“Yeah, I am sorry, but Avril Lavigne doesn’t count as punk.”
Last year a guy I worked with asked if he could take me to his friend’s folk show at some cafe in a place people visit to see leaves, and what I thought was, “don’t you know I charged three hundred dollars to my credit card for One Direction tickets ???” but what I said was, “okay, sure.” The ride was a much longer ride than I believe in taking in the dark with a boy at the wheel whose middle name I don’t know, but then we got there and a girl with exactly the kind of middle-parted long blond hair you’re imagining was singing a slow song about a boyfriend who left her to go “out west.” This meant California like it does in every story and she was being very sporting about the whole ordeal, a pretty little mensch, about to rise above and remember him fondly in the liner notes, until the last chorus when she wailed, let her pain be graceless so everyone would have to know, sang sloppy and wondrous, and it felt wrong, then, how we clapped our hands sedately over tiny candles in red glass jars. I spilled my beer all over myself trying to wiggle out of my jacket in the cramped room, and when I made a big show of reenacting the incident for the group it was just a practiced aw-shucks aren’t I such a silly, clumsy girl, an easy song and dance routine that becomes like what your bones were made from if you aren’t careful, performed without even trying, which is trying, but the subtext was that the dude should go buy me another one immediately. He didn’t, and then the next act played seven songs.
Outside, finally, it was the kind of early March night that’s dry but tastes wet, and you can go without a jacket when your skin really wants you to. It’s still cold enough that you should be wearing one, that you’re stupid and an embarrassment to your practical New England upbringing not to, like, what, suddenly you’ve never worn triple socks to shovel on snow days that arrived after it was meant to be Spring, but the bone-aching chill of January that made bundling an imperative begins to slip away for secret, tiny moments in that liminal month, and suddenly you can under dress comically, and feel romantic about goosebumps again if you’re the right kind of ridiculous. I had on this stupid see-thru black sweater with a pink bra and, twirling pirouettes on my boot heels, I kept saying the empty street of this tiny town, with its lantern lights and the wooden signs pointing to the quarry, the hand-painted hair salon window display, looked like a movie set more than any real place for real people to live. This earned from these locals, born and raised there, alternately, grumbles of complaint or comments about how, well, actually, a Robert Downey Jr. movie had just been filmed there. It’s like a fairy land, I said to my own prints on the pavement, and I meant the one that’s three thousand miles away, knowing and liking how it doesn’t really exist.
I knew a boy from California for one yellow night and for several more days and darknesses that I wish I could erase away, or cut and doom to the DVD special features, at least. He was more beautiful than any other human being I have ever seen up close and I say that as someone who has spent an entire lifetime filling diaries with detailed descriptions of the hands and haircuts of boys in big shoes who still looked like their little league team photo that wandered into my path. All his pores had light beneath them and he was silly in a knit hat on the walk home and boring in the morning when there was a French III quiz and rain. I asked him with a whiskey sour mouth if he’d ever been to Newport Beach, just to let him roll his eyes at me before he made a thumbprint in my hip, and when he said words about my skin against my skin I could reply, no, it’s not, I’m, it’s just I’ve never really seen the sun.
If I am awake at three am for no reason and no reason is seventy reasons and I could choke on them, I like to watch the episode of The O.C. when Seth remembers Summer’s poem from third grade about the skinny squirrel, when she kisses him and feels disgusted with herself about it, ‘cause we’re not meant to remember it’s really Adam Brody and that for the next stretch of years his face will wallpaper teenage bedrooms. Emo geek. He was, though. Godawful. I also like to scroll through the Los Angeles apartment listings on Craigslist. The only place in California where I could have my California, because my California’s made-up. I imagine the exciting ways in which I might come to be murdered in any given one, had I the money to move, and this allows me to settle heavily into both the irrational sense of having been cosmically wronged and the creak in the double bed I’ve slept in since I was two.
Josh Schwartz made The O.C. before he made Gossip Girl— an indelible modern classic of high-low pop art I’m gonna study in graduate school if my life really goes to ruin– and maybe the problem is that in 2003 he had not yet learned not to be too precious with his teen dramas. Gossip Girl had its own twerpy Seth Cohen who still gets the hot girl in Dan “Save some trees. Have a blog” Humphrey, but he was objectively villainous and I can only assume that’s why The CW let them stay on the air for two years longer than The O.C. lasted. That cast was on a special edition cover of Teen People. There were paperback novelizations for sale. MTV’s Laguna Beach The Real Orange County happened. (Thank god.) It doesn’t matter how much Beck you play, I am in middle school and I sneakily record your show on VHS tapes when I am grounded because it lets me pretend that I am rich and horrible and not just flat-chested and temperamental. You are making millions. This, all of this, is only candy.
In the beginning it was kind of like nobody working on this show knew it was airing on Fox in primetime, and, later, when the buzz wore off and the ratings went down, the mess was already made, and Mischa Barton already wanted off the show, and it was too late. The O.C. managed, in bursts and starts, to be great fun, and it could even be moving, but no pleasant diversion could change that at its center were a low-rent James Dean in a tanktop and choker necklace and an insufferable dweeb who gave out “starter packages” of his favorite media to the two out-of-his-league girls he was inexplicably dating, packages that included The Goonies and an honestly-I-swear-and-yes-this-loser-seriously-genuinely-I- mean-it-was-incredibly-popular-with-real-live-shiny-and-healthy-teenage-girls-Bright Eyes album. Those dudes and this show would make Blair Waldorf puke. Maybe all I’m saying is that The O.C. wouldn’t have fizzled out so fantastically, so fast, with no hope of course-correction, had it been a show about Summer and Marissa stealing champagne to drink backstage at Newpsie charity fashions shows and it was scored with more Beyoncé. Maybe I am saying 2003 was weird.
To see how integral a certain kind of moody almost-indie music was to the branding of The O.C., one need only look at the fact that a total of six soundtracks were released in accompaniment with a show that only had four seasons. The final collection, Music From The O.C. Mix 6: Covering Our Tracks is made up of selected songs that were featured in episodes of the show throughout its complete run (including the iconic Phantom Planet theme song, which the band themselves had already recorded an updated version of less than a year prior for The O.C. Mix 5), all performed by a different artist. It makes a pleasant enough listen if you can manage to overlook the heady sadness of premature nostalgia, not just for what the show had been–a pretty successful, deliriously pleasurable nighttime soap that could handle meta-humor pretty well here and there and was the hot pop culture thing for like a month and a half one sweaty summer in the early aughts– but for what it never really was– some kinda hip tastemaker telling an important story about class–and not feel totally bummed out. So, some girls bought an Interpol album because they liked Seth Cohen; Charlie Manson had fans, too. The O.C. wanted to be cool, but it was actually schmaltzy as fuck, and worked best when the powers that be acted like they knew it.
Have you seen The O.C.? It’s not on Netflix. The DVD boxset for the first season is thick and orange and I feel safe when I see it, though I haven’t opened it in a long time, and lost at least one disc to a friendship breakup long ago. The O.C. is the tale of what happens when public defender Peter Gallagher and his eyebrows take in a sixteen year old who was picked up by the police for stealing a car with his older brother and bring him to ritzy Newport Beach, so as to assuage the guilt he feels about living in the immense luxury his wife Kirsten’s real estate heiress fortune affords. Or whatever. The boy’s name is Ryan Atwood (a sweetly stocky Benjamin McKenzie) and he punches guys who strap surfboards to the top of SUVs as sort of a Robin Hood of the private school social spectrum. His palatial new digs come equipped with a maid, an infinity pool, a blond WASP mom with daddy issues, and new brother who acts like he has a Ben Folds 5 poster above his bed because he does. SoCal princess Marissa Cooper, played by Mischa Barton, who, in a rare turn for the TV world, really was just seventeen during filming, lives next door; is truly a living Neutrogena ad; you rarely recall, looking at her, all that vomiting from The Sixth Sense; is a teenage boozehound with lots of sharp-edged grey feelings and fluttery low-waist skirts; likes Stiff Little Fingers. Ryan and Marissa fall instantaneously into troubled, tumultuous love, because this is television and their golden toffee hair matches.
There would be many theme parties, then, parties where many people cry and fight and ruin formal speeches with champagne flutes in their hands. Seth gets the hot smart cool tough funny amazing wonderful girl of his dreams by way of the ineffable Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson, who is still killing it on Hart of Dixie, but don’t you dare tell anybody I’ve seen enough episodes to know that) even though he keeps trying to make her listen to Death Cab (“It’s, like, one guitar and a whole lotta whining.” she told us so wisely, so early on, in the passenger seat of a Range Rover, and yet…) and if you’re thirteen you write about it in your journal, christen it The Greatest Love Story of Our Time, watch and rewatch that scene where they kiss standing on top of the coffee cart at school. And if you’re twenty-three you’re like, “Um, maybe naaaaaaah, though.” Or that’s my experience anyway. “Welcome to The O.C., bitch!” a character in a pukka shell necklace shouts in the first episode just after beating Seth and Ryan up. I’m told and told that nobody who actually lives in Orange County would ever say that (“The O.C.”), which is my very favorite part.
The best music moments of The O.C.– like the best episodes–are in the long (twenty-seven episodes!) and exceptional first season. But, best doesn’t necessarily mean most important. It doesn’t mean they’ll really tell you what this whole deal was about. That’s why the moment I want to talk about today is from the middle of season three, long after this pony’d gone lame, and why it’s such a downer. The synopsis for this episode begins, “Ryan struggles with whether to invite Marissa to his birthday or not.” Eight episodes later, Marissa will be dead. Her mother, the ever excellent Julie Cooper, has fallen from the sprawling McMansion heights we first met her in (and the world of McMansioner Mansions which she moved to next after marrying Caleb) to a trailer in a lot some place so that we can learn a lesson about cocksure women, or something. Ryan goes there to talk to Marissa, and when he finds nobody home feels totally chill and comfortable about sitting inside, alone and without having been invited, and listening to the mix cd Marissa made to give him for the big one-eight before their breakup, which he finds on the table and sticks in a blue boombox. He’s wearing a button down shirt to signify character growth. The song that plays is “Paint the Silence” by South, and I could die.
I don’t know anything about the band South; it doesn’t matter. Nobody does. “Paint the Silence” first played on this show during Marissa and Ryan’s first kiss on a ferris wheel at the Harbor School’s fall carnival, back when they were bright young things and Marissa hadn’t shot Ryan’s brother yet. To this day, I have that track play on my iPod when I need to feel, for a moment, that particular kind of misty, manufactured romantic. It feels like nothing particularly real that you could touch, but it fills me up. Let the opening guitars wash over me and taste not salt but a certain half-shameful nostalgia. Because that’s what it is. That’s what it always was, often and early, and still. Nostalgic.
Ryan plays the CD and Marissa visits the horrible meathead of a new boyfriend who will eventually cause her death in a grisly auto accident. His name is Volchok. The actor was the villain in a MMA moving starring Sean Faris. Of course he gets her killed. Volchok, another wrong-side-of-the-tracks dish for Miss Cooper, but this one doesn’t have Ryan’s high test scores, so you know, you knew, is working a construction gig at one of the model homes in a development owned by Kirsten Cohen. One of the same model homes that Marissa and Seth hid Ryan in when he wanted to flee Newport in the show’s second ever episode. One of the same model homes where they looked at each other with longing while Seth did ollies in the empty pool, where Ryan peeled off his leather jacket and his 8 Mile hoodie to sit in a beater and tell Marissa they were “from different worlds.” It looks identical to the model home where Marissa gave Ryan the first mix CD, “let your education begin,” she said, to the only character on the show who ever really had anything to complain about who is also, of course, the only one not claiming any punk rock cred, and, um, the model home they accidentally burned down. Josh Schwartz doesn’t trust as to remember all this just because Mischa Barton makes a half-hearted effort at looking stricken, so he gives us flickering flashbacks while the song, this song we’ve already cemented into our hearts, plays out. And, bless him. The whole moment is too much for me, these memories of a love that was barely stupid enough to work the first time and a show that was only great for a blink, though not quite as much too much as it is for Marissa, who faints and tumbles limply down a flight of stairs like she’d been doing metaphorically for more or less the entire series. Ryan is sad. Marissa is prostrate. It’s all too gold too last, so it won’t. In case you were wondering, she doesn’t go to the party. And in case you forgot, she will very shortly be dead. Pain comes in stages / If we don’t make it / Then nothing changes I hope these South people got a nice check.
I have never set foot in California outside of a million watercolor half schemes at two pm on long Tuesdays to the tune of a The Mamas & The Papas song or four, but once I watched a disappointed rich kid from Orange County take off on his personal sailboat to wallow in self-pity atop the glittering Pacific (when it requires strong moral principle yadda yadda etc not to knock people’s hats off, whatever, high time to get to the sea, y’know) while Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” hummed through in all its comfortably pre-packaged woe, and I was in the seventh grade but even then I knew it was ridiculous of me to cry over this, though I did, and did, watched the credits roll in all wet anyway, so, I don’t know. I feel like I get the gist.