Emo. In the current pop culture climate, “hipster” is the only buzzword likely to inspire more mocking derision and scorn. From an Ian MacKaye-sponsored hardcore subgenre to an eclectic underground phenomenon amongst the milieu of underground phenomena in the 90s alt-rock boom which, at the time, was looked on with suspicion at best by outsiders, to the most laughable and maligned form of teen culture of the 21st century, emo has had a complicated history of bands with such disparate styles that it’s hard to pin down just what it is, musically. But if one thing is to be certain from messageboards and hate-filled comment sections all over the internet, it’s certainly not a highly respected form of music. Or at least it wasn’t, it seemed, until quite recently, when bands stopped denying the label, and even came to self-apply it, disarming critics of their most potent weapon (to be called an emo band was an artistic death sentence in the genre’s heyday, a fate which ensured that Superchunk is usually remembered as indie rock paragon while peers The Get Up Kids are resigned to the status of being named as one of Fall Out Boy’s biggest influences, if they’re remembered at all). And when the cynicism associated with the term, and the irony of calling oneself such wore off, it became quite obvious that these were serious musicians with huge potential, and once albums like ‘Whenever, If Ever’ and ‘Is Survived By’ started to crack the Billboard album charts, the music press could no longer dismiss them as naïve nostalgia-peddlers. Emo was back, and this time it had indie media’s seal of approval.
From Stereogum to Pitchfork to Vice, the so-called emo revival is making waves among the tastemakers of the alternative music industry, but the artists they champion and their fans are less than convinced about their sincerity. As Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It. Points out, this is no revival – he’s been at it so long, when he started, the headliners of Warped Tour included the likes of Eminem, Kid Rock, and Papa Roach, a time long before pop-punk had the cultural capital it does now. And the current scene he’s a part of, admittedly much newer, can be traced, at its earliest, to a time when Fall Out Boy were putting albums at the top of the charts. It’s only a revival because they only just decided to pay attention to it. In fact, 10-15 years ago, Pitchfork seemed hell bent on destroying the genre they’re currently championing – The Get Up Kids, Jimmy Eat World, and Samiam all got critically torn apart by the site, with Travis Morrison’s ‘Travistan’ getting a 0/10, one of the few albums to ever get that dishonor. And while they did dole out some praise and recognition here and there, the historical revisionism here is so blatant it’s nearly impossible to take seriously. And if the bands aren’t careful, this kind of half-hearted mainstream interest could be the death of them, chewing them up and spitting them out, as the industry is wont to do with fresh young bands part of an easily identifiable and marketable label.
But a concern that I’ve yet to see addressed among dedicated followers of the genre is the way that they themselves can be just as dismissive of certain aspects of the genre as the music critics. Everyone involved maintains that the revival is an illusion and that the genre has always been going strong, but only in the sense that the artists that influenced them have not broken up. Nobody seems to acknowledge that any emo band that achieved mainstream success in the 2000s was, in fact, emo. Indeed, a torrent of comments on articles addressing the subject maintain that “My Chemical Romance ain’t even emo!!!11!” In the previously cited Vice article, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba and emo demigod Mike Kinsella are mentioned in the same breath. Granted, it was to make a point about the idiosyncratic longevity of those artists, to compare one to the other in any respect would have been blasphemy just a decade ago, likely to get you executed in some parts of the upper Midwest. Yet now it seems appropriate to venerate Carrabba as a pioneer of the genre, where once he was deemed as something along the lines of emo’s Nickelback? Something’s fishy about this brand of revisionism. Followers of Mineral or Braid drew a line in the sand in the late 90s, across which fans of Saves The Day and the like dared not cross for fear of being sycophantically mocked to death. Pop-punk piety won out in the end, though, and emo purists were forced to retreat from the spotlight for a while, content to consistently dismiss the newer wave of artists as heathens that ruined the scene for everybody, and it only got worse as we saw My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco come to dominate MTV as perhaps the last coherent rock music movement to do so.
But why is there such a divide in the first place? The genre evolved a long way from the time Rites of Spring revolutionized DC hardcore in the mid 80s to the time The Promise Ring made it safe for lisping frontmen everywhere in the late 90s, so it only seemed natural for it to continue to evolve from there, from its primarily soft, twinkly sound oriented towards college kids to its more polished, teen-angsty iteration. And let us not forget, emo zealots in the second-wave were mocked with equal ferocity, from media such as video and interactive flash games. Perhaps it was the relatively narrow scope of the subject matter and sonic palette from which those newer artists drew, perhaps it was the, to put it lightly, eccentric fashion sense culled straight from Hot Topic, perhaps it was the melodramatic and egocentric fashion with which the younger generation conducted themselves that failed to endear themselves to the older, more sophisticated crowd, but little by little, then all at once, emo was condemned wholesale.
To me though, it seems just a bit hypocritical for fans of the current wave of emo to accept the bands once readily dismissed by those they idolize, yet do the exact same thing to an entire era of the genre’s history. Fall Out Boy is to You Blew It! as Jimmy Eat World were to American Football, and I think such generalizations are undeserved, then and now. Now, I will admit, I have something of a history with so called third-wave bands (for the uninitiated, first-wave emo generally runs from 1985 – 1990, second wave runs from 1991 – 1998, third wave runs from about 1999 – 2008, and fourth-wave emo picks up from there to the present day). I made myself many a playlist during my high school career, starting with “Sugar We’re Going Down” when the first phases of any vapid crush began, and ended with “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” when the object of my affection inevitably doted upon someone else. I’m not here to defend the musical merits of musicians that may or may not have graced the cover of Alternative Press in the past 10 years. I’m just saying, it seems that history is coming to repeat itself for emo, with music press feigning legitimate interest in artists, and many among the genres ranks picking on some group they deem heretics, perhaps somehow validating their self-applied outsider status by legitimizing their artistic merits in contrast to a more degenerate mutation of the “real” emo.
So, as fourth-wave emo begins to peak, having rid itself of the theatricality of the previous generation, focusing on themes of nostalgia and adulthood and thereby silencing any criticism from the likes of Jessica Hopper, and as bands like Joie De Vivre openly embracing and self-applying the term emo where their forebears would vehemently deny it, some things change, and some things stay the same. While there is some recognizable cross-pollination between the seemingly uncrossable divide between third- and fourth-wave artists (the influence of latter-day Brand New on The World Is A Beautiful Place is can be just as noticeable as the influence of the Kinsellas, and the bands even went on tour together recently, proving that perhaps the generation gap isn’t as big as its made out to be), the loudest and most convicted of emo fans seem to be of the “burn down Hot Topic!” variety. But who’s to say that by the time emo’s fifth-wave inevitably rolls around, the very same people won’t be singing the praises of Paramore and longing for a time when Pete Wentz was hobnobbing with the likes of Kanye West?