Matt Francis is a filmmaker/media designer out of Virginia Beach and the drummer for Feral Conservatives, an indie rock band.

An all-star summer of love

Two-thousand four was the year of the cicada. Most of the North American species are in the genus Tibicen, the annual or jar fly or dog-day cicadas (so named because they emerge in late July and August). The best-known North American genus is Magicicada, however. These periodical cicadas have an extremely long life cycle of 13-to-17 years and emerge in large numbers. Two-thousand four was such a year.

Two-thousand four was the year of my short-lived emo band, Year of the Cicada. I probably resent that summer more than any other in recent memory. Nineteen-year-old desires were chased with a shameless degree of certainty, and youth has a way of barricading our better judgment behind temporal stop gaps in head-to-heart logic. Hindsight can often reveal the immaturity in our bleeding-heart resolves, but no period of my life took a quicker 180 than that summer.

The screech of cicada, ironically seeking a mate, could never compare with the screech of a camp summer’s theme song. That summer I worked at a Christian youth camp in Northern Michigan as videographer. My only real duty was to film the campers’ week and put together a 10-minute highlight video of the collective experience. (But the video couldn’t be more than 9 minutes and 50 seconds because a year prior the camp had purchased nearly 1,000 blank VHS tapes in bulk that could only store 600 seconds worth of memories in degradable analog quality.
Cue the video guy with a consumer-grade camcorder and an “office” (corner of the registrars’ building) with three VHS players stacked high.

A full five years after DVDs replaced VHS tapes, I was able to offer kids a near 10-minute snap shot of a single week in their summer in an antiquated medium.

The soundtrack to my summer, of every camper’s summer that would attend Covenant Hills, was “Get Down” by Audio Adrenaline. “Get Down” was chosen and then made to be a choreographed dance number, to be performed by the staff to either frighten campers at orientation or give them something to ridicule. The chorus, consisting of “I get down / and He lifts me up” gave us plenty to work with as amateur dancers with an amateur choreographer who may have seen an off-Broadway play once. (This mostly consisted of squatting and standing.)

The camp theme married to Audio Adrenaline that year was NASCAR and checkered flag clip-art relating to some Biblical hero referencing a foot race. It was laid over every video highlight montage. The song, though, at only 3 minutes and 15 seconds, left me with some leeway for a second song that, pending approval, was left to my discretion, given my qualifications as a first-year video major at a Christian University.

This was no small decision. This was my legacy, perhaps serving as a first exposure to rock and roll for some of these sheltered kids. I was the musical guru of the camp, in large part because I also played drums for camper worship. When you’re eight and there’s a guy pounding along to “The Banana Song” on drums (and there’s no electric guitarist to steal your limelight), you tend to gain a few admirers. Combine that with the roaming, free spirit of being the untethered documentarian with a slacker’s bent — free to join camper activities at will and never taxed with a disciplinarian role — and the holder of coveted screen time… My sphere of influence greatly widened.

This particular song needed to serve as a saline rinse from the Audio Adrenaline they had just consumed. I needed to be able to stomach hearing the song hundreds of time a week. Not only at the video’s premiere, the final camp-wide meeting before dismissal, but constantly through the editing and the archaic duplication system they had set up, the stacked VCRs that all had to be manually prompted to record. Repeat this process, in real time, until all 50-100 tapes were dubbed.

My hard-fought selection was All Star United’s “Theme From Summer.” ASU were catchy, Christian-radio mainstays. The song was thematically sound (technically about holding to a summer anthem in all seasons), the tune met the proper energy-level for a quick cutting montage with enough power in the pop to serve as gateway rock, all the same still pleasing parents and administrators. With a chorus of “Love, baby, love,” it somehow trumped “Get Down” on lyrical merit. The real testament to the song, though, is that I don’t hate it after that entire summer.

My favorite thing about listening back to All Star United is how delightfully contradictory they are. They were both rock with full on pop leanings, and not just offering albums full of middle-weight numbers with radio-clean production, but switching personalities between tracks. One song offers up a punchy rock track with an alt-’90s crunch, the next wouldn’t sound out of place on a Rod Stewart Top-40 hit, faux string section and all (looking at you, “Thank You, Good Night”).

Their lyrics also offered equal parts sarcastic pop-culture satire next to unabashed, on-the-nose Christian prose. This is a band I shouldn’t have even liked in my pubescent “up-the-punx” mentality, because, honestly, they had none; no, this was a band just as comfortable with big guitars as CCM anthems (frontman Eskelin was formerly a Vanilla-Ice-type hip-hop artist). But therein lies the honesty and much of the charm. For one, Eskelin knows his way around a big melody. Their second album, International Anthems for the Human Race, spins between ’60s doo-wop harmonies, aforementioned pop rock and pop rock, grand swooning anthems and the surf vibe of “Theme from Summer.”

“La La Land,” from their excellent debut, poses more bite, wit and challenge in its 3:54 runtime than most Christian-catering artists can muster in their entire careers. A brilliant send-up of modern Christianity’s Purpose-Driven, Jaybez-praying culture, the song calls out bumper sticker evangelism and the prosperity Gospel mentality. It really lays waste to an a la carte Bible application prevalent in the subculture: “They’re five happy verses or so / They told me all I needed to know / Ignore all the rest, trials and tests / And threats to my comfort zone.” It might contain the most punk rock message to come out of the scene that year, yet it was still somehow a hit for Christian radio.

All Star United produced some of the purest, straight-up kick jams, said with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, brother-akin to Relient K’s earlier work in poise and spirit. Even their name seems to be a Monkees-style jab at an inherent claim to fame, a name that would be silly for a legitimate super group as implied, but adds to the pervasive lampooning of American excess that is the band’s hallmark.

My best consolation from that summer is the fact that the ultimate keepsake was a time-bomb wired to a degradable, outdated medium. Regardless of my detachment from my summer at camp (it also paid poorly), I take some solace in the fact that for some campers, the best memories were being paid the semi-finite attention that a camcorder demanded and a catchy rock song about love and summer.

Those two concepts will fade from their youthful glory over time, but somehow, cynical pop rock satirizing religion and capitalism will only grow in relevance. You’re welcome, camp of ’04.