being a 16-year-old girl and having my music taste firmly planted in the emo genre, I latched on to Panic! at the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” about as quickly as you would expect which is to say, the very first time I saw the video on TRL. Admittedly, I didn’t necessarily understand the story of what was going on in the song or even the music video, but I was attracted to the visuals that featured outlandishly-dressed (and slightly gothic) circus performers, led by lead singer Brendon Urie dressed as their ringleader, having more fun than the reserved wedding attendees with their eyes literally painted shut. That appealed to my tastes and interests at the time; I, too, did my eyeliner very poorly, and for a brief period of time when I was 16, had bright neon pink hair.
But, as vividly as I can remember that first music video, my other strongest memories of Panic! at the Disco revolve around the people I connected to through their music. I remember singing along to “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” at my best friend’s house, putting more emphasis on “whore” than the rest of the lyrics because we were still young and the word felt dangerous — and a little clunky — in our mouths. Between singing “Camisado” and “Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off,” we watched Disney movies; Alice In Wonderland was a favorite of ours, like all rebellious teenagers who discover its supposed connection to drug culture, and we painted our black eyeliner on thick. I spent a lot of time at my best friend’s house back then: She was an only child of two loving parents who accepted me in a way I craved as a teenager raised in a house that held a lot of anger, a lot of bitterness.
Two years later, when Panic! at the Disco changed their sound significantly for Pretty. Odd., the band still felt like a perfect fit. I had changed in those two years, too: I was a senior in high school, I had mostly given up the emo aesthetic (I still regularly shopped at Hot Topic, though), I had a different best friend, and I had expanded my musical horizons. My taste didn’t necessarily become more sophisticated, but it certainly diversified. I remember driving down a tree-lined back road of my New Jersey hometown in the spring of 2008 with my best friend listening to “Nine in the Afternoon,” my hand hanging out the window, fingers splayed against the wind, the air feeling like freedom in my grasp — the anxiety of starting college and the rest of my life held at bay.
When I went away to college, I didn’t think I’d meet anyone who had the same love of Panic! at the Disco or any of the other emo and pop punk music that I was so attached to as a teenager. For some reason, I had this idea (that was largely fueled by a music-focused thread in my college’s incoming freshman class Facebook group) that my classmates were all either into pretentious indie rock I’d never heard of, or classic rock/country, which I was too pretentious at the time to enjoy. But of course I met people who shared some of my musical taste. In fact, when one of my new college friends discovered that I also loved Panic! at the Disco, her first subsequent question was which album I preferred: A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out or Pretty. Odd. But, how could I choose between the person I was at 16 and the person I was at 18?
Since I was still 18 at the time, and more closely resembling the version of myself that preferred Pretty. Odd., that was the answer I gave her. She disagreed with me; in fact, she felt betrayed by the supremely different sound and attitude of Pretty. Odd. It was the first time I had ever considered that maybe people didn’t like the change between the two albums.
I didn’t listen to Panic! at the Disco much in college. I joined the radio station and was bombarded by an incredible amount of new music I had never experienced before, mostly under the indie banner. I still listened to my high school emo playlists on occasion, but I was trying to grow up.
For a long time, I thought growing up meant distancing myself from who I was at 16 and 18. I wanted to forget the angry, self-loathing 16 year old who was just as bad at lining her eyes with black makeup as she was with healthily expressing her emotions. I wanted to put as much time and space between myself and the 18 year old who had more skill with eyeliner, more skill with hiding her anger, but still hated herself and took it out on everyone around her. Even now, thinking about those people, I’m fidgeting — standing up to get more coffee, texting friends, checking emails. I’d do anything to avoid standing in front of the people I used to be.
Imagine my surprise when I listened to “LA Devotee,” off of the band’s latest album Death of a Bachelor, and the person I felt most connected to was my past self. As I danced around my kitchen to the song, I remembered the joy I felt singing along to “I Write Sins Not Tragedies”; the freedom of all the possibilities ahead of me while listening to “Nine in the Afternoon.” Still, I wanted to shy away from the darkness in those versions of myself, and hid behind a silly social media post about enjoying Panic! at the Disco at both 16 and 25 and feeling as though I can conquer the world.
I’m turning 26 while writing this, so it’s almost ten years since I first listened to “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” and if there’s one thing I’ve gained in the past decade, it’s perspective. I’m not as angry as I was, but more importantly, I’ve learned how to love myself in a way I never thought possible at 16. There’s something to be said for going through 26 years of life with someone, seeing the other people who come and go — the best friends, the boyfriends, the good relationships, the bad ones — and seeing that the one person in your life who will always be there for you is you. But, if I can’t reconcile who I am with who I was, is that truly accepting myself?
Dancing in my kitchen to “LA Devotee” while I made lunch on that rainy day in December, I decided the answer to that question is no. So I’m taking steps to remember the good and the bad of being 16: The still-childlike joy of watching Disney movies and the self-hatred born of neglected self-esteem and trying to find a place in the world where I felt accepted; and 18: Excited for the future, with my dreams suddenly feeling as though they were within reach, while at the same time being riddled with anxiety over the inexorable forward march of time that won’t ever slow down — even if I’m not ready. I still enjoy those Disney movies, though Mulan and Aladdin are now my favorites, and I still don’t feel entirely ready for my future even if it feels more manageable than it did when I was 18.
Most importantly, I’m forcing myself to remember who I was, everything about myself at 16 and 18, that I can. And I’m still listening to Panic! at the Disco, dancing to “LA Devotee” when I need a break, singing along to “Impossible Year.” I bob my head to the opening track of Death of A Bachelor while walking down the sidewalk, and I’m reminded that I can conquer the world with all the strength of my past selves, because “Tonight, we are victorious.”