Tickle Me Emo
BY: Jordan Mamone
I defy you to find me a subgenre of independent rock more disgusting than emo — that chipper, little pop-punk dingleberry embraced by only the very wussiest of high school rejects. Punk is lame enough; you’re a loser, so you dye your hair magenta, pierce your dick and pretend to like the Clash in a contrived, self-loathing effort to get chicks and/or belong to some sort of fashion movement. But emo? Come on. You cut your hair like some closet-case, butt-plundering marine, dress like a 12-year old, grow sideburns that would embarrass Engelbert Humperdinck and wear glasses left over from shop class. And for what? To appear “sensitive” and “non-threatening,” yet “rebellious” enough to impress slightly overweight indie girls? Pathetic. Listening to bands like the Promise Ring, Hot Water Music and Braid means that you’re even too much of a pussy for punk rock. Not only are you a sheep, but you’re a boring, whiny, petulant brat, to boot. The fact that most emo bands don’t like to be labeled as such should tell you something; they, themselves, lack pride in their pose. When these groups are interviewed and faced with the question of musical categorization, they try to make excuses along the lines of “oh, we’re not emo, we’re just a rock band.” Why? Because emo bands themselves are visibly embarrassed by their own existence. And they’re the ones who are making money off the movement (if you can call it that).
The phenomena began innocently enough. In the mid-to-late-80’s, a group of mostly DC-area bands (e.g. Rites Of Spring, Soulside, Embrace, Ignition, latter day Government Issue, etc.) tried to make hardcore less dogmatic and more personal by slowing down the form, focusing on dynamics instead of on speed, and tempering the music’s then cliché-ridden, metal-leaning aggression with slightly more complex and thoughtful (though occasionally ludicrous) lyrics. Most of these groups were somewhat naïve in their efforts, but on occasion, some of them, such as Happy Go Licky, managed to make great music of lasting impact. Almost 15 years after the so-called “Revolution Summer” of 1985, a half-dozen or so okay bands are still performing songs that uphold or fuck with this tradition. The work of Lungfish and select tracks by Drive Like Jehu and Seaweed come to mind. Unfairly, these worthy acts get grouped into what is known today as “emo,” an otherwise worthless pigeonhole that has come to mean something entirely different from what “emocore” meant 10 years ago. It could be said that “emocore” entered the modern era (and began to suck balls) when its moniker became truncated. In the ‘80s, “emocore” was simply a catch-all term used to describe a sound — emotional post-punk, an umbrella that could cover such decidedly non-emo entities as Honor Role or Squirrel Bait — but in recent years, “emo” has come to mean much more: a lifestyle choice, a style of dress, and a pop-sensitized, wholly accessible, watered-down take on the values and musical approaches of veteran “emocore” acts like Fugazi. Confused? Let’s simplify. Modern emo is a lowest-common-denominator bastardization of the Dischord roster circa 1987. The music tends to exaggerate the weaker tendencies of early emocore (dumb, earnest lyrics, annoying vocals, power pop fixations) while ignoring the form’s worthier traits (dynamics, noise, intellectual maturity). “Emo” is about as relevant to “emocore” as Green Day is to the Stooges. Most of its ‘90s practitioners sound more like the goddamn Pixies than anything Ian MacKaye ever did. And despite their melodic aspirations, this current crop of psuedo-sincere, fresh-faced men lacks anything resembling actual songwriting skills. I mean really, the average emo tune is just not good pop. Or, more accurately, it’s not quite pop. The music approximates poppiness rather than achieving it. Those junior-league hooks are half-assed and wholly inconsequential. Thus, emo is a training-wheels subgenre, representing the worst of both worlds by grafting pop’s sugary opportunism onto punk’s didactic stupidity.
The time has come for the great emo backlash. K-fucking-Tel’s recent release of the compilation Nowcore!, unironically subtitled The Punk Rock Evolution, will be the music’s death blow. Who would have ever guessed that one day, a compendium of safe, melodic post-hardcore would be released by a company known for using late night TV to crassly market fifth-rate disco and novelty collections? This mediocre anthology of homoerotic boy bands features such bed-wetters as the Dismemberment Plan, Modest Mouse and Texas Is The Reason alongside many of the aforementioned dorks. What, they couldn’t get the licensing rights to Sunny Day Real Estate? Speaking of that scrappy, slappy Jesus-core unit, SDRE is pretty much responsible for the absolute inanity of most of these sissies. Many of the groups on the record probably grew up listening to those mama’s boys — that was their idea of hardcore. These souls were too young, sensitive and stupid to ever understand or discover the likes of Black Flag, the Germs, Drunks With Guns, Bad Brains, Flipper, or in some cases I’d bet, even Minor Threat. Actually, they probably weren’t even cool enough to like crap like Reagan Youth or Slapshot. Maybe they got into 7 Seconds thanks to their “cool” older brother.
There’s nothing remotely punk or hardcore about most of the acts on Nowcore!. Just listen to the singer in At The Drive In. His voice sounds like that of some cast-off from a high school musical, a glee club goon who was weaned on Standing On the Edge-era Cheap Trick. The music is just so professional, so blandly competent. One listen, and you know that emo is indeed a genre that grew up taking music lessons and playing shiny, new guitars into big, fancy Marshalls paid for by mommy and daddy. Maybe some of the hipper groups bought expensive vintage equipment. They could probably afford to be tech nerds. But it’s extra sad that some of these bands (Burning Airlines, especially) aren’t kids at all. Many of them went to high school a very, very long time ago. You’d think that they were old enough to know better. Is J. Robbins ever gonna get a real job? God, I mean, how far can one man take his late-period, bass-playing experience in GI?
But emo was offensive well before K-Tel ever pie-charted its earning potential. On his band’s truly lousy, 1991-released pop-punk retch-fest, Unfun, Blake Schwarzenbach (nice name, asshole), then of Jawbreaker, now of the ghastly Jets To Brazil, sang some of the most cringe-worthy, suspended-adolescence lyrics known to man. Along with his successors in SDRE, he helped pave the way for an emerging generation of chowderhead boys, who internalized his sappy, melodramatic lines like “I’m lying naked at your feet/Don’t crush the heart that bleeds/Take me at my word/It may sound absurd/But I want you.” Meanwhile, ugly, skanky punker chicks, many of whom were alienated by 10 years’ worth of HC boy’s club stupidity, began to swoon over such sentiments — no doubt pleased that they could now kick the asses of their newly emo-fied boyfriends, whose limp-wristed musical tastes made it okay to cry and wear really ugly high-water pants. Emo has effectively neutered the punk rock male, turning him into a blow pop-sucking, neurotic toddler. But it’s a double-edged blow pop. Wanna know why emo attracts more tail than any other form of “underground” music? It’s because the movement’s wuss pose is totally deliberate. When he wrote those lyrics, the ever-liberated Schwartzenblech was probably envisioning a whole harem’s worth of pierced labias and sagging thighs. Warning, girls: These emo guys are pretty sensitive and wimpy, but they’re just as sexist the rest of us. And they masturbate a whole lot more often.
Emo thrives on gullibility. Its fans are so quick to identify with, emulate and worship any form of stumbling, fake sincerity. An emo crowd will fall for and buy just about anything in the name of “supporting the scene.” A friend of mine once made the mistake of attending a very early Jets To Brazil show, the group’s first appearance in the Atlanta area. Nobody even knew what the band sounded like yet, but the venue was totally packed with folks who were gullible enough to attend the function because of the mere presence of Schwartzenschmuck, their king-shit emo hero. It’s fairly natural to be curious about somebody’s new band, therefore it’s excusable that so many people came out to see the show. But it’s more than a little ridiculous that roughly 20 or 30 of those in attendance rushed the merchandise booth and blindly shelled-out for loads of Jets-related product — before the group had even taken the stage! Prior to having any idea what Jets To Brazil sounded like — prior to knowing whether or not the band sucked — the puppies at this function threw away their own hard-earned cash (or at least greenbacks skimmed from trust funds and allowances) to buy records, t-shirts and stickers, all purchased on the mere assumption that the entertainers would just have to be as “good” as Jawbreaker, that Blake wouldn’t let them down, and that the show would be yet another cookie-cutter emo love-fest. Fuck that. If Schwartzenfelcher had an ounce of sense, he’d form a fucking satanic black metal band just to test these cuddly sycophants’ loyalty and/or make them feel stupid for having spent their money so freely. Think they’d fall for it?
Emo bands make their livings off merch, which comes as no surprise; the groups’ appeal has nothing to do with music, anyway. Emo is a movement of clones, of retarded, often suburban fashion victims. You’ve seen the backpacks, the sweaters and those totally fucking inexplicable patches. You’ve seen the homogenous look of emo records, released by labels like Deep Elm, De Soto and the ever-loathsome Jade Tree. A creepy facelessness inhabits the discs’ uniform layout and design, carried out by such scene-approved typesetters as Andy Mueller of Ohio Girl, and the Collection Agency, the graphics company behind Punk Planet, emo’s very own Bible (or at least its very own No Depression).
I say, stamp out any and all emo at a grassroots level. Don’t review emo records in your fanzine. Start a petition that seeks to ban emo from college radio and local venues. Outlaw the sale and distribution of all patches. If you see any emaciated boys on the street wearing horn-rimmed specs, undersize v-necks and barrettes, beat them till they bleed. If you know girls who go out with emo guys, suggest that they have their tubes tied. I’ve done my part. I wrote this article. In addition, when I was looking to share my apartment, I once turned down a potential roommate simply because of his alarming argyle socks, polyester button-up and fondness for the Get Up Kids. During our interview, when the conversation turned to music, I said “thank you, that’s enough” and sent him on his merry way. No way would I share my living quarters with anyone who enjoys listening to a band called Knapsack. Hopefully, this poor sap is now homeless, subsisting on garbage-can iceberg lettuce and his own fingernails. Actually, the twerp is probably living the high life, having returned to his parents’ house in Connecticut or Orange County or wherever the hell he’s from.
If you don’t take drastic action against the emo blight, there is an alternative. Let the movement come to a slower and altogether more painful end. If you’re patient and/or nonviolent, just sit back and wait for the movement to naturally kill itself. Five years from now, the entire emo posse will have wisely forgotten everything it once stood for; the basis for these chumps’ current existence is just too musically insubstantial, wholly transient and completely temporal to survive. After all, that damn record is called Nowcore!, with an emphasis on the “now.” Emo will go the way of the equally frustrating Riot Grrrl, only it will have been even less politically and culturally significant. Historically, perhaps it will have become the ‘90s’ American equivalent of such short-lived ‘80s English musical fads as “batcave,” “grebo” or “shamble pop.” Remember those bygone buzzwords? Didn’t think so. In the near future, former emo advocates will be seen slumping, resting their grown-out heads of hair in their hands, wondering, “What were we thinking?”
The sad truth and the answer, my friends, is quite simple.
You weren’t thinking at all.