May 19, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
From the very beginning, "emo" (short for "emotional") seemed like a
goofy name for a rock genre. The story holds that Washington, D.C.'s punk
icon Ian MacKaye was onstage in the mid-'80s with Embrace (a short-lived
group that fell between pioneering hardcore punks Minor Threat and the
ongoing Fugazi) when someone shouted from the audience, "You guys are
"You mean like Emo Phillips?" Mac-Kaye supposedly responded.
THE ROOTS OF EMO
Here's a quick look at some of the most influential early emo discs.
Rites of Spring, "Rites of Spring" (Dischord, 1985)
The one that started it all: Extremely moving and simply relentless.
Arriving in the midst of the Reagan era, this disc seemed revolutionary
in the face of prevailing hardcore-punk sounds: Here was a reflective
band that expressed its intimate sentiments in a style that was never
sappy, thanks to music that was both pulverizing and delicate.
Fugazi, "Repeater" (Dischord, 1990
When Rites of Spring broke up, vocalist Guy Piciotto formed Fugazi
with Ian MacKaye, a veteran of Embrace and Minor Threat. To some extent,
the new band moved the legacy of Rites and Embrace forward, though its
music was never quite as emotionally exposed. Yet this album in
particular is a harsh indictment of all those who would sit idly by on
the sidelines as life rushes forward.
Jawbox, "Grippe" (Dischord, 1991) Jawbreaker, "24 Hour Revenge
Therapy" (Tupelo/Communion, 1994)
Whether you consider them post-punk, proto-emo, or pre-emo (pre-mo?),
both of these recordings are superior high-energy punk albums with
especially smart, literate lyrics, unrelenting energy, and strong,
well-written melodies that keep you coming back again and again. Jawbox
leader J. Robbins continues on with Burning Airlines, while Jawbreaker's
Blake Schwarzenbach leads Jets to Brazil.
Sunny Day Real Estate, "Diary" (Sub Pop, 1994)
Some challenge whether this Seattle group was really emo, but others
embrace it as a ubiquitous influence. Not nearly as personal as the
title might suggest (this was released before bandleader Jeremy Enigk
was born again), it strikes me as U2 plays hardcore punk.
Cap 'N Jazz, "Analphabetapollothology" (Jade Tree)
This posthumous two-disc set is devoted to exploring how this
influential combo expanded the basic Rites of Spring sound with more
sophisticated arrangements and time signatures while maintaining a
similar hyper-emotional approach. Some of the members went on to form
the Promise Ring.
THE BEST NEW EMO
The strongest sounds to emerge of late from the emo underground
represent impressive leaps forward by the bands in question. In one
sense, this makes it harder than ever to define what "emo" is. But it
also makes for some very rewarding listening.
*** The Promise Ring, "Wood/Water" (Epitaph)
The Milwaukee quartet polished its sound considerably with producer
Stephen Street (the Smiths, Blur), earning the resentment of some fans.
But while some of the old punk propulsion is missing, by any measure of
the emotion invested in it, this is the group's strongest music yet.
*** 1/2 The Get Up Kids, "On A Wire" (Vagrant)
Three years in the making, the Get Up Kids' latest was worth the
wait. The melodies are stronger than ever, underscored by a new emphasis
on acoustic guitar and keyboards (credit producer Scott Litt of Nirvana
and R.E.M. fame), while sacrificing none of the drive that has long made
this band a great live act.
*** Dashboard Confessional, "So Impossible" (Vagrant)
This E.P. is a fine introduction to the stripped-down acoustic punk
of Chris Carrabba, one of the genre's most subtle and talented
*** Jimmy Eat World, "Jimmy Eat World" (Captiol)
Fluid, poppy, and minimalist, this Mesa, Ariz., quartet has a
breakthrough hit with "The Middle," but it's still hanging on to its
integrity, thanks to its no-nonsense attitude. "I'm watching MTV right
now, and it seems to me that the bands nowadays that are getting
successful aren't getting successful because they're good but because
they're clever," guitarist-vocalist Jim Adkins told me last year. "I'm
sure Capitol would love it if we came out and called ourselves an emo
band and then they could totally trumpet that. But I'd like to be a
career musician, so I don't want to do that."
*** Burning Airlines, "Identikit" (deSoto)
Less gripping than the band's debut, "Mission Control!," this 2001
album is nonetheless a tuneful and passionate effort representing the
emo movement at its best, even if some fans would say that it isn't emo
at all. Call it what you will: It rocks.
Silly or not, the name stuck for a certain brand of heartfelt,
hard-driving punk that is arguably one of the most galvanizing movements in
the rock underground. It's also one of the most commercially vibrant, thanks
to the recent success of Jimmy Eat World and several of the bands on the
Vagrant Records label.
Every musician hates to be categorized, but in the case of emo, the
pigeonholing is especially grating, since the term covers a wide variety of
different sounds, from the "acoustic punk" of Dashboard Confessional, to the
Midwestern rock of the Get Up Kids, to the artier fare of the Promise Ring.
"I would never go out there and say, 'I'm an emo singer!' " says Chris
Carrabba, the driving force behind Boca Raton, Fla.'s Dashboard
Confessional, which was on the bill Saturday at the Q101 Jamboree.
"Personally, if I was going to label these bands myself, I wouldn't use that
word. I don't see how you classify Sunny Day Real Estate, the Promise Ring,
Saves the Day, the Get Up Kids, and Fugazi as one."
But Carrabba grants that the label can come in handy in one way.
"Genre labels can be useful in the sense that there's some dude in some
Podunk town where there is no alternative to the rock station, and there is
no underground scene, and there is no indie-rock record store, and no one
else like him in that town, and instead of getting sucked into listening to
country rock or the Backstreet Boys on MTV, once every couple of hours he
gets to see this punk-rock stuff on MTV that's full of energy and he gets to
feel the same thing I felt when I heard Green Day for the first time."
Matt Pryor, the leader of Kansas City's Get Up Kids, has a similar
"It's sort of like every year, a whole new group of people seems to learn
the term, and so it just keeps coming back up again with different people,"
Pryor says. "We were called an emo band the day we formed, because the band
I was in before was like a pop-punk band, and I was like, 'I'm not happy
doing this; I want to do stuff that's a little bit more complicated.'
Immediately all the pop-punk kids were like, 'A f------ emo band!'
"I'm used to it now, and it doesn't bother me at all, because I figure
it's just sort of a marketing term," Pryor concludes. "It's sort of like the
only people who really need to use it are journalists--no offense--and
people who work in record stores."
But if you ask five different fans at an emo show to define the term,
you're likely to get five different answers.
"What the heck is emo, anyway?" a fan named Andy Radin asks on the Web
site of that name (www.fourfa.com). His answer: "Emo is a broad title
that covers a lot of different styles of emotionally-charged punk rock."
Radin goes on to break the sound down into several subgenres: "emocore"
(referring to mid-'80s innovators like Rites of Spring); "emo" (bands like
Moss Icon and Indian Summer that followed in the late '80s and early '90s);
"hardcore emo" (Heroin, Antioch Arrow, Mohinder), and "post-emo indie-rock"
(Sunny Day Real Estate, the Promise Ring, Mineral, the Get Up Kids, Braid,
Cap'n Jazz, Joan of Arc, Jets to Brazil).
All of this may be slicing and dicing things too finely for the general
public, especially given that most young fans are only really acquainted
with that last batch of bands, who record for popular indie labels such as
Vagrant, Deep Elm, and Jade Tree. But despite their protests to the
contrary, there are some sonic similarities among the best of these
Emo bands tend to share a fondness for the dramatic use of loud/soft
dynamics, complicated (for punk rock) arrangements, and an intense, breathy
singing style. At their best, their lyrics lean toward moving personal
poetry. At their worst, they're like solipsistic scrawlings from a sophomore
The fans also have some things in common. The crowds that gather for
shows at the Fireside Bowl or the House of Blues (the two most frequent
hosts for emo in Chicago) tend to be resolutely unfashionable in a sort of
anti-fashion "Revenge of the Nerds" way. And they are generally smarter,
more discerning, and more sensitive than fans of pop-punk (Blink-182 or Sum
41) or nu-metal (Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park).
"I think emo is a reaction to the past few years of two things: the
really saccharine, sweet, pappy pop music, or the rape-rock,
college-meathead Limp Bizkits and Kid Rocks of the world," says Vagrant
Records publicist Jessie Tappis. "There's an entire group of kids who were
left out of popular music because of those movements, and they obviously had
to go searching for something, because nothing being played on MTV or the
radio was anything they could understand or relate to."
Yet much like the Seattle "grunge" scene of the early '90s, the only
bands rushing to embrace the name "emo" are the ones that aren't really
worth listening to.
"There is a tremendous amount of really terrible bands that have no
problem calling themselves emo," says J. Robbins, a sought-after producer in
the genre. But his own group, Burning Airlines, and most of the bands that
he's worked with would just as soon avoid any label.
"The minute musicians are ready to put themselves in with this weird
genre, there's trouble," Robbins says. "I love the idea that no one can say
exactly why our stuff is quote-unquote 'good.' I love the idea that someone
can say, 'Why is it good? Because I like it! It works.' That's all I really
want--to be effective and affecting."
In the end, then, emo may be defined as much by what it isn't as by what
"People call it emo because people need to call everything something,"
Tappis says. "But it's just rock 'n' roll."