I keep thinking about Jimmy Eat World and happiness

June 20, 2022

Earlier this month, Jimmy Eat World released the lead single off a new album. The song is fine, but it’s also an opportunity to highlight the band’s unusual lineup history. It is not unusual for who has left and who was brought on, but for who stayed despite changes to who does what.

The Wikipedia version of events begins with the band forming in 1993. Guitarist Tom Linton sang lead for all but one of the songs on their debut studio album, and guitarist Tom Adkins sang lead on that other song. They then joined a major label, and on their second album, Linton and Adkins split lead vocals pretty much evenly. On the third album, Linton sang lead vocals for only one song, and when the fourth album, “Bleed American,” came out, he sang lead on none of the songs, with Adkins having completely taken over as frontman. Since then, he has sung lead precisely once.

Bands change lead singers all the time, but Jimmy Eat World is that rare group that had a lead singer when they started recording albums, switched lead singers, and yet the original singer remained in the band. I find this fascinating.

I like Jimmy Eat World well enough — my college roommates and I nearly wore out the “Bleed American” CD we had — but this little factoid has stuck in my head for the past 20 years, and as I have learned here and there about the band and the members’ relationships to each other, I have admired them more and more. One might think the lead singer shift was a wrenching and traumatic change — and it may have been — but I can’t find any evidence of that.

A stray Reddit post suggests the band has an understanding, similar to many other bands, that when a member writes a song they should sing it, and since Adkins has proven himself a more prolific and adept songwriter, Linton has organically moved away from the lead singer role. Somehow, they not only avoided a meltdown over the transition, but appear to have solidified their sense of selves as co-equal members in their collective project.

I suspect that the guys in the band are aware of this unusual dynamic and that fans might wonder if Linton will ever sing lead more often, and I have to believe Linton, by virtue of having the audacity to sing lead for a band in the first place, has or had enough of an ego to feel something about Adkins assuming virtually all lead vocals. Surely, they clash about some things, and even though Jimmy Eat World’s popular success corresponds with turning over lead singing to Adkins, it must have been hard to give up that kind of control. But I also suspect the band members have the kinds of personalities that can roll with something like that much more easily than other bands would, and I wish someone would get them to talk explicitly about it.

While, based on what I actually know, my conclusion is based on suppositions, assumptions, and my projections onto Jimmy Eat World’s internal workings, maybe there is a story in there about perseverance, compromise, and subsuming one’s own selfishness for the good of the group in a way that dramatically benefits all. Perhaps another lesson is that a consensus higher-status role will not necessarily bring you the most happiness, and we should all be so lucky to be supported in finding “lesser” roles that, nonetheless, bring us fulfillment.

*The only other major band I can think of with a similar dynamic is Goo Goo Dolls, which started out as a hardscrabble punk group fronted by bassist Robby Takac, but achieved their greatest fame with acoustically-inclined pop songs sung by guitarist John Rzeznik. Despite the band’s changing identity, Takac has continued to handle lead vocals on at least a few songs on each of the Goo Goo Dolls’ studio albums, so even though only Rzeznik’s songs have been singles, Takac is still fairly labeled a co-lead singer.

(Photo: "Jimmy Eat World" by David Lee. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)