Monday, October 16, 2006
1,800 Words on Emo
So Ian invited me to join the club a few weeks ago, but I'm only getting around to making my inaugural post now, as I nurse a beer and eagerly await the Junior Boys show at the Empty Bottle tonight. (I've even broken out my soft black pinstripe trousers and am strongly considering mascara.) Anyway, howdy. I'm not sure yet who are our readers are, but I suspect that most of my fellow bloggers already know me as an occasional contributor to Stylus, so I won't bother with an overly long intro. I'm John, I live in Chicago, and my musical preferences mostly encompass pop, indie, and dance/electronic, with specific weaknesses for stylish synths, finger-picked guitar, and bossanova rhythms -- among plenty of other things, of course. (Right now, I'm listening to an Italo Disco comp a friend burned for me.)

Speaking of mascara, though, I've been thinking about emo lately, and part of what I've been thinking is how the genre even got to the point where I can start a sentence about it with "speaking of mascara." An acquaintance in the UK (read: some guy on ILX) reports using the word "emo" in an article he wrote for the Daily Mail, which prompted the following query from his editor: "I wonder if we need to spell this out for our readers ... would neo-goth in brackets do it?" And I don't want to be all "back in my day" about this, but back in my day (I went to college in the late '90s) emo and goth were completely different subcultures; if emo had a dress code, it was geek glasses and thrift-store Izods and no makeup for boys whatsoever. It was also fairly underground, thriving without constant MTV exposure and before ringer tees were made widely available at Urban Outfitters.

I'm not invested enough in the scene to seriously bemoan this shift, though I did cringe when I learned that "emo" has recently become a noun, a new category of high-school students to compete for cafeteria space with jocks, preps, skaters, and burnouts. It's just that most of the emo I heard in college wasn't really up my alley. If you'd asked me in 1998 to name a prototypical emo band, I'd have said either Cap'n Jazz or the Promise Ring, mostly because that's what my roommate listened to. At the time, the Promise Ring just sounded like uninspired indie, but Cap'n Jazz was pretty much intolerable: sloppy, lo-fi, and deliberately abrasive, with guttural, off-key vocals. Both bands were on Jade Tree Records, and over the next couple of years, several other bands on the label's roster -- Jets to Brazil, Joan of Arc, and Pedro the Lion -- contributed to my sense of what emo was all about. The summer after my sophomore year, my friend Chris and I went on a road trip to Cleveland, and along the way, I made up the chorus of an emo song, which was pretty much just me yelping "O-HIIIIII-O" in a wounded voice: this, years before Hawthorne Heights's "Ohio is for Lovers."

During my senior year, I befriended a freshman named Jason Hendrix who wore small, theadbare t-shirts and old corduroys. He always appeared restless and eager: he rocked from side to side when standing, and when he found out I was into music, he quickly said, "You heard of this band Braid? What about Cursive? You like American Football?" I was embarrassed to admit I'd heard of none of them but wasn't too surprised once he explained they could all be loosely considered emo, and so I kind of dismissed the recommendations. At that point, I was still bopping along to Stereolab's (still underrated) Cobra and Phases Group. But Jason was a persuasive kid, and smart and hilarious, too, and so not long after I graduated, he'd made me a fan of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie and Dismemberment Plan, none of which were really super-emo but close enough, right? (First time I heard "Ice of Boston" was in his car, and I said "Whoa, what's this?" and he grinned and said, "I knew you'd be into it." Why, because I liked it when Malkmus rapped, too?) Braid and Cursive still seemed too difficult -- my reaction to the latter's Domestica, which Jason eagerly bought the day it came out, was mostly bafflement -- but American Football's self-titled record ended up as the first bona fide emo album I embraced.

Mike Kinsella of American Football

Or was it? I mean, I called it emo because Mike Kinsella's voice was raw and wandered in pitch, and the rhythms were mathy and jagged, and there was even this chord change that still strikes me as an emo chord change, even when it's used by, like, Múm (on "Green Grass of Tunnel") -- which is really just a "I" chord dropping down to a "vi," and I don't even know why it resonates as specifically emo for me. But it also doesn't take a genius to guess that the reason I took to American Football was that it was never too aggressive -- the vocals strained but never screamed, the guitars twinkled in clean arpeggios instead of erupting in shards of noise -- and that a fair bit of it could aptly be called post-rock. ("Stay Home," for instance, is entirely in 7/4 and features a three-minute-plus instrumental intro.) By definition, emo is supposed to be a fairly pussy genre, but few bands can get away with a fucking trumpet solo.

[Download: American Football, "Honestly?"]

Which is fine. No one agrees on what counts as emo, anyway. The guys who listened to Rites of Spring in 1985 sneered at Sunny Day Real Estate in 1995 (what, too melodic?), and the Sunny Day fans probably look aghast at Taking Back Sunday now. Death Cab only took on the emo sobriquet once Seth Cohen's name-drop of the band on The O.C. dovetailed with Dashboard Confessional's appearance on the cover of SPIN; whereas before, they were just another wussy indie outfit from the Northwest (early reviews referenced Built to Spill and Quasi), now they were spearheading a movement.

So I didn't have a whole lot of patience when certain emo-aligned friends of mine complained about Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American. It wasn't even their major-label debut, but I guess "The Middle" got played a whole lot more on KROQ than "Lucky Denver Mint" did, so that made it bad. The thing is, I don't even remember a whole lot of Clarity from the one time I heard it, while "The Middle" is easily one of the best mainstream rock singles of this decade: an efficient pop confection with tight, tension-building guitars and an invigorating sing-along chorus. (To be fair, I recently listened to "Lucky Denver Mint," and it's pretty great, too.)

I'm assuming what turned a lot of fans off when emo became a buzzword in the early part of this decade is that a lot of it was indebted to pop-punk. The intersection isn't so odd: the chief demographic of both genres is misunderstood 17-year-old boys. The difference is that pop-punk channels its misfit status into dumb, cheery adolescent pranksterism (cf. Blink-182), whereas emo kids, who read books, usually sulk before they explode. If there was an antecedent for this merger, it was probably Weezer, who rocked the airwaves in the mid-1990s with a crop of silly, upbeat singles before turning more introspective on their sophomore effort. Neither pop-punk nor emo exactly, Pinkerton still may have paved the way for streamlined alt-rock that wasn't afraid to wear its insecure heart on its sleeve. (Not that I was aware of it at the time. It wasn't until late college, when Weezer became the default band to put on at the end of the party, and people closed their eyes and nodded meaningfully, did I realize they were respected as much as they were, and not the three-hit wonder I'd previously considered them to be.)

With the exception of "The Middle," though, most of the pop-punk that's now considered emo hasn't done much for me. I was recently browsing through my girlfriend's CD collection and found an "Emo Mix" that a friend had made her, but my initial intrigue turned to tedium as I took it home and had to sit through five largely uncompelling Saves the Day songs. However, I'm fascinated by this new wave of bands that preserve the moodiness of '90s emo but make its melodrama more overtly theatrical: see the pale-faced altar-based pageantry in the videos for both My Chemical Romance's "Helena" and Panic! At the Disco's "I Write Sins Not Tragedies." Scholars of the '80s revival might also note that these bands' eyelinered affectations harken back to the Cure, while their predilection for long song titles (e.g., Fall Out Boy's "A Little Less 'Sixteen Candles,' A Little More Touch Me) might make even Morrissey blush. But it's precisely this ambitiousness that draws my curiosity, even as the songs flail under their own weight and wind up sounding ridiculous and immature. That my 19-year-old sports-buff cousin has lyrics by Fueled by Ramen bands plastered all over the quotes section of his Facebook profile, instead of the bland platitudes of Jack Johnson, is somehow encouraging.

San Diego's The North Atlantic

Then again, how does this trend benefit the emo band that's working within the traditional 1990s indie-rock model? The North Atlantic describes itself as "a staggering blend of New York post-punk, Chicago noise rock, and San Diego punk" (the band is based in the latter city), although the hallmarks of mid-period emo are all over Wires in the Walls, a 2003 release that was recently reissued by We Put Out Records (a sub-division of Warner). There's the full-throated drunken yelling, the stuttering guitar assault, the convulsive stop-and-start beat that must nearly cause whiplash in excited fans. There's even, in "Scientist Girl," a crunch-pop song that finds the band at its catchiest, the kind of lingering bitterness about failed relationships that's led many critics to theorize about emo's latent misogyny (although I don't think this band is guilty of such). But while Panic! At the Disco acolytes can stomach 14-word song titles, it's not clear whether they'll gravitate toward 7-minute epics like The North Atlantic's "Atmosphere vs. the Dogs of Dawn" -- in which furious, sweat-soaked choruses crash against sparse, drawn-out verses -- or be able to follow the band's shift to skeletal dance-punk in the middle of "Swallows Air."

Because of this versatility, I generally consider The North Atlantic to be a cut above its peers, but since this post pretty much encapsulates most of what I know about emo, I'm not always entirely confident of that claim. I'm mostly just happy that they've gotten signed, since I've been following them since their very first show more than six years ago. See the lead singer up there on the left, the one looking all serious at his guitar? That's Jason Hendrix.

[Download: The North Atlantic, "Scientist Girl"]

Posted by John C. on Monday, October 16, 2006 at 4:34 PM |

Holy shit that was awesome.

Welcome, John!

I love this. That's all.

Actually, no it's not. I love everything you had to say (except Clarity really is all that, even though I do like Bleed American), so I can only offer a few addenda.

For the emo transition from geek glasses and ringer tees to mascara, WNYC has a podcast ( featuring Kelefa Sanneh - pretty much the best music writer around - and Marc Hogan discussing that point.

As for what is to become of bands playing '90s indie rock style emo, whie I'll listen to and will probably like The North Atlantic, I'm wary of musical regressivism in any form, emo included. For every White Stripes you get 10 Jets or Wolfmothers or whatever - there was a place for '90s emo, and that was in the '90s. Once again, I'll bow to Kelefa Sanneh's infinite wisdom and repeat something he wrote at some time I do not recall, that emo has managed to remain relevant and successful and has created such great music over the past 20 years because of its willingness to reinvent itself. Sure, My Chemical Romance sounds nothing like Rites of Spring, but bands should be doing new things, not endlessly regurgitating the past to satisfy a few cranky scenesters. And whether its zeal for reinvention is a contributing factor or not, emo is one of the few forms of rock music that is moving big numbers and is consistently creating new and interesting music, as opposed to the artists who choose a record from their dad's vinyl collection and decide to spend their entire career playing variations on that record. The biggest danger for emo is that, due to its current popularity, it becomes codified and we just get endless recycling of Hawthorne Heights riffs until everyone gets sick of the whole thing.

Although, really, what I wanted to say was: this post was awesome!

Update: North Atlantic are indeed pretty great. Anyone who isn't downloading that song, damn, download that song.

Indeed! Welcome to the FF7 John! We've been eagerly awaiting your arrival :o)

Thanks all. Jonathan, I was pretty much hoping that you'd read and respond to this, so yay. I'm going to check out that podcast now.

I'm happy to see you here, John.

I loved this as well. And as someone only very familiar with the new variety (well, and Cursive) it filled in a lot of gaps.

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