December 2nd 2008 On Emo, and the Evolution of Music

I can’t honestly say that I sat down to write a brief essay on the subject of emo music on a whim, but it seems that emo’s success in the past few years has provoked endless debates about what constitutes emo, and what doesn’t. I decided to condense my thoughts into one single essay and post it, in the hopes of generating some actual discussion on emo and rock music in general, and the evolution of various genres. My original goal in creating such an essay was to avoid the immature “this is emo, not that” and “that’s not emo, this is emo” posts that get thrown about, and generate some real discussion on the very fascinating topic of rock music history.

First, a bit of history. Contrary to popular belief, emo is not short for “emotional rock”; it is short for “emotive hardcore” (or “emotional hardcore”). As you can probably guess, emo arose out of hardcore punk. In the 1980s, the Washington, D.C. area was ground zero for the growing hardcore punk scene, an energetic type of punk that dealt with the traditional issues defining the “punk ethos”, particularly those issues involving society and politics. Ian MacKaye was at the forefront of this revolution in punk rock. During the 1980s, he fronted such bands as Minor Threat (where he penned and recorded the song “Straight Edge”, which helped to jumpstart the Straight Edge movement) and Fugazi. By the middle of the 1980s, MacKaye and others realized that, while hardcore punk was doing a good job of tackling major issues, it didn’t focus enough on personal issues surrounding the individual. It lacked the emotion of mainstream rock music. Four musicians got together and formed Rites of Spring, the band often credited as the first emo band: Guy Picciotto (who later formed Fugazi with MacKaye), Eddie Janney, Michael Fellows, and Brendan Canty (who also went on to play in Fugazi). MacKaye helped to produce their first album. MacKaye himself formed the short-lived band Embrace, which essentially combined the sound, energy, and passion of hardcore punk with the emotion of traditional music.

Naturally, the sound of the first emo bands was not like the polished studio recordings of many emo bands of today. MacKaye is a staunch supporter of the do-it-yourself mentality in music, and none of the bands released their music on major labels. Furthermore, the influence of the hardcore punk scene led to a gritty sound that would later be reflected in the grunge movement of the early 1990s. (As an interesting side note, the early emo bands and grunge bands had a lot in common: both are evolutions of hardcore punk, both focus on emotional issues, both have “angsty” lyrics, and both developed at about the same time, albeit on opposite coasts. A listener familiar with the early music of Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Green River is familiar with the origins of emo.)

Emo eventually led to a more melodic, less rough sound, as reflected in bands such as Texas is the Reason. By the time the mid-1990s rolled around, emo bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring were starting to “tone down” emo, at least in the sense that the music was slower and more melodic. Sunny Day Real Estate’s 1994 album Diary is an excellent example of the emo of this time period.

Emo lay practically dormant until the early 2000s, when the success of bands like Saves the Day and Taking Back Sunday rocketed emo to the forefront of rock music. And that is where I will begin my look at the evolution of music, and what emo is and isn’t.

Talk to any music fan at least a bit familiar with emo, and you will most likely get a laundry list of examples of what he considers to be emo, and what he does not consider to be emo. I experienced this while playing in several emo bands in high school. The first one arose out of a punk band, and our sound was much like the sound of the “original” emo bands. However, when we referred to ourselves as an emo band, it evoked ideas of the more contemporary bands, which didn’t truly describe our music. It then became clear that emo had evolved quite a bit from its original sound.

Many “hardcore” fans will reference bands like Embrace, Rites of Spring, and Sunny Day Real Estate, and say that they are emo, and nothing of today is emo, but this is a bit simplistic. Music evolves. Take rock music, for example. Modern rock music bears only some resemblance to the “Buddy Holly-type” rock music of the 1950s. But of course it is still rock. It’s simply rock that has evolved. Rock of today is different from the rock of the 1970s, which is different from the rock of the 1950s. Times change; so does music. But even though the sound is very different, there still are many elements common to both time periods—it’s very clear that the rock of today has stemmed from the rock of the 1950s.

The same goes for emo. The emo of today might sound quite a bit different from that of the late 1980s, but you can trace the heritage of a band such as Taking Back Sunday to the emo bands of yesterday. It’s ludicrous to suggest that emo cannot evolve and take on new forms.

However, there are clearly some instances in which the term is applied too liberally, and that particularly comes from a lack of adherence to the original definition of the term. “Emo” has come to mean “emotional rock” and gets applied to any band that uses overly sentimental lyrics in their songs. As noted before, this is inaccurate: emo is not short for “emotional rock”, it is short for “emotive hardcore”. A band that lacks any semblance to hardcore punk can hardly trace its lineage to emo. A perfect example of this misuse of the term is with bands such as Dashboard Confessional. Dashboard Confessional is in no way an emo band. Yes, Chris Carrabba’s lyrics are emotional, but that does not make them emo—a lot of bands use emotion in their lyrics (most of them, in fact). Now, I’m not trying to disparage Dashboard Confessional by saying they are not emo. That’s another great misuse of the term today—a person will try to disparage a band by saying, “Oh, them? They’re not emo.” Such a use is often synonymous with “I think those guys suck.” I’m not using the expression to pass judgment on Dashboard Confessional; what I am saying is that bands like Dashboard Confessional are often mislabeled because virtually none of their musical elements can be traced back to the hardcore punk scene of the mid-1980s.

Another complaint of mine is the use of the term “emo” to describe music to which “emo kids” listen. Emo has been bastardized into a trendy lifestyle choice for mopey, whiny teenagers. Teenagers with horrible attitudes and bland personalities label themselves “emo” in the hopes of avoiding the fact that really, they’re just spoiled and bratty. Emo is a music genre, not a lifestyle. Emo does not necessarily involve being depressed and sad all the time. (I could go into details on how deliberately choosing to be sad, angsty, and depressed is not only pathetic, but also helps to mask the fact that there are people with real issues of depression out there, but I’ll save that for another essay.) The music that many of these “emo kids” believe emo to be about is not what emo is truly about. Early emo pioneers were not necessarily depressed, or trying to be depressed; nor were they terribly concerned about making a fashion statement or starting a trend. They cared about the music, not the associated baggage.

Hopefully, this essay has cleared up some of the common misconceptions about emo, and has provided some interesting and useful information on the roots of the genre. While I am fascinated by rock history, I will admit that, aside from a few bands (and aside from playing in such bands for a while), I am not a huge fan of emo; however, the origins of the genre are interesting, and the evolution and use (as well as misuse) of the label is one that I found worthy of examination. So much debate goes on between emo fans and non-emo fans alike, that I found it almost a necessity to post my brief examination of emo.

This essay was originally written and published by me on an Internet forum in August 2005. For some reason, I never posted it on my blog. I think I planned to clean it up before publishing it here, but I never got around to doing so.

Re-discovering the essay was actually kind of funny to me. During my freshman year of college, I developed a bit of an obsession with understanding rock music (as evidenced by my many posts on the subject in 2004 and 2005). The summer after my freshman year, I became especially interested in emo, and spent a lot of time reading about it; this essay was the logical conclusion of that summer’s worth of research.

Unfortunately, shortly thereafter I became a full-fledged computer science student, and stopped pursuing these interests; but I digress. (That’s a topic for another post, after all.)

At any rate, my old interest in music is growing again like a festering wound, so I pulled out my original draft of this essay, edited it for style, and posted it here.