A Bit About Emo: Brief History, Brief Criticism, Personal Experience

January 16, 2009

As a follow up to my article on rap music’s journey from subversive to reinforcing, I now turn to another maligned sub-genre of music: emo. At its core, emo is punk music laced with pop melodies containing diary-level personal and emotional lyrics, hence “emo,” short for “emotional.” Emo emerged from the remnants of various underground hardcore scenes when several punk bands began to experiment with writing convincing, authentic, personal lyrics. Punk and Hardcore has always been focused on authenticity; it was an anti-mainstream posture and attitude held by musicians who felt radio and commercial music was bland, uninspired, calculated and fake. Emo emerged as a subgenre of that, maintaining the position that mainstream wasn’t “real enough,” yet adding introspection, reflection, and commentary on personal relationships and feelings to their lyrics. Early bands like Fugazi, Sunny Day Real Estate and the “Zen Arcade” album by Husker Du laid the groundwork for this scene, and mainstream acts like Weezer inspired the generation that would propel emo into the spotlight. Weezer released the perfect pop punk album with their “Blue Album” debut “ which showcased the style that would define next generation emo: ‘50s influenced rock harmonies, punk riffs, indie cred and nerd sensibilities. The initially commercial flop follow up “Pinkerton” brought the sort of lyrics that cemented the following generation’s modus operandi: Weezer singer Rivers Cuomo during a depression spell in which he had to walk with a cane and spent much time in seclusion (as a twenty-something pop star this had to make it even more difficult) and churned out lyrics about being “tired of sex” sick of “feeling like an old man,” etc.

I began listening to a bit of emo with Weezer and second generation emo: Taking Back Sunday, Thursday, Dashboard Confessional, Fall Out Boy, Matchbook Romance, Bayside, From Autumn to Ashes, and the like. This second generation of emo, (at least everything that was commonly labeled emo when I was into the stuff) took on a few forms: at one extreme end leaning towards the pop-punk side, at the other reverting back vocally to the barking screams of its hardcore roots (kind of ironic, considering one of the things that provoked the birth of emo was the experimentation in vocal harmonies)– the more scream oriented emo bands are referred to as “screamo.” The vast majority of this wave of bands fell between the screamo and pop-punk varieties. Typically they wielded dual lead guitar punk riffs and two vocalists (one typically handled the screams, the other the more tuneful singing). All of these bands drew heavily on The Cure, Weezer and the early hardcore, punk and emo scene-setters.

Today, most of this has become a caricature, as any musical movement does when it gets too mainstream, repetitive and outstays its welcome. It’s usually at this point it draws it’s sharpest criticism if its controversial at all. After its ceased to be relevant and creative, it becomes mundane and standard and more widespread. The typical conservative social critic, preacher, teacher or parent, if they know anything at all about emo’s existence, think of it in terms of cutters, manic depressive teens, the goofy haircut that emo “poseurs” sport in which one bang hangs low to cover one eye, etc. This is the third generation emo scene, and most of these kids fail to realize the scene is over and they miss the point of what it was about in the first place. I don’t mean to negate or trivialize teenage depression or cutting. Those are entirely serious issues that this article does not seek to address. I do disparage against any teens who pretend to be depressed or cut simply to fit into a subgenre of “emo kids.”

My point isn’t really a defense of the genre in the sense that I think that it’s some sort of excellent, defining music. I really enjoyed it for a span of about two years and a few of those bands have carried over with me and other pieces of it are still occasionally enjoyable in the nostalgic sense. But for me, that music and the scene around it was helpful and positive at a particular point in my life. Several years ago I went through a phase in which a difficult break-up worked as a somewhat catalyst and “excuse” for dealing with issues that had laid dormant and bothersome in me for quite some time. The music was perfect for me at then, the guitars and noise combined with searching, sad, wanting, reflective lyrics pitched out in emotionally charged ways fit right in. I can’t listen to music I don’t feel, so upbeat, fully positive or party music wasn’t hitting the right nerve for me then. The concerts for these bands were perfect, venting, charged times of mental release. The lyrics became scripture and the venues a sanctuary. I saw Taking Back Sunday when they were on a short list of my most listened to bands, and the mosh pit at that show exemplified how such a thing should be—not violent or aggressive, just passionate and affirming. Jumping around, slamming into fellow fans, and if anyone ever fell there was always someone to help them up and pat them on the back before going back at it. Everyone knew all the lyrics, all the solos, everything . I’ve been to shows where the mosh pit was a frightening and stupid thing-roundhouse kicks, punches thrown, everyone fighting. Not really a positive outlet—but a good hardcore emo show always had upbeat and welcoming mosh pits, full of like minded fans just looking for a night out in which the singer echoed their feelings and the music worked as catharsis.
I saw Fall Out Boy long before they were releasing platinum albums and being on the cover of Rolling Stoner, back when they could barely play their instruments yet still managed to put on fun shows. I saw Thursday in a gravel pit and from the moment they kicked off their first song the entire crowd was jumping up and down…I crawled up the hill out of the pit covered in dust to go catch the Cure play a set. I saw the Used at a hardcore festival, and after 3 hours of aggressive political music The Used brought things down to a personal level and amped up the emotion in an amazing way.
The point of this is that far from being music that furthered my depression or caused me to cut myself and wear a trendy haircut, this music and these concerts focused, refreshed, entertained, consoled and elevated me. I did a bit of potentially destructive and stupid things during my year or so of depression, and I kept a lot to myself. While at a show and on the way to a show I was always focused on the music, I never wanted to mess up the experience I was going to have by doing something stupid, it gave me leverage and focus. While I was into the music, I was safe from worse activities.
Recently I was listening to a priest friend of mine give a lecture to teenagers and he spoke of everyone having a spirituality and a fire whether they recognize it or not. I grew up with spirituality in a sense, but dismantled it intentionally and unintentionally during my youth. It has taken me time to grow and find a realistic and viable sense of spirituality in my adulthood, and looking back I see that back then my spirituality lay in the music and the drive therein; perhaps it wasn’t the best place to put it, and it certainly didn’t totally fulfill or give personal purpose or complete peace, but it served as a bridge to get me through and for that I’ll never totally write it off.

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6 Responses to “A Bit About Emo: Brief History, Brief Criticism, Personal Experience”

  1. […] think I completely castigate that genre, you can read my appraisal and appreciation of the genre here–a rather embarrassing and more heart-on-sleeve personal tone that I try and avoid in most […]

  2. Jason Pike said

    I just get the impression that “Emo” has mutated into a cute and cuddly image-obsession and into judging yourself and others entirely in terms of what you and they look like, and an appreciation of this as absolutely the only basis for any kind of friendship between people. Admitting the sort of feelings you have about a pretty girl or a handsome boy is one thing, but trampling on the feelings of people who aren’t so good-looking (or fashion-conscious) and excluding them is quite another. There also seems to be an exclusive obsession with being young and thin. You might stay thin, but you can’t stay young, you just can’t! Because Emos purport to wear their heart on their sleeve, they end up wearing their girlfreind and/or boyfriend on their sleeve, an accessory or two to show off. That might be a typical teenage vice anyway, and it didn’t come from Emo but it fits in with the Emo mentality absolutely.

  3. Jason Pike said

    I also think that song lyrics that focus on denouncing your ex-partner will do nothing to improve relations between people: Hardcore and Thrash lyrics really tend to be much more constructive because they face outwards into society and not on inspecting your navel and making your personal life public.

  4. Jason Pike said

    Screaming lyrics are suitable for denouncing war, famine and the poisoning and destruction of communities but if the song turns out to be about your girlfriend I just say, “what on Earth….?”

    • dmhamby2 said

      Well, I agree with most of your points here. I wrote this piece 3 years ago and thought emo as a valid subgenre of music was on its way out, but apparently it continues on today, especially via metal-lite outfits like Black Veiled Brides, etc. While I agree that punk and hardcore lyrics that attack systemic problems and denounce war, poverty, prejudice, oppression, etc. make better use of righteous anger, I will give the emo kids credit in that personal heartbreak evokes those intense emotional reactions that bigger-than-self social problems rarely do in adolescence. Besides, other genres are guilty of the same thing–the most vitriolic attacks and sad bemoans in blues music are in relation to failed relationships, the most cynical and relatable lines in Country music are about broken hearts, Joni Mitchell’s whole early career (as well as many of her folk peers) was centered around personal relationships, etc. These emo bands were rooted in punk, so yeah they screamed–they used the conventions of their musical history to address relationships, which is why emo was something a bit new to punk since it turned previous outward emotions inward. Many of the earlier bands eventually turned that emotion back out in more comprehensive ways–Thursday’s “War All the Time” made use of emo to discuss war, teen suicide, religious hypocrisy, etc. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst eventually evolved beyond personal relationship heartbreak to discuss political issues in the still excellent “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.” And though they never really branched out beyond venting frustrations over broken friendships, betrayals, and cheating girlfriends, Taking Back Sunday’s first 3 albums are still solid works that I can occasionally hear today and enjoy without relating directly to their focus. I think emo was good when it gave venting room for emotions that young people always had, as long as it didn’t devolve into blanket misogyny, etc. You’re right that denouncing ex partners will never improve the world as such, but it’s probably a phase that many go through to get over before they can even think about addressing the world again. But you are also right that it seems emo now is just a fashion code with its own in-group in direct contrast to the odd-kid out inclusive it was likely intended as. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Jason Pike said

    Thanks for taking notice. Since I’ve read what negative comments we have both written here, I’ve suddenly recalled that some Emo songs deal with bullying and homophobia, which are worthwhile issues to raise.

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