In 2002, Box Car Racer released its first single, “I Feel So.” The lack of direct object in the title is instructive. Tom DeLonge, the Blink-182 singer who had ditched bandmate Mark Hoppus to form the new, darker side project, felt lots of things, according to the song: mad, angry, callous, used, cheap. But the title’s unwillingness to commit—to instead just feel hard—is the song’s signature element, a three-word summary of the mindset of the millennial teenager. DeLonge was 26 when he released it.
Now 39, DeLonge apologized for Blink-182’s “immaturity” earlier this week. The vanguards of bratty ’90s skatepunk have unexpectedly been thrust into the limelight again, as Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker released a statement saying DeLonge had left the band. DeLonge responded with a lengthy Facebook post, the gist of which was, “I didn’t leave the band, but I need space to do my other shit, too.” The tone of the argument is not one of a band in turmoil but rather of a group of friends who no longer particularly like each other, DeLonge eager to convey how busy he is, the other two seemingly exasperated with hearing about it. It’s not particularly juicy stuff, but there’s something appealing about checking back in on old bands to find them, well, older, if not particularly wiser.
Still, all this turmoil was there back in 2002, its seeds planted the moment DeLonge started to “feel so.” He had started growing his bangs out in 2001, but in Box Car Racer’s videos they’re more defiantly layered in front of his face. The bright yellow and blue Hurley clothes that were the de facto uniform of the Warped Tour era were replaced by all-black everything; a lip ring found its way back into his face, as did larger earring gauges. At the same time, it’s worth noting, the other pop punk on the radio had taken a darker turn, paired with diet-goth fashion, in the music of New Found Glory, Good Charlotte, and My Chemical Romance, while a suite of cherished late-’90s acts like Jimmy Eat World, The Get Up Kids, Bright Eyes, and Dashboard Confessional all burbled over briefly to mainstream popularity.
DeLonge, in other words, served as the popular harbinger of emo’s shitty third wave, illustrating with his very fashion choices how MTV went from boy bands to endless gloom. This final leap toward popularity for emo proved one too many, and a lot of its core definitions broke down. Up until that early 2000s switch—let’s call it The DeLonge Moment—emo fashion was mostly sweater vests and polite geekiness, with oceans of yearning just beneath a mom-friendly veneer. DeLonge and the summer of 2002 changed that. The style yanked toward goth and surface moodiness just as its music shed all traces of ambience and subtlety, as if wearing dark clothes added the layers of depth that a band like The Promise Ring or Sunny Day Real Estate instead tried to find in their dueling guitar lines.
Which is part of what makes DeLonge such an ideal avatar: Box Car Racer namedropped Fugazi, the Violent Femmes, and Jawbox before proceeding to release an album that sounded absolutely nothing like them. The record is full of sledgehammer dynamics, with a disconcerting studio sheen. It sounds, for the most part, just like a Blink-182 record.
Since then, DeLonge has continued the Box Car Racer side project as the long-running Angels & Airwaves, which, it has been easy to not notice, has released five albums, three movies, a comic book, probably an app or augmented reality game or something, and, inevitably, just mountains of awful clothing. Still: DeLonge has been busy, finding an unlikely place in the even more unlikely cottage industry of prog-emo space-opera bands (Coheed & Cambria, 30 Seconds To Mars, Mars Volta). It’s hard to consider this most recent act a failure, even if the music is uniformly bad. While he never evoked the canonical emo bands he nodded to with Box Car Racer, Angels & Airwaves has gotten increasingly closer to the slickly polished arena-rock for which it aims. DeLonge, whose role in Blink was essentially to bark like a cartoon dog, has even found something of a voice, croaking over the band’s sweeping arpeggios. If success is self-defined, then he has unquestionably reached it: He is in a band that sounds nothing like Blink-182.
“But I guess that’s another example of how I differ from most,” he says in his Facebook post. “I follow the light… I follow passion and I make art. I hang with my son, my daughter and my wife.” This is insufferable, and speaks volumes about why Hoppus and Barker want nothing to do with him, but it’s also sort of sweet. DeLonge was obsessed with dick jokes in his early 20s. He began yearning moodily as he approached 30. Now at nearly 40, he’s come home from college with a scarf and a tattered Haruki Murakami book, torching bridges with his old friends. He does not have time for their immaturity, because he’s busy with a completely different type of it. In so doing he has doubled down on his core appeal: He is the patron saint of bad emo, a grown man who still can’t stop feeling hard, one way or the other. He has not yet figured out how to elucidate what that feeling is, but that’s some shit adults do.