Toward the end of Good Charlotte’s set, after hearing a song from one of their later releases, my friend leaned in to ask, “Do you celebrate Good Charlotte’s entire catalogue?”
“I do now,” I told him.
I was a major Good Charlotte fan in my teens, and after losing interest in the band for a few years — my own pop-punk rumspringa — I returned to the fold as a shameless twentysomething. This is how my poor friend, who had probably never listened to Good Charlotte on purpose, ended up meeting me at iHeartRadio’s Honda Stage in New York last week for a live preview of Youth Authority, Good Charlotte’s first album in six years. I explained to him why I had turned my back on the band: It had to do with being a teen, and having something save your life, and then learning and changing and renouncing everything that helped you get there, as if you'd woken up perfect. It had to do with being called a “fangirl poser” too many times. I mentioned a shift in their music — the difference before and after TRL embraced 2002’s triple-platinum The Young and the Hopeless, the era when Good Charlotte stopped being confused for a punk band, fully embracing pop and marrying household-name celebrities. It wasn't until years later that I returned to Good Charlotte in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, on a quest to revisit everything I had been told to be embarrassed about — which, for a teen girl on the internet before the current wave of feminism, was essentially everything. I finally stopped cringing when I thought of being a 13-year-old pop-punk fan, and instead embraced who I had been, what I had gone through.
By this point in my musings, frontman Joel Madden was asking the people in the crowd if they really, actually wanted to hear “Festival Song,” the fifth track from the band’s 2000 debut album. (They did.) The set oscillated between the extremes of Good Charlotte’s catalogue the entire time. There were the songs probably written about their famous girlfriends and wives, songs about moving out of Maryland and into L.A., songs about their actual lifestyle of being rich and famous. Then there were the older songs — relatable anthems about being an angry teen in a dysfunctional family. Joel explained onstage that they wrote these songs in 1997, as high schoolers in a small town outside Washington, D.C., but didn't record them until 1999, and didn't see them released by a major label until 2000, at which point the singer said he thought the world was ending. Oh god, I thought, the world actually IS always ending, technically. Then a second, even more unsettling thought hit me: This music is almost 20 years old. Do other people see my unapologetic interest in pop punk the way I see ... jam band fans?
I mean, I get it. I’d understand. There were the years when I laid pop punk to rest, acknowledging that it had been a formative force in my life — the first time I felt like my feelings and experiences were truly being recognized — but that maybe I needed some time away from it. As the band performed The Young and the Hopeless fan favorite “Riot Girl,” I wondered if they themselves had experienced something similar. Joel admitted to the crowd that he once hated the song, but that he had since come back around: “I learned who I really am. I’m not afraid to express myself anymore ... I love this song now.” I had always loved and hated the song. I desperately wanted to be the girl that was wanted, but I was never comfortable with one part of the lyrics: “Christina wouldn’t wanna meet her / She hates you, Britney, so you better run for cover.” I remember squirming with discomfort over the idea that being a “riot girl” meant I was supposed to hate other women and girls who weren't, including pop artists I had looked up to as a child. “Riot Girl” had my entire relationship with Good Charlotte wrapped up in its verses and chorus — the whiplash of feeling totally understood, and then not understood at all.
Early in the band’s set, radio host Billy the Kidd asked them how it felt to return to music. They never really left, of course — they've just been busy mentoring 5 Seconds of Summer, hosting The Voice Australia, and recording as The Madden Brothers. Perhaps it wasn’t so much of a break from music as it was a break from Good Charlotte. Guitarist Benji Madden, Joel’s twin brother, compared the experience to riding a bike, and roasted bandmate Billy Martin for a briefly out-of-tune guitar. Thirteen years ago, this banter would have been lovingly transcribed and posted on a message board. Here in 2016, it carried much the same likable, self-deprecating tone. As always, they played the boys next door who somehow accidentally got super-famous.
Good Charlotte’s members have always brought up their grassroots start, their ability to start a band from nothing. Throughout their career, they’ve made it clear that they’re down to be inspiring if that’s what fans want. The narrative of their anthems aimed at the popular kids fills a specific “I’ll show you” space without getting too dark or vengeful — the arc is a positive one about overcoming obstacles and finding your place in the world. At one point, they described Youth Authority as an album about “wherever that kid is right now, in his garage or his bedroom, picking up a guitar or getting on his laptop, and making a song that's gonna change his life, and probably the world.” Music, for them, is about transforming people’s lives, including their own.
Before their set, I ran into Good Charlotte’s members backstage while testing the limits of my VIP badge. I wandered through an unmarked hallway, pretending I knew exactly where I was going, and was taken by surprise when Joel opened a door with the rest of the band. I greeted them like familiar acquaintances, hoping they'd remember me from our conversation after their reunion show in April, or potentially the beautiful three minutes we spent at a 2003 meet and greet. Even if they didn’t, they acted like they did, or at least they were polite enough to keep the possibility open. Maybe they could just tell at a glance that I was someone who drew their logo on the top of my hands every day for a month in 2002, memorizing the curves of the gothic-lettered words; someone who still knew all the lyrics to “I Heard You”; someone who still got goosebumps during Benji’s backup vocals on “Little Things”; someone whose life story can never be completely separated from the ways that Good Charlotte changed it. They gave me a hug. Celebrities aren’t just like us, but maybe they once were. Maybe they remember.