Perfect Sound Forever


Thursday, from their MySpace photo gallery

The White Boy Blues
by Josh Hirshfeld, Princeton '08
(June 2008)

The New Brunswick-born emo group Thursday played a sonic combination of balls to the wall and hearts on their sleeve that got me through high school; their second and best album, Full Collapse, salved my teenage wounds. They were my secret, my smirk when people asked of my Thursday tee-shirt, "Do you have one for every day of the week?", my adolescent agony distilled into teary celebrations of cranked guitars and layered wails. I didn't understand lyrics like "The Lower East Side is a jukebox playing the dead man's crescendo/The needle is a vector, an intersection we all must cross/A dimly lit hallway where shadows of moths decorate the walls/Discard this message--burn this city down." But the emotional intensity of Geoff Rickly's delivery spoke to my girl problems, my loneliness, and other things I won't list, for fear of seeming, well, too emo.

Thursday felt so tied to my own high school experience that when I stopped listening and lost track of them, I assumed that the rest of their fans had done the same. So two years later, I walked into their headlining show at Allentown's Crocodile Rock Cafe expecting a half-empty venue filled with 20-year-olds coming to relive a high school love affair, to achieve closure on breakup music. I discovered that Thursday's fan base hadn't diminished at all--and also that it hadn't aged. The venue was packed with raving 16-year-olds. Even at 20, I stuck out in this crowd--one girl excitedly asked if I was in the band. When drummer Tucker Rule struck the introductory snare hits of forever-opener "Understanding in a Car Crash," the crowd surged forward as one. But I was no longer part of the storm--I was the battered dinghy, tossed by the waves. I was connecting with the music in a different way. The physical pain of the crush outweighed Thursday's comforting emotional effects--effects I realized I wasn't feeling. Less forgiving of Thursday's flaws, I noticed that Rickly couldn't always pull off his most intense vocal parts, which is why he held the microphone out, deferring to the crowd or another band member. His stage antics, once a natural outgrowth of his emotion, now seemed strained--there were only so many times I could see him swing a microphone over his head like a helicopter blade. I left the show confused--emotional over not getting emotional. Even with my virginity behind me, I have plenty of things to be sad about. So why do Thursday's "dead man's crescendos" and the emo genre they typify no longer sound like my sadness?

As we move between the stages of youth, the way we connect to sadness in song changes. So the emo that spouted what we thought were universal profundities ("the needle is a vector, an intersection we all must cross") seems meaningless a few years later. I don't have a scientific explanation of how this happens, nor the means to poll a large pool of teenagers. But maybe I can tease a plausible answer from my stacks of melancholy albums begging to be cried to and my peers whose tastes graduated from high school.

It's hard to pin down exactly what emo is when most bands commonly labeled as such spurn the word ("Isn't all music emotional?"). In Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, Andy Greenwald surveyed hundreds of people on whether they had ever encountered a band that claimed to be emo. No one had. I've come across a fair number myself, but they all tend toward girl-pining pop-punk. Apparently, an emo band needs to reject the term to qualify as an emo band. According to, an online emo primer with over four million hits, emo is "a broad title that covers a lot of different styles of emotionally-charged punk rock." Site creator Andy Radin also claims that emo died in 1995, "when new emo bands stopped forming and old ones broke up." Then what was I listening to in 2003? He explains by splitting emo into categories. Its first incarnation is "emocore," born in Washington, D.C., from hardcore punk when its purveyors grew tired of railing about politics and turned their lens inward, letting their emotions do the talking--or in the case of Rites of Spring, barking. By nearly all accounts, Rites of Spring--whose frontman, Guy Picciotto, would go on to form Fugazi with Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye--was the first ever emocore band. Emocore's distinctive element is the guitars--"distorted, strummed mostly in duo unison, with occasional catchy riff highlights" which would become known as "the classic 'D.C. sound.'"

From emocore arose pure emo. But this was not what I listened to either, in Radin's opinion. Emo focused on dynamics: moving from twinkling guitars to "full-bore crashing, twin Gibson SG guitar[s] roaring," enriched by octave chords, crucial to the emo guitar vocabulary; vocals that climb from whispers to "pleading howl[s]," "gut-wrenching screams," and "actual sobbing." For every sensitive emo kid, there is a jerk to make fun of him, and this teary tendency jump-started the mockery of both emo and emo fans--the top Google search result for "emo" is the entry that defines emo as "softcore punk music that integrates unenthusiastic melodramatic 17 year olds who dont [sic] smile, high pitched overwrought lyrics and inaudible guitar rifts [sic] with tight wool sweaters, tighter jeans, itchy scarfs [sic] (even in the summer)".

Apparently, the style of emo I listened to is called "post-emo indie-rock," which features "lots of catchy, poppy guitar riffs, happiness or at least melancholy, and a particular fascination with off-key, cutesy boy vocals. . . . It sounds like a recipe for cheeze [sic], and sometimes is." Radin recalls reading a review of an album in this style that suggested, "this is what emo kids listen to when they make love." One reason Radin created was that "post-emo indie-rock" had eclipsed the original emo in popularity and cultural recognition. "Statistically," he tells us, "you the reader are most likely to be familiar with this type of emo." He's right. I discovered emo through bands like the Get Up Kids, Thursday, and Further Seems Forever. I had to work backwards before finding Sunny Day Real Estate and even further back to find Rites of Spring.

But there's something special about music you hear as it's being written, as it's released. It feels like the songs have been written for you. I had the privilege of seeing Thursday right before Full Collapse came out. When I later bought the album, I was already in on the secret, which instilled a much more personal connection to the music than I would ever feel with Rites of Spring. Plus, Rites of Spring was dead, and Thursday was alive and screaming. This immediacy was part of what made Rites of Spring so special at the start. It couldn't just have been their roaring Gibson SGs. Part of it must have been that they were creating something unique and new for their audiences, something immediate that hadn't existed before. For me, that was Thursday. It was the reason I would enjoy a Rites of Spring song, but completely lose (and find) myself in a Thursday song. Greenwald defines the elusive "emo" while considering this important relationship between fan and band:

Emo isn't a genre--it's far too messy and contentious for that. What the term does signify is a particular relationship between a fan and a band. It's the desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue, to be part of the art that affects you and to connect to it on every possible level. . . . Emo is a specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centered need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you.
In Greenwald's view, my idea of Full Collapse as quintessential emo is just as valid as creator Andy Radin's preferences, because Full Collapse connects with me in the same way Rites of Spring must have connected with its fans. Emo can't be understood in terms of stylistic characteristics--that doesn't tell the whole story. It explains the ringing in my ears, but not the tingle in my chest.

Comparing my high school and college perspectives, I feel compelled to judge my old favorite albums more sympathetically. Teenagers and twentysomethings have different emotional baggage, creating two distinct listening experiences. My old emo mates agree. Tom says he mainly revisits emo albums out of curiosity: "I sometimes stumble across an old CD and wonder, 'What does this sound like now?'" The music is the same, but a teenager and an adult will hear it differently. A teenager with the emotions trumpeted by emo experiences the emo album as a union of fan and band. Older listeners, their emotions less consuming, don't have the right emotional fuel to forge such an intense union, so their experience is more detached. Hearing less of themselves in the music, older listeners will hear the band more fully but less intimately--one reason Thursday's live flaws caught my ears.

On the process of revisiting an old emo album, my friend Peter says, "We may be reminded of how we felt back then, but it may not apply to new emotions at all." Bryan agrees: "I don't feel as if these albums emotionally validate me anymore. Back in the day, I listened to bands like Further Seems Forever, the Anniversary, Dashboard Confessional, and such, because I felt like I connected with them, but I feel like my emotions and feelings are more complex now and I can't relate to the self-loathing these albums express." The listening experience has changed with the loss of emotional context and older listeners hear different qualities of the sound. Tom says of Saves the Day: "Time has rendered their vocals un-listenable. The shrill, whiny vocal style is grating to my ears--however, it seems when I had a shrill, whiny voice, it suited my ears just fine!"

Before becoming emo's poster boy as Dashboard Confessional, Chris Carrabba fronted Pompano Beach, Florida's Further Seems Forever, who put out only one album before Carrabba quit. The result, The Moon Is Down, is almost ADD in its lack of verse-chorus structure. The band bundles as many cathartic sections of cascading guitars and soaring vocals into a song as it can, occasionally returning to a chant-worthy refrain. This (lack of) formula worked for me as a teenager--sometimes a simple verse, chorus, and bridge wouldn't do justice to the breadth and magnitude of my woes. Now, it is exhausting. The devotional metaphors in Carrabba's lyrics have also become off-putting. In "Wearing Thin": "Go your own way, I'll be with you/Make mistakes and I'll forgive you/Home is waiting here for you when you return." In "The Moon Is Down": "And I admire your strength/You keep us going on . . . You keep us fighting long after the fire . . . The moon is down/And heaven is waiting/For callers and entries." Carrabba denies this religious association, but his lyrics have nonetheless found their way to Christian rock websites. As a teenager, I thought they were about girls. The words worked because, to a shy teenager, girls were goddesses.

Consider the Anniversary's 2000 debut, Designing a Nervous Breakdown.

In the Pitchfork review, Taylor Clark writes, "Upon listening to the first track, one is immediately struck by its sugary sweet goodness"--"every one of the 10 songs is nearly indistinguishable from the last," all composed of "equal parts 80's New Wave and slightly derivative punk-ish chord progressions reminiscent of the best moments of early Blink-182." Matt Schild's review on claims: "With a pair of ragged dueling guitars dueling with keyboards that could be sampled from a Cars album, The Anniversary delivers thick pop with an emphasis on dynamics." Album highlight "All Things Ordinary" he characterizes as "ragged power-pop." And of the band's pretension: "The Anniversary seems to see its forays into pop as equivalent to the colonization of Mars, completely groundbreaking and unique, when, in fact, it's a sound almost as long in the tooth as Cheap Trick." For me, hearing this album as a teenager revealed very different qualities--particularly, that this is a damn sad album if you don't focus too much on the buzzing Moogs. It may not be groundbreaking, but each song retains its own personality with the same palette of sounds, and that's an achievement. The music is poppy, but writing it off as "pop," even good pop, doesn't do justice to its charging energy and earnest melancholy. Clark hears only "punk-ish chord progressions," ignoring the ethereal arpeggios and pristine buildup of "Shu Shubat," the finger-picked military march of "Outro in No Minor," and the blistering guitar lines at the final crescendo of "Perfectly," which rival the explosions of Explosions in the Sky.

Designing a Nervous Breakdown is an exceptional case because it holds up so well for me. Despite the pop veneer, the songs challenges the emo formula in ways that require both the teenage and adult perspectives to understand. Most emo bands are a confessional for the male lead singer, but the Anniversary has three vocalists, one of them female. Neither review mentions this rare feature. I listened to emo when I was most afraid of girls--what was one doing in an emo band? She seemed close but forever unreachable and almost unreal, bolstered by the angelic production on her voice. What was she doing singing lines like, "Was it the end, the end that kept you up till the morning? Was it the boy, the boy who stole your heart?" That was guitarist-singer Justin Roelof's confessional. It is both strange and wonderful to hear her voicing these words as a sort of instrument. I wasn't consciously pondering these complications, but they were part of what kept me coming back to the album.

Although there are exceptions, the entire emo sound is adolescent, from the ADD arrangements to the self-centered and/or "poetic" lyrics to the high-pitched awkward voices. But this tendency produces a tension. Emo bands grow up--their fans generally do not. Band members will eventually process emotions differently, changing their approach to emotional songwriting. Yet when these bands have tried to move on--to "mature"--their new efforts usually meet with resistance and poor sales. Fans feel betrayed by albums like On a Wire and Guilt Show by the Get Up Kids, Your Majesty by the Anniversary, and everything Weezer has released since Pinkerton (whether or not the band is emo, you rarely find an emo fan who doesn't love Pinkerton). My friend Tom remembers seeing the Get Up Kids right before Guilt Show came out: "The lead singer said 'Here are some new tunes from the new record we're working on. You're going to hate it.'"

But by now most of the betrayed fans have grown older, too. Guilt Show is a solid rock album. James Dewees's keyboards are more nuanced, and Matt Pryor's aged pipes suit lyrics that tackle subjects a little more varied than romantic extremity. Your Majesty finds the Anniversary expanding their texture palette, opting for acoustic piano and organ instead of their trademark Moog, and they look back for inspiration in Pink Floydian space-rock, slowing down their charge to an amble and ripping some guitar solos. Confidently, they bring all their voices to the front of the mix, a far cry from the back-of-the-room reverb in which Justin Roelofs wallowed on Designing a Nervous Breakdown. Since the group disbanded, Roelofs has departed even further from the Anniversary's formula under the alias White Flight. Five years ago, news of a solo project would have made me think, "Justin goes Dashboard." I would have been in for a surprise. White Flight wants you to dance, not cry. After a "mind-expanding" trip to South America and a new free-love hairdo-beard combo, Roelefs starting mixing manic pop and psych-folk, sprinkling on some of the same magic dust that animated "Hey Ya." It's his most inventive songwriting yet, which I can enjoy more fully now that I'm not too shy to dance.

I still listen to emotional music, but it's not the same. Mark Kozelek and Mark Eitzel are extremely sad songwriters. Although I often chuckle uncomfortably at their stage banter, watching them live seems voyeuristic, almost scary: when they play, their eyes are closed and they seem inside their feelings, distant from the crowd. Their show of passion is something to watch, but the audience isn't augmenting the effect as at an emo show--when I last saw them, no one was singing along.

As an older listener, I've been having a lot of anxiety about death--the death of emo. The Get Up Kids, the Anniversary, and Further Seems Forever have all broken up, and the bands that are still kicking sound completely different. My strain of emo is over. But as much as I dislike Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco, the reason they are now being labeled emo is that their fans have the special connection to the music that I felt with Thursday and Radin felt with Rites of Spring. Greenwald believes that "as long as there are teenagers, music will get labeled emo." That may be an overstatement, but emo won't go away soon. As a whole, it won't die. Yet for each generation of fans who exit their teenage years with matured emotions, it will end. This happened for me at a Thursday show and will happen for others at Fall Out Boy shows. We are able to hold emo close to our hearts for a precious few years, but sooner or later we can all only look back. The saddest part is that it will never feel the same.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER