I could not tell if the singer was a man or a woman. All I knew is that they made me feel queasy.
I didn’t have an easy 13th year, although I suppose no one does. A shy child with a fragile support system, the previous year had left me near friendless. The new school year came with the return of old friends, who introduced me to Hot Topic and emo bands. We bonded around these things and our classmates every day bullying of us—one day at its most severe, a football player threw a chair at our lunch table. Despite the self-righteous feelings of “oppression” we experienced, however, my friends turned against each other as often as they turned against the kids that hated us. Identity becomes ever more important to every teenager around this time as does “fitting in,” but perhaps I felt these drives more so than some of my peers. Unable to trust my friends and my family and at a loss in the face of my hormonal (and mental illness-related, but we didn’t know that yet) meltdowns, I ended up diving deeper into music.
The “scene,” as emo bands referred to themselves as the general collective, was based on sexual appeal of the members of its bands just as much, if not more so, than the music they played. My friends and I conveniently came into contact with them just as the first buds of sexual desire formed within us. Like the rest of my gaggle of 13-year-old girlfriends—who were slightly behind me, grimacing at any mention of premarital sex—I started to notice men. Not the gross 13-year-old boys in our classes with new leg hair and cracking voices. Men. Men in their 20s with long, dyed black hair and thick-rimmed black eyeliner that I could mimic as far as my mom would allow me. They sang high notes, showed tender consideration toward MAC eyeshadow shades, and had a flair for the dramatic in both their stage presences and poetic lyrics. I didn’t understand it at the time, but what I loved was their femininity.
AFI (A Fire Inside) came into my periphery a little later than the rest. They didn’t quite belong in the scene, like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy did, because they started as a punk band in the 1990s. Only with their 6th studio album, Sing the Sorrow, did they tip their sound into a style more resembling the other bands whose music videos played on FUSE, my favorite music channel. I watched FUSE recordings on TiVo every weekday as part of my morning routine before going to school. At the time, popular music videos told story-like narratives, complete with an emotional pulls. It’s probably historically inaccurate, but because of the impact of MCR’s “Ghost of You” and The Used’s “All That I’ve Got” videos had on me, I always held Marc Webb responsible for the cinematic touch.
Although Webb did direct the first AFI video I saw, “The Leaving Song, Part II,” it is a rather atypical addition to his resume. Despite the energy that bursts from both the chords and lyrics, “The Leaving Song, Part II” video has no emotional pull. The majority of it contains the band preparing to get on stage and then play for a furious mosh pit, which, during the video’s production, was actually dancing to a song by Throwdown. It doesn’t make the best match for what probably constitutes AFI’s strongest record ever, because as far as music videos go, it is quite dull.
However, as a youth, the video didn’t seem dull to me at all because the way it was structured seemed “adult” and beyond me. And Davey Havok, AFI’s vocalist? He was beyond me. I couldn’t even call him a him, because while I recognized the wide slope of a man’s shoulders, I read the way he pushed his hair back as feminine. His long, glossy black tresses and high voice jarred against my strict gender categories. His androgynous face refused to confirm its person as male or female. He was a creature between the lines. He enraptured me.
Later, he disappointed me. I wanted him to be a woman, commanding that stage, inciting danger in the group of men that danced in front of her. I wanted a woman to strip herself of sentimental value and walk away from death with grim determination in AFI’s later music video for “Silver and Cold.” I wanted her hair, her X’ed out hands, her lithe hip bones. Someone who could screw up her face and and scream and let passion own her (“now watch as it DESTROYS ME-E-E”) is certainly someone worth having or even being.
Seeing the video ten years after the first time I watched it, I realize that I’m still in love with her. The beautiful woman who never existed outside of my naive perception. She doesn’t see me and I can’t reach her, only hardly able to put into words why the gulf between us still looms so large.