Emo is the rock music that dare not speak its name.
Like goth, it’s a shorthand tag — for “emotional” — that everyone uses except its devotees. Like goths, emo kids deny the style even exists, or insist that some other band than the one they like is emo.
But to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s observation on obscenity: You may not be able to define it exactly, but you know it when you hear it.
And hear it you will. Rock is teeming with more niche categories than ever, from glam to grunge, hair-metal to nu-metal. But at a time when the charts “Idol”-ize R&B, hip-hop and various varieties of processed cheese such as Britney, Christina and Justin, emo bands are putting actual young people — not just back-catalog baby boomers — into the seats.
A new book by Andy Greenwald called “Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo” (St. Martin’s, $14.95) makes a case that there is an undeniable grass-roots phenomenon here that could bear further investigation.
It’s a sentiment seconded by Cleveland rock writer Robert Cherry, a former editor of Alternative Press magazine. He describes the electricity in the room at a club date by the band AFI last year.
“It was something to see,” he said. “The place was full of kids who knew every word to every song and sang them at the top of their lungs. It was like going back in time.”
As the title of Greenwald’s book hints, emo has roots in the amphetamine-driven guitar assaults of 1970s punk.
If you were to put on a typical emo album to sample the style, you would notice two things right away: This is the stripped-down, propulsive rock championed by the Sex Pistols and the Clash: guitar, bass, drums, voice and little else. At the same time, these are songs with introspective, self-effacing lyrics you’d never hear through the bellow of a Joe Strummer or the snarl of a Johnny Rotten.
To try to figure out where this music wants to take you, it might pay to look at where it came from.
Emo is the improbable offspring of the “straight-edge” punk popular in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s, and Weezer. Yes, that Weezer, of the “Happy Days” video and “Buddy Holly.”
As Greenwald tells the story, D.C. bands Minor Threat and Fugazi began the transition to emo when the Reagan-era political rhetoric of earlier hard-core groups (the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag) gave way to the more introspective creed of “straight edge” — a commitment to sobriety and personal integrity with just enough of a cult vibe to capture the imaginations of some serious young men in some serious black plastic glasses.
Then, in the early ‘90s, came the cult of Rivers Cuomo, lead visionary of Weezer. Most grown-ups saw the band as playing a pleasant if poppy brand of alternative rock. But a growing coterie of mostly serious young men revered songwriter Cuomo as a totem of personal integrity, especially in the wake of his abrasive and inscrutable 1996 concept album “Pinkerton.”
Among the first groups to meld the elements of emo were bands on the Wilmington, Del., Jade Tree label, in particular the Promise Ring. Since then, the style has achieved a momentum of its own, with Dashboard Confessional and New Jersey’s Saves the Day selling hundreds of thousands of albums.
There is Promise Ring’s “classic” punk emo, though that band had muted its bash ‘n’ roll considerably by the time of “Wood/Water,” its 2002 swan song. There is the poppier emo of Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate (whose members make up the rhythm section of the platinum-selling Foo Fighters) and Arizona’s Jimmy Eat World, with amped-up choruses and smoothed-down edges.
There is the “screamo” of Thursday, the dark goth emo of AFI and the semifolk emo of Dashboard Confessional. Even when frontman Chris Carrabba holds a room of kids with just his tattoos and his acoustic guitar, the point is that he holds them. There is the deep identification with the singer and his song that has driven pop culture at least since Beatlemania.
“I’ve watched people crying at the shows, and no one inches away,” Carrabba told Spin magazine last year. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ve cried to this, too.’ And I know what that’s like. There are songs that have saved my life.”
So if you want to see rock music as it is right now, not just in a museum, you might look up the next emo show.
If you go, remember to wear a T-shirt, learn the lyrics and sing your heart out. No one will inch away.
Unless, that is, you forget and say the word “emo” out loud.
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