On two separate occasions last week, Third Eye Blind’s “How’s It Gonna Be” popped into my head. The first time was when I woke up one morning for work. It was only a specific part of the song – that bridge where singer Stephan Jenkins begins shouting the titular rhetorical question – but it got stuck in my head, anyway. When we drove into town on Saturday, I played the song on Lynnette’s phone (because I don’t have it on mine) and sat there trying to figure out why the song had seemingly arrived out of nowhere to haunt me.
“How’s It Gonna Be” was a single off Third Eye Blind’s 1997 eponymous album. I was 17. I wrote on Twitter that I underrated the song at the time. There were several reasons and they include: the preponderance of ’90s bands with numbers in their names; hearing too many Third Eye Blind hits on the radio and seeing them on MTV; Stone Temple Pilots and Megadeth were my favorite bands. Most of all, though, the primary reason I didn’t appreciate the song was the fact that I hadn’t failed spectacularly at love yet.
First of all, this is a really angry song. My original mistake was assuming that the key emotional force behind the song was ambivalence. I thought that the guy knew the relationship was going to end, but couldn’t or didn’t want to pull the trigger because he couldn’t picture his post-break up life. I was 17, okay? The first three lines of the song (I broke up the lyrics in a way that would make them easier for me to write about) are telling: he’s fed up, their altercations break out into physical violence, and he’s not only thought about breaking up, he’s actually said the words. The part that misled me was “I wonder if there’s anything I’m gonna miss,” because this is where I assumed he would be torn by a break-up. But he’s not; it isn’t a lamentation of love lost.
All the imagery and similes in the fourth section (the best of which is the simile about the hammock) is only meant to illustrate what the relationship has become and therefore serves to justify his dissatisfaction with it. It’s a more visual version of the first three lines of the song.
The rhetorical “How’s it gonna be?” has nothing to do with the speaker. As he’s said repeatedly – he doesn’t care. What he wants to know is the unknowable: how is the other person going to deal with the fact that the relationship is over, and he’s not there? There is, of course, the speaker’s implication that he’s been taken for granted, but there are also the dual undercurrents of bitterness and spite. He wants to be witness to his partner’s mourning of the break-up. In a relationship built on fights, he wants to win the very last one. It’s the other side of the Script’s “Break Even.”
It brings me no pleasure to admit this, but I understand this song now because I wanted that last victory once, and I got it. Only, I didn’t feel the gratification and satisfaction I thought it would. I was involved in a relationship so stupid and destructive that I physically harmed myself. We broke up and got back together again somewhere between 4 and 14 times. It was also a long-distance relationship. It also dragged on for the better part of three years. By the end of it, I hated her. “How’s it Gonna Be” is about a relationship so poisonous, all you care about is beating down (verbally and emotionally) the person you’re with.
Years later when Lynnette and I – along with a baby Goobi – ran into her at Costco, I thought I saw a discomfort in her face that I interpreted as something other than being happy to see me and my wife and my kid. And for a few moments, I enjoyed this, because obviously, I could make a relationship work, and um, at the time, she hadn’t. It was horrible. And then on the car ride home, I felt empty. I was already 28 or 29 and this relationship had ended over 7 years before that, but I still needed to be right. Like many of the songs I enjoy, “How’s It Gonna Be” speaks to a very specific part of my life. What I realized later that day on the way home as I gazed out the window at the foliage along H2 was that my smugness was misplaced. I had not won anything. I had only revealed to myself how petty and cruel I could be.