Middle school wasn’t the best time for me. (Heck, was it for anyone?) I gelled my hair—and held it with hairspray—made my parents pay $50 so I could squeeze into a pair of Abercrombie & Fitch pants, and had a Nokia flip phone. I was also hiding a pretty huge secret: I was gay.
I grew up in a suburban county in the Midlands of South Carolina, so being gay wasn’t exactly ideal. Looking back now, I see how rigid the social norms actually were in my town. Boys were expected to play sports and hunt (cringe), and girls had to either dance, compete in pageants, or play tennis. Anything outside of this extremely narrow box was grounds for copious ridiculing.
And I was definitely on the outskirts. At a young age, I gravitated toward more theatrical activities like dancing and playing “make-believe.” By my daycare years, I developed full-fledged obsessions with Britney Spears and the Spice Girls—I still listen to both today. BritBrit was my main girl (and still is), and I spent the greater part of my elementary days mimicking her dance moves and rattling off facts to anyone who would listen. At 8 years old, I was naive to the fact my peers—and, during one scarring incident, my daycare counselors—were laughing at me, not with me.
By 13, I learned the acceptable codes of behavior and diluted essentially every aspect of my personality. I consciously lowered my high-pitched voice when I spoke, made sure I walked with less—erm—flare, and lied about all of my entertainment favorites. Instead of bringing the Gossip Girl novel I wanted to read to English class, I brought a generic James Patterson book. When asked what my favorite movie was, I said Coach Carter. (At the time, Mean Girls was my real go-to.) And the second I thought I saw someone catch me listening to “Toxic” on my iPod, I hastily switched to my cover-up: Move Along by The All-American Rejects. It was my musical beard.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the album—I did (and still do). In fact, it was the only (what I deemed) “masculine”-sounding music I could actually bop to. “Dirty Little Secret” is a classic jam for anyone my age, but I also found both “Stab My Back” and the LP’s title track incredibly entertaining.
Move Along served as my ultimate pop culture shield. When I caught wind of my classmates questioning my sexuality, belittling me for my lack of macho prowess, or even poking fun at my pink-tinted iPod cover—I wasn’t exactly doing much to help my case, in hindsight—I always mentioned that I liked Move Along. And this made people back off. The record was almost an olive branch between my bullies and me—something that told those idiot 12-year-boys we weren’t so different. We listened to the same music.
It was hard to keep up the charade when thawed bullies started asking me about other similar bands like My Chemical Romance and AFI. I only casually listened to AAR, so I had little knowledge of the rock genre. During these instances, I panicked and brought up one of the four songs from Move Along I could speak intelligently about. It always worked.
I kept up this persona until the end of eighth grade. Move Along was no longer a newish album, so bringing it up seemed forced—almost like I was trying to defend myself. It was around this time I stopped caring so much what people thought. By the 10th grade, I was still in the closet, but I no longer censored my personality quirks. And that included speaking openly about my love for BritBrit and—at the time—Lady Gaga. Now, I walk down the street wearing my Britney Jean T-shirt with no f—cks to give.
But I have to thank Tyson Ritter and the gang for getting me through a turbulent time in my life. I’m not exactly sure why I thought telling people I liked The All-American Rejects would somehow magically hide my sexuality. However, it significantly decreased the amount of crap I received, which made my middle school experience not completely terrible. No bulls—t: AAR, in many ways, saved me from adolescent hell.
Of course, I hate myself now for bending over backwards to conform to preposterous gender norms. My 22-year-old self would tell 13-year-old me to listen to your In the Zone album like a boss. However, in seventh grade, you’re not thinking like that. You’re just trying to get by.
So thank you, All-American Rejects, for helping me get by.