Not long after I heard Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” in November 2001, I rushed out to buy the album. For those of you young enough not to know, this was actually a thing once upon a time.
At 16, I didn’t know much about anything, contrary to what I believed, so it didn’t register that the album was titled “Bleed American.” I’m not even sure how I got a copy still bearing that name — by then, most copies showed a self-titled album whose former title track was now called “Salt Sweat Sugar.”
What I knew is that I needed “The Middle.” I needed to be told everything would be just fine.
It’s cheesy, to say the least. As Jason Heller points out in his AV Club piece, “How Jimmy Eat World’s ‘The Middle’ became the best song for a bad time ,” the lyrics may even be the cheesiest thing ever written, though in a post-9/11 world, cheese was called for.
I still remember that morning the world changed forever. It was early into my junior year of high school. I took Drafting as a “zero period” — as in before school normally started — class, so I was up at 5:45 a.m. eating cereal when legendary LA radio DJs Mark and Brian came on early with the dismaying announcement that a plane had struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
The radio went off and the TV went on, and my mother and I watched in dismay as footage of the plane striking the North Tower. We were still watching when live footage showed the second plane crashing into the South Tower.
I don’t know that staying home from school was an option, but even if it was, I wouldn’t have taken it. My mom was committed to being at school to help her students make sense of what had happened, and I wanted to be in my classes in case my friends were having a hard time. Yes, even then I was an insufferable do-gooder.
Nothing got done that day. In every class, the TV was on and tuned to news coverage of the attacks and the rescue efforts in their aftermath. It was a hard day, but we got through it together, students and teachers alike.
“The Middle” isn’t about everything being okay for America — the album was released the summer before the attacks — but for those of us who weren’t in the in-crowd, it was reassuring at a time when we needed more assurance than ever. We all coped differently, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that emo music was one way I managed.
Don’t write yourself off yet
It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on
Just try your best
Try everything you can
And don’t you worry what they tell themselves when you’re away
I don’t have to explain anything here. This song was for the ones who weren’t automatically invited to the parties, the ones who felt judged walking through the quad at lunch, the outsiders.
The idea of trying your best and that being enough was important, especially at that time — patriotism was at an all-time high, and we all wanted to feel like we were doing something to help our country recover. My parents actually had to talk me out of joining some branch of military. I’m not kidding about this.
You know they’re all the same
You know you’re doing better on your own so don’t buy in
Live right now
Yeah just be yourself
It doesn’t matter if it’s good enough for someone else
It was hard to believe at the time, but this bit of advice — plus the chorus, of course — proved out. As I got older, my world got bigger, and I finally saw that life always wasn’t going to be based on the high school social caste system. I’ve made plenty of like-minded friends, fallen in love, earned respect in my career, and nerds are cool now. Who would’ve thought?
Completely unintentionally, I gave the exact advice from this song to a friend last night. Life’s been really difficult for her recently, so much so that she couldn’t see she was doing her best and all the good that had come of it.
On top of the greatest challenges at home, she had a toxic relationship end, and the parting blows from her ex left some pretty deep scars. I didn’t say “You know you’re doing better on your own so don’t buy in” in those words, but I said it sure enough. I know she’ll be okay — she just needs to stick with it and not worry about those niggling thoughts that have been dragging her down.
It just takes some time
Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride
Everything, everything will be just fine
Everything, everything will be all right, all right
Ah, that iconic chorus. Cheesy or not, the lyrics and sentiments conveyed in “The Middle” still ring true today and will forevermore. Jimmy Eat World wasn’t the first to express that advice — to be you and that, in time, it’ll be all right — but they did it in a way that we won’t forget anytime soon.