As The Bell Tolls
It is noon on February 7th, 2020, almost a month to the day before the world shut down and I was forced to retreat to my home in Colorado. Just another typical freshman Friday with no plans, very few friends, and no hope of making the best of my night. I had just left my Early British Literature class--inexplicably located in the engineering building--with my friend Kristina, one of the few friends that I made and maintained throughout my freshman year. The events of the fateful night to follow helped establish a bond between us that only those who were there with us would be able to fully comprehend.
It’s important that you understand the near angelic nature of Kristina. Kristina is a glass half full type of gal--someone who has yet to fully experience the viciousness of independence and adulthood. I have never considered myself an optimist, and my freshman year depression brought out the absolute worst in me. While I worked to shut myself off from the world, Kristina maintained some sense of hope in our friendship. Having never been to a concert before November of the previous year, she was also the type of new concert-goer who had yet to learn that not every concert is going to be an excellent show. Kristina’s optimism was her first mistake but she’ll soon learn this lesson the hard way.
We make our way through the crisp Seattle air towards the dining hall, a modern grey and red building filled to the brim with exhausted college students desperately working their way to the weekend. After purchasing our lunches, which, if I recall correctly, were shitty, hastily thrown together Chipotle-style burritos, we are joined at our booth by Kristina’s then boyfriend. Switching the conversation from classroom anxiety, or whatever else two awkward freshman English majors would discuss, Kristina begins to describe her dream from the night before. While the exact details of the dream escape me, I remember that Drake Bell gave a featured performance within its lucid confines. I shared with her that he had changed his name to Drake Campana in a vain attempt to better traverse the Latin American pop charts, as one does. Kristina’s boyfriend whose name I can’t seem to remember, enters the conversation, mentioning that he heard that Bell was coming to Seattle in the near future. Having nothing better to do, I researched the show to find that it was occurring at 7 o’clock that evening. The tickets were $23 and in that price range, God himself couldn’t keep me from going to that show.
As anyone who was forced to sit through the 2011 live-action masterpiece, The Fairly Odd Movie: Grow Up, Timmy Turner!, could tell you, Drake Bell is far from the visionary child star of yore. Despite this fact, at numerous points in my childhood I managed to convince myself that his music and acting were equivalent to that of other early 2000s child stars such as Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez. However, where Miley and Selena found mainstream pop success, Drake Bell fell into the abyss of irrelevant but vaguely attractive former “stars.” Despite having found little success outside of Nickelodeon, Bell continued to tour and on this fateful Friday evening, he set his sights on Seattle’s Vera Project, a small, non-profit venue in Uptown.
With the doors set to open around 7, Kristina and I began our trek uptown around 5:30, hoping that with the extra time, we would be able to grab food at one of the eateries around the venue. Among the first people to arrive at the venue, Kristina and I headed over to Sugar Bakery and Coffeehouse as a means of getting out of the piercing cold rain that awaited us as we exited the 10. First impressions of the venue were mediocre at best-- the sparsely decorated entrance left little to be desired in comparison to other local venues like Capitol Hill’s Neumos or the Showbox downtown. After buying sandwiches from Sugar, we head back to the front of the line around 6:30, expecting to only wait about 30 to 45 minutes before being let into the venue. While waiting, Kristina and I met two sisters who were decked out in Drake Bell merch, ready as all hell to see the aforementioned child star in all his glory for the second or third time. Having previously believed that the only justification for buying tickets to this event was to fill a campy, nostalgic hole in our hearts, we were happy to learn that people genuinely enjoy his music, giving us a shimmering light of hope for the next few hours. In retrospect, I had listened to his music in the past and I’m not sure why I believed seeing it live would make his discography decent, but so it goes.
An hour and a half later, we’re finally ushered out of the bitter cold and into the building around 8 o’clock. The stage was small and intimate, perfect for a nostalgic trip down memory lane. To begin this trip, we are welcomed by the MC for the evening who is more than proud to introduce our first opening act who, due to my shitty memory, will be called Pasty White Soundcloud Rapper With a Man-Bun, or PWSRWMB for short. I can’t say that I wasn’t surprised by the choice in the opener, but from there the night only got weirder. After plugging his Soundcloud, PWSRWMB exits the stage and is replaced by a group of children who enter to set up for the second opener of the night. It is now that Kristina and I realize that the venue is an all-ages joint essentially run by middle and high schoolers. After setting up, the children welcome our second opener who is, obviously, an early 2000s inspired emo pop-punk band. While I’m still confused about the Soundcloud rapper, I am less surprised by the pop-punk band because, like Drake Bell, they’re still stuck in 2007. In all honesty, they were actually pretty good and I’m disappointed that I don’t remember who they are because they would fit right in with my nostalgic pop-punk playlist for when I pretend that I was emo in fifth grade, when I was actually just a raging One Direction fan.
After the All Time Low wannabes left the stage, we were finally joined by the hot son from Yours, Mine, and Ours, Drake Bell himself. Despite the show being an hour late, Bell had still not done his soundcheck, which was instead graciously added to his 45-minute setlist. From there, he breaks into his 2006 single, Up Periscope, a song that I oddly remembered word for word, despite likely not having listened to it since it was released. While relistening to his discography to jog my memory for this article, I discovered that his album It’s Only Time, which features Up Periscope, as well as I Know and an acoustic version of Found a Way (the theme song from Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh), was produced and released by Motown, of all labels. It’s hard to believe but the label that gave us some of the greatest albums of the mid to late 20th century, such as What’s Going On and Songs in the Key of Life, also gave us Drake Bell’s second full length album. So it goes.
As a performer, Drake Bell was as good as he’s ever been. At no point in my life had I ever realized that he is truly a culmination of every single character he has ever played. I can’t even think of a character of his outside of The Amanda Show that isn’t the exact same-- a half-decent musician whose entire life revolves around his crash and burn music career. This isn’t to say he’s necessarily untalented but his inability to break out of the mold that Nickelodeon built for him has shaped his career in a way that clearly weighs on him. Up until the summer of 2021, I actually felt bad for him. There’s a clear emptiness that comes through in his performance and no song better embodied that than Found a Way. Unlike the majority of his setlist, Found a Way garnered full audience participation and it became pretty damn clear that the majority of the audience was only there for one purpose, to share a collective nostalgia for a time when children's television was actually good. It’s almost worse than being a one-hit wonder. The inability to separate himself from the characters he has portrayed has destroyed any chance of having a career outside of this mold. And like the plight of many of his fellow child stars, including former co-star and Nickelodeon golden girl Amanda Bynes, Drake has fallen into a sad pit of irrelevance.
* * *
Up until the last couple of months, irrelevant was all Drake Bell seemed to be. His concert was a bizarre, nostalgic fever dream that connected me to a part of my childhood that I desperately missed at a time when I felt like I was drifting aimlessly through the world. The news of his arrest for child endangerment back in June of 2021 changed that. It felt almost like betrayal and frankly, it hurt. I can no longer think about this without thinking about how just a few years before this show, he used his concerts as a means of preying upon underage girls. Suddenly, something that to me was nothing more than a nostalgic fever dream, became so much more. It was a means of trauma for someone barely younger than myself. But as disappointing as it is, it is far from surprising: here’s a man desperately attempting to cling to his wavering B-list celebrity status by exerting power over girls who were born only a couple of years before his show premiered. It’s exhausting and tacky but not out of the ordinary. You can’t even say that he’ll “never come back from this” because unlike other Hollywood creeps, Drake Bell doesn’t have a career to come back to.
With the end of Found a Way comes the conclusion of the show. In total, the setlist was about 45 minutes with no encore and including his soundcheck. The lights come on, the doors open, and out flows a disappointed crowd of millennials and teenagers sick of nostalgia. There seems to be no logical conclusion for this bizarre series of events other than this abrupt ending. Despite this, Kristina and I left feeling, while absolutely confused, fulfilled by the bizarre energy of it all. Looking back on it, had I known that the world was going to shut down for a year and a half just one month after the show, I would have gotten off my ass and tried to see someone else after Drake Bell. Somehow this show feels like a fitting beginning for a year and a half of social turmoil--nostalgic confusion plagued by tragedy.
I am finally at a point where I, like the rest of society, am ready to move on from Drake Bell. We’re all in the midst of major transitions and from a personal stance, Drake Bell marks two of my vital transitions. When I was adrift in the very beginnings of my adulthood and in desperate need of nostalgic grounding, Drake Bell was there to bring me back to a state of emotional simplicity. When I needed to face the fact that the world of my childhood is no longer the same world we live in, Drake Bell’s summer arrest made that forcibly known. I wouldn’t say that I’m a better or worse person having experienced Bell’s show, but I can honestly argue that I am different. And maybe that has nothing to do with the concert and everything to do with the pandemic that has ravaged the world for the last 18 months. Whatever it is, my reality was shaped by Drake Bell, for better or for worse. But, Lord, am I excited to see literally any artist that’s not him again. At this point, I would pay to watch a brick wall sing to me for an hour--anything so that I can move on from the phase of my life where Drake fucking Bell has been the last live performance I was able to experience for a year and a half.
Authors note: This piece was originally written in September 2021.