Under Half-Lit Fluorescents: The Wonder Years’ 'Suburbia', 5 Years Later

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on a pop-punk milestone and the challenge of empathy

It is a strange thing to grow up poor, or in any interpretation of the hood, and be in very close proximity to the suburbs — a short walk or bike ride away from a world that seemed entirely unlike your own, a dream that you could be snatched from at any moment. As a curious kid, always fascinated by the idea of escape, I would sometimes meet my friends and ride our bikes to the edge of our neighborhood, into the blocks where the houses were taller. The sidewalks were more even underneath our bike tires, and the silence was a gift to a group of reckless and noisy boys, spilling in from a place where everything rattled with the bass kicking out of some car’s trunk. We would ride our bikes with our dirty and torn jeans and look at the manicured lawns and grand entrances and the playgrounds with no broken glass stretched across the landscape. During the day in the summer, we were just kids there. Black, sure, but not particularly threatening or dangerous to all of the other kids who were, like us, trying to find a way to kill time while their parents were at work and school was out.

And then, with the sun setting on another hot day, we would ride back a few blocks to our neighborhood’s familiar skin — the language we knew, the songs we could rap along to, and the comfort that comes with not standing out. When I say it is a strange thing to live in close proximity to a world so vastly different than your own, I mean that it creates a longing within the imagination. You long for a place that you know only by its snapshots and not by the lives moving within them. It allowed me to fantasize, imagine a world where everyone was happy and no one ever hurt.

The Wonder Years’ third album, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, released five years ago this month, takes its title from the Allen Ginsberg poem, “America.” The poem opens: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. I can't stand my own mind. America when will we end the human war?” The poem, like most Ginsberg poems of its era, is sprawling and emotionally uneven, a meditation on the unrest of war’s aftermath that is equal parts angry and humorous, confused yet determined.

We meet The Wonder Years here in their truest form on the album opener, “Came Out Swinging,” a song that, even now, is a high-functioning album opener, an arm that reaches from the speaker and wraps around you, pulling you gently to the speaker’s mouth. We find this Pennsylvania pop-punk band as we found Ginsberg in a different time. Not lost and anxious in the aftermath of actual war, of course — only war is war — but the anxiety on the album is palpable nonetheless. It is an album of return and escape and return and escape again. It feels, in tone and tension, like coming home for a summer after your first year of college, having tasted another existence and wanting more, but instead sleeping in your childhood room.

Home is where the heart begins, but not where the heart stays. The heart scatters across states, and has nothing left after what home takes from it. I know the suburbs best by how they consumed the kids I knew in my teenage years: the punk kids, the emo kids, the soccer kids, the kids who came out to the basketball courts with the black kids to play the way they couldn’t in their backyard. So many of us, especially teenagers, strive to be something we’re not. Escape is vital, in some cases, as a survival tool. Once, I never knew how anyone who lived in a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood could be sad. Sometimes, when you know so much of not having, it is easy to imagine those who do have as exceptionally worry-free.

Sadness, when you are truly being swallowed by it, can feel almost universal. Not the vehicle that drives you to the doorstep of sadness, and certainly not the way it manifests itself inside of you. But the sadness itself, the soaking feeling of it, is something that you know everyone around you has had a taste of. The kids who came to rap and punk shows in nice shoes, always fighting to stay out just a small bit later, anything to keep them away from home, anything to keep them in a world unlike their own. This is the cycle we create and live through: We see the other grass and then run to it.

The first time I lost a friend, a true friend, to the unfamiliar violence of a bottle of pills, I wondered what it must be like to not feel like you were destined for death, but still want to arrive at it. And then another friend. And then another. A rooftop, a car crash. When you go to enough funerals in summer, you learn tricks: Bring a lighter jacket, something that can be carried. Wear a shirt that you don’t mind sweating through. Deep pockets to stash your tie after it gets taken off and your shirt buttons are loosened. I don’t remember when my friends and I stopped asking the question of “why?” around death. I understand what it is to be sad, even when everyone around you is demanding your happiness — and what are we to do with all of that pressure other than search for a song that lets us be drained of it all?

The great mission of any art that revolves around place is the mission of honesty. So many of us lean into romantics when we write of whatever place we crawled out of, perhaps because we feel like we owe it something, even when it has taken more from us than we’ve taken from it. The mission of honesty becomes a bit cloudy when we decide to be honest about not loving the spaces we have claimed as our own. This is the work of Suburbia I’ve Given You All. It isn’t carried out with bitterness, but with a timeline of questions. Who is going to be brave enough to ask where home is, and seek out something else if they don’t like the answer? And, yes, the songs that fall out of this process are as brilliant as any songs the pop-punk/emo genre have ever seen. “Local Man Ruins Everything” dresses up the grief in the center of the room until it becomes forgettable. “Summers in PA” could be about you and all of your friends in any summer where you all felt invincible. “Don’t Let Me Cave In” is a negotiation of distance, and home, and greater distance. The band was operating at a level of greatness they hadn’t reached before that point. It's a jarring, emotionally honest undertaking that chooses interrogation over nostalgia’s soft and simple target. The album ends with “And Now I’m Nothing,” the ultimate anchor, echoing a small plea of freedom: "Suburbia, stop pushing / I know what I'm doing / Suburbia, stop pushing / I know what I’m doing."

A lot of the people I knew who dismissed “emo” while the genre was at its peak did so because they believed emotions were things that should be sacred and unspoken, not screamed out to the listening masses. I push back against that, both in personal practice and as someone who has seen the other side of that coin, or known people completely eaten alive by the hoarding of sacred emotion. And, of course, we say the world doesn’t care about your problems. We say that and we know that our problems aren’t only our problems, and that there are people who need to know that their problems aren’t only their problems. The glory of The Wonder Years, in Suburbia and everything since, is that their mission seems to be entirely unselfish in scope. This is what, to me, has separated them from their peers in the genre: a willingness to own their shitty pasts and everything they entail without also trying to cash it in for points, without trying to be the smartest or most charming band in the room. “I’m sad and I’ve hurt people and I’m a beautifully tortured survivor of my past” is a hard thing to say out loud (or scream on a chorus), but it is the honest thing, which means it is the thing that I would rather have sitting in the room with me on the days I miss everyone.

Suburbia is the first of a stunning trilogy of Wonder Years albums that all seem to be in conversation with each other. 2013’s The Greatest Generation and 2015’s No Closer to Heaven all sit in the same space. They are albums that are awash with questions, and content not providing any answers. They are all telling singular stories in their frantic urgency and emotion: Suburbia about the idea of home, Greatest Generation about the idea of growing up and leaving things behind, No Closer to Heaven about death and loss — all of them, particularly the first two, centered on the American suburban experience. All of them explicitly say, “I’m sad like you are, and I can’t promise to fix this, but we’re going to be here together.”

I am still, always, a black kid from a black neighborhood, who once biked to the edge of the suburbs and then once loved my friends from the suburbs and then sometimes buried my friends from the suburbs. And even then, never understanding the interior of those lives beyond the angst-ridden stories that teenagers share, I never understood how a life that looked beautiful could be immensely sad. Where you live and grow up in America has very real implications, and that isn’t to be ignored here. But I found myself, and still find myself, always considering the place I’m from and the pressure and expectations that come with that. I am proud to have survived where I’m from, and I happily keep it close to me. What The Wonder Years do best, first with Suburbia, is kick a door wide open to the rest of us who admire the imagined life from afar. I listen to The Wonder Years, and I am back on my bike again, tearing through the even sidewalks and manicured lawns. The difference is that when I close my eyes and imagine this, I can truly see the houses now. I can truly see the lives inside. I can feel the unshakable and honest grief, thick in the air, as I bike home.