“Seventeen Going Under”

One of my favorite contemporary sinnger/songwriters is Sam Fender, a Geordie kid from the northeast of England. Although I refer to him as a “kid” (He’s 28.), Fender possesses worldly wisdom and insight that belie his tender years. He is often compared with a young Springsteen regarding his working class youth and anthemic songs that capture the angst of youth and the cognitively dissonant juxtaposition of the love of home and hometown with the burning need to get the hell out that same home/hometown. Every teenager’s dilemma.

His most recent album, Seventeen Going Under, is a masterwork in what’s often described as “roots-oriented rock,” which, to me, means hard-driving guitars, keyboards, and a saxophone. Although there isn’t a sub-par song on the album, it’s the title song that rocked my world when I heard it and that remains in constant play on my devices. I believe the song speaks to me for a couple reasons. One is my belief, often shared, that for many of us, in one way or another, there’s a piece of us that stays seventeen for our entire lives. The first time experiences and emotions from that period are so new and raw that they burn themselves deeply into our psyches. Secondly, I’ve spent the majority of my life in the company of seventeen-year-olds, reliving my own highs and lows vicariously; therefore, I’m a sucker for any song that accurately taps into the messy-wonderfrul world of adolescence.

This live version captures the intensity of Fender’s song and lived experience.

The song captures the angst, anger, adventures, first forays into sex and love, heartbreaks, inter and intra-personal conflicts, struggles with self-definition, and the recognition of one’s parents, not as superhuman but as being buffeted and often defeated by all-too-human struggles with family, health issues, and financial stability. According to Ethan Shanfield, writing for Pitchfork, “[Fender’s] words conjure both angst and beauty, holding your attention from start to finish.” I couldn’t agree more.

Some of the lyrics can be difficult to make out for an American listener, but it’s well worth the effort.

As an English teacher, I am often granted the privilege of peering into my students’ lives outside of school through the various personal essays they write. Trust me, I often regret having that privilege. At “seventeen,” many of them are truly “going under,” exposed to and drowning in situations no one should be made to face at that age. Stories of abuse, neglect, poverty, hopelessness, depression, suicidal aspirations, and recklessness with sexuality, drugs, and alcohol are not uncommon. It’s understandable, but I think many adults who do not come into frequent contact with seventeen-year-old young adults and especially those who were fortunate to experience a more idyllic adolescence of their own, perhaps, during less complicated eras, are fairly clueless regarding the challenges faced by today’s seventeen-year olds. I often marvel at these kids’ ability to even show up to school when their personal lives are in such disarray. On any given day, the shit some of them are dealing with renders ridiculous any lesson in literature or composition I might be teaching, for those are the luxuries of stability, safety, and a promising tomorrow.

My ability to do much of anything to ameliorate their suffering and sadness is limited, but I try — I really try — to keep them from “going under” in the only way I know how: by sharing stories from literature and life that show them that they are not the first to experience whatever hardship they are facing and they are not alone. They too, like the heroes in the stories I teach, can — if nothing else — keep their heads above the waters of despair and defeat.

However, don’t let the somber tenor of this essay fool you. The vast majority of these seventeen-year-olds whom I teach are driven, resilient, and beautiful, and like Fender sings in my favorite song of his “Getting Started”: “I’m only getting started // Don’t mean to be disheartened // Felt like giving up so many times before // But I’m still here grinding.”

These kids are better than alright. They’re only “getting started” and they’re “still here grinding.”

If you enjoy my blog posts, you may like to receive an email notification whenever a new article is posted. If so, click on the Menu link above and select “Home,” scroll down to the bottom, and click the “Follow” button. You may preview or order my most recent novel, Belfast, Ohio below. – Always with gratitude and love, Ty

Published by tyfroth

My primary passion and vocation is teaching literature and composition on both the high school and university level. My avocation is writing novels that explore contemporary themes/issues relevant to both young adult and adult readers.

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