Without delving into what I’d consider a boilerplate introduction to the history of the genre (involving a confusing, simultaneous defense and condemnation of Chris Carrabba), the much-maligned and misunderstood punk subgenre of “emo” is probably not what you think it is. If the term brings up images of fourteen year old kids fucking around on an escalator after adding to their Tim Burton-goth wardrobe at Hot Topic and listening to what sounds like the Backstreet Boys collaborating with Lil Jon, that’s not your fault either, the label was both invented and hijacked by record companies and over-the-hill music journalists in 2005. Those kids don’t really fit the “sad crowd” demographic that the “real emo” inherited from the original runs of goth and shoegaze. The “real” heyday, actually the genre’s second wave after spinning off from hardcore punk in the mid-80s, was in the mid-to-late 90s with bands like Mineral, Hot Water Music, The Get Up Kids, Sunny Day Real Estate, At the Drive-In, and Cursive with an aesthetic better described as “muted thrift store bus commuter chic.” Fans were probably more into “The Omaha Sound” than the repackaged, corporate-pushed fuck-you-dad goth-by-way-of-Natural Born Killers of My Chemical Romance or Blood on the Dance Floor, the latter of whom were in it to molest preteens with asymmetrical haircuts.
Notable for the genre, most of the bands enjoyed moderate underground success before disbanding and being far more appreciated down the line primarily by white kids born between 1987 and 1995 who really identified with Kevin Arnold when they were growing up and weren’t old enough to ever see any of the mostly obscure bands characterizing their tastes in arguably their most formative years. This has brought a sort of revival in the genre in recent years, characterized by a flurry of reunion tours from the original progenitors of that late 90’s sound as well as new acts that have finely tuned the sound and tropes, including a noticable tuning down from the “fuck that stupid bitch” teenage misogyny characterized by some of the earlier, lesser known acts. It’s like emo made in a lab now, after 15 years of obsessive study, designed specifically to just make you both regrettably sad or nostalgic in a manner that’s so effective you shouldn’t be allowed to listen to it on public transit.
One of my favorite characteristics of many of the revival bands, the membership of which I share an age range with, is a reoccurring graphic design motif of using childhood photos from the early 90s as album covers. They almost all do it at some point, and I’ve been really curious as to whether or not this is some kind of planned meme from bands that have toured together. I’ve collected several of my favorites, as well as give a quick rundown review of the band, just in case you too have entered your late twenties still not quite able to get out of the sad crowd.
Joyce Manor – Self Titled
Look at these kids! They’re friends and I’m guessing they all probably just got done playing ski-ball after being underwhelmed by Matthew Broderick in Godzilla for TJ’s birthday. Joyce Manor is really good and most of their songs are less than 3 minutes long.
Characterized by sarcasm interspersed with worrying about ever having sincere feelings for another person because of how uncool that could be perceived, they’re also still touring and released an excellent album within the last year. Key tracks: “Catalina Fight Song”, “Constant Headache”, “Falling in Love Again”.
I’m Glad It’s You – June
A hallmark of early-90’s toddlerwear was definitely nondescript sports clothes with no clear team affiliation, and this baby is rocking that Oshkoshbegosh staple while being totally pissed about riding a horse. Horses are scary, as well as big, and if you don’t know how to ride one like this baby probably doesn’t, they totally throw off your equilibrium which is a sensation institutionally designed to terrify you and get to safety. I’m Glad It’s You is full of mournfully angry guitar hooks warble-wailing vocals about sort of trying to apologize to somebody for basically constantly sucking all of the time. Key tracks: “Curbside”, “Small Talk”, “The Things We Lose”.
Worthwhile – Carry On Kid
A little heavier than most of the other entries, complete with some pretty dated-sounding hardcore breakdowns, Worthwhile comesout pretty strong with the 90’s Trifecta: a smoggy view of a suburban neighborhood with your little brother AND your dad. Both of them are probably dead or something, but one thing is definitely dead: our childhood innocence where we were just happy to go on a little walk through a meticulously planned green belt for a completely manufactured view obscured by the realities of industrial capitalism. Key Tracks: “Unlovable”, “Relentless”.
Pet Symmetry – Two Songs About Cars. Two Songs With Long Titles./Dikembe Split
A variation on the theme, Emo Revival fucking loves pets and old cars. That dog is probably dead now and from what I’m guessing through this particular EP’s context clues, that’s a 1996 Honda Accord that’s probably been crushed by this horrible year of our Lord 2018. Pet Symmetry gets a double-whammy by putting a small kitten taken on a Polaroid camera on their split with other genre notable Dikembe. Key tracks: “A Detailed and Poetic Physical Threat to the Person Who Intentionally Vandalized my 1994 Dodge Intrepid Behind Kate’s Apartment”, “St John”.
Where did this motif come from and why? Was it the seminal 2006 Brand New release The Devil and God Are Raging Inside of Me, with it’s “kid getting scared on Halloween” vibe? The prevailing strategy of journalistic analysis says to blame any cultural phenomenon on Millennials, and that actually seems somewhat appropriate here. This is a generation that’s missed the boat economically, and the traditional subcultural refuges it’s grown up idolizing and dying to break into were both being eaten away by a youth monoculture cultivated by the widespread adoption of the internet and alienated by a new lack of having to seek out those niches in real life.
Naturally, people are nostalgic for the eras of their childhoods, but for people who may have seen themselves as future record or book store clerks, small coffee shop baristas or members in bands, the economic realities of the world as they’ve grown up have proven the bygone era, its sounds and lifestyles, were vastly preferable. Everyone got sold a bill of bad goods, and looking at childhood photos it’s easy to remember how every parent and every teacher told them they could be astronauts. Of course Tim Kasher’s lyrics about drunkenly failing out of a small town with jack shit to do for work on the tail-end of your first divorce is going to resonate. The falling life-expectancy rate, opiate epidemic, and healthcare debacle in the United States has lead to devastating records about losing parents too early from bands like Touche Amore and Pianos Become the Teeth.
Looking at the initial output of the genre, with its nearly singular focus on relationship anxieties, it’s almost quaint. An expansion of queer and political aspects of the genre is visible in bands like The Hotelier, and while its always been a genre with rich literary connections, reading the biting lyrics of Single Mothers brings back that snotty, working-class-fuck-up attitude emo always needed to maintain its status as not for the mall crowd and definitely not for the sensibilities of what used to be college radio. There’s a lot there, because the sad crowd tends to be introspective and a little too smart for its own good, and I hope a brief MTV push of Hawthorne Heights in the mid-aughts isn’t swaying people away from some of the best punk-adjacent music from the last 5-10 years.