Learn From This: Pump Up The Volume

This one, I will have to confess, is a favorite of mine.

There aren’t too many movies, especially in the 90s when this came out, that were this emotionally honest about what it’s like to be a teenager. The movie’s an interesting allegory. On one level, it’s a geeky guy’s attempt to not only keep himself entertained but to reach out to others… and along the way, ends up becoming a reluctant revolutionary figure to his peers. On another, it’s all about the commonalities that unify us when we’re at that age. Everybody’s confused. Everybody’s lost. Nobody knows what the hell is going on, but we’re all pretty sure we’re getting fucked over somehow. And ultimately, we all just want to scream out in frustration at everything around us.

It bombed at the box-office, but it’s influence was a lot farther reaching. Amongst other things, it introduced an entire generation of disaffected youth to the Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain and the incredible Leonard Cohen. It also is a movie about one of the world’s first proto-bloggers, substituting pirated airwaves for WordPress and a Feedburner account.

And it also started a life-long mini-obsession with Samantha Mathis. Well… for me, anyway. I have seen so many bad movies because of her…

So with that somewhat uncomfortable admission out there, let’s get to it. There’s a lot for my nerd kin to learn from this. Let’s go.

Identity Is An Artificial Construct – Nobody is who they necessarily appear to be.  Mild mannered Mark Hunter – complete with a slouch, glasses and a stammer, is as much of an invention as Happy Harry Hard-On. Harry is the mask that Mark created that to separate himself from his mundane life. To most of Phoenix, AZ, Harry is a blank slate to project their own identity onto, including that of voice of the voiceless and ultimately leader in the teen-angst revolution.

Passion Is Sexy – Let’s look at Happy Harry Hard-On. To the best of anybody’s knowledge, he’s a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed faceless voice coming through the darkness, sitting around naked, prank-calling school officials and jerking off into the mike several times over the course of an evening… and yet people love him. A number of women, including Nora are borderline obsessed with him. Why?

Because in a world where everybody’s becoming increasingly numb – going through the motions to fulfill their appointed positions in the world as they slowly die inside, Harry has passion. He feels, and he feels intensely and he has absolutely no problem sharing that intensity with everyone else, even when it’s just screaming out about his rage and frustration.

If You Don’t Define Yourself, Someone Else Will – One of the ongoing themes of Pump Up The Volume is the idea of who defines who we are; to most of the world, the students at Hubert Humphrey High are examples of typical teenagers; walking wastes of space who don’t appreciate what they have and what their parents can do for them. To the teachers at HHH, they can be divided into two groups: the good kids and the worthless, the ones who need to be culled from the herd for the good of the school. It’s not until Harry starts to point this out that the students start to finally buck the trend and refuse to be labelled.

This is known as what’s called “frame control”. Because the students passively accepted the school’s definitions of them, they had allowed the school to “reframe” them as delinquents… even when the only real “crime” was having low test scores. Maintaining your own frame, your own definition means not just going along with what other people will assert that you are. It means being willing to make them accede to your own definition of who you are.

Being Weird Isn’t A Substitute For A Personality – Quirky style of dress, outlandish behavior and being deliberately odd doesn’t make you interesting, it just makes you seem desperate. Hipsters are hipsters whether they’re wearing tight jeans and ironic facial hair or if they’re Hippie-Freaks.

A Little Preparation Goes A Long Way – It’s not long before the police start trying to track Harry down by tracing the phone calls he makes during the show… which conveniently lead to the wireless receiver he’s patched into an unsuspecting neighbor’s phone lines. You can’t prepare for every eventuality, but some basic work in advance will save you ages of trouble.

The Mask Sets Us Free – Mark isn’t comfortable as himself; at home he can only snark at his parents. At school, he doesn’t say anything –  even when Nora is flirting with him at the school library, the most he can do is stare at his shoes and mutter in single syllables. It’s not until he’s sitting alone in the dark that he puts on his other persona. Suddenly he’s free to open up about everything, how much he hates the suburb he’s found himself in, his frustration with his parents, the fact that his generation feels as though there’s nothing left for them except “to go to the mall, smoke a joint and get stupid.” He’s free to flirt – one way – with his fan The Eat-Me, Beat-Me Lady and to call up and denigrate the high-school guidance councilor who betrayed the trust of the students he’s supposed to help.

Sometimes in order to be who you really are, you have to pretend to be someone else.

We Are All Trapped By Other People’s Expectations – Paige Woodward is everything a high school student is supposed to be; she’s young, pretty, upper-class. She’s a cheerleader, class president, has the best grades of anyone in school. She’s destined for the Ivy League, a career, a husband, 2.5 kids and a house in the suburbs with a green lawn and a white picket fence. And then she takes a string of pearls and all of her academic awards, shoves them into the microwave and nearly blows up her kitchen.

Why? Because she feels trapped and confused. As she puts it herself, everybody at school feels afraid to be who they really are. She can’t even bring herself to talk with the gawky, geeky kid who says hi at lunch because she’s supposed to be one of the “good ones”, the upper echelons of HHH, even when she feels that she has far more in common with Happy Harry Hard-On. Despite seemingly having everything and a perfect life, she’s just going through the motions of being perfect and clawing at the inside of her own brain.

You Become The Mask – Also known as “Fake it until you make it.” Mark can’t talk to Nora, but Harry can. Even when she’s in the room with him, he has to have the mental separation of his alternate persona in order to address his own frustration with the fact that he feels awkward and trapped around him. But through the course of the movie, the Harry persona becomes part of who he truly is. It’s not until the end of the movie when Harry disappears – symbolically represented by his voice modulator breaking down – and Mark addresses his followers as himself for the first time. It’s his real voice, but it’s Harry’s words and passion.

Part of the reason to put on the mask is to enable yourself to do the things that your “normal” self couldn’t. Over time, you need to allow the mask to become part of who you are, or else you end up driving yourself mad fighting the dichotomy between who you are and who you pretend to be.

Everybody Hurts – Part of being a teenager is that feeling of being alone in a crowd, completely isolated even when you’re surrounded by other people. The thing is, everyone else feels that way too, even if they don’t necessarily show it. Malcolm feels utterly alone and abandoned, but can’t believe it when Harry says he is too. After all, Harry has his pirate radio show and all of his fans, people who write into him and tell him how awesome he is. And yet, when the show’s off the air, he’s sitting alone during the day, not talking to anyone he doesn’t absolutely have to talk to. Paige’s perfect life is what she shows to people while she’s busy screaming inside.  The outward differences just mask the connection that they all share… but nobody has realized yet.

Sometimes You Have To Make Your Own Reality – Following Malcolm’s suicide, starts to rant about the world that teens have to go through. They’re hemmed in by the soft tyranny of their parent’s expectations and the frustration that they feel when they think they can’t measure up is maddening. As Harry puts it “sometimes being young is a lot less fun than being dead.” There’s pressure to keep all the frustration and anger inside and you’re told that not fitting in with the accepted standards means that there’s something inherently wrong with you. What nobody tells you is that you don’t have to go along with it; all that’s keeping you to “the way things are” is societal pressure. It’s not until Harry starts to scream about how it’s better to act up and be crazy than let it all fester within you that his classmates start to truly break away from the “accepted” path and carve out their own lives.

It All Sucks, But Only If You Don’t Have The Strength To Hang On – There’s a reason Dan Savage’s message to bullied gay youth is “It Gets Better”; things suck for now, but being able to bear it for long enough means that eventually you make it through and things, miraculously will start to improve. It’s the old Nietszchian chestnut: “Whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger.”

I’m gonna close out by quoting the movie directly: “We’re all worried, we’re all in pain. That just comes with having eyes and having ears. But just remember one thing – it can’t get any worse, it can only get better. High school is the bottom, being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point, surviving it is the whole point. Quitting is not going to make you stronger, living will. So just hang on and hang in there.”


  • Cat

    "Pump Up the Volume" is one of my all-time favorite movies, for all the reasons you listed above. This is the best analysis of it I have ever read, and if any of you readers haven't taken the time to watch the film, please do. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it, and it always holds up.

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  • The MAD

    I really want to see this movie now. Great analysis.

  • MavenCree

    This movie literally saved my life.

    I was fully depressed. (Not just mopey.) and suicidal as a teen. (2 attempts).

    I saw this movie on vhs a few years after it came out. I was in a very low point and this saved me. It was that speech he made at the end before the cops swormed – eveybody's hurting and such – but the thing that got me was when he said that being a teenager sucks and that it's SUPPOSED TO suck.

    I'd never considered that. I just felt, like so many other kids that everyone was just aginst me. Now of course I see how wrong that was, but at 14?

    Anyway. when people belititle the impact of films – I always have this to hang onto.

    • Dr. NerdLove

      I dealt with depression – full blown, diagnosed by a shrink, actually needed Zoloft depression – when I was a teenager as well, so I can relate. You really do feel like you're the only one who feels the way you do, so hearing someone – well, someone besides y'know, your parents – point out that yeah being a teenager blows and everybody else is dealing with the same shit you are can be incredibly powerful.

  • Tom

    The "supposed to suck" line always reminds of "Dazed and Confused' when they're on the football field before dawn and Pink says "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."

    It really nails the reality as opposed to what everyone is telling you in highschool, that's it's supposed to be this great time in your life.

    • AngelCakes

      To paraphrase a Cracked article; if your teenage years were really the best years of your life, then you're doing adulthood wrong.

  • I worshipped this movie as a teen, and watched it on VHS again and again and again, to the point where I can still remember the trailers before the film (Hudson Hawk and Hamlet, in case you were wondering).

    I quoted the movie all the time, in particular the soliloquy after Malcolm's suicide : "Your job, your goal in life is to get accepted, get a cute girlfriend and figure out what you're going to do with your life. But if you're confused about a career? What if you're funny-looking and can't get a girlfriend? Nobody wants to hear it."

    And I had major crushes on Samantha Mathis. She was also great in a British movie called Jack and Sarah.