FOBMC #7: "Mania"
MAKE GOOD MUSIC OR DON'T
Welcome to the final installment of the Fall Out Boy Music Club! It’s the official fall of Fall Out Boy here at Friendmendations analyzing the discography of Chicago’s angstiest export. Share the link on social media! Get all your former emo friends to join the club!
Previously, we’ve discussed Take This to Your Grave, From Under the Cork Tree, Infinity on High, Folie à Deux, Save Rock and Roll, and American Beauty/American Psycho (plus the debut of their protégés, Panic! at the Disco.) Today we reach the end.
The most interesting thing about Fall Out Boy’s Mania is that the band was sued for improper use of llama puppets during the album’s promotion.
Furry Puppet Studio Inc. claimed that they’d created and licensed the llamas for use in one Fall Out Boy video, Mania lead single “Young And Menace.” Fall Out Boy used the llamas in other music videos, in concerts, on television appearances, on merch, and as the figureheads for a bonus EP called Llamania. As uncomfortable as I am taking the side of a company called Furry Puppet, I think they’re in the right. “The llamas took on a life of their own,” the lawsuit alleges.
Stylized M A N I A, which I certainly won’t, Fall Out Boy’s 2018 album didn’t take on much life otherwise. Its first song on is called “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea” and features the lyric “I’m about to go Tonya Harding on the whole world’s knee.” I don’t know why I expected better at this point. You play stupid games, you win stupid prizes, and I have volunteered for the world’s stupidest game.
There’s an obvious dividing line in Fall Out Boy’s discography, the four-year hiatus between Folie à Deux and Save Rock and Roll. On their first four albums, the group experimented with styles but remained anchored to an emo/pop-punk sound. (See their 2009 greatest hits album Believers Never Die for a sampler.) Post-hiatus, the band that I’ve proposed calling Radioactive Man has put out full-on pop albums. There are guitars, usually, but the albums play with the trends currently on pop radio and their songs are constructed as pop songs. (See their 2019 greatest hits album Believers Never Die: Volume Two.)
The distinction is so clear and so linked to the Folie à Deux cycle that I wonder what would have happened if that album had been better received. Maybe Fall Out Boy would have broken up entirely, unable to reach consensus on a direction for another ambitious, strange album. Or maybe they would have taken some time off anyway, but regrouped with the intention of reaching greater artistic heights. We’ll never know. Their reunion was explicitly a reaction against Folie’s contentious creation process and negative reception. In an interview discussing their new sound, Patrick said, “I think that’s the thing when you’re younger as an artist you get this idea in your head that complexity equals quality. The more notes you’re playing, the better.” In what seems to be a mea culpa for Folie’s complexity, he added, “I think, sometimes, when you have lyrics that are thought-provoking, it can be kind of dangerous to push the music too far because it can kind of distract from those. So we wanted to make something to let the lyrics breathe a little more.”
It’s true that Patrick’s dedication to crafting catchy melodies could be at odds with Pete’s lyrics, something I noted as far back as Cork Tree. But I don’t see how their new, simpler style helps things. Post-hiatus, the melodies and lyrics just feel dumber. Look at the construction of a song like “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea:” a verse made of just four lines, a pre-chorus, a chorus, another short verse, and then the pre-chorus and chorus repeated until the song is over. Even the bridge is just the pre-chorus at a different tempo. Look at the lyrics themselves: simple, meaningless, with frequent repetition. Verse one, for instance, ends with “And I’m stuck, night vision, so stuck, night vision / But I come to life, come to life.” Compare that to lyrics like “Am I more than you bargained for yet? / I’ve been dying to tell you anything you wanna hear / cuz that’s just who I am this week.” Though the melody of “Sugar We’re Goin Down” made it a hit song on the pop charts, the lines are denser, using more words and conveying more complex emotional ideas. Pop doesn’t have to mean stupid. You should still have to work at making art.
Despite the title, the album isn’t particularly manic. It’s not particularly anything. I’ve listened to it over and over while writing this, and I can’t remember a single melody from any song on the album. It sounds like listening to Top 40 radio if every song featured Patrick Stump snarling and wailing. Burna Boy shows up on one song, but I can’t analyze that because I cannot focus on the song even when I’m listening to it. My brain just goes blank. For the first time in the band’s career, co-writers are credited on Fall Out Boy songs. You’d think that outside influences would add some life to the songs, but you’d be wrong. Sia contributed her writing skills for nothing.
Certain moments from Mania stand out, and usually not in a good way. “I wonder if your therapist knows everything about me” is a funny line. “My head is stripped just like a screw that’s been tightened too many times” is not as good. “When your stitch comes loose, I wanna sleep on every piece of fuzz and stuffing that comes out of you” is just upsetting. Boring throwback soul song “Heaven’s Gate” — which is not about a cult, despite the title — starts with the line “One look from you and I’m on that faded love,” something that Patrick Stump should never earnestly say.
Elsewhere, things that should be noteworthy aren’t, because they’ve all been done before. Patrick barks a lyric in French on the opening track, but he did the same thing on the opening track of American Beauty/American Psycho. “Young and Menace” features EDM influences, as had “Death Valley” on Save Rock and Roll five years earlier. Where they’re not imitating themselves, the band simply steals from other parts of pop culture. One song’s chorus is built around the line “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color,” a quote from Wednesday Addams in the 1991 Addams Family movie. The video for “The Last of the Real Ones” is a shot-for-shot remake of Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” video, but with llamas.
What else? The video for “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T” features a Día de los Muertos celebration that seems culturally appropriative to me, as none of the band members are Mexican and the lead actress in the video is a blonde white woman in sugar skull makeup. It’s not a good video or a good song. One song features the line “Oops, I did it again,” a vestige from an earlier draft that continued “I’ve got my head shaved and my umbrella out.” (“Britney Spears is a mirror we hold up to pop culture: We build her up, tear her down, root for her or against her,” he explained, “I think it says so much more about us as a culture than it does about Britney herself.” I agree! I also agree with his decision to cut the lyric: “I took it out because I don’t feel comfortable talking about what someone else has been through, and it was more-so that we all feel that way, but some people have to do that in a public way.”) My one genuine compliment of the entire Mania album cycle is that I liked the video for “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes).” It’s fun! They’re not trying and failing at executing something high-concept, as they often do, and there’s no Sarah Palin impersonator or anything.
Perhaps the biggest problem with post-hiatus FOB albums, worse than the watered-down sound and unoriginal ideas, is that they don’t seem to be about anything. The band’s early albums had obvious themes. They were about bad relationships, self-loathing, a desire for glory and fascination with fame. Post-hiatus, though, they just write songs. There are anthems for the sake of anthems and love songs that are simply about love, and none of them contain real details to color anything in.
I don’t really know how I should feel, because Pete Wentz was very good at writing songs about being emotionally abusive to teenage girls, but God knows I don’t want any more of that. Despite the darkness behind the scenes, Fall Out Boy’s songs originally resonated with young people because of the emotional, confessional lyrics set to moving, addictive music. But these songs aren’t about anything, so they don’t seem to be for anyone. Fall Out Boy hasn’t aged with their original audience — millennials who bought Cork Tree aren’t streaming Mania, even for nostalgia’s sake, because it doesn’t remind them of the band they liked in the first place. Are they still writing for the youth? I’d argue that they’re failing, because Mania was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Album. You know you’re out of touch when the Grammys consider you a noteworthy rock act. Pete would disagree — in a handwritten note posted to Instagram, said that the nomination was for “the kids.”
A post shared by Pete Wentz (@petewentz)
This year, the duo 100 gecs released 1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues, a remix album of their debut album 1000 Gecs. 100 gecs makes hyperpop seizure music for chaotic Gen-Z gremlins. They take every genre that they like and warp it through computer settings, throwing in samples and sounds that shouldn’t end up on final tracks but do. The melody and emotion of the verses in their song “hand crushed by a mallet” was obviously inspired by the golden age of emo, the stuff that Laura Les and Dylan Brady would have on their iPods in the LimeWire days, but that idea is characteristically layered under boops and glitches in a song that has a trap breakdown. So for the remix album, they enlisted Fall Out Boy to take on the verse.
Fall Out Boy appears on just 45 seconds of this song and yet they sound more like themselves than they have in years. Patrick knocks the vocals out of the park, and the addition of guitars and drums improves upon the original in every way. 100 gecs didn’t reach out to Fall Out Boy because they liked “Uma Thurman.” They wanted them to nail the sound that they excel at. I don’t know if we’ll ever hear that sound again. That 100 gecs reached out to them shows that there’s nostalgia for it, and that they made an impact on pop culture.
Maybe Mania was the end of Fall Out Boy. I hope not. I’d prefer them to go out with a bang than a whimper, and Mania was nothing but a whimper. But the men in Fall Out Boy are older and richer now, and Pete Wentz has gone to therapy. They can never be the same band who made Take This To Your Grave. But I still feel like they could be the same band who made Folie à Deux. They don’t have to be purely pop-punk and they certainly don’t have to appear on the radio. They could just make interesting music. Give us one more hardcore-influenced, catchy, classic album! One that doesn’t hate women! Do it for the kids!
Or maybe the should just give up! They still make hits and still have fans, so they can still tour when the world allows it again, but I wonder if their hearts are in it. Most of the band members are dads now. They have the freedom to tinker with other projects and ideas. Joe and Andy are in a few other groups, and just this year, Joe created a cartoon series with some friends that he and Patrick scored. Good for them.
I think emo is due for a resurgence, and Fall Out Boy doesn’t need to be a part of it. Maybe this time the scene won’t be as misogynistic, and maybe it will combine other styles more organically than Fall Out Boy ever did. Maybe no teenage girls’ psyches will be damaged in the making of their albums. Maybe I could enjoy the music without cringing at stupid lyrics. Maybe the world has moved past the need for Fall Out Boy. Thanks for the memories, boys, even if they weren’t so great. I think we could find someone who sounds like you, only sweeter.
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