I don’t remember when I first heard the Wonder Years. I remember exactly where I was and the lyric that made me a fan. I was on a flight from Alaska in 2018, having just visited my sister’s family. In the kind of sleep-deprived haze that happens on a Red Eye back to the East Coast, I heard the voice of Dan Campbell cry out, “I don’t want my children growing up to be anything like me.” I had to play it back twice to ensure I heard it right. I was seated, and I still felt my body buckle. My own kids were fairly young at that moment, and I don’t think I had ever heard a lyric so succinctly summarize everything I knew to be true about myself and my relationship to fatherhood.
I soon learned that the song containing that lyric, “Passing Through a Screen Door”, falls second on what is arguably the Wonder Years’ opus, 2013’s The Greatest Generation. None of the band members were parents then, but that hardly mattered. Over 13 songs, the band narrates coming to terms with family, relationships, depression—especially depression—and the meaning of life in 21st-century America.
I came of age in the 1990s punk scene, and as much as I feel completely at home in the genre, I had never heard anything like The Greatest Generation. Sure, it had all the markers of pop-punk—a style I effectively stopped listening to for over a decade because, well, I went off to earn a Ph.D., and then I became a professor, and then I was a father. The Wonder Years began in 2005; I was thinking about historiography for the most part then. In the time since I’ve lived in five states and multiple places within them.
I missed when their early sound cohered into 2010’s The Upsides and 2011’s Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing. I may have heard songs from The Greatest Generation, and 2015’s No Closer to Heaven. Still, I certainly didn’t know what the Wonder Years were saying—arguing—about American society’s shape and its citizens’ place within it. (I showed up in time for 2018’s Sister Cities.) I saw enough live music in those years but not much in the way of newer and younger bands. Who had time to keep up, especially with a genre made for teenagers?
I was wrong to think that way. As I’ve understood what I missed, I realize that the Wonder Years’ music reminds me of where I came from. It isn’t just in the sense of the genealogy of their music or my own connection to it. It isn’t nostalgia, either. The band today claims Philadelphia most proudly as its home, just as I am proud that I was born in that city. But the band members are from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and points adjacent—the same northern suburbs of Philadelphia where I had spent the first six years of my life (Hatfield), before my family moved to Bethlehem. I’m a few years older than the guys in the Wonder Years, but we might easily have gone to the same massive high school. References to places I know well around the greater Philadelphia area mark their entire catalog.
So far as I’m aware, the Wonder Years aren’t former evangelical Christians like so many of us who learned – thanks to evangelical author James Dobson’s sacralized authoritarianism and various incarnations of purity culture and neo-Calvinist patriarchy and the Reagan-era synthesis of God and trickle-down capitalism – to hate ourselves in Jesus’ name. That’s not exactly what The Greatest Generation is about, but no band I was familiar with had made so plain their desire to be seen, known, and loved while at the same time explaining what it was like to walk through life feeling damned by the fact of their existence.
I, too, believed “I was born to run away from anything good” in my life. I was reliably “lost in my head”, anxious about saying the right thing or “laughing at the right time”. I worried about “the devil in my bloodstream” inherited from generations before. One of the core lines framing the record, “I know how it feels to be at war with a world that never loved me”, might as well have been a personal mantra. I can’t say I had thought much about whether or not “I wanted to die in the [Philly] suburbs”, but I surely knew what it was to be from a place with “snow-plowed mountains in the parking lots of churches”—and having earned a paycheck in seven or eight states by that point, southeastern Pennsylvania was the only place I truly felt like I belonged.
I don’t know how many times I prayed, “Jesus Christ, did I fuck up?” But I also knew “no god was coming to save me” in my material world. Somehow, that also didn’t seem like “the worst news of the day”. While the notion of heaven provided some people the sustenance to endure the travail of living, I could never understand how the ambition to escape this mortal coil offered anything but cruel indifference toward the here and now. Any version of the good news that I had experienced usually came with a substantial side of bad news.
Many musicians have crafted virtuosic testaments to their own sense of failure and self-loathing, and if that’s all The Greatest Generation was, I’m not sure how much there would be to say about it. Instead, it remains a vulnerable document of the struggle of living with pain and suffering and the desire to overcome it through loving relationships and empathetic communities. This idea is woven throughout the record, especially as Campbell describes his memories with his grandmother and his desire to be present with his hospitalized grandfather. It also appears as he reads his Missourian great-grandfather’s memoirs and reflects on his teenage parents who worked graveyard shifts and provided for his childhood with hand-me-down clothes and kerosene-fueled heat.
At some point after World War II, Americans were told to valorize that generation as having done something great. By the time of my teenage years in the ’90s, the idea had become a kind of orthodoxy, enshrined by the priestcraft of a famous Silent Generation newscaster and his Baby Boomer followers: their parents were the greatest. If the claim was a historical and a lie, it was a teleological statement as much as it was one about declension. The so-called “Greatest Generation” proved American history’s apogee.
For my Generation X, the Millennials who made The Greatest Generation or the Gen Z kids coming of age in the second decade of the 21st century, we could do no better; we could only do worse. The Wonder Years seem to make the case that things have only become worse by some measures. Ever since World War II, Americans have been promised consumption-fulfilled dreams. Thus, in pursuing those dreams, which will self-evidently be made manifest by productivity, efficiency, and capital accumulation, they have gutted every aspect of the social contract that makes life worth living. The human cost is incidental to the bottom line, and if there’s, say, a new housing crisis every decade or so, well, that’s just the price of living in America.
The individual sense of depression that appears in every song of The Greatest Generation cannot be abstracted from the material conditions that birthed it. The album documents the aimlessness and loneliness of 21st-century American life, narrating what it is to grow up poor in a land of plenty, watching talented friends from nearby cul-de-sacs get lost in painkillers and disappear, seeing the ghosts of what could have been at every turn, wishing life would get better—and knowing all too well that it may not.
But then, all sorts of terrible things are true about every era in American history. Rather than pretend our ancestors somehow escaped the burdens of humanity, in the ears of this historian, the genius of The Greatest Generation is its outright rejection of the notion that any generation is “greater” than any other. We all have the capacity to be “great”, but not because of our accidents of birth in place and time. Rather, it is because we desire and can build meaningful connections and relationships with people in our lives.
In the songs on The Greatest Generation, Campbell’s great-grandfather, grandparents, and parents occupy central roles because of their love—not because they fought in wars or because of some simplistic notion of respect due to elders. And especially not because of the nostalgic impulse to venerate the past, which, as we know all too well in our time, can quickly turn to fascism in the hands of those who imagine an American World War II generation that never existed. We might come from places “filled with love and industry”, as Campbell describes his great-grandfather’s Midwest earlier on the record. Still, those places were also “hollow” and environmentally degraded by our forebears (in that case, who “wiped out all the buffalo”). There is no going home and no glory in bygone ages. Life moves on, and it’s up to us to live that life, not the one we imagine as greater that came before our time.
Nowhere is that point clearer than the record’s final track, “I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral”. In a seven-minute-plus tour de force that interpolates eight previous songs, we get The Greatest Generation’s thesis: the value of a life is measured by those who honor it at the end. As guitarist Matt Brasch intones, “bury me in the memories of my friends and family. I just need to know that they were proud of me.” Death is part of life. It is easy to get hung up on the unromantic fact of our pain, suffering, and mortality and miss that, in the meantime, what we have is those we love and who love us in return. Our failure to do that, or to see that—because we “blame the way we were brought up, the flaws we were born with, the mistakes we’ve made”—“they’re all just fucking excuses” to avoid actually living into the relationships we hold dear.
As the final word on The Greatest Generation has it, the best we can do is know that “we did all we could with what we were given.” Some of us spend years studying history before we realize that as much as many of us yearn for transcendence, temporality, and connection is what gives our lives meaning. I realized the Wonder Years said it better than any historian could. I still don’t want my children to grow up to be anything like me. But that comes less from a sense of depressive defeat than it does a sense of hope for their own flourishing. Of course, my children can transcend their families and context no more than anyone else can.
Perhaps because of who her father is, my daughter has become one of the world’s biggest Wonder Years fans at the age of 12. After a few years of her asking when she could join me at a Wonder Years show, I drove her from Knoxville to Charlotte—a good reminder of how far I am from the Philadelphia context that inspired so many frames of reference—this past Friday to see the band on their ten-year anniversary tour for The Greatest Generation.
Some moments are gifts. We should recognize them for what they are—and most importantly, who we share them with. This was one of those. There was something profound about watching my daughter bounce around and sing every word of every song on The Greatest Generation and every word of the eight or nine other songs they played. I’m fairly confident that she doesn’t relate to the band in the ways I do, but that’s all beside the point. Art is art, and community is community. It’s beautiful to know you belong somewhere and you find yourself in great music. I imagine one day I will learn more about how she thinks about the Wonder Years, beyond the fact that, as she excitedly put it, “they rocked so hard”.