I was recently given a book on the shape and history of emo, and I nearly choked on the spot. I got a hard awakening that the popular concept of emo music or what could be called “emo culture” started with Fall Out Boy.
I missed the Revolution Summer (I was five then) but in ’99 I started college and quickly got into what was then “emo.” Before that I was into Victory Records hardcore bands and had a fling with the Krishnacore movement. But it was Sunny Day Real Estate or Jawbox that transformed me into an “emo kid.”
When speaking of “emo” music you have to speak of the historical use of the term. At first it was short-hand for “emotional hardcore” or “emotional punk.” Like the terms “Quaker” and “Queer” it started of as a term of disparagement, but was quickly adopted. The first bands in emo broke a cardinal rule of punk music–they were too strongly confessional and they made music to fit that tone.
One everyone gets wrong is that “emo” is all about breakups and sadness. That might be a recent invention but is not the whole story. Just as punk rock has become tied up in leftist politics these days, even though many of its progenitors were very right-leaning (the Ramones, the Dictators…), emo music took on an image far away from it’s inception. Many early emo bands wrote about war, politics and social issues far removed from the totally personal. Take Moss Icon’s “Memorial” or Navio Forge’s “Weaponizing.” That was what made emo great once, didn’t matter what you sung/screamed about, you took the simplicity of punk and let your feelings on anything–relationships, politics, etc.–go wild.
In the course of time emo music developed two strains. One held fast to the hardcore punk sound that the emo sound was born in. San Diego and Gravity Records became a haven for this. Antioch Arrow and the Locust took the confessional nature of emo to its epitomal mark and bore what would later come to be known as “screamo.” A poorly coined word for spastic ebullition of punk music. Eventually would cross paths with grindcore with bands like Mohinder and Current.
The second strain of emo was filtered through the “pop punk” scene that was emerging at the same time. One cannot but miss Sunny Day Real Estate and Jawbreaker as foundations. While the spastic, screaming emo fell on America’s two coasts, the lighter form grew out of the Midwest. Jawbreaker, Mineral, Christie Front Drive and Promise Ring carried a torch that was more melodic, less angry, more of what makes the hallmarks of emo to this day.
Despite diverging trends there is at least one aspect that unites all “emo” music. It’s the rise and fall. There exists a build-up to a climax, and some basis upon punk music. That is emo, a punk song that gradually builds to a climax and then ends or falls.
Now we seem to have a third phase, which is basically anyone playing music about something with emotional content that becomes “emo.” It was bound to happen. The origins of all great music forms are reified in time to consumerism and pop culture. Avril Lavigne dressed up in Hot Topic clothes and became a punk celebration overnight, she bought right in with the principal paid for by studio money. So it’s been with emo.
Cast your judgments but when the smoke clears don’t be afraid to look back, adjust your glass frames, sport your thrift store jacket and remember how shit was once awesome.