There are many different ways a person might come across the work of John Green. There are his bestselling young adult novels—The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns—and the eponymous films they inspired. There are his podcasts, his vlog, and the video production company he runs with his brother, Hank.
Though he once engaged heavily with social media, Green’s taken a step back over the past few years. Like most people who used the early internet to build small supportive communities online that somehow grew into capital-F Fanbases, Green can no longer mentally afford to be constantly connected to his social media accounts. He’s taught himself to periodically walk away from social sharing networks in (mostly) healthy and (mostly) consistent ways.
But to know his work is not the same as knowing him as a person. A few months ago, I reached out to Green and told him that my husband, Kelly Stacy, and I would be collaborating on a new interview series. We wanted to speak with people we admired or found interesting about the music in their lives. The who-what-when-where-and-whys of loving an album, song, or sound. We didn’t want a top-10 list or a lengthy essay on anybody’s favorite band. We wanted a conversation about how a person creates the soundtrack to their life.
For our inaugural interview, we flew to our home state of Indiana to meet John at his home and talk with him about what he’s been listening to for the past four decades.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ashley Ford: How did 11-year-old John Green get into R.E.M.?
John Green: My dad has always listened to really good music and he’s always been a broad music person. I don’t remember if it was when the album Green came out or just before that. They did have a hit on that album, “Stand,” and so that was probably part of it. I think even before that, I liked them a lot. Not to sound like a hipster R.E.M. fan, but as a kid I wanted to—and this is not something I’m super proud of—but a lot of times when it comes to my relationship with music, especially when I was younger, I’m trying to project something. I’m trying to say something about myself. With liking R.E.M., I was trying to say: I am a sophisticated listener of rock-and-roll music and I care about lyrics and there are lots of secrets in them. Looking back, at the time, I thought there were a lot of secrets in R.E.M. lyrics. It’s possible there’s also just a lot of nonsense in R.E.M. lyrics. But it felt like secrets to me.
Kelly Stacy: As you got older you’d mentioned liking The Cure and The Smiths. What was happening in your inner world then?
When I was listening to a lot of R.E.M., they weren’t popular exactly, but they were a version of stuff that was popular in the culture. I really did want to be accepted in middle school. I desperately wanted to be accepted by the cool kids and by the kids who seemed to me to have social power and social grace and the ability to navigate all kinds of different situations.
I never really socially thrived as a child, but I really struggled around ninth grade. That environment and partly the kids I fell in with were kids who listened to The Cure and wore black and were a little Goth. We called ourselves progressive, which now has a very different connotation, but at the time, to us, it meant close to Goth. We didn’t think Goth was cool for some reason. But there was something inside me that really felt heard by The Cure and by The Smiths and by Nine Inch Nails. That something was sad, it was scared. I was ashamed and embarrassed by how, for lack of a better term, fucked-up I felt.
I felt like other kids around me were able to inhabit the world as regular creatures, but I was always watching myself interact with the world. There was this level of self-consciousness to it, especially to social interactions … they just really overwhelmed me. At that age, I was really happiest when I was alone listening to music.
One of the structural privileges of whiteness is that you’re never asked to consider yourself to be racially anything.
Kelly: How much power did you feel like you had at the time?
It spoke to a feeling of powerlessness, social powerlessness within my school, but also a powerlessness within my family. I would listen to Nine Inch Nails really, really loud, and I would feel heard and powerful. And one day, my dad knocks on the door, and he’s like, “What are you listening to?” And I’m like, “It’s Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine.” And he was like, “Can I borrow it?” And I was like, “Yeah, but I mean, you’re going to hate it.” And so he borrowed it. He came back two days later, and he handed me the CD and he said, “You know I really enjoyed this. I could have lived without some of the swearing, but I thought the lyrics were really powerful and the music was really powerful and I hope you don’t mind that I’ve gone out and bought my own copy of the album.”
And like, what better way to defang a rebellion.
Then to be like, “It’s helpful to know you feel this way.”
Ashley: Did you feel like a black sheep? Did it feel like you were particularly separate from the rest of your four-person family unit?
I never didn’t feel loved, and I always felt supported, but I did feel separate from everyone in a sense that my life, as I experienced it, was so overwhelmingly, crushingly internal. I didn’t have any language to express that at the time. I didn’t know I had OCD. I didn’t know I had these mental health problems. I didn’t have any context for it, I didn’t have any language for it. My life felt very interior and I had no ability to describe it to anyone else. I did feel separate. But I don’t think it was because anybody made me feel separate. And yet somehow you still feel like the fates are aligned against you, which is an interesting part of whiteness and maleness.
Kelly: Didn’t you move into a boarding school after ninth grade?
I started there in 10th grade. Going to boarding school in Alabama made it so the people I was around were much less white and male. Also my friend, writer Daniel Alarcón, loved listening to hip-hop music, loved analyzing the lyrics with his friends, and I really wanted them to think I was cool. Another friend was into A Tribe Called Quest, so we started listening to a lot of them.
I was surrounded by different kinds of people, and it was the first time I felt like music could be not just a mirror, but maybe also a little bit of a window. I think there’s a strong tradition of hip-hop music talking about broader social problems, talking about issues of race and economics and equality. Especially in bands like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets.
Ashley: Digable Planets is still hot.
We recently relistened to that album, ’cause we found all our CDs. We’re like, “Should we keep this CD?” We’re listening to the Digable Planets CD and I was like, “This is great. Why aren’t they still a big deal?”
Kelly: Same with The Pharcyde.
The Pharcyde was incredible. It’s almost like life is not a meritocracy. I think it’s telling that a rapper like Phife Dawg—who I think is one of the great rappers of all time like—struggled.
Ashley: Did that change your understanding of yourself?
Yes, definitely. One of the structural privileges of whiteness is that you’re never asked to consider yourself to be racially … anything. Partly because of the people I was friends with, and partly because of the music, I was asked to consider that a little more often. But also my teachers had us reading Tony Kushner, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou. That also had a really big impact on me. A lot of this time I’ve felt, in a way, what everybody feels; I’m the black sheep of the family. Then, I started to realize there was structural inequality and I was benefiting from it.
Kelly: So you’ve gone from R.E.M. to A Tribe Called Quest, then you got into jazz, right?
I’m not a good listener of jazz. I want to underscore that. Lest I get like asked to analyze a muted trumpet or whatever. I never took music theory. It’s mostly that album A Love Supreme. It feels sacred to me. I had a friend once tell me A Love Supreme is convincing evidence for the existence of God. And that’s really stuck in my head ’cause it’s a little bit true to me.
Ashley: Talk to me about the kind of country music you were into. Pop country? Classic?
It was really at the same time that I was into rap music. When I was in high school, I was into bad country music. When I was young, I had both good taste and bad taste, but I had no idea which was which, and I had no ability to distinguish the good from the bad. I liked LeAnn … Carter?
Ashley: LeAnn Rimes?
LeAnn Rimes, yes. But later I got into good country music.
When I came out of college, I spent six months working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital, which was a hugely meaningful part of my life. I thought I was going to go to divinity school to become a priest. I got into sacred music, so I was listening to gospel music, and I was listening to kind of sacred country music, especially older sacred country music by musicians like Bill Monroe. Doc Watson sings a lot of hymns, The Carter family, stuff like that. Ralph Stanley.
Kelly: Old-time bluegrass is one of my favorite genres of music. You said you were searching for the sacred, but was there something about a greater authenticity in the country taste you were striving for?
That’s an interesting question. I listen to music partly to try to have some essential emotional experience, partly to feel the parts of me that feel deep down and abstract. To have them feel heard and, in turn, maybe to hear them. That has always been the music I’ve related to most. Also, my family is from the South. It was the music of my grandparents.
I think when we listen to music, one of the things we’re looking for is some emotional experience that feels authentic, and maybe that’s why some country music feels so cringey to me now. Because, at the time, it did feel like a really authentic emotional experience and now it feels like a manufactured one. But who am I to say to my 16-year-old self that wasn’t real? ’Cause it totally was real. LeAnn Rimes is great. I’m back on board. I’m going to stop apologizing for everything I love. I’m just going to love it.
Having a few constants in your life when everything else is disorienting is really important. It’s easy to get lost in stuff and lose a sense of self.
Ashley: I noticed you said you were introduced to The Mountain Goats in 2003. I know that you won the Michael L. Printz Award in 2005, and that was the beginning of a more public life for you. You’ve talked about The Mountain Goats offering you a lot of consolation and comfort.
I never thought about it that way, but that has to be true. The first time I heard their music I had just signed the book deal for Looking for Alaska.
My friend Lindsay and I went out to dinner, and she played “The Best Ever Metal Death Metal Band in Denton,” which is a great first Mountain Goat song to listen to I think. Over the next year and a half, while I was revising Looking for Alaska, I was partly listening to old country music, but I was also listening to a lot of The Mountain Goats. As my life has changed, the public facingness of it has grown a lot, but The Mountain Goats have been a constant, and there’s huge value in a constant when a lot of things in your life are changing.
It’s easy to get lost in stuff and lose a sense of self. It’s wonderful to have people respond generously to your work, but intoxicating in both the good and the bad sense. It can be addicting and it can become so much of your identity that little threats to it start to feel like big threats to you.
Somebody criticizes your work or criticizes you on the internet or whatever, and it feels like some huge attack in part because you’ve chosen to wrap so much of your identity into this public facing part of your life. So, yes, to your question. I think The Mountain Goats have been a constant in my life.
Ashley: I was in the middle of a breakup and my friend David was like “Put on these headphones. I just want you to listen to this song.” And he played “No Children” by The Mountain Goats. I felt that shit.
I should probably note that I also was in the wake of a breakup when I first started listening to The Mountain Goats, which is probably also not a coincidence. They have a bunch of songs that capture the heartbreak. There’s a weird feeling of conviction when you have a heartbreak. You’re suddenly, extremely sure of certain things. (sings) Oh, I hope the fences we mended fall down before our own feet.
Kelly: I hope you die, I hope we both die…
And then you think there’s going to be another line to the chorus but, nope.