It really seemed at the time like “What’s My Age Again” was the song that quintessentially captured the Blink-182 mindset; the breakthrough into genuine mainstream popularity that was Enema of the State was shot through with a kind of young adulthood arrested development. “I never want to act my age,” as Mark Hoppus sung with near-bathetic near-poignancy in the song’s outro. “Why would you wish that on me?”
But holding “What’s My Age Again” as a mission statement for its creators is an unsatisfying interpretation, and focusing on that tune really seems to sidestep the genuine intent of this record. Instead, look to an oft-forgotten non-single toward the end of the album for a better indication of what’s really going on with this band on the album that, along with Green Day’s Dookie, is the commercial peak of ’90s pop-punk. (I suppose I should mention Smash as the third component of the triptych.)
"Wendy Clear" is an unusual tune in the Blink-182 catalogue, partly because it’s opaque in a way this band is usually not, but moreso because, in its tone of voice and its outlook, it is decidedly adult. Though it’s as peppy as a TRL-approved pop-punk tune was required to be a decade ago, its lyrics are weary and inward-looking. "Let’s take your boat out on the bay, forgot your job for just one day," Hoppus proposes, sounding, for once, like a man in his late-twenties from suburban San Diego, one with a career, a private life, and frustrations that have nothing to do with a compulsion to juvenalia. The song is about a relationship that can’t be properly realized because of unspecified but apparently mundane circumstances (the back story regards an anonymous woman who works in the record industry): the sort of romance that doesn’t happen merely because it doesn’t happen. "Why do I want what I can’t get/I wish it didn’t have to be so bad."
I think “Wendy Clear” is so important in the context of this record because its plain maturity is so singular in contrast to the tunes surrounding it. Contrary to the arrested development theory, that is that these are all songs by grown men acting like adolescents, “Wendy Clear” is the only track that is really told from the perspective of a grown man at all. The rest of the songs inhabit comfortably adolescent or even pre-adolescent characters. It’s not arrested development, it’s just straightforward development. If you know what I mean.
See, that was pretty new for Blink-182. Prior to that, they had written songs in the voices of bratty West Coast punks in the early stages of deadbeat adulthood (“Carousel,” “Josie”)—sort of Green Day without Billie-Joe Armstrong’s keen descriptive powers—or bratty West Coast punks in the early stages of deadbeat adulthood acting like complete idiots (“Voyeur,” “Degenerate,” etc.). The consistent middle school voice of Enema was a shift for the band from the off-the-cuff goofing around of their early career into a more focused and more coherent outlook.
Last week I posted a quote from A.O. Scott’s New York Times review of The Hangover. Here it is again:
And the movie, for all its queasiness about male bodies and the thin line between friendship and, you know, other stuff, can’t be called homophobic either. It is much more panicked by the idea of heterosexuality, from whose terrors and traps the whole Vegas adventure is an escape. The city itself is not a place of sin but rather, for Stu, Phil and Alan, an Eden of the narcissistic, infantile id.
Alan, in spite of his heavy beard, is almost literally a giant baby, his soft-bellied body appearing swaddled in a sheet and, most memorably, in a jockstrap that looks like a badly applied diaper. Until the end credits — which shuffle through still photographs from a harder-edged, more nastily and candidly adult movie — the on-screen nudity consists of male buttocks and a woman’s breast in the mouth of a nursing infant. This pretty much sums up the movie’s psychosexual condition, which old-school Freudians might identify as pregenital, more preoccupied with eating and elimination than with, you know, other stuff.
And although, prima facie Blink-182 seem obsessed with the sexual, Enema shares The Hangover's panic about sexuality. Girls are all over this record—of course—but the band recoils from any hint of sexuality they may exhibit. “The Party Song” is about a girl with “Green eyes and long blonde hair, [who] wasn't wear underwear.” “She might be the one,” Hoppus thinks, but grows quickly disapproving: “Some girls try to hard/With the way that they dress and those things on their chest/And the things they suggest to me.” He shuns the sex-fantasy when it becomes real.
This alone would not suggest such a fear of female sexuality. After all we learn of the girl in question that “her volume of make-up, her fake tits were tasteless”; one can appreciate sex and still disdain silicon and cosmetics. But following “The Party Song” is “Mutt,” which turns up its nose at a couple with a functioning sex life, and, strangely, suggests the male partner consequently has homosexual tendencies, with separate references to a seatless bicycle and tight pants. The titular “Dysentery Gary” is both a “player” and a “diarrhea giver.” And this softening of sexuality into scatology is evident elsewhere; look at the front cover, which puts porn star Janine Lindemulder in a revealing outfit and uses her to (snigger) make a joke about rectal invasion. “What’s My Age Again” begins with heavy petting and transitions quickly into suggestions another man is being sodomized.
It isn’t as if the boys do not approve of male-female relationships. The record longs for them, so long as they remain chaste. “Please take me by the hand,” Tom DeLonge says in “Going Away to College.” “It’s so cold out tonight.” So convincingly earnest is he that his promise to “put blankets on the bed” and not “turn out the light,” in the following couplet sounds anything but risqué.
Let us not confuse things; “College” is a sweet song. “I haven’t been this scared in a long time/I’m so unprepared, so here’s your Valentine,” is abashedly boyish in all the right ways. “All the Small Things” has the slightest hints of an actual adult, sexual relationship (“I’ll be your thrill/The night will go on…”) but “carry me home,” sounds more like the kind of thing a mother may do for a small child than an orgasm euphemism. Regardless, the song’s true focus is on the girl “watching, waiting, commiserating” and leaving “roses by the stairs,” because “surprises let me know she cares.”
All this would seem pretty misogynistic, in a run-of-the-mill, fear-of-female-sexuality sort of way (particularly considering the opening track begs for “a girl that I can train”), except the (pre-)adolescent personae evident in these songs seems more in tune with a fear of, as with The Hangover, heterosexuality. This is an album where multiple songs refer to parents, both as mentors (“Dumpweed”), and authority figures both disconnected (“Aliens Exist”) and threatening (“Anthem”). And Enema seems to treat women and sexuality with the specifically confused stance of the young teenage boy.
See, one of the confusing things the male adolescent must encounter is a world speaking about him as if he were single-mindedly and quite dangerously obsessed with sex, at the expense of all else. These are the boys it is dangerous to leave around one’s daughters, because they have a ravenous and single-minded insistence on deflowering all who come before them.
I’m sure there are boys like this. But for me, anyway, it was quite confusing to hear this when, at the same time, I cared about girls immensely, in a way that wasn’t driven by lust; the kind of affectionate feelings teenage girls are assumed only to possess and teenage boys assumed to disdain. Of course, when I and other boys grew up a bit, we found it quite easy to be reconcile our sexual and affectionate selves. But the adolescents of Enema cannot do this. Faced with a false choice between being perceived as nymphomaniac womanizers or caring partners, they reject sexuality in favor of flowers and valentines, while uncomfortably offsetting their libido by converting dick jokes into poop jokes.
I don’t know if Blink-182 were consciously doing this. They probably were not. But the stark division between affection and sexuality did not appear so strongly in its work until they created this album with its concertedly adolescent outlook, and the few moments its creators sung with their own voices, such as “Wendy Clear” suggest it was not a natural part of the personality of these men.