High school generally gets mixed reviews. Some hated it. Some loved it. But whether you’d rather relive the memories or repress them, it’s hard to argue that adolescence is marked by ambivalence. Maybe your experience might have skewed toward the positive, but it wasn’t absent its fair share of uncertainty. High school is mostly varying degrees of circumstantial conundrum: Where do I go to college, or do I at all? Who do I hang out with? Where do I sit at lunch? How many eyes are on me when I walk through the door? If I’m seen in public with my parents, do I have to justify the episode as punishment for the unavoidable crime of being their child? Is it OK to like something that other people think is lame, like hanging out with my parents? Am I who people think I am? Who am I?
John Hughes, the writer, director and explorer of the teenage psyche who died yesterday, deftly distilled that rite of passage in The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink. For it, he became iconic filmmaker. Icon status is no small feat for someone who relied heavily on comedy, harder still when your plot hinges on detention, cutting class, a sweet 16 or a date to the prom. And while he had plenty of massive successes before and after (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Uncle Buck, Home Alone, et al), he identified with a generation—and many since—through the microscope of Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois. There, he revealed all of the things we knew about our high school selves, some of things we didn’t and most of the things we’d never admit.
It would be remiss—and not simply because this is a music blog—if we didn’t include that the soundtracks to his films were nearly as significant as to that revelation. On the road to teenage self-discovery, music is one of the first turns we take. Mixtapes were made for a burgeoning romance. Dozens played DJ at a parent-less party. Sometimes music was a badge across a clique’s vest—they listen to punk; they listen to Metallica; they listen to shit. Hughes knew this about music—just as he seemed to know everything about adolescence—and he often used it to convey what his characters, and his audience, might’ve been experiencing. From the epic Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me” walking John Bender off the football field in The Breakfast Club to Ferris Bueller’s “Twist and Shout” decree to someone who claimed not to have seen anything good, each song seems to mean more than simply the moment. Arguably Hughes’ most poignant song placement is of Dream Academy’s cover of the Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” when Cameron Frye’s desperate eyes focus so intently on a painting that it gives way to the brush-tip mess underneath—the heart of Hughes’ message.
Hughes’ New York Times obit claimed that he was a torch-bearer for “comedies about disaffected youth.” That, however, is a tired boiler plate, implying that alienation and/or rebellion is the inherent adolescent quality; that it’s the catalyst for everything else. But it’s the result, if anything. Existential tripe as it may sound, it does ultimately point to that last question—who am I? Because in high school, as pseudo-adults, we for the first time felt a twinge of individuality—as though we had a defining quality more than being a son or daughter, more than being a kid. But there’s a certain social responsibility and emotional burden that comes with independence. Despite our wild music and “disaffection,” we were still very much dependent kids—emotionally and financially—ill-equipped to navigate either responsibility or burden. The hardest part was compromising our fledgling sense of self with that lingering vulnerability. And we may find that we still have trouble with that compromise today. That’s the brush-tip mess. That’s the catalyst. That’s why we still watch John Hughes movies. words/ j crosby
Related: The National :: Pretty In Pink
MP3: Simple Minds :: (Don’t You) Forget About Me