Album: Suicidal Tendencies
. . .
“Hi, can you play ‘Institutionalized’ by Suicidal Tendencies?”
“Um, I think I’ve heard it like three times already today.”
“Yeah, but none of those were my requests.”
Every godsdamned day, for years. Which, looking back, absolutely makes sense for a song that could easily be the “My Generation” of Generation X: a near-perfect expression of teenage angst and frustration centered around being misunderstood by their elders. The main difference, of course, was that the protagonist of “My Generation” was on drugs — that’s why he stuttered — the guy in “Institutionalized” was absolutely not on drugs, no matter what his parents thought.
Written by singer Mike Muir & bassist Louiche Mayorga, “Institutionalized” was as a pure of a punk/metal crossover song as you could possibly imagine, with guitarist Grant Estes (who soon left the band) basically shredding from start to finish, even on the dooming looping opening parts of the verses where Muir lays out his various dilemmas.
As you know, “Institutionalized” is a very very wordy song, so I’m not going to quote all of the lyrics, but the whole song is like a play in three acts, with each act ending in the same way: Mike Muir being institutionalized.
And so the first act starts Muir worrying about shit not going his way, but willing to do the work and try to figure it out.
But there’s always someone there going
“Hey Mike, you know, we’ve been noticing you’ve been having a lot of problems lately, you know?
You should maybe get away
And like, maybe you should talk about it, you’ll feel a lot better”
And I go, “No it’s okay, you know, I’ll figure it out
Just leave me alone, I’ll figure it out, you know?
I’m just working on myself”
But the problem is, of course, is that they keep bugging him, and as the song gets faster and faster as it’s building up inside of him, worrying about being institutionalized and coming out of it like someone in a Ramones song, though the Ramones never hit the utter manic speed of the chorus of “Institutionalized” which is so fast it practically stops time, and yet still has enough presence for a call-and-response.
I’m not crazy! (Institution!)
You’re the one that’s crazy! (Institution!)
You’re driving me crazy! (Institution!)
They stick me in an institution
And said it was the only solution
To give me the needed professional help
To protect from the enemy, myself
In the second act, Muir is in his room, so lost in his own mind that his mom has to scream at him just to get his attention. I’ve been there, man. I mean, who hasn’t. But, of course, his mom assumes that he’s on drugs, because of course she does. She’s heard “My Generation.” But as it turns out, the only drug he wants is caffeine. And not even all that much: all he wants is a Pepsi, leading to one of the most iconic stanzas in music history.
I go, “Mom, just get me a Pepsi, please? All I want’s a Pepsi”
And she wouldn’t give it to me
All I wanted was a Pepsi
Just one Pepsi
And she wouldn’t give it to me
Just a Pepsi!
“All I wanted was a Pepsi” is one of the most hilariously brutal requests ever to be denied in a rock song. It’s hilarious because it’s so specific — it absolutely wouldn’t work if he asked for a “soda” or even a “cola” — and it’s brutal because of his utter despair when he screams “and she wouldn’t give it to me.” Just a Pepsi!
But it’s absolutely one of the cultural references that both defined and transcends the 1980s: how many of us quoted or referenced “all I wanted was a Pepsi” over the years? My guess: 100%. Anyways, instead of a Pepsi, he gets drugged up in the crazy house. So his mom was kinda right after all!!
In the third act, Mike is once again in his room, but this time both of his parents come in — not bearing Pepsis, but some bad news: “we decided it would be in your best interest if we put you somewhere where you could get the help that you need.”. All of that prompts some amazingly trenchant social commentary from Muir:
And I go, “Wait, what are you talking about?
We decided?! My best interest?!
How do you know what my best interest is?
How can you say what my best interest is?
What are you trying to say? I’m crazy?!
When I went to your schools
I went to your churches
I went to your institutional learning facilities!
So how can you say I’m crazy?!
Four decades later, with nearly all of our institutions in shambles — destroyed by people pretending to protect them — and all of civilization seemingly hanging on by a ever-fraying thread, maybe this doesn’t hit as hard. But it really really did in the mid-1980s, when it still seemed like those institutions defined our world. Also hitting hard: Muir’s sing-songy delivery of “How can you say what my best interest is?”
None of that matters of course, and once again he’s declaring his lack of crazy while his band plays faster than the speed of light, eventually concluding with one last bit of dark humour: “It doesn’t matter, I’ll probably get hit by a car anyway.”
Of course, neither “Institutionalized” or the Suicidal Tendencies album charted, but it got a lot of airplay on KROQ and college radio, and started getting more well-known after it showed up in the almighty Repo Man, and even had a music video featuring the always awesome Mary Woronov and Jack Nance, who played the parents exactly the way you would want them to be played.
And, in fact, so far as I can tell, it’s never actually left the culture: which makes sense, given that teen angst and over-protective parents are two things that are never going to go away. As far as Suicidal Tendencies go, while it took them four years to make a follow-up record, but Muir has been recording records under that handle ever since, putting out the 13th Suicidal Tendencies album — Still Cyco Punk After All These Years — as recently as 2018.
“Institutionalized” Official Music Video
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