Op-Ed: Don’t Fill Up On Chips – Queerness Through The Lens of The Front Bottoms

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The Front Bottoms are gay as hell. There, I said it. Now, what exactly does that mean?

There’s a lot to love about New Jersey’s foremost loser-pop duo, but what I’m drawn to most is their willingness to explore. It’s their inclination to paint with broad strokes in hopes that listeners can find a piece of themselves to cling to within their work without having to sacrifice the catharsis that comes from specificity that makes them so special, and has kept me following them for nearly a decade at this point. This has been a point of contention between their fans and the people that just don’t seem to get it. I understand that. A lot of the time, their lyrics borderline on nonsensical and difficult to digest. So, if you’re not captured immediately by what this band is doing, I can see how it would be difficult to swallow.  Yet, I’ve spent a lot of music writer career fawning over the songwriting of The Front Bottoms’ Brian Sella, because I believe this particular brand of songwriting is the kind that takes the widest turns possible while still allowing the listener to relate.

I suppose I should address that opening line now. Yeah, The Front Bottoms are gay as hell. I’ll say it again. I don’t mean that any particular member of the band identifies as queer. I’m not in the business of assuming anyone’s sexual identity. I just mean those broad strokes that I literally just talked about allowed me to see parts of myself in these songs that I’ve never found elsewhere. There’s not much that feels as good as listening to a song for the first time and feeling like somebody else just absolutely gets it.

I wasn’t actively searching for songs that spoke to my journey with self-acceptance and learning to embrace my identity as a gay man, but I still found it. I’ll always feel at home in these songs because of that. Yeah, maybe it’s extrapolation, but maybe that’s the point? I’ve assembled a handful of songs that I believe serve as a good point of reference for this piece, which can be found in the mini playlist below.

“The Feud” from Talon of the Hawk

Let’s take a deeper look at “The Feud,” which opens with the lyrics, “I was so bored before I met you/But then I met you and everything changed/And now it seems I could be amused at the littlest things/If I told my truth.

Right away, this feels like a love-letter written in a moment of confused clarity. When you spend so much time trying to suppress your feelings and/or convince yourself that there’s no way you could possibly be queer, it’s easy to throw yourself into a relationship that you’re not invested in. It’s easier to throw yourself into the motions than to accept yourself when you’ve been battling with learned homophobia that’s been thrown at you your entire life. And then it happens. You meet someone and all the walls that you’ve spent a lifetime building just crumble. You can’t even really hide it. It’s in all these tiny and subconscious things that you aren’t aware of. It’s the way you look at them, the way you stand around them, the way you laugh at jokes that are not funny. You’re the only one blind to the giant rainbow glow you’ve got going on because you’ve been forcing yourself to see it in black and white for so long.

Then we get to this chorus. This was the moment that made me feel like my battleship had been sunk. It’s this moment of somber reality masked by a dance beat that takes a little bit of the sting out of hearing Brian sing, “She says you, you should admit it/She knows I, I probably won’t/That he’s the sound you want now/And I’m just the noise you don’t/And I’m just saying it’s a bummer, man/I’m sorry for interrupting/I guess I’ll go.”

That conversation is the monster under your bed. The shadow that looms over every decision. It dictates everything from the way you brush your hair to the clothes you choose to wear. You don’t want to be found out. You’re not even sure of what exactly you feel or if whatever it is you feel changes the person that you are. It’s the moment where you’re being confronted with your own identity and the war inside your head is suddenly playing out in front of you.

You can hear the narrator trying to reason with themselves and the person questioning them in the following verse, which reads: “You were my girl/You were my baby/You were my homemade mashed potatoes biscuits and gravy/You were too good/I should have known/You were a prize my hands could never hold.” However, the song ends with a repetition of the chorus, leading us to a place that feels all too familiar; a destination with no resolution. It’s a little bit daunting, a little bit lonely, and a largely confusing headspace to be in.

Much like my own journey with coming out, it wasn’t only sadness and suppressed feelings of sexual tension, romantic disinterest, and feeling like you might not ever be able to completely embrace yourself. It’s evident that the feud in question is more-so with the narrator themselves than it is with any outside force. Eventually, we see caution thrown to the wind via the decision that maybe it’s time to explore their identity. Which brings us to the band’s fourth full-length album, Going Grey.

“Don’t Fill Up On Chips” from Going Grey

Going Grey is an album that really seemed to divide the fanbase. A lot of people were thrown off by the sleekness in production and the big pop sound that permeated the otherwise crooked and off-kilter output they’d fallen in love with. In retrospect, that sonic shift made perfect sense with the shift in lyrical tone. Going Grey feels more and more like an album that showcases an exploration in sexuality and romantic love than anything else. This is especially prevalent at the album’s halfway point, thanks in no small part to the bombastic and confessional “Don’t Fill Up On Chips.”

When I spoke with Brian before the release of Going Grey, he mentioned that “Don’t Fill Up On Chip” was almost the name of the album. Which, given the context of the album’s subject matter, makes perfect sense. Arguably, this is a record that shows the narrator at their most vulnerable — it’s exploratory and exposing in ways that Brian has  managed to dodge and dip around for the bulk of his career as a songwriter.

Tommy, I love you, I confess!/Are you impressed with what I profess?” exclaims Brian at the head of the track; painting a vibrant and surreal picture of the love story that’s about to unfold before our eyes. The listener is then led through a chorus that fumbles around the idea of having to accept (rather, not accept) the responsibility of having initiated this and guides us into a beautiful portrait of the euphoria of a new relationship, even if it’s purely physical, with a second verse that reads, “I grew a gap between my teeth/I grew a crack where I was standing/You never wanted to have kids/You never wanted to get married/But ‘c’est la vie!’, Tommy told me/That it hurts but it’s good!/No matter how bad, it’s always good!

After all, when it is purely physical you get to save yourself the questions you still aren’t really able to answer and you don’t have to confront who you are or remove yourself from the sense of “normalcy” that you’ve been surrounded by your entire life. You can explore all you want while you’re young and single, as long as you remember not to fill up on chips.

“Tie Dye Dragon” from Ann

“Tie Dye Dragon” is a beast of its own breed, pun intended. This was the only new song on their Ann EP, which was released less than a year after Going Grey, and it seems to tackle a lot of the same subject matter. Albeit, this takes a slightly more cautious and questioning approach than anything found on its predecessor. Lyrically, these are some of the broadest strokes that I’ve seen The Front Bottoms use to tell a story. There’s very little, if any, direct connection to reality, which I’m sure is in no small part to the mention of LSD use at the beginning of the song.

The broad use of metaphor in question here is in the chorus, which sees Brian repeating the mantra like phrase, “Oh yeah/Oh yeah/Oh yeah/I’m just a tie dye dragon.” I can’t be certain of what the actual meaning of this phrase is, and honestly, I don’t care to know what the actual intent of this metaphor is. It resonated with me as a means of self-actualization; a confession that wasn’t meant for anyone else. This is our narrator starting to, maybe, come to terms with their sexual identity and finding a way to confess it to the world without actually having to say anything at all. It’s not until after the second chorus that any substantial connection can be made between this song and the others in question, but that doesn’t diminish the part it plays in this journey or the arc that we’re exploring here.

The post-chorus has a faint, chilling delivery of the lyrics, “Guided by confused light/I am guided by confused light/I see the future in mysterious ways/I’m just a tie dye dragon” that showcases more of the same confusion we met with during “The Feud.” It’s a direct contradiction to the narrative of “Don’t Fill Up On Chips.” These colors are more drab and lacking some of the life that was breathed into that song, but that’s because you can’t shake the heternormative idea that you can experiment as long as you can “find your way back.” You’re back in a headspace you don’t like — trapped in a corner fighting with yourself about who the fuck you are, which is captured perfectly in the bridge as Brian sings, “I guess I’m older now/I guess I’m older now/I am caught in between who I am/And who I’m supposed to be/Everything’s confusing…” You feel stuck. Like you’re locked inside a room that only you can let yourself out of.

“Camouflage” from an upcoming unreleased record

And, sometimes, you don’t choose to let yourself out of it. That’s what the song “Camouflage” feels like — a declaration of regret. In the peak of this confusion, it’s tempting to take the easy way out. To, once again, throw yourself into a meaningless relationship in hopes that maybe you’ll just blend in and you can suffer in silence. You can get married, have kids, fade into the background of society without ever coming to terms with yourself. It’s clear that this concept is one that our narrator struggles with, as a portion of the bridge reads, “I gotta make a commitment/And it’s stressing me out/One I’m gonna have to live with/’Til I’m under the ground/And I will save it for my deathbed/Like I’m reading a vow/Or a police report/Feels like a poem somehow.

It might seem like making the decision to wear the camouflage of heteronormativity is the easy way out, but eventually that weight will become unbearable. It starts to slowly chip away at the enamel and the pieces that were buried deep beneath the surface will start to peek through these cracks in the foundation. This is cemented by the first pre-chorus, which reads, “And to think I was having a mental breakdown the same time you were painting your walls/Bound by love/Born to obey/When I’m away/I think of kissing you every day.” 

This track is also one of the most comprehensive that I’ve seen from The Front Bottoms. Sella wastes virtually no time before throwing it back to both the story of distant love that we heard on Going Grey’s “Vacation Town” and the romanticizing of vacation identity that we heard in Back On Top’s “Summer Shandy.” The latter of these two songs explores the idea that when you’re on vacation, you don’t have to be yourself. You can shed the reality of expectations placed on you by the people that have become part of your routine. There’s no need to perform for a room full of strangers, so be yourself. Even if that means you have to use a different name. Just ask Brian. I mean Steven. I mean Brian.

The former touches on the idea that it can be much less daunting to express your feelings when there’s no immediacy. Especially in a situation as delicate as the one we’ve been examining. Verse two of “Vacation Town” reads, “But I can only express my love/When I’m fucked up or far, far away/Physically, another continent/Emotionally, another headspace/Mentally, I’m not even here.” You can dissociate from your reality when you aren’t staring it in the face, making it much easier to look at things from an objective standpoint and speak freely, and openly, without the fear of consequence.

I mention these two instances not because I felt like they carried a weight of their own in this conversation, but because of how directly they were referenced in “Camouflage.” The bridge of the song is split into two distinct parts, the first of which we’ve already taken a look at. The back half of it sees the music fading to a dull hum and Brian’s usual cadence is slowed to that of genuine conversation, as he speaks,“‘Cause all the time I talk about vacation/Like it’s all we got in common/Just let me take you on vacation/Just like I promised/I mean, obviously I’m distant/I’m a thousand miles away/Obviously it’s tense/There’s nothing else to say/I am so loosely connected/In a couple different ways/And I might not act like it/But I think I love the taste.” This explodes into a refrain of the chorus, which is one of the most poetic that we’ve seen come from Sella in his career. This simple, stark lyric manages to capture the delicate complexity of the journey these songs have helped us navigate, and it reads, “Sour, but I think I like it/Fruit from the profane communion/Who knew I would even try it/Now I wear camouflage to blend in.”

While I may be longing for another euphoric and vibrant celebration of queerness a la “Don’t Fill Up On Chips”, I can respect that we’re not quite at our fairytale ending yet. In its place, we’re left with the cold reality of how tumultuous something as life-changing as coming to terms with your sexual identity can be. And I think that’s important for people to see. As much as we want to imagine that every queer person just knows and embraces who they are, that just isn’t the case. Self-acceptance is often found at the end of a meandering path with ghouls and goblins waiting for you at every turn, in hopes of scaring you back to where you started. And if you need someone to be that flashlight in a dark room for the loneliest black out, The Front Bottoms are here to be just that for you.

Joel Funk

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