Perfect Sound Forever

The Emo Riddle

Samiam & Jimmy Eat World emote

by Ben Gook (March 2002)

Songs about girls sung by boys (and vice versa) with the need to purge - it's an idea about as old as music itself. Or so I thought. Apparently not, according to the way some folks foist such virtues onto a brand of music that is referred to as ‘emo,’ or ‘emotional-core’ if you're not into shorthand.

Jimmy Eat World, Get Up Kids and Samiam are labelled as emo these days. Indian Summer, Native Nod, Navio Forge, Rites of Spring and Fugazi are also labelled as emo. The former group of bands can be vaguely gathered underneath an umbrella of melodic punk with pop hooks. The latter group of bands have sounds that build to momentous walls of guitar and voice. Where do the two groups meet? Nowhere, as far as I can tell.

When and where?

If one is to go in search of where the emo aesthetic sprung from, one can find groups and artists from fields as diverse as stadium rock and twee pop experimenting with pushing up the emotional content of music and lyrics. Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska is one of the most intensely personal records in history and is, thus, regarded by some as a forebear to the emo aesthetic. A friend also suggested to me recently that Jackson Browne and David Johansen both released albums and songs that come under a pre-emo emo categorisation. In the same line, Kiss' inclusion of piano ballad "Beth" on their Destroyer album of 1976 was a bold move for a stadium rock band.

Moving closer to the era, however, emo as a genre term can be traced back to the mid-1980’s. Husker Du released a sprawling 23-track album in 1984, Zen Arcade, which falls under the proto-emo tag. That album delivered personal lyrics with an eclectic, but always melodic, punk backing and intense vocals. Husker Du had nailed the sound of pure adolescent angst.

According to spiralling myths, Rites of Spring, the band known for being a pre-Fugazi project of Guy Piccioto, were playing a show in the same year, during which an audience member shouted 'emo' (although, another branch of the emo etymology suggests that the term was first used in an interview with Ian MacKaye). While this audience shout is a dubious root from which to spawn an entire genre term, it was, to some extent, an accurate description of what was taking place on the stage before him/her. Rites of Spring are the proto-emo band: purveyors of a sound combination that was intensely emotional. Even now, when the term has been cheapened by commercial and critical appropriation, it is an apt description of Rites of Spring's combination of the surging and turbulent maelstrom of D.C. punk and hardcore with the intensely personal adolescent lyrical musings of Guy Piccioto. At times ("Drink Deep," "All Through A Life"), the band took the bold move to slow down to standard rock pace, leaving behind the punk rhythms of the scene that they had grown from. More than anything, this allowed their songs more room to breathe: the music became less urgent and the impassioned howl of the vocals came to the fore.

From the very start, however, there was a rift between the D.C. hardcore scene and the burgeoning emo scene. Where the hardcore scene prided itself on outward looking lyrics, emo was looking inward to focus on affairs of the heart or the personal situations that propelled self-pity and melancholy (loneliness, relationship problems and friendship problems). Nevertheless, these early emo bands became central to what became known as the "DC Sound" - an equally contentious term.

From the hard-edged but melodic sound of Rites of Spring (who still sound exciting and surprisingly accessible today), a harsher form of emo was spawned. This first split within the genre became one of the primary arguments against the use of the emo term - the two sounds were quite different, and yet they retained the same term for their description. Some have suggested that the early style with its obscured pop hooks, smoother vocals and mid-tempo rhythms - Rites of Spring, Embrace and Hot Water Music, for example - should be termed "emocore."

The music that "emocore" eventually turned out is to be called "emo". Confused yet? This harsher "emo" is a lot darker with more extreme dynamics - shifting from lilting, quiet, arpeggio guitar picking to blood-pumping climaxes that crash and flail like the world is about to end and all the band need is one more cathartic musical orgasm. When done well, there is no doubting that this form of music is brutally powerful. The better proponents of this emo branch are groups like Indian Summer, Moss Icon, Native Nod, Hoover, Navio Forge, Shotmaker and Unwound.

From here, the hardcore and emo scenes collided for "hardcore emo". Starting in the early 90s, this is a chaotic and cathartic ride through some of the most extreme emotions that the human spirit can conjure. As the hardcore name suggests, this is emo pushed to the limit - faster, harder, louder. The result? An intense, sometimes bordering on unlistenable, wall-of-sound that would shock Phil Spector. Guitars are at times atonal, the rhythms are too fast to be discernible and the vocals can sound like an approximation of the primal, untempered yelp one would give when being mutilated without anaesthetic. Some of the better bands that 'played' this style include: Swing Kids, Heroin, Antioch Arrow and Mohinder.

Beyond this there are 'post-emo' bands like Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate. These bands basically withdrew the punky elements of the early emocore and gave emo an expansive, epic scope with dizzying climaxes and walls of melodic, affecting guitar. Interestingly, these bands take in elements of indie rock as much as they do the elements of emo. Early and influential indie groups like Sebadoh and Buffalo Tom can be heard in most of this post-emo music (check out Deep Elm's roster for a whole swathe of the indie-inspired emo stuff). We're even reaching the point now of ridiculous hyphenation: post-post-emo could well be upon us, with bands like The Gloria Record and recent Appleseed Cast using some elements of indie, post-emo and shoegazer to bring together an evermore accessible sound.

Case Studies

As with all genres, some groups take on significance beyond what would have seemed like their natural tenure. For emo, it's Indian Summer (and I don't mean the 1970’s dandies) - a band that have grown in stature and regard after their premature break-up in 1994. Releasing only a few seven-inch vinyl singles (compiled posthumously onto a discography CD) and a rare CD version of a live-on-the-radio set during their brief career, it undoubtedly seemed like 'just another band' for the members at the time - and I can't comment fully as I too came in late for the full Indian Summer experience - but their influence and audience have grown greatly since their split. The live record shows the splintered, fractured beauty that such music can be the captain of - steering quiet, frail, angular guitar lines to relentless masses of power chord noise and primal vocal cacophony for towering climaxes. The lyrics are indecipherable, but you get the feeling there is a lot of pain behind these songs. It's not just the kind about the cute boy-girl couple that watch videos with each other on the weekend - it's more the kind of deep psychological pain that could push them in other bizarre directions without musical catharsis.

Compare and contrast this with Get Up Kids. They play accessible and catchy punky-pop music with lyrics that make you go "aww" or uplift you or, if they're being particularly sappy, may make you want to vomit. I'm not diminishing Get Up Kids worth merely because they're sloppily labelled emo by a daft bunch of folks. Far from that, Get Up Kids helped me through a period in my life when cutesy lyrics and fuzzy feelings were appreciated a lot of the time. Their live show too was an amazing experience purely for their physicality and liveliness. My contention: are Get Up Kids any more emotional than say, Nirvana? Not particularly - but for some reason it appears that they became poster children for the late rush of emodom. Their pop-punk stylings have now influenced an innumerable number of new, young bands to let go of the immature humor associated with the Fat Wreck label and focus on more personal issues. While it's admirable to have driven some bands to a slightly deeper lyrical level, a lot of these bands are embarrassing rehashings of what are now emo cliches: octave chords; an acoustic song; 'ironic,' cheesy keyboard lines; moody photography and cover designs overloaded with 'abstract,' purely arbitrary lines and circles.

But Why?

There is an obvious question to ask here - why did this musical form resonate and grip those who listen to it? As with all art, people find different things in a composition, but emo seemed to resonate via the lyrics, angst and anguish that speaks to teenagers (and any other willing listeners) around the world. That's not to say that without this outlet or form of expression these teens would have been bottled up balls of hormonal rage - but it is to say that there's a certain warmth and comfort in recognizing that folks have experienced similar circumstances to what you are feeling. Whether it's the self-conscious kids who attend the shows forming a supportive pseudo-community or the loner pouring over lyrics in their bedroom, there's an unmistakably human edge to some emo.

That said, tales of woe in love and life are the lyrical fodder for artists the world over and, as has been said many times before, some emo lyrics could easily pass for bad Celine Dion impersonators ("stars are out tonight / and you're the brightest one shining in my sky / it's like every wish I ever made came true / the day I woke up lying next to you") or - worse yet - angsty, obtuse bedroom-drawer teen-poetry wisdom ("I could write you a song, send you a note, or empty out your trash and buy a bucket full of diamonds but even the most beautiful of all roses must someday crumble and turn to dust" [note: yes, that is one lyric line]). Clearly then, music plays some part of the attraction to this music. The many flavours of emo make it hard to pin down a definition of The Emo Sound. In the most vague terms, however, emo music has a spiralling structure that relies on large, crescendo-ish climaxes that usually play off against a quieter and more reflective passage - a juxtaposition that, in the most rudimentary and reductive analysis imaginable, is suggestive of the fickle and fraught nature of humanity. Again though, this structure is paralleled in the very same tearjerkers of Celine Dion.

Now it gets personal

This is why I believe it becomes important to delineate emo as a genre - so as to dispel and remove it from the midst of such clichéd, heart-tugging dross as that of top 40 balladeering. At its core, I believe emo to be about extremes of emotion and the expression of that emotion via musical forms. For this reason, I wish to displace latter-day attempts to bring bands like Saves The Day, Get Up Kids, Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World into the emo fold. Some of those bands' early work reached the musical extremes I spoke about, but all these groups are now mere imitations of the genre. They are pop-punk bands with lyrics about cute girls or friends. That is not emo. It never was emo, and to label those bands as such is to give entirely the wrong impression. Emo is Indian Summer. Emo is Navio Forge. Emo is Rites of Spring. If you want a grasp of the genre, listen to these bands and notice why they are not Celine-Dion-for-the-'underground.' Celine wouldn't let out primal, guttural yelps like Guy does for Rites of Spring. Celine would do an acoustic ballad like Get Up Kids or Saves The Day. This is the difference.

But what about the children?

Of course, I shed a tear for the unwitting; the folks who've come along late and missed all the early classes informing us hardened indie rock professionals about the perils of emo, how the genre formed, how it played out and how it died.

That's right, died. Emo is dead. See for yourself - hold your fingers up to the neck of the corpse and check the pulse. Nary raising a flutter. Like all good, once innovative genres - punk, blues, country - there are but a few struggling bastions today.

There is an emerging trend in emo now for the teaming up of math-rock dynamics (shifting time signatures and rhythms) with the melodic guitar and vocal work of previous emo. The better bands pushing such a sound are the Casket Lottery and Hey Mercedes - At The Drive In were, to some extent, doing similar things on this level. That said though, a lot of this mathy noodling does come out like toned down Don Caballero or Drive Like Jehu, and fails to really take advantage of these interesting dynamics.

For the most part, however, emo is now a sad and frail representation of what it once was. Today it has degenerated into a vile and vapid scene of vacuous individuals, more worried about the tightness of overpriced 'punk rock' t-shirts than it is about musical innovation and new forms of expression. When music becomes fashion (see 'emo' articles in various U.S. teen-girl magazines), music has lost its worth and power. More than that, critics are to blame for going into emo overdrive. Any song with an affecting use of octave chords was emo and any band on an indie label (like Vagrant, or Emotaph as Buddyhead call it) with cute boys singing about cute girls was emo. It's almost laughable.

Of course the real meaning behind words and genre names are always contentious and misleading - the R&B of 40 years ago was a long way from the R&B of today - but emo, the undeniably vague term that it is, is now being appropriated for all the wrong purposes. Like most things, it's better to know your history before you go throwing terms about the place with abandon. Think about it first, folks.


Emo was exciting once, but now it's a rotting corpse. The swarm of corporate major-label vultures have come to pick at the bones and for the new bands it's as easy as following the formula for punk-pop emo. In the words of Refused, it's time for new noise.

For an education on this topic I point everyone to the following well-appointed and well named webpage: What The Heck Is Emo?

Thanks to Nick Carr and Ingrid Christensen

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