1. “Audience of One” by Rise Against (2008)

The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.

“Growing up is fucking weird. And while we never have to fully do it, there comes a time when we might have simply ‘outgrown all the things that we once loved.’ Run away from it, you might try, but ultimately you won’t escape the inevitable. All that remains is the memories, and while that may not always seem good enough, there (sic) always there and you’re always the audience of one in the theater of times remembered.” – E Dagger, Cru Jones Society, September 1, 2009

It’s rare that you can pinpoint the exact moment that something becomes your favorite, but in the case of “Audience of One” by Rise Against, it was upon writing those four sentences above that I realized this is my favorite song of all-time. Some of the pre-requisites are there and obvious. It’s a punk song. It’s from the band about whom I wrote my master’s thesis. It’s got an epic feel. It’s about reckoning with whatever demons plague you internally. Much more on that in a bit.

I wrote that in 2009, a banner year in my life. I turned 28, got promoted to Account Manager at the PR firm where I worked, bought my first house with my fiancé, and then married her and went on an awesome honeymoon to Maui. I make a playlist for my birthday every year, so it shouldn’t be surprising that this one is still one of my favorites simply by virtue of what it symbolizes.

Aesthetically this song is as about in my wheelhouse as it gets. Tim McIlrath’s raspy, powerful voice belting out heartfelt lyrics over giant sounding guitars, tempo changes between the verses and choruses – it’s stadium punk. That’s pure catnip for me. But as you know all too well by now, I have no vocabulary for describing the technical side of music, so let’s move on to what it means.

“I can still remember the words and what they meant” are the very first words out of Tim McIlrath’s mouth in this song, and you might as well carve that on my tombstone. Everyone tells me my memory is insane, which, compared to nearly everyone else, is true. What’s obnoxious about it is that I’m underwhelmed by my own superpower and just perplexed and annoyed that everyone else’s memory is so shitty. Like, c’mon – it’s your fucking life, how can you not remember it? Just, I dunno, remember better. It’s a wonderful blessing and a horrible curse.

On one hand, my memory is unifying. I share stories of my friends WITH my friends, and everyone gets a nice little dopamine hit as I truffle out some long buried gem of a story that everyone gets to genuflect in for a few moments until they eventually forget it again. On the other, my memory is supremely isolating. When you remember everything and it seems everyone else remembers nothing, it’s easy to feel alone or even to gaslight yourself into believing your memories are false. When you can’t corroborate something effectively, the memory loses some of its potency because it’s just you alone in a theatre staring at a screen playing a movie either no one remembers, or that no one bothered to care about anymore.

You’re essentially by yourself, which, in most cases, is perfectly fine with me.

As an only child, I’m torn between a deep desire to spend the bulk of my time by myself and an intense, nagging loneliness I want refuge from. This unresolvable tension animates my feelings about virtually every single friendship I’ve ever had, yet never my marriage, oddly enough. I never get tired of her, something I cannot honestly say about any other person I have ever been with. She is also the only adult person I have not considered (at least in passing) what the meanest possible thing I could say to them is. I’m not proud to admit that I have that in reserve for everyone else I have ever met. Why? I don’t know, but it’s fucking exhausting and makes me sad. I suppose it’s some sort of nuclear option defense mechanism.

The paradox is that I make friends easily and pretty much wherever I go, yet I often feel totally alone and misunderstood. I actively avoid making friends with people I work with for reasons I will never understand and in a way that continues to baffle my wife. I blame my friends for not understanding me, yet I work to keep them at a distance or shut them out entirely. I literally never tell anyone a fraction of this psychosis (and up to the moment I hit publish have considered taking this entire section out), so this tension plays out entirely one-sided and inside my own mind. Drama, strife, neuroses, paranoia and more all for the benefit of… me. An audience of one, if you will.

“I brought down the sky for you, but all you did was shrug. You give my emptiness a name.” This was, and is, my favorite line in this song or any other. Creative work, like the kind I do every single day, is built on failure. I’m an idea factory. That’s what clients pay for. Generating raw material is the hardest part of any job, and every single thing I do starts with a blank slate. It’s up to me to fill it, to present it to whoever paid me to fill it, and then to watch them as they casually criticize or dismiss those ideas for any number of valid or idiotic reasons. You quickly grow a thick skin or you stop doing this work. But no matter how thick your skin gets, some of the feedback leaves wounds, a lot of it will feel wildly unfair, and there will be times you question yourself as a whole person. Creativity draws from the well deep within you. To pull it to the surface, nurture it, shape it, mold it, and bring it into the light for the very first time and then have someone look at it and go, “Meh.” is a feeling that will fucking destroy you if you let it.

(An aside: This is why baseball will always philosophically be my favorite sport. It too, particularly hitting, is built on failure. The highest lifetime batting average of all-time among Hall of Famers belongs to Ty Cobb, who hit an unfathomable .366 over his career. That means that miserable, racist asshole still failed to do what he was seeking, and legally paid to do, 634 times out of 1,000. And by this metric, he is the best there ever was at it. I find this perseverance in the face of unrelenting failure weirdly inspiring. It bears mention that Ty Cobb the person can get all the way fucked.)

This song took on a new meaning for me when my kids were born. I used to sing this to them when they were babies and I was trying to get them to go to sleep. That may seem weird, but 1) For a Rise Against song, it’s pretty downtempo; 2) On a practical level, it’s one of the only songs I know from start to finish (the other two are “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers and “The Science of Selling Yourself Short” by Less Than Jake); and 3) Babies don’t know the difference. They’ll just stare at you if you sing softly and sort of drift off. It’s adorable.

It’s because of them and because of Kristin that I no longer feel alone in the world. Kristin and I chose each other, and we chose to create these two beautiful girls. I know they’re all that ultimately matter. They are my animating principle. And no matter if we run away. If all our friends are gone. If we outgrow all that we once loved. We will have each other.

Make no mistake, each of us is all alone inside our own heads and memories. We are, and forever will be, the audience of one for the totality of our life’s experiences. But if I am struck dead this very instant, when the slide show of my life starts, this audience of one will not feel alone. I am surrounded by love. I deeply adore my life. And while I don’t think about every single thing mentioned in the previous 1,400 words every time I hear this song, I certainly think about some of them, and a song that can weave that rich a personal tapestry in four minutes and eight seconds deserves to call itself my favorite.

I wrote this series for me. But there is no me in this format without you. I could have just written these 50 essays and let them live forever on my hard drive known only to me. But that’s ultimately unfulfilling. I believe every single one of us harbors a deep desire to express ourselves creatively. It doesn’t have to be writing, although that just so happens to be what I’m good at and what I enjoy most. Maybe it’s music, maybe it’s photography, maybe it’s woodworking, maybe it’s building engines. The point is, there’s beauty in creation, no matter what it is.

I used my time, my energy, and my skills and I made this. I want to show it to you.

That’s just about as pure an expression both of humanity’s confidence and its vulnerability as it gets. In the things we create, we give a piece of ourselves to anyone open to receiving it, and in so doing, risk rejection. But we’re forever joined with those who find connection in our expression. They see us, and they say, “Yes. This.” Our creations (and the shared love of others’ creations) become the bridges upon which we can cross at almost anytime to renew the bonds of love and friendship. I hope I’ve surprised and delighted you at some point along the way.

My encouragement to you is to find the most fulfilling way you express yourself creatively, and jump into it with confidence and a touch of recklessness. I have now written more than 50,000 words in this series, and I’m intensely proud of what I’ve done. I feel creatively and emotionally satisfied with my efforts. What mountain is just aching for you to climb it? Figure it out, and start climbing.

Thank you for taking this journey with me (to whatever extent you did). It’s been a pleasure to share myself with you in this way, and I hope you found something in one of these 50 songs – a joke, an insight, a turn of phrase, a called-out lyric – that only you and I got. Whether we ever talk about it or not, that’s an inside joke shared between you and me and no one else. That’s a sacred bond between a writer and a reader, and it’s one I cherish deeply.

I adore you all. Take care of yourself.  And rock on.

2 comments on “1. “Audience of One” by Rise Against (2008)

  1. Jeremiah says:

    “I made this, and I want to show it to you”. This is the musicians mantra. Even you think it sucks, I made it all by myself. Or maybe with the help of a few good friends. But we made it. And we want to share it with you. Rock and roll.

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