Emo (The Genre That Dare Not Speak Its Name)

 

By Jim DeRogatis

 

Once again there’s a hard-rocking sound galvanizing the underground. You can call it post-hardcore. You can call it post-punk. You can take a step back and just call it indie-rock. Any name you choose is bound to prompt an argument with somebody, so you might as well bite the bullet and call it the name that nobody likes: Emo.

Emo is short for "emotional" music. One of the few things that fans accept is that its roots stretch all the way back to the Reagan era, specifically the first self-titled album by Rites of Spring on Washington D.C.’s Dischord label. After that, everything else is subject to debate, including whether many of today’s best-known bands (the Promise Ring, Braid, Jimmy Eat World, the Get Up Kids, Mineral, Karate) even qualify.

Right from the start emo seemed like a goofy name for a genre. The story holds that Washington, D.C. punk icon Ian MacKaye was onstage in the mid-’80s with Embrace (a shortlived group that fell between his pioneering Minor Threat and Fugazi) when someone shouted from the audience: "You guys are emo-core!" MacKaye supposedly responded: "You mean Emo Phillips?"

The fans aren’t much clearer on what emo is today. Take for example this recent exchange on the www.punk.com emo message board. One David Turner asked (quite reasonably, I’d say): "What the f*#%k is emo?" The query solicited a wide array of responses.

Frank: "Emo is ‘Elmo’ minus the ‘L.’"

"Stevie Wonder": "I must say my friend you are truly fucked up! Stop censoring yourself! Emo’s emotional music."

Lauren: "Emo is high-pitched and whiny music usually played by tortured souls; very good sounding! Try Piebald or the Get Up Kids for beginners. Warning: This music is very emotional."

Not very illuminating, so I’ll add my own general observations before we get much further. Emo is often defined sonically by dramatic use of loud/soft dynamics, complicated (for punk rock) arrangements, and an intense, breathy singing style. At their best, the lyrics tend toward extremely personal poetry; at their worst, they’re like scrawlings from a sophomore journal. The bands and the audience are resolutely unfashionable, except in a sort of anti-fashion Revenge of the Nerds sense. As everyone knows, most nerds are boys, and some view emo as sensitive young boys’ answer to riot grrrl.

"Emo is all about odd time signatures and white-boy pain," one of my editors said, but that’s slightly unkind. I prefer to think of it as punk rock that’s more melodic and introspective/depressing than hardcore, but still tapping into that primal energy and anger.

"Something all these bands have in common is a desire to communicate with people," says J. Robbins, formerly of the band Jawbox and now fronting a new group called. No less an authority that Ian MacKaye recently dubbed him "the King of emo" because of Jawbox’s influence and because Robbins has recorded recent efforts by Braid and the Promise Ring , among others.

"It was weird when people started using the term ‘emo’ because it was like: ‘What, up until now, nobody ever thought music was supposed to be emotional?’" Robbins says. "I’m a few years older than all of the guys in bands like Braid and the Promise Ring, but I know that something we have in common is that our first exposure to hardcore punk really shook us all and galvanized us and made us want to go out and DO SOMETHING. I feel like it’s more of a sense of purpose and being inspired by the ’80s post-hardcore scene. All of the bands that I know that we’re calling emo take that as a jumping-off point. Philosophically they share a work ethic and a sense of the band and music as this engine that propelled them to experience."

Robbins hates to generalize about music and doesn’t much care for "emo" or any simplistic label, and that’s understandable. Musicians are always opposed to being handily categorized because it makes them that much easier to write off. Meanwhile fans of punk rock/underground music have seen their community co-opted, corporatized, and ripped-off countless times between the Clash and Green Day as poseurs and suits swoop in looking to turn rebellion into money. One sure sign of trouble: There’s actually an emo compilation album being prepared by the supremo hack re-packagers K-Tel International ("as seen on TV!").

"Emo has been giving a lot of bands a real knee-jerk reaction, partly because there’s a lot of terrible bands being lumped into this genre," says one veteran observer of the scene who preferred not to be named. "These are really mediocre bands full of young boys who play kind of mid-tempo music that’s really heartfelt but their lyrics are kind of boring. In that sense I think that the more challenging bands that are being lumped under this emo umbrella are like: ‘We’re not emo! We’re not like X, Y, and Z!’"

"Don’t get me wrong, I actually like a few of the big ‘emo’ bands today," says Dan Sinker, editor of the fanzine Punk Planet. "I don’t have anything against ‘movements’ or genres at all, just that bands in them should always be pushing the boundaries. But when ska bands drop the horns and make the transition to emo bands—which is happening by the dozen right now—it’s time to call in the priest and administer the last rites."

Record companies tend to feel differently. After Wilmington, Delaware’s Jade Tree label, New York City’s Deep Elm is one of the biggest purveyors of emo today, and the home of three well-respected emo compilationss. "When we sell records we have to deal with people who are older sales reps, so we’ll use the word ‘emo’ because it’s become a term they know," says label owner John Szuch. "All music is emotional, but when I listen to a band like Planes Mistaken for Stars or some early Sunny Day Real Estate material, this well of emotion starts building inside me, and it’s like I wanna totally rage. When you’re singing a fun pop song about lost love or what you did last summer, it’s a lot different then when someone from Rites of Spring or Planes Mistaken for Stars is up there exposing his entire soul and offering up everything he’s got and everything about him and his experience and he’s pretty much naked in front of all those kids. You see these kids in the back with their mouths open, crying, because they’re so moved by the music that it takes them somewhere. That is a kind of power that I think is really amazing."

Emo-core as introduced by the pioneering Rites of Spring in the mid-’80s 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. Rites of Spring broke up and vocalist Guy Piciotto went on to form Fugazi with Ian MacKaye in 1987. To some extent Fugazi moved the legacy of Rites of Spring and Embrace forward, though its music was never quite as emotionally exposed. It would fall on the bands that followed to fashion emo into the style heard today.

One school was based in the Midwest, around the Chicago area and the Detroit suburbs, and its sound was based largely on Rites of Spring. Leading this camp: Cap ’N Jazz, which, like many emo bands, was extremely short-lived and has become influential primarily after the fact. "Cap ’N Jazz was so much bigger after they broke up," says Jason Gnewikow, who formed the Promise Ring with his old friend, Cap ’N Jazz singer Davey von Bohlen. "I think that the fact that people name them shows two things: One, kids have a really short attention span, and two, it shows the age of who is involved with the scene right now. If somebody asks me what emo was, it’s Embrace and Rites of Spring, not Cap ’N Jazz, who came years later."

Actually, the influence of all three bands can be heard in one branch of current emo. Sometimes called "screamo," it includes "purist" bands such as Current, I Hate Myself, and Boy Sets Fire.

The other, more-heralded branch is often traced back to Sunny Day Real Estate, a punk-pop quartet from Washington state that released two acclaimed albums on Sub Pop in the mid-’90s before breaking up when singer Jeremy Enigk freaked out his bandmates by becoming a born-again Christian. (Enigk went on to make a lushly orchestrated solo album for Sub Pop while his rhythm section joined Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters, though three-fourths of the original Sunny Day Real Estate recently reunited for a tour and an album called How It Feels to Be Something On.)

"In a sense I think emo is kind of where indie rock and punk rock meet," says Jason Piovesan, a fan, the guitarist in an aspiring emo band, and the music director and host of an emo show at Michigan’s WHFR-FM, Henry Ford University’s college radio station. "I think emo is a bad term anyway; I prefer post-hardcore because to me the roots of it are in hardcore. A lot of what’s being called emo today is just indie rock, and the reason for that is a lot of it’s coming from the Sunny Day Real Estate point of view. They were sort of on the edge; they took the emo thing but added something totally different to it, a pop thing. Most people today when they think of Emo think of the Get Up Kids, Mineral, and bands like that that are coming from Sunny Day Real Estate."

True, in part. But the strongest current emo bands meld pop and indie-rock influences with the "old school" emo sound—even if they’re reluctant to embrace that darn word. "It’s all in the definition," says Gnewikow, the guitarist with the Milwaukee-based Promise Ring. "I could validate the point that we are an emo band, and I could also go on the other side and invalidate it. It all comes down to whoever’s asking, their perception of what it is. Emo is the most ridiculous thing to say. What band isn’t emotional? Whether it’s Nashville Pussy or Fugazi, they’re all up there and they’re doing it and it’s emotional. If it wasn’t they wouldn’t be doing it, because this is not an easy thing to do. That’s what people forget."

Gnewikow should know: At the ripe old age of 24 he’s a veteran of countless tours and more nights spent sleeping in a cold van or on a hard floor than he cares to remember. "I like touring, and it becomes like this addiction," he says. "I can’t imagine not doing it, but the conditions I like to do it in now are a lot different. I’d like to do like three-week stints max, where before I was like: ‘Let’s go for three months!’

"People ask what’s the secret of the success of your band," Gnewikow continues, "and I say it’s just that we haven’t broken up. One really big issue when we started the Promise Ring was just ‘Let’s stay together!’ After Cap ’N Jazz broke up it was like: ‘We spent the last four years doing this band and nothing really happened and now it’s broken up and what do we have to show for it?’ It was a bummer. We just wanted to play and be in a solid group, and I don’t think we really had any expectations in the beginning. Or the expectations we did have were really small. The first record we did, we just recorded it, and I remember somebody mentioning Jade Tree. I thought: ‘That would be amazing, but it’s way out of our reach!’"

Now the Promise Ring has released two singles and three albums on Jade Tree, with a fourth due in September. With a stellar national reputation, the band had reached a point where it was considering signing with a major label for the new disc. But in the end it opted to stay with Jade Tree.

"I’m not 16 years old still living at home, and I’m not in college and having my parents pay the rent," Gnewikow says. "We had been looking at major labels and stuff because even if you’re a successful indie band, it takes so long for the money to regenerate before you actually see any of it. We sold lots of copies of our last record, and we’re just now starting to see the money from it. For a year we were scraping to get by and coming home and not being able to pay the rent. We considered signing to a major label, but things didn’t start happening until the end of 1998, and by then the whole major-label merger thing happened. For one reason or another we didn’t sign, and then we started to see royalties [from our indie records], and we all stepped back and thought about it and said: ‘You know, maybe a major’s not the best idea.’"

Not that Gnewikow looks down on bands who do sign to a major. "Majors definitely have their issues," he says. "But I think it’s more about what the band wants or what the band is about. Kids say: ‘You loose all your creative control.’ But we’re not Motley Cr e. We’re not going to put naked women on our cover."

Indeed, the Mesa, Arizona quartet Jimmy Eat World is generally perceived as having retained its integrity despite the fact that it released its second album Static Prevails and its new effort Clarity on Capitol Records.

"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," says guitarist-vocalist Jim Adkins. "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."

Adkins pauses for a moment to reconsider the word "career."

"Maybe I shouldn’t say that," he says. "What I mean is that I have no doubt that I’ll always be making music or be involved in music in some capacity. But being on a major label and all the crap that comes with it, it’s like not the most important thing in the world to me. I really don’t care. I like it in the sense that we get to record the way we want to and we don’t have to worry about time restraints. We took ten days to mix this album, and a lot of our peers will say: ‘We did our whole record in that time!’ I really wish that more bands would get the opportunity to record for as a long as they want. For most of them it’s pay the rent or record, unfortunately, and we’re lucky not to have that."

But in most other regards Jimmy Eat World operates exactly like its peers the Promise Ring or Braid. "I like all of those bands; we tour with them, play shows with them, and hang out with them," says Adkins, 23. "They’re our peer group, I guess. I guess I feel like there is definitely some sort of scene out there that I feel a part of, but I wouldn’t use any one word to describe it. When we first started playing out, emo was a term synonymous or interchangeable with hardcore, like really screamy vocals and really abrasive music and over-the-top dynamics with the singer rolling around the ground writhing and screaming. Now it’s as ridiculous as calling something alternative. You don’t see very many people running around calling themselves grunge bands anymore, and I predict emo will go that way soon."

Emo is clearly the genre that dare not speak its name, but let’s consider for a moment that labeling music isn’t always a bad thing. Somewhere in Montana or Kansas or West Virginia sits a kid whose listening is limited to classic-rock or country radio and the putrid, bland, and soulless crap peddled by MTV. He logs onto the Net and discovers a world of web pages linked together by something called the Emo/Post-Punk Ring (http://emo.newdream.net/emoring.html), and suddenly he discovers a world of inspiring bands that he never knew existed, talking about concerns that are a hell of a lot realer, more poignant, and yes, more emotional to him than the nonsense spouted by Master P, Celine Dion, or Matchbox 20.

"There really is a lot of stuff happening on the underground level right now," says Bob Nanna, a guitarist-vocalist with Champaign-Urbana’s Braid. "Just touring and stuff, we see a lot of new bands out on tour that don’t have any records out and still survive and do tours and maybe even break even. We see a lot of brand new bands out touring that shouldn’t be touring. We seeg younger kids who didn’t understand how alternative decimated the punk scene, and older kids who might have turned it up a notch because of the whole backlash from the alternative thing, and it’s inspiring."

Brad came together in 1993 when Nanna stepped out from behind the drum set he manned for a band called Friction. It survived numerous personnel changes and earned a reputation as a hard-working touring unit, pausing only long enough to record a handful of EPs, split EPs, and three albums (Frame & Canvas, The Age of Octeen, and Frankie Welfare Boy Age 5). In addition to the driving, challenging music, all of these discs are marked by an extremely poetic and sophisticated approach to lyrics more or less as "mini-screenplays" for movies of the mind.

"Chris [Broach] and I write all the lyrics," Nanna says. "What we usually do is when we feel inspired we’ll just start writing stuff down, whatever comes to our heads, and when it comes time to write songs we’ll just pick whatever seems to make sense with the feeling of the music. It just kind of naturally happens. There’s definitely a climax to all of our songs, and I really enjoy a lot of the cinematic qualities that occur in songs, like Jawbreaker-type songs and Jets to Brazil. Lyrically I really admire the storytelling quality."

It’s a literary approach that’s also common to the Promise Ring. "It’s the most clich d and embarrassing thing to say, but Davey [von Bohlen] was an English major in college before he quit, and that’s what he was really interested in: poetry. He has his book with him all the time, and he’s always writing. If he wasn’t in a band and he wasn’t using them for lyrics, I think he would definitely be using them as poems."

Finally, that may be the most unifying aspect of all of the bands who may or may not be emo: After years of post-modern irony, camp, and nobody in rock ’n’ roll meaning anything they said, these groups are not only daring to share what they feel are truths, they’re striving to share them with poetic flair. The best of ’em do it with style, originality, and more than enough energy to rock your sorry ass. Plenty of others suck. But at least you’ve gotta give ’em all credit for trying.

Make it an "E" for effort. And be sure to tell Elmo and Mr. Phillips the news.

 

GUITAR SOUNDS AND INFLUENCES

In sharp contrast to genres like death metal, progressive rock, and third-wave ska, emo guitarists are fairly hazy when it comes to pinning down their own six-string styles and the artists who most influenced them.

To my ears the "emo guitar sound" is often characterized by a lot of arpreggiation (some say this came from Mineral), power chords and the octave chords (this definitely came from Rites of Spring), and a fondness for dramatic contrasts between clean and distorted amp sounds and loud and soft dynamics.

As for influences, because emo is in part about broadening the scope of hardcore punk, musicians enthusiastically cite heroes from genres that are all over the map, often excluding any other bands that could even remotely be considered emo.

Jason Gnewikow, The Promise Ring

Guitar sound: "I would say we are still struggling to find the Promise Ring guitar sound. For our next record we’ve been trying to just strip the songs down and make them really simple.... I guess one thing is this octave chord thing. I don’t see it happening so much anymore, but definitely in like ’93, ’94, ’95, that was a big thing. But for the most part the guitar playing is probably a lot more random. Punk rock is that way: It’s not a bunch of aficionados who were playing along to some metal record and are amazing guitar players. That’s how it was for me and Davey [von Bohlen]: It was more like, ‘Let’s be in a band!’ and someone throws a guitar or a bass at you."

Inspirational albums: "This band the Wannadies, a Swedish pop band, that album [Wannadies] was absolutely amazing and my favorite record of the last year. I’ve been listening to the Spinanes [Archers & Aisles], another amazing record. That should have been the Sheryl Crow album of the year. The Rushmore soundtrack—the Creation stuff on there is amazing. The new Built to Spill album [Keep It Like A Secret] and the new R.E.M. album [Up]. Uh, I guess my list is a little shy on the emo this week."

Bob Nanna, Braid

Guitar sound: "It’s hard. A lot of times it’s stuff that we just don’t think about that much. Obviously we care what our guitars sound like, but I’m trying to imagine if someone could just hear the music to one of our songs and say, ‘Oh, this is Braid.’ It’s always hard to judge for yourself."

Inspirational albums: "Jawbox, Novelty. The Gauge album Soothed—they were friends of mine and they put out this amazing record that gave me hope and inspiration that maybe I could do this, little me, that it’s really possible. I would definitely say Fugazi, pretty much any album, but I guess I’d say 13 Songs ’cause that was the first one I heard. The first Shudder to Think album on Dischord, Ten-Spot. And then Jawbreaker, Unfun.

Jim Adkins, Jimmy Eat World

Guitar sound: "I’m pretty much a really big fan of Duane Denison of the Jesus Lizard. I rip most of my stuff off from him."

Inspirational albums: "Jesus Lizard, Liar; Drive Like Jehu, Yank Crime; Wedding Present, Seamonsters—David Gedge is another guy that I like a lot. Guided By Voices, Under the Bushes Under the Stars is one of my favorite records right now. And Lync, These Are Not Fall Colors."

J. Robbins, Burning Airlines

Guitar sound: "I think in my guitar playing I tend to be very judicious about how much space I’m gonna fill up and when I’m gonna fill up a lot of space. I think my writing is probably a little more harmonically off-kilter than a lot of the so-called emo bands. But again, there are a lot of bands jumping in now and saying: ‘We’re an emo band!’ so it’s extremely hard to generalize."

Inspirational albums: "I would say that Slint record with "Good Morning, Captain" on it [Spiderland]; Black Sea by XTC; Zen Arcade [by H sker D ]... Oh, hell, I couldn’t name just one Fugazi record; Fugazi’s entire output. No, wait, maybe I should say Rites of Spring... I’m gonna finish this list and there isn’t gonna be room for Big Star... but gee, seminal jumping-off point, it’s gotta be Entertainment by Gang of Four."

 

 EMO LISTENIN’

Here’s a quick look at some of my favorite "emo" discs, new and old.

Rites of Spring, Rites of Spring (Dischord, 1985)

The one that started it all. Extremely moving and simply relentless.

Fugazi, Repeater (Dischord, 1990)

Perhaps the single most influential post-hardcore album, and 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 or proto-emo, both of these are superior high-energy punk albums with smart, literate lyrics, unrelenting energy, and strong, well-written melodies that keep you coming back again and again.

Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary (Sub Pop, 1994)

At the risk of sounding like the folks quoted in this story, I for one never considered this group emo, but others did and the influence is now ubiquitous, so take it for what you will. Not nearly as personal as the title might suggest (this was before Jeremy Enigk’s conversion), the songs remind me of U2 plays hardcore.

Cap ’N Jazz, Analphabetapolothology (Jade Tree)

A posthumous two-disc set issued last year and 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.

Braid, Frame & Canvas (Polyvinyl)

The group’s third and latest full album is a sprawling, extremely musical, but always motivating set full of cinematic vignettes such as "Milwaukee Sky Rocket," "Urbana’s Too Dark," and "Collect from Clark Kent." A new album is expected by the end of the year.

The Promise Ring, Nothing Feels Good (Jade Tree)

Some emo fans say the Promise Ring has been getting further and further away from the "real" or "old school" emo of their 1996 debut, but to my ears their last long player (released in late ’97) is plenty emotional and motivating.

The Get Up Kids, Four Minute Mile (Doghouse)

Derided in some quarters because they recently signed to MCA, I dig this effort for music that’s slightly more straightforward than some of the band’s peers while boasting lyrics that are every bit as heartfelt and romantic. Witness "No Love" and "Michelle With One ‘L.’"

Planes Mistaken for Stars, Planes Mistaken for Stars (Deep Elm)

Label owner John Szuch wasn’t just waxing hyperbolic when he talked about this band’s emotional power. There’s a grandiose quality to the music that is inspiring without being corny or pompous, marking these Peoria-to-Denver transplants as a group to watch.

Jimmy Eat World, Clarity (Capitol)

Fluid, poppy, minimalist, with a crisp, killer production by Mark Trombino (Blink 182, Drive Like Jehu).

Burning Airlines, Mission: Control! (deSoto)

If Jawbox was proto-emo than J. Robbins’ new band is post-emo. Or pomo. Or primo. Or something. Whatever you want to call it, the ultra-tight, ultra-cool spartan punk-pop sounds of this debut comprise one of the very best albums on this list, period.

Jets to Brazil, Orange Rhyming Dictionary (Jade Tree)

Jawbreaker vet Blake Schwarzenbach has surfaced with a new post-emo combo that, like Burning Airlines, takes an aeronautical name and a similarly stripped-down approach to poppy punk rock. Also on board: drummer Chris Daly of the late, lamented Texas Is The Reason, formerly New York City’s leading entry in the emo sweepstakes.

Jejune, This Afternoons Malady (Big Wheel Recreation)

Emo in slow-mo, heavy on the jangle.

Joan of Arc, Live In Chicago 1999 (Jade Tree)

Emo goes techno (and hangs out with Tortoise). The third effort by the new Chicago combo led by Tim Kinsella, formerly of Cap ’N Jazz.

Sources for further research: In addition to the emo ring on the Net, there are numerous emo-oriented fanzines out there. My two favorites (both cover-to-cover reads) are the long-standing Punk Planet ($3.50, P.O. Box 464, Chicago IL 60690) and Hit It Or Quit It ($3, P.O. Box 14624, Chicago IL 60614).

Deep Elm Records has released three "chapters" of its compilation series The Emo Diaries: Chapter One (What’s Mine Is Yours), Chapter Two (A Million Miles Away), and Chapter Three (The Moment of Truth), though as you might have expected, John Szuch’s definition of who is and isn’t emo is as open to debate as everybody else’s. The label has a web site at www.rockfetish.com/deepelm. Jade Tree also has a web site: www.jadetree.com.

Finally, long-running Chicago punk heroes Screeching Weasel are releasing a new album this spring called simply Emo. While leader Ben Weasel has taken a more personal and introspective turn on the lyrics, the music is very much in line with the band’s previous efforts (and hence those of the Ramones) and the title is essentially a jab. "I never trust a genre that refuses to define itself," Weasel says. "I mean, at least if you call yourself a punk, that counts for something. I have no fucking idea what emo sounds like, I’ve never heard any, but I figured if all these jerks were too wimpy to use the word then I would."

(Originally published in Guitar World, 1999)

 

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