“Yell Like Hell to the Heavens”: Japandroids, Summer, and the Struggle for Vitality

Japandroids, loving with a legendary fire. Pic from the Dallas Observer.

Japandroids’ forthcoming album Celebration Rock opens and closes with the crackle of fireworks. This feels appropriate. The record is a screaming meditation on vitality. Its punk rock riffs and killer hooks create a sonic backdrop for the seizing of days, the carpeing of diems, and the sweaty pursuit of a life led intensely. It is, essentially, a summer album in the most authentic sense of the term. If you think of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream as the lightweight musical analog of Can’t Hardly Wait, then Celebration Rock is Dazed and Confused. It’s honest and it’s earnest, and it’s ashamed to be neither.

The idea of summer is tied up with the fist-in-the-air viscerality that the Vancouver-based duo evokes in songs like “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” where they unabashedly “yell like hell to the heavens.” It’s the season where we’re most aware of our bodies. We sweat. We swim. We show more skin. And, for many of us, our bonds with one another tighten. Cookouts, picnics in the park, free concerts, and rooftop parties dissolve the social cocoons that the winter had sewed around us. Physically and spiritually, we feel more alive, more visceral.

In America, at least, summer is also linked with youth. It’s about the last day of school and hard bodies on the beach. We’re making a mistake, though, if give young folks some exclusive claim to the hot vitality that summer embodies. A lot of what passes for maturity is the surrender of this electrified connection to life. We’re expected to grow jaded, knowing, and cynical, you know, grow more “adult.” You see this in the snide Baby Boomer responses to young people’s demands for meaningful work, as if the desire to spend the better part of our waking hours in pursuit of something rewarding is naive at best, narcissistic at worst. Don’t the kids know that work is supposed to be alienating?! The old look at their own dissatisfaction with their jobs and their own separation from their passions and they comfort themselves by insisting that this is just the way things are, that anyone who questions the game that they’ve spent their lives playing must be spoiled child. Once you reach a certain age (24, maybe 25 at the latest) you’re expected to smother your passions or, if you’re one of lucky few, configure a way to monetize them. Vitality, we’re told, is a young person’s game.

I don’t buy it. There is nothing inherently youthful about vitality. Youth is just the period life where this vitality is socially sanctioned, a safe-zone for passion before we learn to be embarrassed by such frivolity.

I’m 26 now. Brian King and David Prowse, the constituent parts of Japandroids, are closing in on 30. All three of us have been given a temporary reprieve from the deadening march toward faux-maturity, me by a grad program that provides me a stipend and the social cover to evade cubicle life, they by the modest but real commercial success of their last album, Post-Nothing. Most of the folks in our peer group aren’t so lucky. They’ve either braved the ugly job market and eked out some employment that could be called gainful (monetarily, at least), or, like a Wookiee in a trash compactor, they’re watching the walls of parental and cultural disapproval inch ever closer, threatening to crush them into a hyperconcentrated lump of self-loathing or worse, an entry-level paper pusher. Passions are acceptable only if we’re polite enough to keep them to ourselves. “You burn away your dreams inside a journal,” King sings in “Evil’s Sway,” “but you leave those primal words unsaid.”

That touchstone of the mature classes, Nothing was Handed to Me on a Platter. Art by Kevin TS Tang.

I don’t frequently find occasion to quote CS Lewis, but I also don’t know if anybody has delivered a more succinct skewering of maturity cudgel wielded against those who dare to imagine. Lewis writes:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Maturity is not checking off boxes on a to-do list (got a decent paying job, check; got married, check; bought a house, check). It’s coming to understand yourself and your human capacities, and trying to fulfill those capacities in a way that’s morally responsible and socially useful. From my vantage, the young woman with two roommates who uses her bookstore job to fund her next folk-rock EP is more mature than the married guy who hates his middle-management job at an HMO. She has the insight to know what she wants and the courage to pursue it. He justifies his own fear with self-serving appeals to social convention. When Japandroids called him to “come and find me in this moment / and expose a passionate man for what he is,” he balked.

I’m not saying that we all need to be professional artists, although I do think the national happiness quotient would swell if more of us were making art. Some folks can be happy with white-collar work. Rumor has it that cubicles don’t make everyone want to lace their necktie into a noose and hang themselves. If you’ve got a day job that makes you happy and maybe does a little bit of good, congrats! But if not, screw it. The sapping of our vitality isn’t an inevitability of growing up. My generation gets a lot of shit for thinking we’re all special little snowflakes, each of us unique and important. Well you know what? We are. I am. And you are, too, whether you’re 23 or 63. You’re a human being, and its not an abomination to insist that your life have meaning. It’s your birthright. The Declaration of Independence didn’t demand the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of an unfulfilling job that gets your dad off your back.” Under advice from Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson actively chose “the pursuit of happiness” instead of “property,” yet in our culture, property is still considered more sacred. The pursuit of happiness should be an animating principle of our political life. Universal health care and a strong social safety net aren’t good only for keeping our bodies healthy and roofs over our heads. They’re good because they buttress the base levels on our hierarchy of needs and make it easier to concentrate of self-actualization.

It’s summertime. The weather is warm and the trees are green. The air smells fat and wet, and on some nights, you can catch the gun powder scent of fireworks like the ones that bracket Celebration Rock. It’s a season for grilling, and for protest. There are parties to attend, concerts to go to (Japandroids play New York on 6/27 and 6/28), and–knock on wood–novels to finish. It could be beautiful. In the album closer “Continuous Thunder,” King sings, “The heart’s terrain is never a prairie / but you weren’t wary.” This summer, let’s allow our hearts to be the craggy, mysterious, and utterly unique mountains that they want to be. Let’s not try to flatten them into prairies. Let’s not be wary. Let’s follow the Japandroids’ lead and struggle to “love with a legendary fire.”

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