[Image Courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan]
Feature: What We Talk About When We Talk About Emo
by Chad Jewett
In some ways, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the reaction to Eric Ducker’s article for NPR on the “Emo Revival.” Ducker, and his interviewee Brad Nelson, who actually offers most of the piece’s concrete thoughts on contemporary emo, did their best to actually limn a notoriously intangible genre/movement, and while I’m sure there were cooler heads that appreciated the article, it was also met with a lot of loud, ironic eye-rolling. The thing is, it is that irony, that aversion to earnestness — an attitude that has been part and parcel to this resurgence — that might be the biggest thing holding the growth of this music back. The term “emo” is of course a bit silly; calling it post-hardcore doesn’t quite speak to the sound’s potential diversity, calling it emotional hardcore is even more limited. Indie is too broad. But that’s all besides the point – people care about this music, it’s produced records with built-in senses of time, place, community, memory, emotion, and evocation that all records accrue when we end up loving them, but which rarely find ways to actually make part of the music the way that emo has. In other words, Something To Write Home About or Nothing Feels Good are records that manage to inscribe the way my generation thinks about them – as mementos, as dispatches from a cinematic suburbia, as objects fit to a square-shaped space in your backpack. I might feel that way about, say, Kid A, but that has everything to do with how I found a space for Kid A in my life. Stay What You Are showed up perfectly suited for me to make it a part of my worldview, no assembly required – things expanded and contracted along with songs like “Freakish.” As I said in a recent article, the best emo albums just felt shaped to your backyard.
The problem is that that is precisely what is left behind by the way we talk about emo in 2013 – that sense of inclusiveness. And by “we” I don’t mean Erick Ducker and Brad Nelson, or Ian Cohen, or any of the other journalists who are frankly doing this music a favor by taking it seriously and trying to understand it. The “we” I refer to, which is reducing what this music can be, is variably any of us when we scoff at say, Buzzfeed for trying to compile a list of still-extant emo bands worth checking out. There are reasons to critique these lists – they’re painfully white and male, leaving out bands like Kittyhawk, Tancred, Football, etc., Little Big League, and Cayetana. Honestly, I get so much of that old “late-90s wide-open feeling” from those bands, all of whom are simply exciting to listen to in a way that still feels special, even if I’m hearing so much of what I listened to as a kid, re-born and re-energized. The list also doesn’t seem to have time for innovators like Foxing, or Annabel, or Two Knights. It’s almost painfully literal. That said, how did you find out about Diary, person born in 1988? Because you would have to have been preternaturally cool to have picked up on it in 1994 when it came out. No; odds are someone you know was cool enough to let you know about an album they loved, or just as likely, someone blogged about emo records they liked, or you flipped to the listicles that Alternative Press would run in its back pages, often including short-hand guides to emo. We all have some version of this story; we were lucky, and someone helped us out.
The reason folks in their twenties and thirties want to immerse themselves in this sound, the reason why there is an absolute explosion of bands trying to recapture all the little details of the records they cherished the first time around is because of all the kindnesses that made emo feel like such a safe place. I don’t roll my eyes at mid-2000s emo because it was pop music, or because it was well-produced and smartly-packaged. Frankly, I like hooks, I like good production, I like smart composition chops. Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” is the greatest emo song of all time. It’s a pocket symphony that’s well-written and inclusive and thoughtful. So I have no issue with records that aspire to be pop music. I’d love it if that part of this sound, the attention to song- and studio-craft, made it back into our collective memory as bands try to re-create what we cared about the first time. No; what bothered me about mid-2000s emo was its exclusivity, the ways in which it vilified women, often to the point of misogyny (even Brand New, a band who is still highly-regarded and has released some excellent albums, did its share of this). Emo became unworkable in the 2000s because of the way it refused to grow through and past its song-craft perfection into something a bit more experimental, a bit more wild, a bit more expansive. Emo stopped mattering because it seemingly stopped caring about any commitment to social justice, the stuff that Rites of Spring, and Embrace, and Fugazi (and later, Cursive, Desaparecidos, and nowadays, Hostage Calm) were hell-bent on connecting to our personal narratives, making damn sure the personal and the political stayed entwined, in the hopes that these connections would motivate action.
At one point in Ducker’s article, Brad Nelson writes “So the [emo] revival kind of confirms that there is a solid aesthetic … that this lineage of sound and the sensibility of being open to incorporating wildly divergent influences required to produce it are both repeatable and, uh, inflatable. By which I mean there are still new things that can be done with this music.” I agree with him that there are still new things that can be done; but I’d also argue these new things need to be done. I see bands that “incorporate wildly divergent influences;” indeed, I wrote about Foxing’s new LP, The Albatross, which, in its best moments, shows glimpses of R&B, post-rock, electronic music, folk, and even jazz, not to mention it’s modernist-poetic lyrics. State Faults’ most recent record similarly innovates on the edges of its sound. The Two Knights 12”, released earlier this year, is ostensibly a jazz record, and it’s take on the twitchy Chicago sound, a style which has become dominant in this revival, is incredibly vibrant and innovative. I also find myself impressed with the band’s lyrics, which are incredibly expressionistic in their emotional honesty and admirably self-critical, rather than aggressively critical of others. I’ve seen little mention of Annabel, whose 2012 LP Youth In Youth is all but definitive in its understanding of the ways in which our emotional responses to the world can’t help but be outsized and full of consequence when we’re young. It’s a beautiful album where everything matters, and its precise, melody-resplendent song-craft deserves so much more notice. There’s no reason to begrudge bands for feeling attached to certain styles, but Two Knights, and Foxing, and State Faults, and Annabel offer excellent lessons in how there is also no reason to stop there. In other words, there are some bands “incorporating wildly divergent influences;” we just need to be a lot better about rewarding them.
You can even sense the ways in which Nelson seems to be hedging his bets in these passages. He’s clearly a smart guy who knows that this new emo is insular and will likely take him far less seriously than he or Ducker deserves. And of course it is worrisome when an artistic movement is insular, since insularity tends to be self-breeding. If those of us who care about this music spend our time worrying about it’s borders and by-laws, we do so mainly in the service of scaring off the innovators that would save it. Foreclosing conversation about what emo means and who is making this kind of music in 2013 runs the risk of a similar foreclosure on the only thing that really makes emo special – the premium it puts on interconnection. I didn’t exactly have to bend over backwards to find other people who liked The Blueprint in 2002, but it was pretty damn special when I met someone else who loved We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes or Four Cornered Night. That being said, I mention The Blueprint because hip hop might be the best example of what emo can be, how it can innovate and still remain something to connect around. Indeed, there isn’t a whole lot that connects Big K.R.I.T. to Drake to P.O.S. to Nicki Minaj in terms of sound, but they’re all hip hop; the genre has become flexible, and is the most vital musical form in 2013 because everyone worth really investing in right now is gleefully innovating. And guess what: that innovation means more diversity in terms of gender, sexuality, and world-view than ever. Angel Haze and Le1F put out stunning mixtapes this year, both in terms of production, and in terms of pushing the boundaries of what we think of when we think about rappers. And people loved those records and records like them because they’re so diverse in terms of sound, worldview, and genre that anyone can find a part of themselves in them. Drake’s newest record, Nothing Was The Same, was of course called “emo” in a tongue-in-check nod to its (admirable) commitment to introspection and self-critique, but, frankly, emo could learn a thing or two from that record’s grip on atmospherics and experimentation. Not to mention that I’ve yet to meet a person that doesn’t love “Hold On We’re Going Home.”
Ultimately, committing to being a bit more open minded about what emo is and who gets to talk about it means those of us who really care about this music can also send a much more inclusive message about who gets to be involved, which should be everyone. Honestly, “emo” works with an inherent advantage; through its very terminology (emo, emotive, emotional) it broadcasts its own vitality as a music about connection, and introspection, and spaces for feeling and self-expression. Odds are, the reason you gravitated to emo in the first place is because it was saying something that you needed to hear; records like Every Night Fireworks or No Good For No One Now or Clarity were of a like mind to wherever you were at. The same probably goes for Long Knives Drawn or The Execution of All Things for that matter (two records that are left out of the conversation for reasons utterly beyond me). These are records uniquely situated to capture your imagination and offer some much-needed empathy. Of course that means a tendency to want to possess them as artifacts, to keep them to yourself, but realistically, the reason you or I have any relationship with these albums, these bands, this sound, at all, is because someone before us understood that this music only makes sense if it operates as an open, accessible space. Someone was cool enough not to hoard this sound or its access. Pay it forward; share this stuff!
That’s what discourages me about the sarcasm and irony, the unwillingness to be earnest; it’s what troubles me about the subtle ways in which bands that experiment or play with formula are often left off of show bills, ignored; it’s what makes the abandonment of the political side of self-honesty that Ian MacKaye was driving at so depressing. Frankly, it’s even a bit dispiriting to hear so many songs about getting high or getting drunk when the history we’re all talking about was a lot more self-critical and, at its best, empowering. Hostage Calm proudly and bravely announced their support of same-sex marriage on t shirts, and theirs is an example that should be followed and embraced. Yet it depresses me to say I’ve seen and heard their efforts towards inclusion and progressive activism mocked, as if people are afraid to actually care about something the way Hostage Calm clearly does. What could be more incoherent than people devoted to a movement called “emo” being unwilling to care? How about exploring the emotional tolls of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, weightism? There aren’t a lot of safe spaces, and emo really could be one. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for young people committed to social justice and progressive change to make art that furthers that cause, but emo’s history offers so many examples of just that kind of interpersonal activism. I’d say the majority of shows I’ve been to have featured vegan potlucks – that’s incredible! Writers who try to figure out what makes this sound special to us today deserve credit – it’s no easy feat. Thinking about the art we make is an important step to making sure that art lasts, and, more importantly, making sure it grows. Bands that promote and embody diversity deserve credit – you’re pushing everyone else to be better, more thoughtful, more inclusive. When I first happened upon these bands, it’s all I wanted to listen to, and at the best of those still-thriving basement shows, hosted by suburban activists who didn’t bat an eye when I couldn’t afford the $5 door donation, you get the biggest possible definition of “emotional music,” and the best possible future for what we can do with an artistic community that agrees on one thing: that we’ve got so much worth sharing.