Weakness and Wheatus

Weakness and Wheatus

Wheatus is a rock band mostly known for their 2000 one-hit wonder “Teenage Dirtbag.” They have five albums: Wheatus (2000), Hand Over Your Loved Ones (2003, released in America as Suck Fony in 2005), Too Soon Monsoon (2005), Pop Songs and Death (2009 and ‘10), and The Valentine LP (2013). Brendan Brown writes the songs and sings lead. They’re still “together,” although Brendan is the only one who’s always been in the band.

I first heard “Teenage Dirtbag” in 2020. My friends and I were hanging out and someone put it on. I got very emotional around the first chorus.

If you haven’t heard the song, you should listen to it now, but basically the speaker is a high school boy who’s obsessed with this girl named Noelle. He has dreams about her fucking him (“She rings my bell”), and he really likes how she looks in…tube socks. She doesn’t pay any attention to him, probably because he’s a girl. There’s a really touching line in the bridge that goes: “she doesn’t know what she’s missing.” In the third chorus there’s a reversal where Noelle comes up to him and asks him to skip prom with her and go see Iron Maiden. But it’s just a daydream, and after that they go back to “she doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

My first feeling was that I had been waiting my whole life to hear this song. I was crying because I felt that, for the first time, I was hearing a true, authentic trans female singing style, someone sounding not like a cis woman, but like a woman and like herself.

         “Who is this?” I asked.

         “Wheatus,” someone said.

         “The singer?”

         “Some guy.”

So I should say that Brendan Brown has never said anything about being trans, as far as I know, and you might be wondering why I seem to be saying he’s not a man. This essay isn’t to convince you. I think he’s trans because he sounds kind of fish and I relate to a lot of his lyrics on a trans level, but nothing I can say will be that persuasive.

If you don’t buy it, but want to be convinced, listen to “BMX Bandits.” It’s about a boy who rides dirtbikes with a girl (Nicole) who he really looks up to. She’s tougher than anyone and he copies her style hardcore. The verses are mostly spoken by Nicole, you can hear her clipped butch inflection. The chorus, spoken by the boy, is about how salient she is in his mind: “you stole my soul with your cute little bunny hop/ Your radical tabletop, girl I wish you would never stop.” Then in the bridge he says, “is there a love in your life?/ Cause I wanna be your wife,” which is one of those wonderful unself-conscious moments closeted queers have, not knowing that straight people don’t say things like that. Apart from that, there’s no suggestion that he desires Nicole in any way. It’s pure admiration. He just wants to be her.

Or watch the video for “Real Girl.” If you still don’t believe it, the rest of this essay might not make that much sense to you.

The reader might also be wondering if it is being asserted that Wheatus is actually any good. I freely admit they’re objectionable. The lyrical material of the first two albums is all misogyny, and some of the songs are specifically disparaging to sex workers and gay people; they also heavily feature crude sexual humor (on the second album he does a song about balls); the melodies are catchy but sometimes vacuous; the later albums have a lot of sentimental ballads with long, self-involved instrumental sections.

And yet I’ve become a serious and completely sincere Wheatus fan. So this essay is to try to explain why I find Wheatus worth listening to.

Let’s start with the first verse of Teenage Dirtbag—listen to how Brendan sings it and try to imagine the picture that came to my mind that night of a woman with shoulder-length red hair, no, maybe a little shorter, and a black shirt with the sleeves cut off, holding the mic close as the song starts with the gravelly, slightly nasal, but so soft and whispery first verse, then going into the Courtney Love-esque belting of the chorus. Singing that could push down a wall. Now that’s punk.

That night, I also felt, with great surprise, like someone understood high-school-me: obsessed with girls, mystified by my own “heterosexuality,” clinging to the dirtbag-ness of it all. Everything felt wrong, I ached for something to feel right, but the right-feeling things felt so impossibly far away, etc. “She doesn’t give a damn about me/ Cause I’m just a teenage dirtbag.” I was on a high-school-nostalgia trip at the time and realizing that I had a lot of memories that almost felt sweet and happy if, in my mind, I inserted my current trans self into them, or just imagined myself as a cis girl, and I felt that reflected in “Teenage Dirtbag.”

Also, I can’t get over the Shakespearean level of drag in this song. Before the song even starts, we have a closeted trans woman (a woman pretending to be a man…), but he sounds like a woman—enough that with radio sound quality someone who wasn’t thinking about it might not know they weren’t hearing a cis woman (…pretending to be a woman). But his voice is speaking as the boy in the song, all except for the third chorus, where Noelle talks, so for most of the song we’re hearing a woman playing a man playing a woman playing a man. An infinite regress of being the thing you’re not.

Now listen to her voice on the first lines of “Leroy.” (Try not to listen to the words.) Low and smooth, strong and velvety, tender and restrained, it feels like fifty percent of the power is being held back in reserve. Unbelievable. And how fish is the backup singing on the line “shake it down and break it/ It took too damn long to make it”? And, really, every song on the album? I dearly wish I could have been in the studio for this. The band had to have talked about it. What do you think Brendan said? I’m imagining it now:

“Okay guys, so for the backup parts, try to sound like me, but also as much like women as you can.” And then the boys:

         “Word.”

         “Hell yeah Brendan.”

Can you imagine having your femininity seen and validated in any truer way? What did it matter, in that moment, if Brendan stayed in the closet forever? In a moment like that, the “closet” means less than nothing.

Album cover for self-titled Wheatus (1999), including first track “Teenage Dirtbag”

I have some serious cognitive dissonance with this album. The songs are called things like “Hump ‘Em ‘N’ Dump ‘Em” and “Punk-Ass Bitch,” but musically there’s no hardness to them at all. The guitar riffs are pure, wide-eyed optimism. The drummer sounds euphoric. The music is… actually kind of sweet. As in, joyful and tender and sincere. But with the exception of “A Little Respect,” which they didn’t write, and “Teenage Dirtbag,” the words are crude, cruel, and obscene. Most of the hate is directed at men (“Punk-Ass Bitch” is about a man), and the overall contempt for masculinity is telling, but women are nothing but collateral damage. Please don’t accuse me of trying to smooth this over. Wheatus says bad things about: fat people, sex workers, your mom, and Monica Lewinsky. Not pretty.

After first hearing Wheatus and Hand Over Your Loved Ones, which is basically more of the same, I felt unbearably sad. I remember saying, “I have seen my sisters turned into monsters, and they are Wheatus.” I think that for some people, they have to be either a trans woman or a terrible misogynist. Or take holy orders, I guess. Some kinds of pain can’t be addressed in many other ways. If your sexuality feels wrong, it’s easy to feel like the wrongness is because you’re not having sex. And maybe the thing keeping you from having sex is that your sexuality feels so wrong, to yourself and to everyone who might think about being interested in you. But that’s a pretty abstract concept, so it’s easy to blame women for the pain you feel: down the road of incels and MRAs and all that miserable garbage.

Of course, the alternative to blaming women is to recognize their full humanity, but once you do that, you just took the first step on the road to becoming one. If you listen to women at all, someone will eventually make you aware of feminism, and feminists tend to think being trans is both possible and okay. And once you hear that, it’s hard not to realize your cross-gender inclinations, even if you never do anything about them. You see? You have to be one or the other. Taking a wrong turn doesn’t mean you’ll be on the wrong road forever, but if you want to get right, you have to go all the way back.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just talking about myself. But that’s why I was sad. The Wheatus boys were going down the wrong road. No matter how much the subtext of their songs makes me feel validated in my transness, misogyny kills. If I ever meet a fan of early Wheatus in a dark alley, subtext is not going to help me.

Album Cover for Too Soon Monsoon (2005)

But when I listened to Too Soon Monsoon, I realized that an amazing thing had happened. Between 2003 and 2005, Wheatus had stopped wallowing in their own debasement and grown some dignity. I have no idea why, and the story that I’m about to tell you is completely made up.

The setup, which is true, is that in 2002, Wheatus let cis women into the band — two backup singers, Liz Brown (Brendan’s sister) and Kathryn Froggatt. At this point on my journey through the Wheatus discography, given the attitude the boys had had about women so far, I was afraid to even hear how that was going to go. I was expecting serious musical subordination of the backup singers to the boys. Kathryn had been the band’s merchandiser. Hiring from within. Not promising.

Hand Over Your Loved Ones (2003) does sound like that. But Too Soon Monsoon (2005) really doesn’t. Musically, the women are treated with complete respect. Their vocal lines aren’t an afterthought; they’re prominent and interesting, and they really make the melodies what they are. One funny little example is that in the “echo” vocals on the verses of “The London Sun,” the backup singers sing each line first, followed by Brendan. Most importantly, the second-to-last song, “Who Would Have Thought,” was written by Kathryn, who sings lead on it. It doesn’t sound like the rest of the album at all. It’s kind of a classic rock track. Wheatus put a song on the album that shows what the band sounded like with Kathryn in charge.

Kathryn and Brendan are really good at sounding like each other. I think they had a lot of fun doing that. The first time I listened to the album, I thought Brendan was singing lead on “Who Would Have Thought,” and a lot of the high Brendan lines elsewhere I wrongly attributed to Kathryn. I don’t feel any sense of musical inequality between them on Too Soon Monsoon.

Which is why, in the total absence of real evidence, I believe that Kathryn opened Brendan’s mind to feminism, and that, somewhere around 2004, he took the first step down the right road. I think writing Too Soon Monsoon was about realizing his desire to be a woman.

If you’re not interested in listening to Wheatus by now, I wouldn’t blame you. Like I said, I don’t actually recommend the first two albums. But now it gets good. The music of Too Soon Monsoon (2005) is astonishing. My first listen was a huge “everyone I listen to has listened to this” moment.

I hear a lot of Dirty Projectors in the way the melodies swing between being painted over the flat canvas of the backup singers’ parts and jumping up to join them in a tight polyphony. In those exuberant moments, like the chorus of “Something Good,” and really all of “No Happy Ending Tune,” the vocal parts all lock together and it’s hard to tell who’s who. Plus, the acoustic guitar tag with high R&B-style vocal line at the end of “No Happy Ending Tune” is straight out of Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan (2013). But what I should say is that I hear a lot of Wheatus in Dirty Projectors, because while Dirty Projectors did have backup singers in 2005, they didn’t get that signature interlocking sound until they released Rise Above (2007).

“Hometown,” with its not-very-naturalistic, syncopated melody, its scratchy, whispery lead vocal part, and its circular chord progression and drum-based accompaniment, sounds to me like Cuddle Magic on Ashes/Axis (2017).

Brendan’s contemptuous, spat-out singing on the verses of “Something Good” sounds like Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! on Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014), and the resemblance goes on with the long-held shout at the end of the bridge of “London Sun.”

Clearly someone was listening to this album, even though no one’s ever heard of it.

The lyrical seriousness of Too Soon Monsoon is mirrored by a new dimension of Brendan’s singing. Her trips into the baritone register are transformed. Whereas on the first two albums she used male vocal technique on the low parts, now she uses the same breathy, twangy, low-compression technique she used on the high runs of Wheatus.

Furthermore, on “Desperate Songs,” for example, her voice has a kind of fragility I don’t hear on the first two albums, swinging between scratchy whispering and smoky, shaky yelling, interspersed with clear, watery ooos. She never sounded vulnerable before.

Sometimes the sound is dysphoric. The low whispering on “The Truth I Tell Myself,” the strained, tongue-twister choruses of “BMX Bandits,” are just a little bit painful to listen to. It’s easy to feel the distance between how she sounds and how she wants to sound. You can hear the frustration, the desire to get as far away from herself as possible. But talk about holding the distance with grace and dignity.

As an aside, hearing this album made me realize what’s so unsavory about Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors. He loves that dysphoric sound. He wants to sound like he hates his voice, and he uses all the techniques people use to get away from their voices: burying the sound of it under complex, ornamented melodies, losing it in big harmonies, pushing it to the breaking point, and just singing really high. But none of it is real. He loves the sound of his voice. You can hear it. There’s no distance to give it depth; it’s just flat.

Too Soon Monsoon was a turn to much more serious material. The chorus of the first song starts with “the center of my mind is a dark place that wishes it wouldn’t do what it would,/ And every mistake that I ever made, saying I didn’t do what I should,” crooned by Brendan and Kathryn in tight, sweet harmony. It’s like their voices are sitting together in a car, driving on the highway, at sunset, holding hands. I don’t know who’s driving. In the way that  “Leroy” is a moment of no dysphoria between the boys, this is one between girls. It’s more special for that, but it’s also a sad moment, where the speaker looks back over a lifetime of mistakes only to acknowledge that he’s repeating them in the present.

This theme comes up again in “The Truth I Tell Myself,” a song with a showtune melody about not transitioning. It’s late in the night, and the speaker’s at the bar, deep in a conversation with a friend about the direction their life is headed in. The friend seems to have made some points urging the speaker to make a change, and now the speaker is responding with utter scorn: “You look like you’re surprised/ Like when will I get wise?/ But I’ll just drive the same dead ends I tried/ And I think I know why/ There’s no connection between what I want and what is good for me/ The truth I tell myself not to believe.” I’ve felt something like this. When you’re denying yourself the thing you most want, eventually it can erodes your criteria for deciding what to do—maybe completely. To make any decision about what to do, you have to have desire; if you don’t want the best outcome, then a good decision and a bad decision are indistinguishable. If your greatest desire truly is bad for you, if there is no connection between what you want and what’s good for you, then there’s no way to move. Even in a motionless, no-growth state, though, the wanting can come back and back: “There I go again, them devils love their sin/ But they can’t end what I do not begin/ So I’m safe where I’m at.” (Jesus. When I first heard this I had kind of a moment. Like, his is what’s going to happen to me if I don’t change my gender.)

The other song I want to mention specifically is “This Island,” which is an anthem about giving up. It has a soaring, heroic melody, but the words of the chorus are:

No thanks! I’d rather sit here and die on this island,

Cash it in and skip to the end,

No thanks! I’d rather sit here and die on this island,

Can’t you see that I need this to end? The end.

The end of the second chorus offers a tried-and-true, and very persuasive, rationalization for the decision not to change: “This was as good as it got/ There’s no snowmen in hell ‘cause it’s too fucking hot.”

What I really love about Wheatus, and this is very trans, is the mixture of self-hate and pride. Their signature form is the diss track that’s also a diss on oneself. “I’m just a teenage dirtbag/…she doesn’t know what she’s missing.” “I’m a jerk, and I’m a weirdo/ Even if I’m lucky I’ll amount to zero/ But I thought that you’d love me anyway.” “No thanks! I’d rather sit here and die on this island.”

The center of my mind is a dark place that wishes it wouldn’t do what it would

And every mistake that I ever made thinking I didn’t do what I should

If you want to see me smiling, you’re gonna have to

Do something you never would—play something good

The name of their second album on its American rerelease, Suck Fony, is a jab at Sony for refusing to release it anywhere other than England, but it could also be a disparaging description of the album: “it sucks and it’s phony.”

Maybe it’s pathological that I relate to this, but sometimes I’m really depressed and it’s just nice to hear the indiscriminate loathing of everything reflected in someone else. Wheatus is what I listen to when I hate myself the most, when I’ve given up on whatever I was going to do that day, and maybe the next day. With my mind blank and my body very still, listening to Wheatus, it feels like it could be okay not to move, if necessary, for a long, long time.

I don’t want to have to be strong. I want to be weak, and soft, and fragile. As I spend more time crying, and wondering what will happen to me if I ever have to face the full cruelty of the world, I’ve had to realize that. The shots make me weak, and I keep giving myself the shots. It’s not because I want to world to eat me alive; it’s just that I know this is who I really am and I’m going to have to be okay with it.

Wheatus lives in the weakest moments. I feel as if every feeling I’ve ever had that I was ashamed of and tried to push away is enshrined in at least one Wheatus song. That’s why I like even the ones that “suck.” Even the ones where I want to shake Brendan and say you’re just making this worse for yourself. As in “Lemonade”: “What do I care about the long run?/ Why should it matter to me?/ I always knew I’d end up with no one.” Stuff like this is absolute bullshit, and sometimes I feel it anyway, and I believe Brendan understands that.