A Rational Conversation: Is Emo Back?
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness. It previously appeared at The Daily Swarm.
Follow the scuttlebutt and jibber jabber on the music internet and it sounds like emo — the broadly defined, male-dominated, compositionally complicated, often pained offshoot of American punk rock — is back. That's right, the beloved and maligned genre has been reinvigorated by new bands and new labels. (Though of course there are some who maintain that it never really left.) But what kind of emo has returned, exactly? And is it the beloved or the maligned parts?
Most trace emo's roots back to an outgrowth of the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene of the 1980s, typified by the brief output of the groups Rites of Spring and Embrace (each of which featured one of the two men who would become Fugazi's vocalists, Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye). Emo then spread around the country (with a particularly strong showing in the Midwest) and the world in the '90s through the indie rock channels of the time, finding champions in acts like Seattle's Sunny Day Real Estate and Milwaukee's The Promise Ring. Vagrant Records acts like Dashboard Confessional and The Get Up Kids as well as Arizona's Jimmy Eat World helped popularize the sound in the beginning of the new century, leading to its total mainstreamification in the middle of that decade by huge bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco.
Ducker spoke with Brad Nelson, a writer living Queens whose work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic and Maura Magazine, about the current climate of this not particularly well understood genre and what we might get from new bands embracing emo.
ERIC DUCKER: Are people excited about an "emo revival"? Is it due? Is it too soon?
BRAD NELSON: From the shows I've been to, whether for reunions of mid-'90s bands or for current practitioners, the crowds are both ecstatic and contemplative. It's kind of strange, because most of the styles being resurrected are only about 14 years gone at this point. But I went to Texas Is the Reason's first reunion show last year and the crowd was about equally young and old, to the point where you got the sense that some of the kids in attendance were born only a few years before Do You Know Who You Are? came out.
It's hard to say whether it's due. It seems that right at the start of the '00s emo altered into something very different, so personally I find this very deliberate re-visitation of a lot of the styles that seemed to shrink away or disappear entirely very endearing. There's an odd comfort to the idea of people picking up where others left off. It's not quite nostalgia, but it's not 100 percent not-nostalgia.
What you seem to be saying is that emo was going in one direction through the '90s and then in the early '00s something else became known as emo — bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy — so this new wave of bands we're seeing now is more like an alternate universe of '00s emo. It's what could (or should, depending on who you ask) have happened after '90s emo.
That's the feeling I get from the new bands out there. Also a lot of people — basically anybody in the comments section of any piece about "emo revival," so I'm sort of setting up a strawman here — will go out of their way to make the "mall emo"-era of Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and others completely distinct from what was going on in the '90s and what's happening now, but I don't think that's entirely true. The early Fall Out Boy records, for instance, tried to be almost synth-less facsimiles of Get Up Kids records, but ended up weird and pop-oriented because Patrick Stump is such a flexible songwriter. It's the same with MCR, whose first record was produced by Geoff Rickly [of Thursday] and is this shambolic straightforward screamo thing before the group really embraced its theatrical aspects. It's all part of a lineage. Sorry, that's kind of a tangent. What I'm saying is that a lot of these bands probably like a few Fall Out Boy records.
Part of the issue is that when people who aren't or weren't super into emo hear about an emo revival, they don't exactly know what to expect. Will it be the original Rites of Spring stuff out of D.C.? Will it be indie '90s bands like Promise Ring and Braid? Will it be wounded like Dashboard Confessional? Will it be the more pop-oriented like MCR and Fall Out Boy? I remember when people used to say that Bright Eyes was emo.
That murkiness differentiates the emo revival a bit from other revivals. If you hear a new band has a traditional punk sound, you fill in New York or English acts from the late '70s; if they're hip-hop revivalists it's probably a Golden Era early-'90s vibe; if it's classic house you associate that with the cathartic '80s Chicago songs.
Yeah! The genre endured a lot of dramatic shapeshifts over a relatively short amount of time, and different audiences fastened to different embodiments. Not that house or hip-hop didn't experience similar quicksilver evolutions; I guess with those it's just easier to perceive a foundation, whereas emo is sort of already an aerial evolution of hardcore. There's also maybe less allegiance to a core aesthetic among emo listeners. There are always Minor Threat or Black Flag fans that think of those bands as forming some essential fabric of hardcore from which further bands are sort of more compromised translations. Maybe I've just never encountered someone who thinks of Embrace and Rites of Spring in the same way. The music was always sort of immediately changeable.
There isn't that "true school" ideal for emo.
Yeah, although people will often attempt to make Sunny Day Real Estate some kind of talisman. I just don't think it works. Not to mention that Sunny Day Real Estate themselves put out four records that sound pretty radically different from even each other.
If emo is indeed back — meaning that there are more new bands who are making music that sounds like or is a progression of previous strains of emo, and that older emo bands are reuniting — why should that be exciting for a music listener who has either lost touch with emo or was never into it in the first place?
Because there's no anchoring, core aesthetic of what's constituted "emo" over the years it's hard to maintain an allegiance to it. It's so mercurial. Plus it has an awful, embarrassing name and stigma attached to it. It feels like no one can agree on a real canon of records. The records one should celebrate and the records one should be embarrassed by shift and even change places all the time. And the legitimized, canonized records ([Sunny Day Real Estate's] Diary, for instance) tend to be reclassified as more expansive elaborations on indie rock.
So the revival kind of confirms that there is a solid aesthetic, or set of aesthetics — that this lineage of sound and the sensibility of being open to incorporating wildly divergent influences required to produce it are both repeatable and, uh, inflatable. By which I mean there are still new things that can be done with this music. It's sort of in the genre's DNA. I don't know if that's necessarily the reason it's exciting for anyone else. I just notice a real emotional (forgive me) charge traveling through the crowds at these shows. You throw out the orthodoxy of hardcore but keep the same exploratory sensibility toward the music and there's this total flood of possibilities. Maybe I come off a little wide-eyed saying all that.
You bring up an interesting point, which probably can be at least partially traced back to the name of the genre: The characteristics that have become associated with it aren't often enticing to outsiders. A lot of people think that what defines emo is guys who can't really sing complaining about girls being mean to them. What do you think are the real defining attributes of the genre?
To put it in more musical terms, and this isn't remotely all-encompassing, the development of emo is the result of hardcore kids getting expansive over what they can do in the universe of a song. Maybe if a song pivots around a groove instead of a three-chord riff, a guitar can sort of float intricately above that foundation, instead of being gridlocked into the velocity of hardcore. It's possible this can also be reduced to: "What are the major differences between Minor Threat and Fugazi?"
But one major trend among musicians in emo bands I've interviewed is how they all actually identify themselves as hardcore. They just one day sort of got bored or tired or thoughtful about the way they wrote their songs. That isn't to say "guys who can't sing complaining about girls" isn't a defining characteristic of the genre; that image of emo coexists with its zenith as pop music, and the Fall Out Boy and Taking Back Sunday records that were popular back then were definitely all about that.
Of this new crop of bands coming out, what do you think they are doing, if anything, to advance the sound?
It's hard to tell so far! It's hard to quantify or qualify. Something that's probably going to come up in the comments is how this style never really went away, it just became very quiet and restrained to its own deeply invested fans for a number of years; the sudden crop of trend pieces about it are partly the result of certain writers who've followed these scenes for years finally getting the space to write about them in established publications.
The first few bands from these scenes I really heard about and listened to, like Algernon Cadwallader and Snowing, seemed to take Cap'n Jazz and American Football as the blueprints for their sound. I don't think they did much new with it, but it was still thrilling to hear them because there wasn't much of that kind of music around.
One commonality to '90s emo bands is that many of them recorded one or two records and then split up. One of the bands I'm most excited about right now is Dads, a duo from New Jersey, who also sound American Football-ish — these darting, math-rocky guitar figures, song structures that alter in seconds — but on the EP they put out in August, Pretty Good, there's a song called "My Crass Patch" that sounds strange, elongated and dark in a way that I can't compare to their past material or really any of their influences or contemporaries.
A lot of people functioning in this aesthetic right now have the sound absolutely down, to the nature of the guitar tone, but the songs feel less formed than they could be. This is my essential issue with the band The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, who are exciting in theory, an even more dilated and cinematic take on mid-'90s emo, but kind of boring in practice. But then most of these bands are on their first records so being kind of half-formed at the moment could be a brief stage in the overall development of the band.
Who are some of the other new acts that you think have shown promise and why?
Owel, from New Jersey, who put out their first record earlier this year and are sort of a platonic mixture of Jimmy Eat World and Sigur Ros. That's simplifying it, but is probably the best way to get across its sound. It'll probably be a great winter record; there's a delicate and crystalline quality to it, there are also these really heavy passages that are almost seismic in the way they shift the landscape of the song. Clearly I'm still having a hard time clarifying what I like about it.
Another is Driver Friendly, from Austin, Texas, who put out this gorgeous and intricate record last year called Bury A Dream. It has probably the only guitar tone I'd describe as "glistening." And the songs are densely packed with hooks. They also don't sound particularly like anyone, which is why I'm excited by them. I hear traces of Brand New, Jimmy Eat World, but something of a different order is going on in their stuff.
With these new bands coming up and developing their sounds, what remnants of emo's past do you hope will disappear?
Emo is still such a boy's club. In some ways it was intended (as much as an incidental development in music can have "intention") to open up hardcore so that it couldn't possibly remain this flexing center of machismo. Instead, by the '00s it was a ton of bands composed of dudes wishing incredible ill on women. It's maybe getting better. There seems to have been at least a lyrical shift. For instance, The World Is a Beautiful Place orients itself around self-analysis. There are a bunch of pop-punk bands doing a reflexive Springsteen thing parallel to this, where all of the songs are about not knowing what you're doing with your life. But I wish, as always with pretty much every genre and scene, that more women were on the stage.
I have noticed in reading articles about the emo revival or when looking at the comments on them that people refer to the mainstreamed version of emo (MCR, Fall Out Boy, etc.) as "little sister music" or harping on the fact that it's guys wearing eyeliner. There is a definite machismo thing going on about what's "real emo."
There's that whole other aspect too, the whole "X music is for housewives and little girls" thing, which I feel is pretty endemic to rock. It's an authenticity game in which women are automatically assumed inauthentic and aspirational in their listening. Totally hideous behavior. I also think even playing an authenticity game in emo is maybe the losingest losing battle ever. It's already majorly maligned music and creating hierarchies within it seems super pointless.
So what about the overly long/kinda clever song titles? Essential to the scene or just a distraction?
Usually long/clever song titles are generated out of having no clue what to properly title a song, so here is this joke or reference. Of newer bands, Dads, for instance, have hilarious song titles, one of which is an incoherent reference to the first Cartel record ("Honestly, Chroma Q&A").
It always seemed to me like it's a way to add something fun to a not particularly fun genre
Which is funny because I think it leads people to believe the bands are pretentious.
Are the bands pretentious?
It's possible for these bands to be too earnest, but I don't really think pretension factors in, not when your bedrock is punk.
Are you telling me there aren't pretentious punks?
Not at all, I just don't think the pretension often expresses itself musically. Of course I could be dead-ending myself here by forgetting the existence of Circle Takes The Square. I guess I'd say the infinite song titles are usually paired with straightforward songs and maybe exist as a way of dismantling that straightforwardness.
Looking at these new crop of bands, are you optimistic?
Yeah! I mean I probably seem super optimistic even earlier in this conversation, but I honestly think there's a lot of creative possibility to be had by picking up a piece of history and running with it.
That's the thing about revivals, right? Straight up re-creation is briefly thrilling but eventually becomes boring. There needs to be some element of progression.
Exactly! And again it feels too early to tell (even though "early" is a really weird word to use in this sense), but it could happen. Many of the bands involved have the energy and sensibility to make it happen. And I honestly think the nebulous nature of the genre actually allows for it.