The Decade In Emo

It was indeed “A Decade Under The Influence.” But while Taking Back Sunday could string together a few solid hits drenched in a post-hardcore milieu and cut with pop sensibilities, chances are no one in the band could have predicted how influential emo would become in the aughts. The presence of the word in the cultural zeitgeist was unpredictable, its stay on the pop charts was unprecedented and its evolution and mutation in the public forum was unlike any other pop culture music, fashion or phenomenon this decade.

Before the turn of the millennium, emo was a term best used to describe an ambiguous, post-hardcore punk sound that had been evolving in the American underground music scene for about 15 years. Perhaps “best used” isn’t the right term as much as the term was saddled upon this sound: Just as many musicians tagged with the name today, it had been a point of annoying contention since it was first uttered in the community centers and tiny, all ages clubs in D.C. where the first “emocore” bands performed. Unlike the close-minded term the sound was often described as, these teens fused the cathartic dynamics of hardcore with a confrontational pop-twist and blended it all with introspective lyrics that had that was ambiguous as the genre within which these bands found themselves.

Flash forward to the beginning of the 21st Century, and emo hit an odd nexus between the past, present and future just as it approached its tipping point. 2001 was the year that bands from emo’s first, second and third waves all convened, a year before the “genre” hit its tipping point in mainstream popularity. Fugazi – the band formed by members of two of emocore’s progenitors and the group that influenced nearly every second wave emo act, be it Drive Like Jehu or Sunny Day Real Estate – released their final album, The Argument. A map of the band’s evolving sound, The Argument was perhaps the group’s greatest album and an excellent farewell as the quartet called an indefinite hiatus in 2002.

All the while, many second wave emo bands began to end their respective musical runs in the early part of the decade, and many did so in challenging fashions. Although emo would transform into something of a tangible genre for millions, an almost shallow form of pop-punk in the guise of some bands, many of the second wave groups would exit not with a bang, but with a sound that left many emo apologists scratching their heads. There was Sunny Day Real Estate’s prog-heavy 2000 effort, The Rising Tide, an album that perplexed many longtime fans and left the chaos of their earlier albums on the studio floor. The Promise Ring dropped Wood/Water in 2002, a record that eschewed the group’s potent poppy-punk sound for a retrained, oft-acoustic sound driven completely on harmony. The Get Up Kids followed a similar route with their 2004 album, The Guilt Show.

While many of the titans of emo’s second wave bowed out in seemingly unfashionable ways, one of the period’s second fiddles would push emo onto the charts and into confused adolescent hearts. In the ‘90s, Jimmy Eat World was hardly an emo headliner. But, after being dropped by Capitol Records for failing to produce a big hit single or record, the group quietly recorded what would become the album that helped make emo a sought-after commodity.

Originally titled Bleed American when it was released in 2001, the band changed the name of their third album to Jimmy Eat World following September 11th. And the album became a smashing sensation, a venerable hit parade and moneymaker at a time when industry types first began to fear illegal downloading. Perhaps Jimmy Eat World’s late career success can be boiled down to timing. In 2001 and 2002, Americans were looking for a certain kind of somber and comforting sound, but one that was ultimately positive following the national tragedy. When there was nowhere to turn in the world of shallow boy-band pop, a song called “The Middle” provided all the comfort one could ask for in a pop song:

It just takes some time/little girl you’re in the middle of the ride/everything, everything will be just fine/everything, everything will be alright

Throw in one heck of a pop hook and mix it in with that undeniable chorus and some positive, comforting lyrics and Jimmy Eat World came away with one of the strongest singles of the decade. Considering “The Middle” helped usher emo into the mainstream, it’s odd to think of how “emo” has become almost synonymous with “depressed.”

While Jimmy Eat World survived emo’s second wave for 21st Century chart glory, emo’s third wave was well in full swing. Often described in Christ-like fashion amongst his most-rabid fans and critics, Chris Carrabba was stirring things up in the world of emo. Cathartic and punk inspired, Carrabba’s most affecting moments came in the form of his solo, acoustic-guitar driven ditties under the name Dashboard Confessional. Carrabba became something of a fixture in the mainstream music press, and his role as poster boy for the genre seemed solidified.

Though Carrabba plays the same heart wrenching tunes to a smaller group of cult fans today, his meteoric rise in the mainstream and substantially-longer career as an afterthought in the press have transformed Carrabba into a different kind of poster boy for emo. If emo had any solid definition following the aughts, it’s been lost in the translation of pop culture this past decade. Carrabba was the image of emo at the first half of the decade, but thanks to pop culture’s ever-shrinking attention span, emo’s transformed into something completely different at the end of 2009. Carrabba represents the odd staying power and ambiguity of the genre at a time when everyone seems to have a definition of “emo” down pat. Whereas earlier in the decade, emo was synonymous with well-adjusted, upper-middle class teenagers who wore Abercrombie & Fitch and sought to force all their existential quandaries on failed relationships and romantic longing, emo has somehow become associated with depressed, potentially-suicidal tweens who drape their bodies in all things black and could potentially be members of a cult, maybe.

Or has it? For every person that thinks they know what emo means, there are about several hundreds of people ready to disagree. For that, we’ve got the middle aughts to be thankful for. At a time when “emo” was being used to describe any up and coming independent band by the most well-meaning of music critics, the linear “genre” of emo saw a number of inventive albums and bands. Say Anything’s …is a Real Boy. Pedro The Lion’s Achilles’ Heel. Thursday’s War All The Time. Coheed & Cambria’s In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3. The Format’s Dog Problems. Even the “backpacker rap” of Rhymesayers artists like Atmosphere and P.O.S., or Rhode Island spoken-word rapper Sage Francis, followed some of the same post-hardcore dynamics of their emo peers to produce a solid number of albums often roped into the “emo” bubble and augmented the definition of the term.

While emo (and screamo) was getting the full court press style coverage in everything from The New York Times to Rolling Stone, something was awry. It was something that only Jessica Hopper was able to verbalize in a 2003 Punk Planet article titled “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t.”

And then something broke—And it wasn’t Bob Nanna’s or Mr. Dashboard’s sensitive hearts. Records by a legion of done-wrong boys lined the record store shelves. Every record was a concept album about a breakup, damning the girl on the other side. Emo’s contentious monologue—it’s balled fist Peter Pan mash-note dilemmas—it’s album length letters from pussy-jail—it’s cathedral building in ode to man-pain and Robert-Bly-isms—it’s woman-induced misery has gone from being descriptive to being prescriptive. Emo was just another forum where women were locked in a stasis of outside observation, observing ourselves through the eyes of others. The prevalence of these bands, the omni-presence of emo’s sweeping sound and it’s growing stronghold in the media and on the Billboard chart codified emo as A SOUND, where previously there had been diversity.

And though some artists pushed the boundaries of where a term like “emo,” could go, others shoved it into a misogynistic, uncreative box. For all their cathartic bleedings, bands like The Used produced “hits” rank with the negative sound Hopper described so well. This, quite unfortunately, became the face that emo has worn throughout the decade, and is part of the reason the genre’s thought to be so worn out.

And the backlash came, though much of it not nearly as intelligent or even knowledgeable as Hopper’s critique. Warped Tour, the preeminent punk summer tour, became ground zero for anti-emo sentiments in the punk community. Elsewhere, the dynamic and image of emo shifted under the guise of two new scene bearers: My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. Though Fall Out Boy achieved a cross-pop-cultural popularity unsurpassed by most bands, My Chem grew the kind of “cult” fan base that attracted the kind of negative publicity for emo that couldn’t be made up.

Suddenly, more than before, emo transformed from something of a musical term, to a catchall term for an odd subculture, with little to no roots in the “genre.” It became a type of fashion, inspired by My Chem’s obsession with gothic Tim Burton wear. It became a “state of mind” which parents were told to fear for their kids’ safety. It became hated, like nothing before. Be it the anti-emo beatings in Mexico, the threats of banning emo in Russia, or the simple-minded misunderstandings of local news reporters across the U.S. warning parents of the “dangerous new trend,” emo became huge, and not in the good way.

Although all would seem lost for emo at the end of the decade, it’s reached a curious nexus not unlike the one at the beginning of the decade. Though all signs would seem to point to its “death,” emo has continued to evolve, perhaps in some cases, mutate. Emo is still a misunderstood and maligned “culture” in some circles. And yes, many of the negative aspects of its popular form have continued to thrive in the guise of fifth wave emo-inspired bands operating under the scrunk and crunkcore sounds.

But, perhaps there is a light at the end of the decade. The reunion fever that has caught the indie world by storm churned out headlines that screamed “Sunny Day Real Estate” and “Get Up Kids” across the country. Though nostalgia is so often a dangerous poison in pop culture, every Jawbox reunion performance on TV allows people to refocus their perceptions of emo, and even where it can go.

More over, with band like Brand New challenging the very sonic nature of what emo has become and crushing the Billboard 200 at the same time, it can spell a new crossroads for emo. And all he while, the “indie” scene has been a source of newfound evolutions for emo. Groups like Maritime, The Appleseed Cast and Owen have quietly been creating some of the best music to be paired with the term “emo” this decade. Over the past few years, there’s even been something of an “emo Renaissance” in the underground punk scene, with tiny, DIY bands with names like Algernon Cadwallader, Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate) and Monument producing songs steeped in emo’s second wave.

Though emo would seem to be a lost cause at the end of what has been a very long decade in the genre’s existence, if anything, it’s merely proven the definitive point that’s made emo such a longstanding presence in music: It’s all about perspective.

Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”:

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5 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. everynowandthen #

    When you say emo I associate it with borderline castrato vocalists whining over washy chord progressions and amateur-ability musicians. All the bands you mentioned I thought were pop-rock or pop-punk.

  2. Leor Galil #

    Though many an emo act does feature falsetto-confined vocalists (see: Sunny Day Real Estate, Thursday) and sometimes washy chord progressions and (moreso in the mid-90s) amateurism, a large point of this piece was to show that there is hardly a rule to define emo, in many ways because of what the greater culture has redefined it as and because of those “emo” bands that have shaped it as it is today.

    So Thursday, with their lack of chuga-chuga guitar work and one-two-one-two drumming, is a pop-punk band? Fugazi’s brand of post-hardcore fused with funk, reggae, metal and a dash of hip-hop is pop-punk or pop-rock? Pedro The Lion’s slowcore-melding tunes are pop-punk? Owen, The Appleseed Cast and Maritime? The past two albums by Brand New, the ones drenched in feedback and without a dominant, immediate poppy hook? The Format’s whimsical ‘Dog Problems’ is pop-punk? Drive Like Jehu and SDRE? I get where one would consider Jimmy Eat World, The Get Up Kids, and perhaps The Promise Ring as such, but that’s the multi-dimensional nature of emo. And isn’t pop-rock something of an all-encompassing term anyway?

  3. solfish #

    I blame Kurt Cobain.

  4. Leor Galil #

    Umm… I’m not entirely sure you even bothered to read this post. You would have found out that emo has been in existence since ’85 (read: while Cobain was a high schooler living on Melvins tunes) and an entirely different form of punk than Cobain’s grunge.

  5. mitchatl #

    Mr. Galil,
    This is one of the best articles I have read on this topic, and by far the most research-infused. Rock on. Funny how I wanted to send you an email, and that option wasn’t included in the myriad of internet-communication methods linked on your amazing article. It would have been a good email!

    Rock on.

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