American Football Turns 20
Imagine if your college diary became public. For most of us, that’s not hard to do, as thousands willingly spilled their guts on a now-shuttered Xanga account or on a Tumblr they’ve since forgotten the password to. A diary is as much of a place to jot your reflections down as it is a place to use doodles and collages to vent. The moment a diary becomes public, however, is when whatever you’ve created goes unprotected. It’s earnesty without armor in a perpetually barbed world.
Released 20 years ago this week, American Football isn’t a diary, and it certainly didn’t go unedited the same way so many rambling LiveJournal posts did, but the album was a profoundly sincere collection of songs increasingly made public over the last two decades. It wasn’t written with the intent of being heard by a broad audience, nevermind finding fame amongst critics and listeners alike. American Football itself was never intended to be a real band, even, guitarist Steve Holmes recently said, but rather a “creative outlet” that gave himself, singer-guitarist Mike Kinsella, and drummer and trumpeter Steve Lamos “something to do outside of schoolwork.”
The deciding factor between a stranger’s diary worth celebrating and a stranger’s diary that remains irrelevant is relatability — the type that’s rooted in empathy, not identification, and dear god not rooted in all-encompassing sales tactics. If there’s nothing to connect to in the work, then the best use of your time is to move on. On the surface, American Football’s debut album should have been forgotten. It’s a jazz-indebted indie rock record. The vocals fall between proper singing and soft yelling. Song titles like “I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional” read like jokes. Despite all of this, American Football is a deeply personable album in both its lyrics and music. As with any personality, you either like it or you don’t — which partially explains its status as the quintessential emo album and its role as a billboard for the genre as we know it today.
If you’re not supposed to take American Football seriously, then at least the band put the equivalent of an indifferent shrug up top. The album begins with the loose drum fill and nervous guitar strum of a band doing last-minute tuning, followed by a nearly inaudible countoff. But from there onwards, it sounds incredibly warm, specific, and deceptively tight-knit. Time-signature shifts and harmonious riffs skip around, turning math rock on its chunky head into something much lighter and delicate. The production sounds bright and clean, as if American Football spent weeks inside of a proper studio recording these tracks instead of a few days by themselves. The first time I listened to it, I remember thinking “Honestly?” was like a barebones Pinback song, “Stay Home” sounded like a teary-eyed Don Caballero, and “The One With the Wurlitzer” sounded like an elevator lamenting its own genre. Where their contemporaries focused on thundering drums or dueling guitars, American Football stood out for their use of cascading trumpets and unpretentious jazz percussion, taking things slow without resorting to the basics of balladry. They were one of the first, if not the first, band to take emo in the direction it’s now known for: confessional, twinkly, and eager to trace the heart on its sleeve.
If it weren’t so personal, emo would just be a softer spinoff genre of indie rock. Instead of being sad about the past, American Football concerns itself with the sadness of right now, of the specific pain that hasn’t subsided, of considering what you want to say but have to wait to do so. Kinsella wrote lyrics about the effortless woes of suburban struggles. “Honestly I can’t remember / All my teenage feelings / And their meanings / They seemed too see-through / To be true,” he sang. And yet the album articulates them without realizing, solely because as young adults, we can’t bring ourselves to admit that teenage feelings cling to us longer than the maturation process implies. He still sees summer as a fresh start on “The Summer Ends,” a notion itself defined by the academic calendar year. “Not dead yet / But the regrets are killing me,” he sings elsewhere, practically carving the words in a desk concurrently. Kinsella flops between melodrama and simplicity throughout American Football, yes, but it’s the way he sings his lines that lets you in on the joke: He’s tired of thinking like this, too.
To find American Football early on meant you were simultaneously told, as if by passing forbidden notes or exchanging whispered secrets, who and what they were all about. Excluding those living in Chicago and the group’s home base of Urbana, Illinois who discovered bands through music scene osmosis, learning about American Football was a rite of passage reserved for emotional music nerds.
By now, the band’s history is learned by rote. Kinsella and Holmes grew up playing in bands together in the Chicago suburb Wheeling, Illinois. Lamos entered the picture in college while drumming in the One Up Downstairs. When that band dissolved, the three decided to write songs together and found themselves penning American Football material between 1995 and 1997. Polyvinyl Records founder Matt Lunsford was eager to release their music given he had already been following the members of Kinsella’s prior band Cap’n Jazz. The three of them teamed up to release a three-song self-titled EP in 1998, dropped their debut self-titled album in 1999, and then, like all college bands inevitably do, shelved American Football to face life head on. But slowly, supposedly without any member realizing, the years that followed saw American Football become the type of fabled album teenagers long to be privy to, a mythological listen that’s strictly discussed with tenderness.
If you didn’t know any of this, a collection of increasingly emphatic posts will teach you about it. First came the early 2000s blog posts and message board threads, then the mid-2000s Rate Your Music reviews and Last.fm conversations. In 2014, Polyvinyl reissued the album with previously unheard demos and live recordings (ones the internet was adamant didn’t exist leading up to then because it falsely believed the band had only played to a couple dozen people at a handful of shows). That prompted a reunion, 20/20-in-hindsight album reviews, and constant interviews about both. Then came an investigative feature on the cover art (a traditional Midwestern house at 704 W. High St. turned supposed museum), an extensive oral history, and an explainer on “Never Meant” memes. American Football’s fame blossomed into something so big that American Football’s two reunion albums, both self-titled, were immediately coveted, and the band’s recent world tours continue to be bucket-list concerts for the fans attending them.
Even now, after 20 years and thousands of words spilled about the music, American Football still sounds fresh. Three guys experimenting with playing styles while coming to terms with their feelings resulted in a record that captures the timelessness of teenage sadness — a rarity at the time, though not impossible to find given acts like Braid and the Promise Ring were down the highway. The external context was different, though. Sadness wasn’t profitable in mall chains. Depression wasn’t a valid reason to skip work. Fashion brands to help you flash your introversion like a yield sign weren’t around yet, and culture magazines certainly weren’t in the right editorial mindset to remind you it’s okay to not be okay. Emo has always been in touch with its feelings, and emo existed long before this band formed, but the genre hadn’t yet figured out you could sound as complex and gentle as American Football.
Over the past two decades, American Football has continued to find new generations of listeners at the exact time that listening to the album offers refuge. Without any promotion or heavy-handed bragging, it traveled beyond the Midwest to the rest of America and, in time, the world. It’s interesting to contemplate given emo will always spread from one fan to another, especially in the age of the internet. It’s an insular community that’s consistently hungry for new bands to champion. But for many bands, it takes years to break out of your scene, be it the original post-hardcore scene of DC, the punk-indebted acts of California, the pop-punk tri-state area, or Philly’s twinkle renaissance.
American Football hit the deterritorialization jackpot. It was as if by being removed from the Midwest emo scene that influenced them, they were recontextualized in the emo scene at large — a growth spurt that turned them into the go-to role model for modern day emo bands. The more word-of-mouth fame led to burned CDs and torrenting, the more American Football became a blank coloring book to shade in as you needed. Their story, and what little was known about it, turned into suburban legend. The cover photo became a serious piece of art. The songs transformed into anthems for loners. The only factor that stayed the same between American Football’s release and the band’s reunion 15 years later is the prominent feelings of longing and nostalgia in the music. Those feelings only strengthen as you age, which explains why as the album’s initial fans age, many find themselves returning to the album to discover they haven’t outgrown it as expected.
Despite all of this, the fame surrounding American Football often looks like a warped, inside joke. How could a record so intricate and intimate become so popular? Why would the music world refuse to let go of an album from your past while you’re busy releasing over a dozen records with your new band? How could you go from playing basements to having an overflowing crowd of non-Americans sing every word back to you at Primavera Sound? Most of all, what makes one stranger’s personal sorrows and diaristic queries so relatable that you commit them to memory? American Football walks the fine line between deeply specific anecdotes and vague emotional notions just well enough to articulate not just a feeling, but an experience, that everyone eventually goes through in life. It’s not quite heartbreak and it’s not quite longing. It’s a specific type of inevitable loneliness that emo music can pinpoint with a guitar melody if done right.
For all of the intense emotional pressure projected onto American Football, it still remains somewhat detached, an album that is easy to miss if someone doesn’t point it out. The sheer fact that the house adorning the corner had no real significance to any member, but rather the photographer, seems to drive that point home. And yet American Football created an audible familiarity, a musical equivalent of emotions being extracted, expanded, and harped upon the way any difficult moment of life is naturally over-examined by a 20-year-old. It’s hard to describe emo succinctly because of how complex the genre’s evolution has been, but if you put American Football on, the album can do the majority of the explaining for you.