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Growing up in a small city in North Dakota instilled in my preteen self a specific kind of angst that I like to classify as "Midwest ennui." The best way I can describe it now might be to imagine you are a character on the television show Friday Night Lights, minus being beautiful or a star athlete or from Texas. Once you subtract these superfluous details, take the emotional soup that's left over and set it to a soundtrack of Brand New blasting at full volume on your Sony Walkman.
My particular brand of Midwest ennui evolved through middle and high school, during which I spent a lot of time pretending to have fun at school sporting events, a revered occurrence in my town that I could never quite get behind. When we weren't busy trying to feel like a part of something greater than ourselves by watching a 16-year-old boy's athletic prowess on the field, my friends and I would occupy our time by walking 30 minutes to the closest Dairy Queen or, later on, sitting in our boyfriends' basements and watching their band practice.
I discovered a whole lineup of sad boys and girls singing about feeling trapped in your parents' house.
Whatever we did, whether it was a solitary walk by the train tracks, shoveling the driveway, or driving up and down Main Street on a Friday night, was accompanied by a wistfulness, a vague feeling of yearning for something better that was just out of reach. It's an inner turmoil that was tough on a shy girl such as myself, and my release came through replicating a feeling of rebellion in what I listened to, and what I wore.
I thank my older brother for introducing me to music outside of what was on the radio or circulating on VH1 (which, if I remember the early 2000s correctly, was a lot of Sheryl Crow and Nelly-Tim McGraw duets). My first love was The Clash, which launched a short-lived "punk rock" phase that mainly consisted of putting on black eyeshadow in the bathroom while listening to "London Calling," and then not leaving the house. I took inspiration from album covers and what images I could find on the internet: a heavily eye-linered Robert Smith from The Cure, a leather-jacketed Joe Strummer snarling and looking away from the snapping camera.
Attempting to dress like my favorite musicians was the easiest way to emulate them. (I learned this the hard way: The guitar lessons I took lasted only a year.) For me, a typical outfit from this period might consist of striped leggings worn under torn jeans, a baggy T-shirt over a long-sleeved thermal, and a pair of Converse sneakers. I was ready to say kiss-off to the queen of England or rally behind politics I didn't fully understand, but mostly I was ready for my dad to take me to the mall.
Although I loved these musicians wholeheartedly, there was obviously still a level of remove between their lifestyle and my own. Then came the discovery of a species closer to my own daily existence: a whole lineup of sad boys and girls singing about crushes, feeling trapped in your parents' house, and ditching the party to go smoke an underaged cigarette alone. This was my emotional indie-rock phase, during which I turned from an angry caterpillar into a mopey butterfly, shuttling between basement shows over the course of eternal winters. My first serious musical icon and obsession was Conor Oberst from the band Bright Eyes, followed promptly by all other artists affiliated with the Nebraska-based Saddle Creek records.
I felt that my huge, insulated Columbia parka was inhibiting my true self.
I'd found an entire genre of musicians who made careers of singing about Midwest ennui. I felt transported, listening to an 18-year-old Oberst shout, "I scream for the sunlight / Or a car to take me anywhere / Just get me past this dead and eternal snow / 'Cause I swear that I'm dying, slowly but it's happening / And if the perfect spring is waiting somewhere / Just take me there." When I sing along to these lyrics now, I can't help but cringe, remembering how earnestly I used to identify with them. They're overwrought, but pretty accurately portray how I felt most of the time.
The wardrobes that accompanied these voices and lyrics were pretty simple, but to me they comprised a uniform of cool. A well-worn pair of jeans or corduroy pants, flannel, a black hoodie, and a denim jacket were all I needed to convey that I had a lot of "feelings." I set a photo of a young Oberst as the desktop background on my family computer; in it he has tied the strings of his hoodie shoelace-style into a neat bow. This was a look I quickly adopted. I recall driving four hours to Fargo for a Bright Eyes concert wearing what I thought would be an Oberst-approved sweater, bought just for the event (a huge black-and-grey striped number from the men's section of Old Navy).
Two things, however, held me back from turning what I thought was the standard ensemble of every lonely indie-rock musician into my own, daily uniform as well: my Catholic school dress code, and the weather. I was in the same school building for both junior high and high school, and there was a strict "no jeans except on Wednesdays" policy, which for me and everyone else somehow translated to khaki pants four days out of the week. These days, I wear jeans once in awhile, but back then trying to figure out a look without them seemed inconceivable.
The second inhibiting factor was that I lived in North Dakota. I felt that my huge, insulated Columbia parka was inhibiting my true self and refused to see it as necessary for surviving winter's subzero temperatures.
For bands like Bright Eyes or Cursive (which, like Bright Eyes, sang a lot about feeling lonely at parties but in a way that was more punk rock), the ever-present cold seemed to add to their misery, and their misery became their art. Unfortunately this was a concept my father refused to understand every time I tried to explain why I would be fine going out in a snowstorm wearing only light layers. Most of the time, I would grudgingly button myself into a sky-blue, water-resistant coat from JCPenney.
For bands like Bright Eyes or Cursive, the ever-present cold seemed to add to their misery, and their misery became their art.
But I did insist on dressing my way for shows. When I turned 14, I started accompanying my brother to all-age concerts. We would go to The A.M.P. downtown or else duck into people's basements, where a fellow teen would mark your hand with an "X" upon entry as Modest Mouse crackled over the PA system and people loaded in equipment. Before being dropped off I would tell my dad the reason I was going out in only my Cursive "Ugly Organ" zip-up was because I would be indoors nearly the whole time. This was true, but also completely inconsequential, as neither the venue nor any of the unfinished basements we frequented had working heat. Still, once the band started playing, scrawny boys would peel off their shirts and thrash around, creating a cloud of body odor and minimal body heat. I would stick to the back but take it all in rapturously, feeling like I'd found my place and looked the part.
As I grew older, my music tastes and fashion sense began to expand. The denim-on-denim look offset by a torn sweater or band T-shirt began to make way for the shift dresses and floral prints I saw on Jenny Lewis, or the peter pan collars I thought would be right at home at a Belle and Sebastian concert.
By the time I started college in upstate New York, the mish-mashed musical influences and the desire to find a unique look of my own resulted in a lot of outfits I've tried to banish all evidence of on Facebook. I paired babydoll dresses with combat boots and way-too-shredded tights, or wore oversized cardigans and (equally oversized) headbands with pleather shorts. Faced with brutal snow days, I nevertheless once again rejected a parka in favor of a wholly inappropriate, olive-green military-style jacket that definitely wasn't snow-resistant.
It took one wet winter living on my own and tromping back and forth between classes every day, during which I ruined my combat boots and my jacket developed a permanently musty smell, for me to reconsider: Perhaps there was something to be said for dressing practically.
My music library, like my wardrobe, has always been carefully curated, but it took getting over a lot of self-consciousness about the image I was projecting to see that when trying to dress like your idols, there's room for interpretation. I still have a soft spot for sad boys screaming about heartbreak, but I've also grown up enough to understand the value of a decent winter coat.
Anna Jastrzembski is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. She still listens to Bright Eyes.