In Defense of Patrick Stump: Why Elitism and Teen Angst Is Killing Popular Music

You know that old guy at work who you think holds some type of tiny musical credibility because he oftentimes explains his story about what it was like to go see the Rolling Stones in concert and how they opened the show with “Satisfaction”, thus providing him with one of the Greatest Musical Moments of His Life?

I’ve often wondered what examples the people of my generation are going to use when it comes time to share a similar story with our children or grandchildren. Hell. Even our co-workers. What are we going to say? What are our options, really? Coldplay? Too middle-of-the-road. A) Chris Martin bopping around to “Violet Hill” to open a rock show isn’t necessarily jaw-dropping and B) Well, it’s Chris Martin, remember — one of the most unassuming rock stars in the history of unassuming rock stars. Foo Fighters might be able to make a case, but wouldn’t any story involving them always be eclipsed by someone who might have been lucky enough to catch Nirvana in some rat-infested club in the early 1990s? You might argue that anything Jack White has been apart of over the last decade could slip into that position, but doesn’t the phrase “anything Jack White has been apart of …” immediately eliminate the once-in-a-lifetime element that is essential to any Greatest Musical Moment? He’s simply too accessible.

Interestingly enough, Fall Out Boy was a band that was probably a part of this type of conversation for at least a few minutes between five and seven years ago. Think about it: Back when TRL still mattered and basically every boy with a sad attitude wanted to start a band, there probably wasn’t a bigger rock group around. Good Charlotte came and went. Warped Tours were divided into “The People Who Went to See Fall Out Boy, The Academy Is … and Taking Back Sunday” vs. “The People Who Went to See Less Than Jake, Bouncing Souls and NOFX.” Hair was dyed. Jeans were tight. Studded belts ruled. And suddenly, everyone was talking about Lifetime again, as though they were destined for a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

That’s why lead singer Patrick Stump’s recent rant on his website has caused the amount of notoriety it has. Twitter and all other social media blew up the night he decided to offer up “We Liked You Better Fat: Confessions of a Pariah”, an essay that wanders into woe-is-me territory, only to find a road that ultimately leads to the town of “Man, I kind of feel bad for this guy” (population one). It’s telling if only for how seemingly correct the singer proves to be. A few typos and misplaced commas notwithstanding, Stump allowed us to have a peak into the part of the rock star story called “When Nothing Works Anymore” way before VH1 got around to making a “Behind the Music” about the Chicago quartet. His words were poignant if not a little embarrassing — a cringe-worthy tome that left one friend of mine emailing me the following sentence: “One commenter wrote that it sounded like a suicide letter, and I think I agree… I hope the dude is ok.”

In fact, that seemed to be the most common take-away. Many more similar thoughts were left on Twitter. Some were angry. Some were sad. Rolling Stone took to their website to list the post as a top story the next morning with a headline that read “Patrick Stump: I’m a 27-Year-Old-Has-Been”. Stump’s site itself was flooded with comments, “likes” and links. The thing took on a life of its own — a life that felt both outraged and depressed.

But something was wrong with that equation. The knee-jerk feeling of empathy and compassion seemed a little too severe for how honest Stump’s words were. He wasn’t taking to his site to whine. He was taking to his site to let us all know exactly how aware he is of his own existence. It wasn’t a cry for help anymore than it was a look in the mirror. A very public look in the mirror, no doubt, though a look in the mirror nonetheless.

“… So when I went out into the world to show off the self I felt like I was happiest and most comfortable being,” Stump wrote about his debut solo album Soul Punk, “I suppose I knew there would be the “Haters” [I loathe the clumsy/insufficient word but it seems the most universal]; The elitists that would always prove impossible to please. … Those examples of ‘Haters’, were people who never liked me (or at least never liked my music) and, by all rights, never really should. Such is the way of things. Different strokes for different folks as it were. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fervor of the hate from people who were ostensibly my own supporters (or at least supporters of something I had been part of). The barrage of ‘We liked you better fat,’ the threatening letters to my home, the kids that paid for tickets to my solo shows to tell me how much I sucked without Fall Out Boy, that wasn’t something I suppose I was or ever will be ready for. That’s dedication.”

Dedicaton indeed.

I first wrote this months ago, though I think it bears repeating now: If you take the name “Patrick Stump” off Patrick Stump’s debut solo album, what do you have? You have a guy who clearly likes R&B-based pop music with all the glamour and flare a major label budget could provide, thus suggesting the following question: What’s so wrong with that?

Stump’s essay was nothing if it wasn’t accurate. He will never be able to start from the ground up. His band’s past literally makes that an impossibility. There are — for some unknown, seemingly irrational reasons — a large faction of people who will forever hate him and his band for what it was and what it became. The exact scene Fall Out Boy created with its arms race was the exact thing that led to this reality. Music fans are fickle in nature anyways. Being the lead singer in a band that prided itself on calling out those very short-minded fans in every forum possible, from magazine interviews to lyrics in hit songs, is a consequence that has become an inevitability.

The problem with Fall Out Boy became, and still is, the same problem that Stump or any of the other guys in that band will continue to face if not forever, for a very long time: Even if you actually bought the singer’s solo album (full disclosure, I did), and even if you actually grew to like it (full disclosure, I did), it would be credibility suicide if you ever admitted such an opinion to anyone other than a best friend or a family member. In fact, that last sentence probably made you think just a tiny bit less of me for even admitting such a thing. The same logic applied to Fall Out Boy before the band’s tenure came to an end. Even if you bought the band’s final effort, Folie A Deux (which I did), and even if you didn’t think it sucked (which I didn’t), you couldn’t really ever confide such a notion in someone whose respect you desired to attain.

Fall Out Boy is a band. That’s all they are and that’s all they were. They were loved by all the kids who thought they were smart enough to understand the bitterness, intelligence, angst and entendres more clearly than their peers. They were poppy enough to overshadow the mediocrity of song structure, yet edgy enough to never throw some acoustic guitar-driven ballad against the wall, hoping for a hit. At the end of the day, they were the pop rock equivalent of the television show House — something fun enough to keep our attention, smart enough to make us think we aren’t dummies and word-y enough to know that there is at least a little bit of substance and thought behind whatever it is that is being said.

Most importantly, though, Fall Out Boy was the product of a moment in musical time. They were the leaders of a craze about which most everyone knew had a shelf life. Singing about the fact that they knew it was all going to end sooner than later didn’t make that inevitable decline any less tragic or any less messy. Sure, they might have been smart enough to realize it was coming, but nobody — not even Madonna — has the brains to figure out how to avoid that ultimate fate. Patrick Stump’s recent revelations, meanwhile, prove that he’s still smart enough to see things coming. It wasn’t until these words were posted online, though, that he willingly admitted to the notion that he has no idea what to do about it.

It’s a shame, too, because Soul Punk isn’t a bad record by any stretch of the imagination. It’s simply the sound of a guy finally able to do something he’s clearly always wanted to do. Some might use the word “mature”. Others might use the phrase “grown up”. Most importantly, Patrick Stump, for the first time in his life, was finally able to use a word he has never been able to fully apply to any of the other musical work he has ever been involved with to describe the record, and that word was “his”.

The tragedy in this isn’t that Fall Out Boy might never make music again. In fact, it’s not even the outside chance that we’ll never hear from Patrick Stump again as a solo artist (yeah, the blog post was dark, but even he conceded that some of it may have been written as a reactionary display of emotions).

The worst part of it all is that Fall Out Boy have become the most recent reminder of exactly how fragile a life in music can be. That particular type of life’s instability is so unique that it has become nearly impossible to fully invest in an existence in, of, or around music itself.

And the more that music fans continue to judge artists based on an indefinable and always-changing system of credibility. And the more that artists continue to be stifled and dismissed because of a past of popular music, hit records or manufactured perceptions. And the more that we as a culture continue to disallow others to like or dislike any form of musical composition without casting opinions, judgments, assumptions or accusations upon those who dare enjoy listening to something we, as individuals, might not enjoy listening to …

… The less likely it is that we’ll ever have the opportunity to experience those kinds of Great Musical Moments generations before us were lucky enough to enjoy. And regardless of how idiosyncratically sad and true Patrick Stump’s words might have been, it wasn’t the first time — nor will it be the last time — that those kinds of phrases have been or will be uttered by someone who used to be able to make a living as a result of playing music.

And that’s the sad part. That’s the real tragedy.