In 1997, The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen” hit the charts, gripping JNCO-wearing, Y2K-bug-fearing listeners from its weary opening statement: “When I was young I knew everything.”
In 1997, I was 10 years old. I had frizzy hair and wore denim shorts and tourist T-shirts and had suddenly grown taller than all of my classmates. I lived in a brick house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in a small Texas town. No one I knew had a cell phone or a car phone, though I had seen Jerry Seinfeld use one on TV.
A year or so later, a man would roll up to our house and install our first dial-up internet connection. These cables leading from our computer to our modem and from the modem into the wall would come to define my young years. The internet expanded my social circle beyond the cliques of my school, beyond the highways and gated communities of my hometown.
Gradually, the digital world opened up, like heavy clouds, raining information down upon us all.
On summer days when it was too hot to go outside, I stayed in the air conditioning and taught myself the basics of HTML. I set up my own websites on Angelfire and GeoCities. I cursed under my breath every time the house phone rang, knocking me off the connection. I learned to send emails. Listened to MIDI files. Played games on Yahoo! Logged onto chat rooms. Downloaded ICQ messenger.
As I typed and clicked and moved from one technology to the next, I began to feel the ominous winds of change on my back; I detected that the temperature had begun to shift. And gradually, the digital world opened up, like heavy clouds, raining information down upon us all.
Before the internet, if you wanted to know the lyrics to a song — say, “The Freshmen” — you either had to listen closely when it came on the radio or buy a CD and pray to whatever deity you believed in that the liner notes included lyrics. Now, with the internet, some of the work was done for you. Generous individuals devoted their time to typing up the liner notes or simply (and often incorrectly) transcribing the warbled words and posting them on their fanpages.
In all my time dialing up, I never once looked up the lyrics or the meaning behind “The Freshmen.” I did not need to. After all, before “fake news” was propagated by Russian trolls, it was spread by grade school gossips. My classmates at school and my friends from extracurricular activities had already told me what this song was about: AIDS.
In my preteen years, I possessed only a fundamental understanding of AIDS. I regularly watched Dateline with my parents, and I’d also been present during P.E. class when the teacher showed us the Linda Ellerbee episode of Nick News featuring Magic Johnson. Based on these multimedia forays into the disease, I knew that it was tragic, that we should show compassion to those suffering, and that it was something only to be publicly discussed in hushed tones and after a permission slip had been signed.
It confused me that “The Freshmen” could be both well-liked and about AIDS, a topic that most people did not like. Regardless, I accepted this truth in the way that most children accept whatever new information the world presents to them. I did not dwell. I absorbed the data and I moved on. And anyway, I was too busy making my way through all of the Goosebumps books available at Walmart and chatting with strangers on MSN.
As I grew into rebellious teenager, I no longer viewed AIDS as something that needed to be whispered about. I was idealistic and maintained that we needed to talk about problems; only then could we find solutions. After all, I listened to riot grrl and read Smithsonian magazine; I was a woman of the world. When I was in my junior year of high school, a friend burned me a copy of the “Non-Stop ’90s Rock” CD compilation, which included “The Freshmen.” No longer one to be silenced or ashamed, I cranked up “The Freshmen” in my bedroom and in my Oldsmobile when boys I liked didn’t like me back or when I was upset about my acne. I’d listen and cry and try to put things in perspective, “Sure, I may have skin that produces too much sebum, making me unappealing to the majority of the male population, but there are millions of people in the world who have AIDS.” The song would end and I’d wipe away my tears, take a deep and brave breath, and venture, “Maybe there’s time for me yet.”
Recently, I was listening to a ’90s playlist on Spotify and “The Freshmen” came up. Thrust on an impromptu stroll down memory lane, I fumbled and mumbled along, surprised that I remembered approximations of nearly all of the words. And this time, for the first time, it hit me: this song might not actually be about AIDS.
This felt revelatory, and also scandalous, kind of like when I learned what Ariana Grande’s jolly-sounding “Side to Side” was actually about.
Shortly after this Spotify incident, I told my brother, a fellow ’90s music connoisseur, about the AIDS and “The Freshmen.” He burst out laughing. Not because he thinks AIDS is funny (it’s not), but because he thought it was a ridiculously dark topic for a preteen to be told a song, and in particular this song, was about. Yeah, okay, I countered, so what was “The Freshmen” really about then? “Duh,” he said, summoning the nineties and early aughts in a single syllable. “It’s about suicide.” He paused, suddenly not so sure. “Or maybe it was abortion?”
The 2018 internet is a much vaster, more industrialized place than the 1998 internet. It’s a developed country. A corrupt country, sure, but there’s infrastructure and if you look in certain places, you can sometimes spot some semblance of order. All I mean to say is it’s hardly the wild, wild west. Surely my answers were out there, somewhere, waiting to be found.
After my brother laughed in my face, I sat on my sofa, holding my iPad, a piece of technology unfathomable in the ’90s, and I dove deep into an internet wormhole. I looked first to the band itself. According to numerous websites, lead singer Brian Vander Ark reportedly claimed he wrote the song after watching the Marlon Brando movie The Freshmen. However, he also reportedly, and confusingly, claimed he’d written the song about an ex-girlfriend having an abortion — or wait, was it a former girlfriend who had died from suicide? Or maybe it was actually all just based on a conversation he’d overheard at a party?
With no clear-cut answer from the band, I looked to the fans, who were keen to share all kinds of theories, despite disagreeing on some basic facts. You see, some argued that the song was about high school freshmen, while others maintained that the song was about college freshmen. But that was semantics. Whether these titular freshmen were 14 or 18 years old, what truly mattered was their story. One Shakespeare devotee declared that the song had been written about Romeo and Juliet. Or maybe, someone else posited, this song was inspired by a pair of real-life teenagers who delivered and killed a baby in a motel after prom. Others swore the song had something to do with a The Verve Pipe groupie/stalker, who possibly killed herself, or had at least threatened to do so.
Indeed, it was all there, like an overstuffed after-school special: suicide, teen pregnancy, abortion, murder, promiscuity, car crashes, drug abuse, alcoholism, rape, prom. Validated at last, I even found someone who shared my AIDS theory. Songfacts user Bryan from Minneapolis wrote, “I always thought it was about a boy that gave a girl aids. my whole life I thought that was the song was about.” Same, Bryan. Same.
Although I was still just sitting there in my living room like a lump, in cyberspace I was digging deeper and deeper, traveling from the ’90s to now, from Minneapolis to Maine to Texas to Reddit to SongMeanings to Wikipedia. I was a sofa Sherlock Holmes, combing for clues through various websites and forums and comments sections. And yet, despite all this technology, all this access, all these glimpses into others’ lives and thoughts and supposed expertise, I was no closer to finding an answer.
Which brings us to meaning and, more specifically, to the meaning of art. I recently completed a master’s degree in scriptwriting at a drama conservatory in London, and this entailed tedious hours, days, and weeks spent analyzing what artists intended with their work. My world filled with phases like “provoking the audience” and “implicating the spectator” and “interrogating the concept of [insert concept here].” Everything, they told us, could be prodded, examined, reexamined. Meaning was always there, somewhere, if only you looked hard enough.
Not everything had to “inspire” or “provoke” or any of those other huge, intimidating transitive verbs.
Although at times this practice could be exciting, I ultimately found it exhausting. So much so that after I turned in my thesis, I had to take a month off from any scriptwriting work just to recalibrate. To learn to enjoy writing again. To remember that not everything had to “inspire” or “provoke” or any of those other huge, intimidating transitive verbs. That not everything had to be imbued with the deepest of meanings. That as an artist, I could just create things that I liked and believed in and hope for the best. That maybe that’s all art is, really. Just people throwing stuff out into the void and seeing what happens.
Some number of Google search result pages later, I surrendered to the truth: I would never know what “The Freshmen” was really about. And what I learned was what I already knew. That ultimately it doesn’t matter. What matters is what a song, or any piece of art, means to you.
And for me, this song serves as a reminder. A reminder of when I was young and thought I knew everything. Of when I was young and actually knew nothing. Of who I am today, in this age of endless information: still utterly clueless.