The Front Bottoms Tackle Masculinity in Songs about Everyday Experiences

When New Jersey emo-indie-punk-rock-and-roll quartet The Front Bottoms took the stage Thursday, November 10 at the Eagle Bank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia, it was casual and un-flashy. Even their stage decor gave off a vibe that you were watching them play from a living room and not in an arena opening for Brand New. Two friends sat on a gold loveseat drinking beers, a cooler at their feet. A side table decorated with knick-knacks and three floor lamps completed the look. But that’s The Front Bottoms– unpretentious and everyday type dudes.

The friend I attended the concert with said that when she first saw them in 2014 opening for Say Anything, a fellow fan in the crowd remarked that she loved The Front Bottoms for how they could hit on big emotions and ideas through average, everyday stories and experiences. Host and creator of NPR’s All Songs Considered and the Tiny Desk Concert Series, Bob Boilen, wrote, “And when you hear the music…uncomplicated but pretty memorable, you realize that the talent in this band isn’t about instrument craft and years of playing scales…this is about the shortest distance from emotion, sometimes complex and storied emotion, from band to audience.” Even instrument-wise, the band began with frontman Brian Sella and drummer Mat Uychich collecting instruments from their attics. Sella sticks to playing power chords on his acoustic guitar and remains wishy-washy about improving his playing skills, seeming to want to leave the musical finesse to bassist Tom Warren (a classically trained guitarist) and guitarist/keyboardist/trumpet player Ciaran O’Donnell (the cowbell and accordion are also part of his repertoire).

Despite the simplicity, the songs carry incredible depth. Sella’s lyrical gift of wit and storytelling weaves together personal experiences, friends’ stories, and other snippets of ideas he collects while touring. A common theme in many of their songs is trying and failing to be masculine or fit into gender roles. Maybe that’s no surprise when their band name is British slang for “vagina.” But what makes their discussion of masculinity and their experience being male approachable is how simple and every day their music is. This isn’t a Women & Gender Studies thesis put to chords, but stories you’d share with friends while drinking late into the night.

Here are some of their songs that speak to their troubles with traditional masculinity:

“The Beers”

“And I will remember that summer / as the summer I was taking steroids / because you like a man with muscles / and I like you”

Strength and not being strong enough physically for a girl is a recurring theme in their lyrics. This often leads to making changes, usually physical ones, in attempt to be enough.

“Father”

“I’ll do the push ups / I’ll wear the makeup / I’ll do whatever he wants all night”

While Sella has made it clear in interviews that this is not autobiographical, again, physical inadequacy comes up, not just to a romantic interest, but to a father. Push ups is a motif that appears in many of their songs, originating from a demo track called “Push Ups” where Sella sings, “The only reason for the push ups is the fact I know I can’t support you.”

“Swimming Pool”

“I will stop cutting my pants into shorts / I will address the issues I cannot ignore / I will do the things I think you might like / And I will be alone probably the rest of my life”

Again, Sella sings about making changes to his appearance and behavior in hopes of pleasing a girl. However, he seems to think that no matter what he will never be enough for someone and thus will be alone all of his life.

“Santa Monica”

“Sometimes I cry when I get sad / I guess it’s true what they say / emotional baby boy / emotional man / … / I am emotional”

Based on a weekend trip to this song’s namesake, Sella laments and eventually seems to accept being an emotional man, later singing, “I guess there are some things I was just born to be.”

“Lone Star”

“Goodbye future, once so bright, meet my pregnant girlfriend / watch my bank account run dry, 437 dollars spent / to put things back to the way they used to be / still, I woulda spent so much more / But 437 dollars somehow shakes all responsibility / But it’s not easy”

“The past few months were pretty rough / A couple times wished we both were dead / I never cried like that before / I thought my eyes would pop out of my head”

In a tale about a couple getting an abortion, Sella steps into the perspective of the boyfriend (he’s stated that this is not a personal experience), but does not try to hide his emotions or try to appear strong as men often feel obligated to do.

“Awkward Conversations”

“And I wish I could pretend to be / all of the things you think you see in me / But I am not that guy, that guy just left / he had his collar up and there was smoke on his breath”

The song’s narrative is about an unhealthy relationship where once again Sella grapples with not matching up to a girl’s ideal guy.

“Summer Shandy”

“You caught me doing push-ups in the morning / Before everyone else woke up / And then C-Dawg busted in / He was out all night getting chased by cops / And in this moment / I was pretty pleased with the person / I was pretending to be”

Sella seems to view identity as something that is crafted and usually fake. In the opening verse of this song, the motif of push-ups returns, painting Sella as someone trying to appear strong but being caught in the act when his friend walks in. Referring to bandmate O’Donnell by “C-Dawg” (the trumpet answering the line is O’Donnell himself) further plays into this sense of bravado and striving for a life that is grander than it actually is.

“Laugh Till I Cry”

“It’s not my style to be strong / strong enough to want to fight / fight that I would lose but in the end / I would survive”

Strength once again is brought up in this song about growing up and growing out of youthful revelry. Traditional gender roles push for males to work things out through physical altercations, but here Sella acknowledges not only a disinterest in fighting but also that he would lose. This deviation from the norm can also be read as revealing Sella’s maturity which he oscillates between–riding a motorcycle and being an “ankle biter” versus realizing partying isn’t really his thing anymore.

“2YL”

“With you on top of me / and me underneath you”

“Take me up and up like a ladder”

“With you grinding on me / and me grinding back on you”

“I could fight the rain clouds in your life”

In a song about two young lovers (“2YL”), traditional gender roles within a relationship are flipped. The girl takes on a more active role in the moments of physical intimacy (being on top, taking him up and up, grinding on him first) while Sella’s role seems to be more about providing emotional support (eradicating depression, bringing happiness).

Photo by Ben Kaye

Maggie Stough

Maggie Stough

Maggie is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington and is currently trying to make the most out of post grad life (read: figuring out what she’s supposed to be doing on this planet). When she’s not having an existential crisis, you can find her working on a novel, having a cuppa, petting a dog, reading a YA novel, coloring, getting her cardio in at a concert, or quilting.
Maggie Stough
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