What we talk about when we talk about emo

The name of this blog is taken from the song ‘Precious’ by Cap’n Jazz – a highly influential Midwestern… emo band. And unfortunately it’s difficult to introduce people to the genre what with all the negative connotations the word has gathered after the mid-00s. I need to clear the air a bit. The word “emo” ended up being used to describe a fashion, a lifestyle, which was exaggerated to an alarming level by the media. To cut a long story short, there was a lot of news coverage of the so-called “cult” and the media coverage of this “cult” always linked the fashion style to self-harm. For instance, perennial easy target the Daily Mail produced a predictably pigshit-ignorant article here in which the writer spends most of the article finding various ways to insult naive children, occasionally pausing to say how harmful this “cult”, (which she apparently does not realise she is constructing), could prove.

This disturbs me, because there were a lot of very impressionable kids who aligned themselves with “emo” culture, and the media created a massive stigma around self-harm. Self-harm was not treated sensitively enough, which lead to a lot of confusion among the “emo” culture – here the Telegraph documents self-harm as an “initiation” process. But it also created confusion for people who weren’t part of “emo” culture. Self-harm was, of course, a problem before “emo” was targeted and this anti-“emo” propaganda paralleled self-harm and emo like they were part of one scene. Self-harmers in general were therefore ridiculed in the same way as “emo” kids; a generation of kids were inclined to be unsympathetic regarding self-harm, and depression in general was seen as “trendy”, childish.

I’m speaking more from experience than anything. While Googling for articles I came across this video, which I distinctly remember from when I was about 14. I had a brief flirt with “emo” music when a friend made me a My Chemical Romance mixtape. But at the time, my classmates were circulating videos like the above – “emo” was universally hated and besides, I never had a fashionable bone in my body, so I steered away. Rewatching this video five years on makes me physically repulsed, as it commits the major offences of stigmatising: self-harm, homosexuality, transvestism/transgender/androgyny etc, depression, confessional poetry, etc… At the time of my life when I first saw this, I didn’t see a problem with stigmatising these things – and the grouping of all these attributes into one negative social stereotype damaged the development of my entire generation.

All of this context is necessary now for any discussion of the genre of emo, because the word won’t ever mean what it used to mean. It took me a really long time to embrace the idea of the genre just because of this steadfast anti-emo ideology which surrounded me when I was just the age at which emo music makes the most sense. But if you think about it, once these myths are dispelled – it makes a lot of sense to go straight to the core of what music should primarily aim to evoke: passionate emotion.

Rites of Spring were perhaps the first band termed as “emo”. ‘For Want Of’ is probably their most famous song, and it typifies their lyrical approach. [lyrics here] The genre of emo musically developed out of punk rock, mostly hardcore (and the first emo bands are usually also termed post-hardcore), but emo lyricists had no interest in the often political themes of punk music. ‘For Want Of’ uses starkly emotional language, very directly using classic, non-specific imagery of bleeding, fragility, the heart, etc. Interestingly, there is no outside information in the lyrics; it is a direct description of emotion, only alluding to the events which caused it. For that reason, we can all relate, because while the repeated pronoun ‘I’ can sometimes come across as solipsistic, here, the lack of contextualisation encourages the listener not just to empathise but to  superimpose his/her experience upon the song’s sentiments.

(Although it usually was ‘his’ rather than ‘her’: female emo bands simply didn’t get recognised and regretfully I can’t name a single female-fronted emo band. I’ve found about half of an interesting article on the subject here, about the patriarchal nature of the ‘genre/plague’, and the negative, one-dimensional portrayal of the women in emo songs. It’s a shame it’s incomplete! Contrary to the stereotype of women as uncontrollably emotional (via hysteria), emo was about men accepting their confusion, about finding an outlet for emotions they couldn’t control or understand. It’s just a shame the genre ended up so exclusively male.)

‘For Want Of’ is exemplary not just of lyrical approaches of emo, but also its musical ideas. The driving post-hardcore riff carries the violent energy of the verses, an energy which was reportedly reflected in their destructive live shows. The riff works in circles, using just two chords to really drive home the lyrics – the focus is on Guy Picciotto’s vocals, delivered with barely any tune, the emphasis being upon the tone of his voice, gasped passionately, each line stuttering, sounding like a man at the end of his tether. The chorus deviates, and confusion arises as the guitar riff begins on a C# (outside the key of G), suggesting a modulation to A or D. These unexpected elements typify emo music. Furthermore, emo music is a form of catharsis (in the psychoanalytical sense) for both musician and listener, manifested in this scuzzy guitar tone, the hasty, unadorned production, as well as the tempo, just too fast to really dance to; and this catharsis is paralleled in the lyrical directness, confessional poetry as a confrontation of and release of emotions. Emo is excessive, overspilling, unrefined.

Picciotto and Brendan Canty continued the post-hardcore musical approach in their next project, Fugazi – arguably the definitive post-hardcore band, who are less frequently termed as emo, mainly due to their more restrained approach, and less directly emotional, less self-absorbed lyrics.

This is just the beginning of emo music – the tradition has been continued by a bunch of like-minded bands, [here’s a good place to start exploring], and my next post will focus on how the genre was expanded after the mid-80s. While Rites of Spring’s music is often what is known as “first-wave” emo, the transition to “second-wave” (at this point “emo” becomes so multifaceted that the term “second-wave” is redundant) emo is often pinpointed to the career of Cap’n Jazz, around 1994, and I’ll be focusing on the experimental elements of their music which developed the genre.

For a more informed, if not infallible history of emo I’d recommend this site.

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About decemberembers

I've noticed that all of my music-obsessed friends have completely different approaches to music in the digital age, and I'm writing this blog as an attempt to raise questions about what you experience when listening to music. It's also partly a response to a majority of music journalism which, stylistically and ethically, I find problematic. I'm trying to avoid being prescriptive and will encourage open-mindedness. :)
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3 Responses to What we talk about when we talk about emo

  1. Rob Harman says:

    Two things: first on the background, then the music.

    I was apprehensive that the “emo’s not that” bit might be too polemical (especially after the early Daily Mail mention, even if you did point out the fish-barrel situation), but it was genuinely insightful. It seems clear the media’s part of the problem (see this article saying just that about Bridgend: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/7253788.stm). Especially so in suggesting a link between the fashion trend and all the lifestyle baggage (though this isn’t just teenage: think jocks and their initiations), neither of which is peer pressure but actually superior pressure: it’s only called peer pressure because to media adults every adolescent is equal.

    I’d go as far as to agree with your reading of all the stigmatisation: I’ve seen it all come up in vicious attacks on other people within the past few months, and there’s always a sense of “fad” about it. See also Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’ for a particularly hideous example of this with regard to homosexuality – from a gay director.

    Onto the music. I try to avoid using emo to describe either, if I’m honest. I guess by and large it’s because I don’t listen to either. For “post-hardcore”, it’s always seemed a little too self-involved (I know – look at the capitals in this paragraph already!) and self-pitying, and I don’t get that connection. Take “Relationship of Command”, though: now we’re talking. The greater abstraction creates that reader-response sense that encourages me to identify with…it all, I suppose. As for “manufactured punk” (MCR, FOB, etc): I think that says it all.

    That’s a decent analysis of the musical mirroring of lyrics: the fake-modulation’s well noted. Catharsis seems a bit simplistic as analysis – for starters, the lyrics never seem to solve anything, it’s the thought processes of someone trying to puzzle out a problem. The time frame’s messed up too much, there’s too much past tense, and that’s where it feels like fake catharsis has taken place: but obviously not, because he’s still anguished.

    With all that in mind though: good job! And even if I’m not fussed about the music, I’m still anticipating the next post!

    • Cheers!

      I’ve actually seen At The Drive In tagged as “emo” quite a bit (partly due to conflation of post-hardcore and emo, see here), and I do think Relationship of Command is terrific, but I’ve always found Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics inscrutably surrealist. (Which ties in to my next post actually, I feel much the same way about Cap’n Jazz.) But I think “abstraction” – by which I suppose you mean impersonality, but for ATDI I generally see it as just impenetrability – usually has the opposite effect; as I said I think you’re encouraged to relate to emo because the emotion is so universal, the circumstances usually non-specific. Musically, it has fairly unpredictable structures, but the production values are way higher than most emo music.

      Emo lyrics are very confessional, often unrefined, and I think confessional poetry is a form of catharsis. I don’t think it’s structured enough to serve as a solution; I didn’t mean it in the classical sense but in the modern psychoanalytical sense (you Classics students!) – catharsis as a release of emotional tension, of a confrontation of events (hence a lot of past tense, no real progression). And for the listener, fast tempos, noisy production and shouting are effective forms of catharsis; there’s a sense of excess, of overspill.

      (I’m going to go back and edit in something about production cause I really should have mentioned that.)

      • Rob Harman says:

        The post-hardcore/emo problem is of course compounded (created?) by the Rites of Spring-Fugazi links. It must be said though, that the RoS song has got stuck in my head, unlike previous plays of similar “emocore” (that looks odd, doesn’t it..?).

        I can’t say I find Cedric inscrutable, but that might be the viewpoint of an ex-fanboy. Maybe (so I don’t make a digression most important) these links might be handy: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/2223652/invalid_litter_dept/ and http://www.lyricsmania.com/invalid_litter_dept_lyrics_at_the_drive-in.html
        There, I’d hope the video should be plenty enough context to ‘understand’ the lyrics. For me, the ambient codas on (TMV’s) Frances the Mute are far more inscrutable but clearly meaningful. Maybe I find artifice in my art a purer form of expression, more able to express the nuance of feelings?

        I definitely agree with what you’re saying about catharsis then. I wouldn’t have bothered editing in the comment about psychoanalysis: who else’ll read it how I did? Also – a very minor point – while the production does help trace out catharsis, I’m not convinced it’s as much an artistic choice as for the current lo-fi movement.

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