Happiness Is All the Rage: Memories of The Promise Ring

On January 7th 2016

thepromiseringI moved from a small town in Washington state to Denver in 2001 with my mom and dad and older brother. I was going into my sophomore year of high school and, if I’m honest, I was looking forward to trying something new. My freshman year of high school was a trainwreck. It was that awkward time when everyone seems to be growing up, to be stretching out in their new adult bodies and blooming sexual interests, when social status is the only currency one can afford, when being different is somehow the most vile and unattractive disease, and when being alone only made one lonelier. I was fat, I wore all black, and I was constantly telling people to buy albums they had never heard of.

And, if you can believe it, I didn’t have a girlfriend.

I saw moving to Denver, to a new city in a new state, to a new school with new people, as a kind of reset button for my life. I think the same can be said for my brother, too.

We took advantage of Denver’s music scene almost immediately, going to as many concerts and record stores as we could find. It was still summer, so the two of us were free to explore record stores like Twist & Shout, Wax Trax, and Black & Read, and stay out late at venues like The Bluebird, The Ogden, and The Fillmore. We had stepped through the looking glass. We were in a strange and wondrous place. We didn’t have to drive to Seattle to hear live music anymore.

And then, at the end of the Summer, we went to the Plea for Peace tour. The idea was for all these indie and emo bands to get together and raise awareness for suicide prevention. The show was filled with kids in dark colors, Kool-Aid dyed hair, and awkwardly proportioned bodies. My brother and I fit right in.

We went to the show to see Jimmy Eat World, but the tour included several other bands, including The Promise Ring.

I’d never heard them play before, though if I’d been asked I’d spew the indie-darling favorite “I haven’t heard them but I’ve heard of them.” The Promise Ring started as the side project of Davey von Bohlen during his tenure as the guitarist and vocalist for Cap’N Jazz (go buy Analphabetapolothology). The group also included Jason Gnewikow, Dan Didier, and Scott Beschta, each coming from a prominent emo group.

The Promise Ring gained a strong cult following, and are often recognized as one of the founders of second wave emo. Their sound evolved from first wave emo—think Sunny Day Real Estate—with a strong emphasis on a pop aesthetic. In other words, where emo bands from the early '90s sounded dark and grim, second wave emo sounded upbeat and poppy, though both are marked by a generally pessimistic worldview.

That worldview is evident in the 2002 release Very Emergency. It’s the record that follows Nothing Feels Good, the closest thing that the Promise Ring ever had to large-scale success. I remember it clearly, that night at the Filmore, when they played the first track “Happiness Is All the Rage.” It’s bouncy and elastic and a screaming pop sound that’s more about having fun and less about being serious. It recognizes that life sucks without giving into it. The lyrics are ironic without being obtuse, sharp without being pointed, and intelligent without being pretentious.

And, as I understood it then, it’s a song about two people too busy having sex to care about anything else. To me, an unmistakable virgin, it added an optimistic charge to an otherwise non-existent sexual experience. I danced around a little to Bohlen singing “And we could do more outdoor things if we weren't so busy getting busy...I got my body and my mind on the same page and honey now, happiness is all the rage...I got my body and my mind on the same page and honey now, happiness is all the rage...”

It was more than a quirky song, more than lyrics that hinted at sexual intimacy without skewing towards the pornographic, no, it was a song that felt like two weird people falling in love. It felt like a promise of acceptance, of putting the past behind you, of happiness. The perfect song for an awkward teen who had just moved away from a less-than-enjoyable high school experience.

I left the show with a copy of Very Emergency. It’s a purposefully simple album that exudes charm and wit and confidence, and it’s an interesting introduction to The Promise Ring’s discography. I listened to it on repeat for the last few weeks of the summer. It still plays in the back of my head when I conjure memories of my early days in Denver.

Your freshman year of high school is a time when everyone wants to be the same. And then, almost overnight, your Sophomore year is marked by everyone wanting to be different.

I went into my Sophomore year of high school as someone new, armed with a personal discography complete with the indie and punk standards that earned credibility and the hidden gems and “before-my-time” records that set me apart as a kid in the know. At a time when what you’re into defines who you are, it’s those rare “no-one-else-listens-to” bands that can give you a secure sense of identity. That’s what The Promise Ring was for me.

Somehow, traveling the short distance between Washington and Colorado state, I became one of the cool kids. Of course I hadn’t changed, social dynamics had not been torn down, this isn’t the story of the goose that turned into a swan. No, this is the story of the goose who stayed the goose. It’s the pond that grew up.

I’m still fat, I still wear all black, and I still listen to some really weird music. Sure, I am defined by more than my record collection—much more—but if you want to come over and hang out, I’ve got some really cool records to show you.

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