After briefly contemplating the uninspired choices on our junior prom theme song ballot, my friend Ben and I proposed a write-in campaign for the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma.” No one heeded our endorsement. Instead, the Cure’s moody popsong “Just Like Heaven” somehow defeated more obvious candidate “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s hit from that summer’s Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Rumor was the field hockey team got out the vote for the Cure. But within days, the election had been vacated: someone’s mom had objected to the winning theme song, the new rumor went, on the grounds that it was “about suicide.”
Those of us who’d spent some solitary evenings with earlier Cure LPs Faith and Pornography found it a little tough to see much darkness in this varsity-approved, soft-goth iteration of the Cure. By 1987, the band had mostly renounced doom and gloom, and only the bracing shimmer of the analog string synth in “Just Like Heaven” recalled those earlier records. The song’s chiming, rosewater guitar riff, its tinkling piano solo, and its lyrics—“I promise that I’ll run away with you,” “why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you,” and “you’re just like a dream”—seemed aimed right at the hearts of fragile fourteen-year-olds. That said, we were mostly fragile sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Halfway through sophomore year, without explanation, one of my friends stopped showing up to school and quit talking to us, and after that we saw him only in his driveway, shooting baskets: when another friend tried to visit him shortly after he’d begun his retreat, he didn’t get out of bed, and my friend reported that “there were Legos on his floor.”
Like every high school, mine had the kid who OD’ed, the girl who was molested on the schoolbus, the one who died in a drunk-driving crash, the date rapists, the bulimics, the institutionalized, the gay-bashers, the druggies, the depressives, the bullies and the bullied, each person’s story complicated and unknowable and unique even though outwardly it resembled some clichéd teen drama: one mom’s crusade against a song she thought invoked suicide would not help us. Still, that mom’s complaint trumped the collective will of Doherty Memorial High School’s junior class, so we were left with the vapid promotion of teen sex (“With my body and soul / I want you more than you’ll ever know // So we’ll just let it go / Don’t be afraid to lose control”) and a song that might drive us to suicide, even if it didn’t describe it.
Ben and I’d been born three years early for a perfect write-in candidate. Unrest elaborated the snippet of fictional song “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It!)” from the movie Heathers (“They’re playing our song,” Christian Slater’s character tells Winona Ryder’s, before drawing a pistol and shooting the radio) into their own downer version with expanded lyrics: “Staring at a razor blade / from all of these things I was made…” In Unrest’s ominous take, the overdriven guitar and punchy bass repeat a descending, dead-end riff. The thumping, compulsive beat isn’t really danceable, just strangely stirring. The song’s satire, like the film’s, resists simple decoding, but the nihilistic, sing-along chorus feels empowering: “Teenage suicide / Don’t do it // Teenage suicide / Yes, I can!”
The most terrible words of those years, spoken at us first by teachers and parents, but eventually, and most damningly, by our own peers and friends, were “Grow up.” This imperative connoted not only the speaker’s belief in the superiority of his or her status to ours, but also the socially-approved necessity that we murder our most irresponsible selves if we too wanted to achieve such superior status. Worse, these words foretold our coming capitulations to routinized labor and lives we were already anesthetizing ourselves against at weekend keggers in the woods above Newton Square, at parties at someone’s absent parents’ house, and by shutting ourselves away in our rooms and turning up the music on our headphones. Rock music, until it starts earning a profit, is generally made by teenagers (or the recently-teenaged) for teenagers, and its simple 4/4 rhythms almost always pound out a refusal of something, especially the refusal of maturity. My parents’ generation, not mine, turned Jack Weinberg’s warning “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” into a catchphrase, but we agreed—especially when our over-thirty parents who’d once affirmed that slogan now expected our trust.
Whoever’s busybody, censorious mom believed that changing our prom theme song—especially to one as vile and trite as “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”—would lead us to embrace life instead of death had herself grown up too much, had forgotten that to be a social being amid late capitalism is perpetually to annihilate one’s inner self, the self that contemplates other, better options than those the market provides. I don’t think many of my equally cynical peers saw prom night involving “dreams” or “souls”; mostly, it was an excuse to get wasted and have frantic sex in a hotel room, and to wake up feeling—and thus being—transformed.
After the prom I dropped off my date, changed out of my rented tux, and rode around with friends until dawn, eventually using the car to bash a mall parking lot’s abandoned shopping carts over a guardrail and into a drainage ditch. My laughter as Seth nestled the front bumper square against the back of a cart, accelerated from zero to fifty miles an hour, and then stomped the brakes was, perhaps, the clearest indicator of my self-imposed exile from the grown-up, time-of-one’s-life-having, suicide-denying world: I could never imagine that a single spring night in my teenage years would be the best my life would offer me, would make my inevitable disappointments and travails all worth it in the end.