Humans are supposed to learn

do_not_enterColleen Green’s latest album is called I Want to Grow Up, and she’s not kidding. In addition to the fact that it’s a big step forward in terms of both songwriting and content, this is an inspiring, harrowing, exhilarating record that takes the promise of its title and runs with it. But what makes it a real achievement is that, while it may be a surprise, it’s not a departure; it’s an informed extension of her previous work.

For a while, Green’s M.O. was pretty straightforward: drum machine, Ramones guitars, breathy stoner vocals. It’s the kind of music that very much conveys the impression of one person working alone in a bedroom. But her songwriting skill is more then enough to overcome the novelty effect; the apparent simplicity of her approach is just disarming enough to draw you in for a serious engagement. Her previous album, Sock it to Me, brought this approach to its zenith.

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The album starts off with a bunch of songs that are relationship-obsessed to a literally unbelievable degree. The opener, “Only One,” hits you right away with its ridiculous chorus: “oh yeah, uh huh, oh god, I really love my boyfriend.” The simplicity almost temps you into taking it at face value, but nobody’s that naive. It’s so over the top that it sort of commands you to figure out what’s really going on. And in fact, a little attention to the lyrics makes things perfectly clear:

My boyfriend is the best

He always knows just what to say to make me less depressed

Oh, uh, that’s nice . . .

And when he tells me that he wants only me

I get so dizzy I stop breathing his love totally kills me

Yeah. What’s happening here isn’t cute; it’s an expose of the viciousness embedded in society’s saccharine conception of relationships. The pop angle is entirely deliberate: this is what you should be hearing in every clueless radio love song.

That’s also why the masking of these songs’ true intent is deliberate. One of the reasons the post-Ramones “wall of sound” effect became ubiquitous is that it’s actually really versatile. It can be used to emphasize the vocals by placing them against a solid backdrop, or it can conceal them by smothering them in the haze. The softness of Green’s singing voice makes this effect even more pronounced. Here, both things happen: the happy choruses come across loud and clear, and you then have to dig for the buried verses to get the full picture. The effect is to portray a situation where the obvious surface meaning contradicts what’s really going on.

This continues through “Darkest Eyes,” which similarly starts off cute:

My boyfriend’s got the darkest eyes you’ve ever seen

Darker than midnight on Halloween

Then gets unnerving:

I tell him every day he’s the only one I wanna see

And his eyes look right through me

And finally settles on scary:

There’s no better way to keep appearances preserved

A razor to an optical nerve

This all makes the double meaning of the album’s title painfully clear:

When you say you love me

You know it’s music to me

And then you sock it to me

But this isn’t generic criticism. It’s coming from a particular perspective, which is what the second half of the album illuminates.


The appropriately dramatic transition starts with “Heavy Shit,” which isn’t just about, you know, what it says in the title, but specifically deals with the process of becoming informed of the fact that there are more serious things going on than your own relationship drama. Of course, as previously, the naivete here is feigned. It’s making the point that this is something that everyone has to deal with on a daily basis, that we are dealing with it, even though what seems like escapism.

“Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” takes a turn towards theory. Despite the title, the song is not actually about relationships; it’s about the simultaneous loathing and longing we all feel toward the concept of normalcy (“doesn’t everyone, sometimes?”). “Normal” girls are “like the ones on TV,” i.e. they don’t exist. But that doesn’t stop people from acting as though normalcy was a real thing, from doing what they think everyone else thinks they’re supposed to do.

The catch is that you can’t just reject the script; if everyone else is operating under a certain set of assumptions, rejecting those assumptions means giving up on relating to anyone else. In relationship terms, it means giving up on love. Humanity’s highest value, the thing that’s supposed to transcend everything, is actually completely dependent on the mundane conditions of everyday life.

And this is where we start to get a handle on the album’s perspective. It’s looking at things as an engaged outsider, someone who’s nobody’s fool but has to play the fool in order to get along. She’s not willing to give up on love for the sake of consistency; she genuinely desires things she knows are ridiculous. This perspective is what creates the album’s odd duality of naivete and incisiveness.

Despite being the second to last song, “Taxi Driver” is the album’s core. It’s the song that finally provides a solid standpoint from which everything else can be understood.

I wanna be a taxi driver

That’s assuredly the career for me

The kind of job I could have forever

I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody

Of course, this doesn’t make sense; a taxi driver obviously does have to talk to people all the time. That’s why it’s a fantasy. And the fact that someone fantasizes about not having to talk to people means they’re an introvert, and that, finally, is what motivates the album’s approach: the tension between selfhood and social pressure. But this comes with the understanding that social pressure isn’t just a bad influence that you can push away, it’s a real thing that actually allows you to engage with other people. So the fact that it’s one or the other is actually an impossible choice.

The complicating factor here is that we don’t really have a social script that allows women to be introverts. It isn’t just relationships, either, it’s everything. Women are consistently expected to be emotional managers and to put their own needs second in all areas of life, and this makes it impossible for someone who doesn’t define themselves by their relationships with others to both engage with society and maintain their own identity. And this isn’t something you can just reject, either, unless you’re willing to give up on actually being able to relate to other people, at all. The lyrics finally break the metaphor in order to make the situation explicit: “sometimes I think I’m better off alone.”

And it’s on this dispiriting note that the album ends. Not only does “Taxi Driver” seem to conclude that selfhood necessitates loneliness, but the closer, “Number One,” makes an even more disturbing concession. (I was surprised to find out that this song is a cover, since it bookends the album so perfectly. I also wouldn’t have thought it to have been written by a man.) Here, the singer seems to weigh the scales and come to the conclusion that her only option is to give up her own self-definition. She resigns herself to accepting second place in her own life.

Luckily, this is a blatant contradiction. You can’t really write music about how you’re not expressing yourself. And the fact that this music is clearly written and performed primarily by one person heightens the contradiction. Even if the situation really is intractable, her response to it is still her own.

But this sort of approach ultimately amounts to wallowing; there’s never really nothing you can do. It’s important not be be naive, but cynicism is not an excuse for inaction. Accepting that you still have to do your best even though you know you’ll never be able to get what you want is part of what it means to grow up.

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And that’s why I Want to Grow Up starts off with a bang. Not only has the sound been fleshed out with a full band, but the singsong pop vocals have been replaced with a wordier style and more varied delivery. This has contradictory effects: the fuller sound makes the songs feel more open and less claustrophobic, but the ambling, drawn-out lyrics have a very personal, stream-of-consciousness feel.

The album begins very officially, with the title track belting out an unmistakable statement of intent. There’s not much room to misunderstand what’s going on this time. This, along with the new style, makes it seem like the album is starting out by clearing the slate.

But straightforward doesn’t mean simplistic. The signer is not “resigning” herself to responsibility, she’s realizing that she needs to be responsible in order to get the things she actually wants. Despite the more open tone, there’s still a level of irony here. Just as Sock it to Me pretends to be a bunch of simplistic pop sings, a lot of the stuff on this album cues an “obvious” reading of the subject matter that is actually being subverted. For example, the singer here says “I’ve had my fun” and “I think I need a schedule,” but the reason for this is that she’s “sick of always being bored.” This contradiction deliberately problematizes the standard framing of “immaturity” as reckless hedonism and “adulthood” as boring responsibility. The truth is that neither of these constructions holds up: being responsible for something that matters is not boring, and hedonism actually sucks.

The rest of the album follows through on this complication. The direct follow-up to the title track is the two-part “Things That Are Bad for Me.” The first part takes the commitment and moves forward with a strong, steady rhythm that gives it a sense of surefootedness. The bold, wordy lyrics contain everything necessary to pull off a plan of self-improvement: “rid myself of toxicity,” “start listening to my own advice,” “change when things are going wrong.” The catch is that everything here is presented as obvious; the singer already knows what she has to do, so there shouldn’t be a problem. “It shouldn’t be that hard.” And yet.

The second part brutally transitions into the exact opposite: pure, useless self-pity. The transition between the two songs is instantaneous but unmistakable, like suddenly seeing the world through a negative filter. Downshifting from upbeat to slow and plodding, the second part falls from the heights of optimism and crashes straight into the gutter: “I wanna get fucked up, I don’t care how.”

The two-part song structure brilliantly illustrates the fundamental connection between these two perspectives. It isn’t just that we sometimes (always) fail to live up to our ideals, it’s that the very act of attempting to do so is what causes us to fail. It’s precisely the anxiety of knowing what we have to do that freaks us out so bad that we plunge back into our worst habits – things that we know are bad for us. “Kick another habit, find another replacement.”

But the negativity here actually goes deeper than that. Specifically, it goes deeper than love.

In addition to being really, really amazing, this song is the black hole at the center of this album. It’s a revelation of the album’s motivating anxieties, the things that you specifically attempt to avoid by talking about other, easier stuff instead. The simple rhythm and solid, engaging bass line create a undercurrent of tension that colors the soft vocals, turning their normally detached quality into an engaged fearfulness. This gives the lyrics the powerful sense of an internal monologue, making it seem like they really are coming from the part of yourself that you try to ignore.

The lyrics really run the gamut, imparting a sort of panic attack aspect, but they center around the fear of intimacy. This is more than just psychological, it’s grounded in material conditions: the social constructions that forcibly organize our lives and the hard limits of biology. The knowledge of all this impossibility adds up to a paralyzing fear. The lyrics specifically contrast actual death with the inherent self-negation of intimacy to make the point that the latter is worse, that some of us would rather die than let go of ourselves.

Unfortunately, there’s a solution: “remove the brain and leave the body in charge.” If the problem is that intimacy can’t be reconciled with selfhood, then the self doesn’t need to be involved at all. We can take a purely functional approach to relationships – and to everything else. We can interact with others on a purely “scientific” basis: accept their inputs and provide the correct outputs. We can act out our roles, and keep track of what works and what doesn’t work, and do all the things that normal people are supposed to do, and none of it has to affect our actual selves in any way. From a certain perspective, this is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

And despite the psychological aspect, there’s ultimately nothing idiosyncratic about this. It’s precisely where we’re going as a society. We’re rapidly gaining the ability to manage our lives and interactions to a degree that makes spontaneity untenable. It’s become so easy to just “follow the data” that we don’t even bother trying to figure things out anymore. As an obvious and appropriately banal example, we can talk with a straight face about how a piece of “content” is going to “perform” totally irrespective of what (if anything) it’s actually about. We’ve given up on meaning and settled for efficacy. We’re all functionalists now.

The horrifying line that opens this song makes it seem like a shocking departure, but it’s actually saying the same thing we saw earlier in “Only One,” it’s just no longer cute. Thus, it’s crucial to understand that this song is an outlier only in terms of intensity; it’s coming from the same place as everything else. In the same way, many of the songs on I Want to Grow Up reprise the themes of Sock it to Me from a different angle.


Most obviously, “Wild One” is a callback to the first album’s focus on relationships (the form of the title is the same as the bookends from Sock it to Me). In keeping with the “new beginning” theme of the opener, this song seems to be saying goodbye to that old approach in order to start moving forward. But the tone is largely regretful; it doesn’t imply a clean break. The singer hasn’t actually moved on, she just doesn’t have any choice other than to give up.

What this means is that the relationship angle hasn’t actually been let go. It’s been sublimated; it’s part of what this album is talking about. It notably comes up in both parts of “Things That Are Bad for Me.” In Part I, as part of the song’s positive affirmations, “the first thing I’ll do is get away and stay from you,” and in Part II, as part of the bad habits the singer regresses to, “I really wish you were here right now.” There aren’t two separate issues here, there’s one situation.


The focus on introversion from “Taxi Driver” returns on “TV” and “Pay Attention,” which are ironically the most accessible and fun songs on the album. The contrast on “Pay Attention” is particularly hilarious: it’s extremely upbeat, practically a party song, but it’s about not being able to hold up your end of a conversation. And the irony here is significant: both songs act cute when they’re actually deeply negative. Not only that, but the negativity is explicitly banal. The big promises articulated in the opener end up being ground down by the pettiest possible forces.

“TV” is a reverse feint. Everything about it cues an ironic reading; it deliberately buys in to every cliche about TV’s vapidity. The singer uses TV as a substitute for social interaction, comforts herself with it because it’s “easier than being with somebody else,” and can only relate to other people by mediating those relationships through TV. But none of this is the point, because the song isn’t actually about TV. The lyrics use the word “TV,” but they never actually say anything about it; it’s all “I” statements about the singer’s emotional state. This is why the ironic reading is wrong: like the rest of the album, this song is completely straightforward. By refusing any sort of defensive posture, the song takes the “debate” over TV out of the realm of moral hyperventilating and overwrought theory and brings it back to the personal level, where it should have been in the first place.

And this is why the banality of the subject matter is intentional, because it provides an important grounding to the emotional content. “Pay Attention” in particular is about small talk, which is literally the most banal thing. But the problem wth banality is precisely that you can’t just ignore it, it’s stuff that you actually have to deal with. Part of getting serious means working on the basics – the very basics. Sometimes you really do have to make a conscious effort just to pay attention, even when it seems like it’s “just as well” if you don’t bother.


The longing for normalcy from “Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” is picked up by “Some People,” which again takes a more theoretical stance. It has a focus on superficiality that recalls the terrible conclusion of “Deeper Than Love”: everything would be fine if we could just get over ourselves and do what we’re supposed to. This is why all the details mentioned in the song are, again, totally banal: it’s a way to “fit in” without compromising anything about your real self, to do things “empirically.” If the introvert’s paradox is that holding on too strongly to your sense of self allows the outside world to define you as it pleases, then the resolution is to strategically give in to the world’s demands while keeping your self-definition to yourself.

But what motivates the wistful quality of the song (as well as the sarcastic dig implied by the title) is that acting this way is obviously impossible. This provides a sort of failsafe: it’s actually really hard to do what seems like really basic stuff to fit in when that stuff goes against your self-conception. If we accept that this sort of “empiricism” is one of the great dangers of our time, then the intransigence of the self, the very thing that makes our desires seem impossible to fulfill, becomes a sort of saving grace.


Finally, “Grind My Teeth” takes “Heavy Shit” and makes it even heavier. Actually, this results in an odd inversion: the title of “Heavy Shit” is partially a joke; it’s denotatively serious while referring to the fact that the song itself is kind of goofy, while “Grind My Teeth” takes a seemingly cutesy title and turns it into serious fucking business. The thrashy sections at the beginning and end of the song are connected by a slow-burning middle that creates a deeply unnerving tension through the apocalyptic imagery of a destroyed human face.

More to the point, this song actually connects the dots. It starts off by providing what seems like an easy interpretive out:

Can’t help but picture you with

Someone other than me

Such a sickening image

It makes me grind my teeth

Then the dramatic tempo shift presages a refocusing of the subject matter:

Fragile teeth bear the pressure

Of a generation failing

Which confirms, if you hadn’t already noticed, that nothing here is escapist or self-pitying, it’s all borne out of a deep concern for the present situation. Finally, the hard-rocking beginning is reprised at the end, but with the content shift intact:

They wanna wire my brain

And try to control me

The sad fate of my planet

It makes me grind my teeth

This construction explicitly links the relationship angle to serious concerns about the world, spinning the breadth of subjects on both albums into a single tight braid. The buried anxieties from “Deeper Than Love” are what motivate the behaviors described in all the other songs, and the reason all of this matters is because it actually determines the fate of humanity. I mean, let’s not beat around the bush, the cause of global warming is patriarchy. A man beating his wife is the same thing as a robber baron dumping pollutants into a river. It’s not just that our relationships are central to our experience as human beings, it’s that the way we conceptualize relationships is the same as the way we conceptualize all of our other issues, from everything as big as the physical planet to as small as our subjective selves. This, for example, is why the banal subject matter of “Pay Attention” actually matters: how do you expect to do anything about the state of the world when you can’t even handle one person?


And this is when Colleen Green plays the ace up her sleeve. The real surprise is that the album ends on a note of unambiguous, inspiring optimism in “Whatever I Want.” The seemingly bratty title is important for the contrast it draws. The first and last tracks on this album are both based on childish statements – caring about what counts as “adult” is a characteristic of children; wanting to grow up demonstrates that you’re not there yet – but again, the standard framing for this is wrong: “growing up” doesn’t mean giving up on what you want, it means doing what you want for real. Just as the album begins with a conventional sentiment employed in an unconventional way, so does the ending take a seemingly petty perspective and turn it into something deeply mature. It brushes off the anxiety and insecurity of the rest of the album for a cool, clear statement of purpose. Amazingly, after an exhaustive description of why there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done, the conclusion is that what we can actually do is anything.

But this shouldn’t be a surprise, because we’ve already seen that the strength of the self really is all it’s cracked up to be. There really is “no reason to conform” and no obligation to “take advice from fools.” There’s ultimately no such thing as compromise; with our everyday actions, we continually create the situation that we have to live with. This is the fundamental insight that opens up the possibility of transcendence: “the world I live in’s a design of my own.” Being an adult means accepting this responsibility. And “now, more than ever before,” this is the necessary response to an irresponsible society, one that pretends to be sober and serious, but is in fact run by children.

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