In GMP’s first installment of “genre primers,” Travis Marmon takes on emo, screamo, and how real emotion doesn’t have to come caked in eyeliner and self-pity.
In upcoming posts, the A&E section will be highlighting a number of “genre primers,” crash courses tracing the history and relevance of lesser-known (or misunderstood) musical genres. Who’s out there making incisive music men should be listening to? What musical footprints have already been left, waiting for someone to rediscover the trail? Find out here, and let us know if there’s a musical subgenre you’d like to see spotlighted. Here, Travis Marmon takes on emo, screamo, and reveals how neither have much in common with the mall punks of yore.
Think of the last time you heard the term “emo.” What comes to mind? High school hallways and bad haircuts? The whelping of Simple Plan and Hawthorne Heights? It’s been a few years since “emo” was a common phrase in the popular consciousness. But emo is still alive and well, and it deserves your respect.
The music genre of emo long predates the “emo” subculture of the mid-2000s, and it has almost no relation to Fall Out Boy. Emo actually has its roots in the D.C. hardcore scene of the 1980s, specifically in the “emocore” (or emotional hardcore) movement led by Rites of Spring and Embrace, whose members went on to form the extremely influential post-hardcore group Fugazi. As opposed to the monotonous and repetitive shouting of hardcore punk, emocore bands were highly melodic and introspective. They had as much energy as Black Flag or the Circle Jerks, but with much more demanding instrumentation and complex song structures.
By the mid-90s, emo had spread across the country, with a variety of bands gaining success in the underground. Sunny Day Real Estate came out of Seattle with Diary in 1994, which featured minor radio hits in “Seven” and “In Circles.” The Chicago outfit Cap’n Jazz released their debut in the same year and then broke up in 1995, leaving behind about an hour-and-a-half of sloppy, upbeat, off-key shout-along songs that laid the foundation for the future of emo. The so-called Midwest Emo sound spread far across the country in their wake, with Braid (from Milwaukee), Texas is the Reason (New York) and Mineral (Austin) all debuting—and often breaking up—in a short timeframe. Though Cap’n Jazz was no more, brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella remained important figures in the scene as they started other projects such as Joan of Arc, Owls, American Football and Owen.
Emo also had a more intense cousin born around the same time: screamo. Though the term “screamo” has been appropriated for everything from post-hardcore to death metal to…well, pretty much anything with non-sung vocals, it actually refers to a punk subgenre that combined emo’s sensibilities with the intensity of the more extreme end of hardcore. Although the genre’s abrasive vocals can turn people off, they provide a certain organic emotional intensity that conventional singing lacks. It helps that anybody can scream as long as they have the endurance and willpower to do so, allowing a number of great songwriters to express themselves on record instead of being relegated to their bedrooms.
Emo has been able to evolve and sustain itself for more than a quarter century because of this open environment. The number of truly skilled singers in the genre can be counted on one hand, but the appeal lies in every voice crack and heartfelt wail. Lyrically, emo bands tend to be introspective and nostalgic. Failed relationships maybe a clichéd songwriting topic, but the prevailing theme of emo seems to be “I fucked up” as opposed to “you ripped my heart out, you bitch!” As a result, the songs remain relatable with age, rather than something that the audience (and the band) will be too mature for after a few years.
The emo scene also has a host of talented instrumentalists, opening it up to a wider audience. While sensitive guys have gotten a lot of mileage out of strumming an acoustic guitar alone, those that crave some musical dynamism with their emotional lyrics can find what they’re looking for in emo and screamo. Over the years, emo has taken a page from math rock (largely instrumental music that gets its name from the complex time signatures that bands play in), with dexterous guitar playing and busy drumming often providing the backing track for wordy lyricists. Screamo bands like Circle Takes the Square and Off Minor have as much of a musical basis in metal or jazz as they do in punk, and their technical skill can make one’s head spin.
So how did “emo” go from meaning a legitimate punk subgenre with limited commercial success to an annoying form of pop-punk that dominated the airwaves for a few unfortunate years? Some of the blame certainly lies with bands that still get respect in the emo scene. The Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World left their mark on more than their share of whiny twenty-somethings, whose inescapable presence on rock radio created legions of even whinier teenagers. Somehow those sonic influences merged with the aesthetic of Hot Topic goths and the “emo kid” was born.
This particular form of pop music was perfect for millennials, who always seek answers for life’s problems, but don’t have the patience to actually find them. Emo-pop took the complicated emotional crises of teenagerdom and condensed them into catchy, three-minute tunes that were endlessly quotable. Add unnecessarily long and “clever” song titles that have nothing to do with the actual content—a trend that real emo bands are just as guilty of—and a 14-year-old’s ideal music genre was born. Like most teenage fads, it didn’t last long. Fall Out Boy’s hiatus in 2009 was the death knell for arena-filling emo-pop, and those of us who were in high school during its peak tend to look back at it with a combination of nostalgia and embarrassment.
But real emo is far from gone. In fact, it is thriving in the underground. I recently attended BLED Fest, a punk festival held at a high school in Howell, Michigan over Memorial Day Weekend. BLED Fest typically has a variety of hardcore, post-hardcore and pop-punk bands, but this year was particularly heavy on emo, and their sets were packed all day. Bands like Dads, Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) and Into It. Over It. echoed the noodling guitars and high-pitched vocals of the Kinsellas while young fans sang along to every word.
The most exciting emo act at BLED Fest was The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die. The obnoxiously named Connecticut collective squeezed eight members onto a small stage in a hallway at 3 p.m. Despite the time slot and side stage placement, The World Is… played to one of the largest crowds of the day thanks to a wave of hype and the leak of their debut full-length, Whenever, If Ever. The band was worth the buzz, as they combined gorgeous atmosphere, passionate vocals from multiple members and unique instrumentation (including keyboards and a trumpet) to put on an incredible set. Not coincidentally, Whenever, If Ever debuted at number 196 in the Billboard Top 200 in spite of the leak—a humongous victory for not only the tiny label Top Shelf Records, but for the entire genre.
Screamo is still doing fine as well, if BLED Fest is anything to go by. For the second year in a row, Pianos Become the Teeth led the festival in crowdsurfers as every fan in the room fought for their shot to scream their favorite lyric into frontman Kyle Durfey’s microphone. Caravels and Xerxes played sets in a crowded dance studio where the audience went crazy despite a complete inability to see the bands. One of the best sets of the day went to acoustic screamo (really) act CityCop., whose vocalist, Eddie Gancos, screamed his heart out with or without a microphone in hand, paced the stage in bare feet and pounded the ground on all fours while drenched in sweat; all while excited young fans had to restrain themselves from joining him.
Emo and screamo are not coming to a stadium near you, but if there are any subgenres that consistently produce quality albums in today’s underground, it’s those two. There are very few scenes with as many passionate, hard-working and collaborative musicians (it seems like every emo band has more splits than albums) than emo. So the next time you’re looking for some sensitive dude music but want something a little harder than the latest Mountain Goats record, give emo a shot. You may fall in love.
Travis’ Top 10 Emo and Screamo Albums:
1. Off Minor – The Heat Death of the Universe (2003)
2. Circle Takes the Square – As the Roots Undo (2004)
3. Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary (1994)
4. Braid – Frame & Canvas (1998)
5. The World is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die – Whenever, If Ever (2013)
6. City of Caterpillar – City of Caterpillar (2003)
7. CityCop. – The Hope in Forgiving & Giving Up Hope (2011)
8. Texas is the Reason – Do You Know Who You Are? (1998)
9. Gospel – The Moon is a Dead World (2005)
10. Cap’n Jazz – Analphabetapolothology (1998 compilation)
Photo by Incase, Flickr Creative Commons