How Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” became the best song for a bad time
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The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
Jimmy Eat World was playing at my house.
Okay, so it wasn’t a house. Around 1996, some friends and I lived and put on shows in a century-old warehouse made of crumbling brick that defied zoning laws and gravity. Back then, Denver was just beginning to undergo massive revitalization. Downtown still held many pockets of squalor and architectural decrepitude. Our warehouse was one of them. All sorts of bands played there, both local and national, but they were all of the DIY variety—punk, hardcore, indie rock, whatever felt right for us. They booked their own tours, often released their own records, and always played with force and passion, regardless of whether they strummed acoustic guitars or melted faces with a wall of full stacks.
It was the kind of venue that Jimmy Eat World usually played circa 1996. The band formed in Arizona in ’93 as a pop-punk band, sounding vaguely like NOFX or Face To Face—that is, like almost every suburban teenage punk band of the era. That spunky youthfulness can be heard on Jimmy Eat World, the group’s first CD from 1994. It’s long been out of print, and there’s a good reason for it. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t represent what the band would become. And yet, in a way, it does.
When Jimmy Eat World played at my house—which it did about a half-dozen times—the group was already evolved into something far more dynamic and mature. Every time Jimmy Eat World came through town, it seemed like a new band. The songs grew longer and darker. Raspy frontman Tom Linton was being gradually superseded by his fellow singer-guitarist, the clean-toned Jim Adkins. By its own admission, Jimmy Eat World was absorbing a taut, moody complexity from outfits like the emo legend Christie Front Drive (which released a split single with Jimmy Eat World, and whose bassist Kerry McDonald was one of my warehouse-mates in Denver) and San Diego’s post-hardcore powerhouse Drive Like Jehu. It was no surprise that Drive Like Jehu’s Mark Trombino produced Jimmy Eat World’s 1996 major-label debut, Static Prevails, or that Christie Front Drive’s Eric Richter sang backup on it.
Also not surprising: the fact that the album tanked. At the time, Jimmy Eat World’s biggest influences were either defunct or hitting a very low glass ceiling, even within the DIY punk scene. To think that referencing obscure bands like Christie Front Drive and Drive Like Jehu could somehow catapult one to widespread fame seems ridiculous in hindsight, but such was the perverse climate of the ’90s alt-rock boom. As with so many punk bands that signed to a major during that decade, Jimmy Eat World gained precious few new fans—and lost many old ones—with Static Prevails.
Clarity followed in 1999, but it also failed to find a wide audience. To the world at large, emo had yet to become a buzzword, let alone a punch line. Even the sweet, soaring atmosphere of tracks like “Lucky Denver Mint”—which could almost be an early Coldplay song—couldn’t find a mainstream foothold. Ironically, I didn’t get to hear Jimmy Eat World play “Lucky Denver Mint” at my warehouse in Denver. By that time, the band was playing legitimate venues and aiming for a bigger audience.
It finally found one. After being dropped from Capitol Records and self-funding the recording of its fourth album, Jimmy Eat World signed to DreamWorks and released Bleed American in the summer of 2001. On it was a cute little song called “The Middle.”
Oh, how I loathed that goddamn song. When I first heard it, I did a double take. That was Adkins’ voice, all right. Beyond that, I can’t recognize a single element of Jimmy Eat World anywhere in “The Middle.” The chord progression came out of a can. The lyrics were teen-angst boilerplate. It was stupidly simple, inanely upbeat. Even worse, it was everywhere—an earworm that bore its way into my skull from passing cars and random televisions. Before, Jimmy Eat World had been uttered in the same breath as Sunny Day Real Estate. Now it was lumped in with Unwritten Law.
Bleed American got a boost after 9/11. It became one of many albums—including The Strokes’ Is This It and The Coup’s Party Music—that were modified soon after the attack so as not to further traumatize a wounded nation. Bleed American was changed to Jimmy Eat World, making it the band’s third self-titled disc (a 1998 EP also bore the name); the title track was retitled “Salt Sweat Sugar.” The notoriety helped draw attention to the album, which eventually went platinum and at last established Jimmy Eat World as a success.
“The Middle” received a different kind of post-9/11 boost, though. Viewed through the horrific lens of the attack’s aftermath, the lyrics of “The Middle” aren’t cheesy at all. Okay, so maybe they’re still the cheesiest thing ever written, but sometimes cheese is called for. “Hey, don’t write yourself off yet,” singsongs Adkins softly over a muted, almost purring riff. “It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on / Just try your best, try everything you can / And don't you worry what they tell themselves when you’re away.”
Then the chorus kicks in, instantly eradicating any hope that you’ll ever get “The Middle” unstuck from your brain: “It just takes some time / Little girl you’re in the middle of the ride / Everything, everything will be just fine / Everything, everything will be alright, alright.” The power-pop guitar sass, the Cheap Trick-esque solo, the precious little breaths Adkins takes between lines: They’re all nauseatingly perfect. And perfectly euphoric.
It makes sense that in times of tragedy, people look for something safe and familiar to cling to. After all, it’s one of music’s great strengths. “The Middle” fits the bill, and then some. Jimmy Eat World may have been mostly unknown when “The Middle” was released, but the song itself is as comfortable—and as comforting—as a pep talk from a big brother.
That pep talk, though, might as well be aimed at Jimmy Eat World. When Adkins sings, “Don’t worry about what the bitter hearts are gonna say,” it’s as if he’s trying to reassure his band—and himself—that the all the haters from the old warehouse days don’t matter. The only way is up, even if Jimmy Eat World couldn’t have been lower when “The Middle” was written. Even the song’s title hints at the band’s impossible situation at the time. Adkins and crew were stuck: neither underground nor popular, neither emo nor pop-punk, without a label, and seemingly wanted by no one. The song’s power comes from its universality; the reassuring lyrics and happy-sad melody are vague enough to let the listener fill in the blanks.
I can’t remember exactly when I stopped hating “The Middle,” let alone when I started loving it. My feelings toward the song have evolved as gradually as Jimmy Eat World’s music. When I hear it today, though, it’s an utter heartbreaker—an aching rush of elation, bittersweet nostalgia, and even a bit of shame for having turned my back on these guys. I was never close friends with them, but I feel I should have given them the benefit of the doubt. Lesson learned; “A” for regret. If that sounds terribly emo of me, well, I guess I can’t argue.
As much as it hurts to admit, I got caught up in the whole sellout fervor. The debate about selling out has been rehashed to death over the decades, and Jimmy Eat World has been at the center of a fair share of those arguments. The bottom line, though, is this: “The Middle” is a pop-punk song written by a band that started out making pop-punk songs. Granted, “The Middle” isn’t raw, fast, and sloppy like 1994’s Jimmy Eat World. But the spirit is the same. “The Middle” wasn’t a sellout. It was a return to form, one made by a band that had a lot more wisdom, scars, and songwriting talent than it did seven years prior—and a band that was in a position where do or die looked like the only options.
Today, Jimmy Eat World is still going strong. It’s even become an elder states-band that’s outlasted the emo trend it unwittingly inspired. Bleed American is a classic in its genre; it’s been given the deluxe reissue treatment and played in its entirety during a few concerts last year. Looking back, it’s clear to me now what really bugged me about the “The Middle” when it came out: It marked the point where Jimmy Eat World stopped being part of my little DIY world and started being part of everyone else’s. But that’s okay. In the days after 9/11, people needed songs like that. They always do, myself included.
It’s not like I hang out in warehouses anymore, either. I moved out of mine a long time ago. With all the renewal that’s been going on in Denver over the past 15 years, I expect I’ll stroll down that block any day now to see my old place demolished and replaced with a sparkling new high-rise. Buildings come down sometimes, whether they deserve to or not. But as long as there are songs like “The Middle” to help us remember what stood there, maybe everything will be all right.