Holden Caulfield was emo as hell. He didn’t wear black jeans and vans and all, but he was emo as hell.
At least, that’s what I thought when I flipped the final page of The Catcher in the Rye.
My 12th grade English teacher, Ms. Dalton assigned it to us as the first book of the 2016-2017 school year.
Hell, I know the day because my favorite band, A Day to Remember, released an album two days before on September, 2nd.
When your favorite band releases an album, you have two choices: stay up until midnight and wait for its release, and headbang your heart out at 12:30 in the morning while trying not to wake up your family, or you go to bed early, get a good night’s sleep and listen to the first tracks while you take your morning shit.
For this album, I opted for the latter. I did indeed get a good night’s sleep. But regretted it the entire day. That day, a Friday, I woke up at my normal time and proceeded to the toilet. But I had Apple earbuds (this is well before Airpods existed) going under one arm and my phone chilling on the sink, as I bobbed my head to the album’s first songs.
A Day to Remember is my favorite band because they’re unlike any other band.
You can’t put them into a genre. They combine pop-punk melodies the likes of blink-182, Dashboard Confessional, and other 2000’s “emo” bands, with heavy metal breakdowns and screams. They fuse hardcore and pop-punk/emo—popcore, as some fans call them.
And this is important and all because now I’m sitting on the damn toilet headbanging but with these damn headphones in my way and the phone delicately balanced on the sink. One bad move and there could be a disaster.
Anyways, I prolong the bathroom jam session as long as possible before school but I only get through the first three songs. As I sat on a school desk incompatible to my dominant left hand, my foot tapped anxiously, waiting for the day to end so I can listen more.
Finally, I get home, but Ms. Dalton assigned the whole damn book over the weekend. I had no choice but to start that Friday night.
So there I am, lying on my living room couch. I finally get the pillows in the right position and put my headphones in. I may not be able to just listen to the album, but at least I can read and listen to it. And then my dog, a chocolate lab, barks. So I let him out to go pee, and then I throw a log in the fireplace. I still haven’t started this damn book and all. And all I really want to do is put on the new ADTR album and pogo jump and fist pump in our Vermont woods where nobody will see or care. If an emo boy moshes in the woods, does it make a sound?
Ol’ Holden Caulfield starts going on and on about Pencey Prep and all. Man, he was a real whiner. He seems like a funny kid, but man was he a whiner. But my attention jetted back and forth between the music. What was that thing Mr. Dalton told us the other day about the myth of multitasking?
Only one word comes to my mind when I think of Holden: he was emo as hell. Middle-class kid. Seems smart enough. But he just can’t be happy with a damn thing.
The word emo, though, confused the hell out of me, even though I freely threw it around, applied it to myself and fictional characters alike. Did it mean you had to lock yourself in your room, resent your parents, and get your first tattoo in high school? I guess I didn’t know. What I did know was all the music I listened to was broadly categorized as emo. ADTR, among others, were the kind of bands I saw featured on YouTube in DJ sets called “Emo Nite.”
But, I didn’t feel emo. I mean, I didn’t dye my hair or get piercings or anything.
But I loved thundering electric power chords and screaming lyrics.
You know when you listen to something, you kinda remember where you were when the song first enmeshed itself into your head? Well, over that weekend I read the whole damn book, and I must’ve listened to the ADTR album twelve times while reading. And from then on, every time I listened to it, I thought of Catcher in the Rye. Yup, I couldn’t listen to a record from my favorite band without thinking about this damn Upper East Side prick.
So, maybe I thought Holden was emo because I associated him with the music, or maybe because I was just mad at him for making me associate him with the music. It’s hard to say. So anyway, if you asked me what I thought about Holden Caulfield after we’d finished talking about it in high school I would’ve said: “It’s just a whiny, emo kid wandering around Manhattan.” And that’s where it would’ve ended. Eventually, I played the album enough that new memories recorded over that damn Holden Caulfield.
But it didn’t end there. Because two years later, I moved to New York. Walking through the intersection of 8th and Greenwich ave made me think about the fictitious bar Holden went to at that very intersection. More broadly, I pondered as I walked through New York streets how much significant history had strolled through the very same streets. Who else had placed their shoe exactly where I now place mine? How many thoughts have been thought on this very Greenwich Village street? How many words written and dollars made because of those thoughts?
I bet at least once a week I said in conversation during my first semester: “You know what would be sweet? To visit old New York.” That really killed me. And then, I thought how awesome it would be to go to CBGB’s on Bowery and watch the Ramones (considered among the pioneers of punk/emo music) play live and all. Something about understanding how this grandiose metropolis came to be kept creeping into my fantasies.
I thought more and more about New York, its history, and its literature. And one day I walked into Mercer Street Books. Something about bookstores just put me at ease, so I walked in whenever I had the time. Especially when homework became overwhelming, the thousands of books put it all in perspective. Anyways. There it was. On the front shelf. For $4. I had no choice. It was J-term, and with only one class and my dorm room on Fifth Avenue to myself, I could read each night in peace until my eyes drifted shut. I would sleep with it on my face until a taxi horn woke me up in the middle of the night.
This time, though, I read Catcher in the Rye through a different lens: a writer’s lens. I’d hung around enough writers to know the draw of Catcher in the Rye was how it managed to break all the writer “rules,” yet and succeed not just in spite of that but because of that. You know, how he adds unnecessary words at the ends of his sentences and all. Or just throw sentences in like “I’m not kidding myself” (117) just for the hell of it.
But, you know, I also got Holden Caulfield for the first time.
Like how he just says things a lot of us think but don’t want to say. You know how he says, “I’m always saying ‘Glad to’ve met you’ to somebody I’m not at all glad to’ve met” (116). He’s so damn honest, even with himself—“I swear to god I’m a madman” (174). I saw that you can have so much handed to you, and still get mugged by a pimp in a hotel room in your home city.
Even though nothing really happened the whole book, I fucking loved it.
I loved the iconic first line “…not that David Copperfield kind of crap,” that set the voice of Holden right there. I loved his obsession with where the ducks went when the ponds froze. This Salinger guy might have been on to something, you know. But, you know what, even the second time I still couldn’t help but think: Holden Caulfield was still emo as hell.
In the intervening three years, my relationship to my music taste, and its label as emo, shifted.
When I was young, I hid my music from friends. I feared getting asked to “take over the aux.”
In high school when I was asked what kind of music I liked, I hardly answered the truth. “I like everything… play whatever you want.” But in those three years, I started going to more concerts (including three ADTR shows), Emo Nites in person in New York and Montreal, and wore my favorite band merch with pride, marking emo music as a part of who I am.
Part of it was as I grew to be more comfortable and confident, I cared less and less what other people thought. Another part though, and the switch that made me go from dipping my toes into showing my authentic self to stripping plunging in with pride came from my mentor’s inspiration. John Romaniello is an entrepreneur and author, a fitness-bro raised on Long Island but with a vocabulary akin to his ivy league degree. In one of our first days this year spent creating content in his high-rise Hudson Yards apartment, he invoked that I need to start showcasing the unique sides to me more, if purely from a branding perspective.
As he sums up in an article on what he calls personality marketing, “Your prospective clients are more interested in how you’ll connect with them than your methods for helping them. People don’t buy coaching, they buy coaches.” Now, I had a green light to truly embrace the unique sides of me, because showcasing that will attract people who want to hire me for who I am, in addition to what I know.
No longer was it a lost part of my identity, the one part that didn’t fit the mold of how I thought I should’ve been. Now when asked what kind of music I like, I respond, “I listen to emo and pop-punk.” Invariably it raises an eyebrow and leads to further questions. Within seconds we’re talking about bands and listening to samples, and eventually discussing their favorite music. And because I’ve already shared a weird thing about me, they’re more likely to reciprocate with a truth they infrequently share. Once in a while, the person will respond, “Like who?” And before you know it, we’re riffing about our favorite bands and making plans to meet up at the next Emo Nite.
People really do seem to give a damn when something goes against what they’d expect. It traps their attention, it really does. And man, there’s something to the honesty thing, right up front. Sharing your quirks is the opposite of being a phony.
Holden still represented to me what emo had come to signify: to not be afraid to be different, to showcase your uniqueness and your pudgy insecurities.
It’s in these moments, like his disdain for your background defining you—“His name was George and he went to Andover, big deal” (165)—I respected Holden. Unfortunately, for him, I don’t think he had the outlets I do to express himself, to piece together his identity through a myriad of mediums. Maybe, Holden wouldn’t have needed to fail out of school and all if he had something like music to keep him going. It couldn’t be Phoebe. It couldn’t be the pond and the ducks or that red hunting hat. He needed his thing. His group of people to sing along with and separate himself from all the “phonies.” He was the emo kid, without the music to lift him up. Man, Holden Caulfield was emo as hell. God, I would’ve loved to go to an A Day to Remember concert with him.