Since it’s Halloween.
Student: I see that we’re reading Frankenstein this year.
Gibbs: That’s right.
Student: I’m excited for that one.
Gibbs: Great. Why?
Student: It’s a horror story, right? Horror stories are usually pretty dark and I like dark stuff.
Gibbs: What kind of dark stuff?
Student: Dark music, dark books, dark clothing.
Gibbs: How about dark airplane pilots?
Student: Ha! What’s a dark airplane pilot?
Gibbs: An airplane pilot who dresses in dark clothing, reads dark books, and listens to dark music.
Student: I think I want airplane pilots to be as normal as possible.
Gibbs: I do, as well. So, what makes dark things dark?
Student: What do you mean?
Gibbs: On what grounds would you call a certain television show “dark”?
Student: If it has dark themes and dark images. Or a dark plot.
Gibbs: What sort of dark themes?
Gibbs: Would you say Where the Red Fern Grows is dark?
Student: No. Not at all.
Gibbs: But it has death in it. Those dogs die in the end. It’s pretty sad.
Student: Yes, but the fact someone dies doesn’t necessarily make something dark.
Gibbs: But you would say that death is part of what makes a dark television show dark?
Gibbs: So, how does a television show deal with death such that it makes the show dark?
Student: It deals with death in a cool way, I suppose.
Gibbs: I’ll go along with that. How do you present death in a cool way?
Student: Some dark stories and dark books have characters that are actually dead. Some dark stories have characters that look dead, or who fantasize about being dead, or about killing themselves. Suicide is a real problem, you know. Or some stories have vampires or other creatures that have to kill to survive. Or there are origin stories that deal with death cults. Or dark stories deal with evil in just a really creative way.
Gibbs: You said some dark stories have characters that look dead. What does that mean?
Students: They use skulls as decorations.
Gibbs: On what?
Students: Clothes, home décor. There’s one book I like where the hero drinks out of a human skull.
Gibbs: Why doesn’t he get a proper glass?
Student: Because it’s the skull of someone he once knew. I don’t know. It’s just kind of weird.
Gibbs: But you like it?
Student: Yes, but dark stuff isn’t just skulls. It’s far more than that. Dark music is music that isn’t just happy-clappy pop music about how great life is all the time. That’s why I like that. Most dark music is about real stuff, real life, life as it actually is, not some cleaned up version of life.
Gibbs: When I was your age, I liked a lot of dark stuff, as well, and I liked it for that very reason.
Student: Which reason?
Gibbs: It wasn’t happy-clappy pop music about how great life is all the time. Although, let’s be honest. It’s not happy-clappy pop music I was rebelling against. It was happy-clappy Christian pop music I was rebelling against, which is the happiest-clappiest stuff imaginable.
Student: Fair enough. I hate that stuff.
Gibbs: I did, too.
Student: The people who listen to that stuff make me gag. That music is so fake. It makes people who listen to it fake, too.
Student: Do you still listen to dark music?
Gibbs: Not really. If Korn’s “Got the Life” came on the radio, I might listen to it for old time’s sake, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to track it down. But I don’t know why I’d be listening to a radio station that might play Korn.
Student: Korn? Seriously?
Gibbs: Back in high school? Absolutely. I died my hair black, wore Doc Martens, smoked British cigarettes. The whole bit.
Student: Who else did you listen to?
Gibbs: Marilyn Manson. Nine Inch Nails. And just look at me now: I wear a blue blazer to work and try to persuade you to confess to your parents all the bad things you’ve gotten away with.
Student: Wait, so why did you listen to Marilyn Manson?
Gibbs: Because it was dark. Because it was the antithesis of the gutless, smarmy, saccharine-sweet, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend, everything-is-going-to-be-fine pop music that typified Christian popular culture at the time. That stuff seemed as false and hollow as possible, so I wanted the opposite of it.
Student: Did it work?
Gibbs: What do you mean?
Student: Did listening to Marilyn Manson help?
Gibbs: Help what?
Student: Did it help you?
Gibbs: Help me what?
Student: Feel better!
Gibbs: I didn’t listen to it so I could feel better. The happy-clappy stuff was supposed to make you feel better. I listened to Marilyn Manson so I could feel bad because I believed feeling bad was more real than feeling good.
Student: Did it help you feel bad?
Gibbs: “Feeling bad” is a really generic turn of phrase that can mean a great many things. It can mean feeling sorry for yourself, feeling angry at others, feeling ashamed of yourself. I certainly didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson so I could feel ashamed of myself. And I didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson so I could contemplate my sins and confess them more earnestly.
Student: So what did you feel when you listened to Marilyn Manson?
Gibbs: I felt superior to other people. When I listened to Marilyn Manson, I liked to think about how shocked people would be to know that I listened to Marilyn Manson. I liked to imagine pious students clutching their pearls and saying, “But Marilyn Manson is so dark and gross and he openly despises Christians.” I really relished just how offended they’d be if they knew.
Student: Did that help?
Gibbs: Did that help me feel better?
Gibbs: Sheesh, is feeling better really all that matters?
Student: I mean, sort of.
Gibbs: But that’s what the happy-clappy, life-is-always-great people think.
Student: No, it’s not. Or—I mean, the happy-clappy people go about it very differently.
Gibbs: Big deal. They may go about it differently, but you want the same things as the people who listen to K-LOVE. You want to feel good and so do they.
Student: But they’re not dealing with the real issues of life.
Gibbs: Look, I’ve listened to enough “dark music” to know it rarely deals with the real issues of life—and that goes double for dark movies and dark television shows. A good deal of “dark music” is far more concerned with creating a sound, a mood, a wardrobe, and a cosmetics regime that would disturb kindly old grandmothers than dealing with the real issues of life. If you want to watch a movie that deals with the real issues of life, you should watch something like Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. Or Kramer vs Kramer. I should warn you that no one drinks from a human skull in either of those films, but they somehow still manage to deal honestly with human suffering.
Student: When did you give up on dark music, then?
Gibbs: My mid-20s.
Gibbs: For many years, I believed that dark, gritty things were necessarily more profound than happy, positive things. I knew beyond a doubt that the happy, positive things were shallow. I thought that necessarily meant dark, gritty things were the opposite—that they were profound. But I slowly came to realize that dark, gritty things were just as basic and shallow, they simply cloaked that shallowness in shock. When I was young, I found the shock entrancing. As I got older, life became a good deal more complicated and I realized that dark, gritty things didn’t actually have anything to tell me about what it means to live a good, satisfying life. Can you imagine telling someone who watched his father die of bone cancer that you like movies that make death look cool? Can you imagine telling someone whose brother was murdered that you like shows about serial killers?
Student: I know a kid who has really bad depression and he finds dark, depressing music really helpful.
Gibbs: If he has really bad depression, the music can’t be helping all that much. You may as well tell me your friend finds pornography helpful in his struggle with lust.
Student: Look, who are you to judge what works and what doesn’t?
Gibbs: This conversation started with you judging people that listen to happy-clappy music as fake. If their happiness can be fake, then so can the happiness your friend gets from dark music. A great many people destroy themselves with things they claim make their lives better.
Student: Was listening to Korn destroying you?
Gibbs: It wasn’t helping. It didn’t give me happiness or joy. It may have given me pleasure, the pleasure which comes from condemning others, but that sort of pleasure isn’t good. That’s just the worst and most obvious sort of pride.
Student: The dark things I enjoy don’t lead me to condemn others.
Gibbs: Again, this conversation began with you saying that people who listen to happy-clappy music “made you gag.”
Student: Don’t you think you might be reading a bit too deeply into what I said?
Gibbs: If you had offered more profound reasons for enjoying dark things, perhaps so, but I didn’t hear any. I heard you give the same reasons I gave at your age.
Student: So, what do you listen to now? Bach?
Gibbs: I’m 42.
Student: What’s that got to do with it?
Gibbs: Are you thinking that you’re going to still be listening to My Chemical Romance when you’re in your 40s? Your 50s?
Student: I mean—
Gibbs: Your 80s? Are you going to put a skull on your mobility scooter when you tool around the grocery store buying Depends and peanut butter?
Gibbs: Of course, not. We both know you’re going to think My Chemical Romance is pretty ridiculous by the time you’re that age, if not many decades beforehand, all of which means that you and I don’t actually disagree here. It’s just that I agree with the you of the future, not the you of the present. You’re not really arguing with me. You’re arguing with yourself.
Student: Huh… Okay, that’s interesting.
Gibbs: Isn’t it? I’m even telling you, “I used to like that stuff,” which is the same thing the you of the future will say. Granted, you can take that argument—that perspective—only so far, but it’s interesting to admit to yourself at any age that many of the things you’re presently obsessed with will seem pretty pointless in twenty years, if not sooner. It’s even true when you’re in your eighties, when you’ll need food and sleep and medicine and television. Twenty years on, you won’t care about any of that stuff. You’ll be dead.
Student: Are you obsessed with things now that you won’t care about in twenty years?
Gibbs: Yes, and I would be a much better person if that weren’t true.
Student: Are you fighting it?
Gibbs: Not hard enough.
Student: Then what are you chewing me out for?
Gibbs: You think no one chews you out when you’re 42? We all need someone to chew us out.
Student: Are there any things you cared about when you were young that you still care about?
Gibbs: Religion. I care about religion more now, actually. And I hope I still care about religion when I’m in my 80s, if I make it that long. If there’s something you love now that you don’t want to love in the future, why waste your time on it now? If there’s something you love now that you want to love in the future, too, why not throw everything you’ve got into it? You’ve got to love what lasts.