I presented this piece as part of Speech Night at the 2016 National Young Writers’ Festival.
Who are you? Whoever you want me to be.
When we first meet Marissa Cooper, she’s standing in the driveway of her sprawling mansion home in Orange County, California, where she comes across the troubled Ryan Atwood, who’s just arrived in the area, and they share a cigarette. Described as “heartbreakingly beautiful”, we soon discover that the 15-year-old daughter of wealthy Newport socialites Jimmy and Julie Cooper has a litany of issues, from depression to alcoholism. The anhedonia so common in teenagers befalls her despite – or maybe because of – her privilege, and she falls further away from the social activities that defined her younger years. From the outside, she has everything, but she yearns for something more, and rejects what she’s been taught all her life when she dives deep into a world of rebellion, binge drinking, sex and all the wrong boys. Throughout the three seasons of The OC in which she appears, Marissa finds her most meaningful friendships not in the beautiful people she’s been accustomed to being around, but in the outcasts, on the fringes of her picturesque life.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Right now, punk.
Yeah, I am sorry, but Avril Lavigne doesn’t count as punk.
Oh yeah? Well, what about the Cramps? Stiff Little Fingers? The Clash? Sex Pistols?
I listen to the same music as Marissa Cooper? I think I have to kill myself.
I was 12 years old when I first heard All the Small Things on a radio countdown show, sitting at my clean white desk in my two-storey childhood home, tucked into a pocket of sleepy suburban Sydney. The red boom box in the corner announced the song, and those punchy guitars felt like a jolt of electricity. I hungered for something, but I wasn’t sure what it was – and then the song was over, and I was thrown back into the world I knew, tennis lessons and classical music and maths tutoring and S Club 7, the life of a girl born to refugee parents who had rebuilt their lives by the time she was born, a trust fund kid who had never wanted for anything. But I felt something change, and I knew I wanted to be different.
I’m not sure about you, but to me, the definition of punk is throwing a tantrum at Kmart because your mum won’t buy you The Mark, Tom and Travis Show because of the explicit language sticker on the front. My mother did not approve of my new interests, and yelled at me for saying I wanted to marry a member of Good Charlotte. She was even less impressed when I began to wear a padlock around my neck and call myself Elly Vicious, ditching the clothes she bought me for boys’ skate shorts, tattered Converse and a mesh shirt that had safety pins and tartan drawn all over it that I purchased at a very punk rock store called Jay Jays. I wrote a diary entry about my dad telling me to go to bed, and called him a fascist – a word I didn’t know the meaning of, but had learned with glee from the Sex Pistols song God Save the Queen.
This diluted version of rebellion was the best I could do in my circumstances – a second-generation Vietnamese kid growing up in the suburbs where nothing ever happened, desperate to be different but too scared to let my parents down too much. I never drank or smoked or had sex or did drugs, but I pursued the desire to be someone else – anyone else – through the safe avenue of music. My first boyfriend, who I met, obviously, on MSN, hated Blink 182, so I told him I did too. He was super punk, but our song was Michelle Branch’s Everywhere and in retrospect that really does not add up.
It’s probably about as punk as Ryan and Marissa’s song, Forever Young, which becomes retrospectively tragic when – spoiler alert – Marissa dies at the age of 18 (may she forever rest in peace). From the outset, the pair’s relationship was more doomed than the one in the classic 2002 Avril Lavigne hit Sk8er Boi. Marissa is a wealthy socialite who should have wanted for nothing. From the outside, her life looks perfect, but she has a father who, despite his kind heart, is wildly irresponsible, and a shallow, careless mother, who sleeps with her daughter’s first boyfriend and generally leaves a trail of destruction in her wake everywhere she goes. Ryan is a weirdly old-looking teenage felon from the working class town of Chino. Rewatching the show recently, I constantly screamed YOU’RE THE WOOOOORST at Marissa on screen, and yet I felt, more than ever before, a sort of connection with her. Like my teenage self, Marissa feels the need to break out of the rigid structures expected of her, but is often too naïve to know how, resulting in some truly stupid decisions and even worse outfit choices.
The class tensions in The OC, and particularly within this relationship, are interesting. The social standing-obsessed Julie Cooper grew up in the poor neighbourhood of Riverside, right next door to Ryan’s Chino – a fact she tries to hide. In one episode, she exclaims indignantly, “he basically called me white trash – he said I was from Riverside”, to which Jimmy retorts, “honey, you are from Riverside”.
The show is brimming with deeply problematic classism, but there’s an important common factor: the yearning to be something else, to escape ourselves, transcends just the teenage characters. We’re all trying our hardest to break away from what we were born into, to become what we want to be, or what we want others to think we are. Sometimes, we seek that through other people. Marissa’s tendency to flock towards the troubled boys – Ryan, Oliver Trask, Johnny Harper and, fatally, Kevin Volchok – mirrors my own relationships as a young adult. I chose the boys who I thought needed saving, and it was only in retrospect that I realised that by trying to save them, I was sacrificing myself.
My parents probably thought they were doing something wrong by me when things started going awry. It wasn’t their fault that I began to hallucinate the worst kinds of things when I was seven, or that I met a boy who pulled me under with him when I was 13. I started taking a heavy dose of antidepressants when I was 14 and I thought about dying every day, and I didn’t know why everyone told me I was so lucky. A pop punk song saved my life when I listened to it over and over again underneath my blankets at night, stuffing my fist into my mouth so I wouldn’t cry out loud. It told me to keep holding on, so I kept holding on. I knew that people with cooler tastes in music mocked these kinds of stories, that “real” punks laughed at the “posers” for being so impressionable, but that song did for me what thousands of dollars of therapy couldn’t. Everything looked fine from the outside but I was falling apart. My friends at school didn’t get it. The only people who did were names and avatars online, and boys in bands who said all the things I didn’t know how to.
I met my best friend on LiveJournal in 2003 when we discovered we’d been at the same New Found Glory show. We didn’t meet in person until 2005, outside an Alexisonfire show. Like me, she grew up in a well-to-do family, but she ditched the dresses and frills for black jeans and blacker eyeliner. Our mothers both hated it. I had a four-year crush on a boy who caught the bus past my school every day, and we burned each other CDs – MxPx, NOFX, the Bouncing Souls, Bad Religion – and I memorised his handwriting, thought about him hunched over, making that awkward scrawl just for me. We barely ever spoke in person. I ran a LiveJournal community for one of my favourite local labels, and teens from all around the country would gather in it to talk about Yellowcard and Last Year’s Hero and Kisschasy and it felt like we were speaking a language only we knew.
It didn’t matter to me that most of these friendships existed only online, or that most of these memories were made alone in my room or my head. It was the escape I needed, from a life I felt guilty to hate. My parents loved me, I was doing well at school and I had plenty of friends offline – but I wanted to be something different.
The OC was my drug of choice when I was 15 years old. My sister and I would settle down in front of the TV every Tuesday night with Cheezels to watch the drama unfold. Upon rewatching the series this year, it’s probbo as fuck – slut shaming, classism, glorifying shitty relationships, male entitlement, the lack of any non-white people… And yet it spoke to me, as a teenager going through things I didn’t really understand, knowing full well the whole time that I was one of the lucky ones.
Like me, these beautiful characters had their struggles. Proto-hipster Seth Cohen is at as little ease with his Jewish cultural background as I often was with my Vietnamese one. His pining for his childhood crush, Summer, reflected my own angst towards boys as a teen, culminating in his departure from Orange County at the end of season one IN A YACHT TO TAHITI, because that is how white boys deal with their problems. Marissa turns to sex, alcohol and an insultingly brief foray into same-sex relationships. Ryan just likes breaking shit – I would too if my absent father reappeared in my life and lied about having cancer and was also Kevin Sorbo, who you may remember from his starring role as Hercules in the television drama Hercules, which aired from 1995 to 1999. Even Seth’s mother, the incredibly successful businesswoman Kirsten Cohen, secretly struggled with alcohol addiction beneath her perfect veneer.
The pop punk that helped me keep my head above water when I was a teenager is equally troubling – it’s a cess pool of floppy-haired, friend zoned noodles whining about how the girl of their dreams won’t break up with her boyfriend and complaining about wanting to get out of their hometowns.
It’s utterly bizarre that either of these things spoke to a 15-year-old Vietnamese girl, and yet they both did. Pop punk gave me a peek out at the world beyond the suburbs, where nothing ever happened and no one was like me. It was the Aldi version of rebellion that inspired me to seek out similar ideas and people, musically and otherwise, and pushed me out of my comfort zone, providing the blueprint of the person I would become. The OC saw the rawest and ugliest parts of myself reflected back at me in unexpected, melodramatic ways, forcing me to confront the realities of my privilege, but also reminding me that there was no shame in feeling whatever feelings came to me.
Both get a bad rap for giving a platform to privileged kids to whine when some people have real problems, but when you’re 15 and your mum won’t let you go to that party or no one understands how you feel, it feels like the end of the fucking world. When that feeling, or a hugely aggrandised version of it, is put under a microscope in the form of entertainment, it deftly encapsulates the disaffected ennui of being a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, and for a teenage girl growing up in the middle of nowhere with a head full of bricks, that was incredibly validating.
These days, I’m more of a Seth Cohen – an insufferable nerd who still sleeps with soft toys, likes reading comics and has a music taste that never moved past 2005. But I remember all the people I was before – punching things like Ryan, screaming at my mum like Marissa, wearing ugly hats like Anna, delivering an impeccably-timed “ew” like Summer – and the soundtrack to all of that, in the years when I was constantly rediscovering myself, was the pop punk that came from the hearts of people the world over who, like me, struggled in spite of their obvious privilege, and made music to reach people like them. The lines we stood in for hours before shows, the bruises on my legs afterwards, the friends I made and the words I still know like they’re burned into my brain. I needed an escape and I got it through a sanitised, commercialised version of difference that transformed me.
So who am I?
Whoever I want to be.