Music News

Islands in the Stream-o

Over the last several months, I've noticed an alarming trend. I can't look at TV or the newsstand without seeing the word "emo."

Major record retailers are advertising albums on MTV pimping them simultaneously as "emo" and "the next big thing."

There's a recently published book by Andy Greenwald, senior contributing editor at Spin, titled Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. Though I haven't read the book, the reviews of it are everywhere.

BBC Radio recently did a documentary called To the Extremo.

Spin magazine propped up Geoff Rickly of Thursday as one of the "emo saviors" on its "Next Big Things" cover issue.

But what really pushed me over the edge was the same Spin issue's article on "emo-rap." If there were ever two more disparate entities than emo and rap, I've never encountered 'em.

Am I surprised that the once-derogatory label "emo" has been slapped across all forms of the mainstream media? No, anybody over the age of 25 familiar with punk rock's permutations has been waiting for it to happen since the mid-'90s generation of indie post-hard-core bands began disappearing. Emo's a cute genre, a cute term (it's short for "emotional," for those of you over 30), so it makes sense it would make its way onto Mom's kitchen table.

What's so disturbing to me is the bastardization of the term, its complete lack of meaning in the current musical climate. I've seen magazine articles with Linkin Park's Chester Bennington discussing his emo lyricism. Any love song with guitars and a little shrieking is called screamo, or, in the U.K., extremo. Metal bands like Lostprophets are adopting sensitive lovelorn lyrics and emo's ubiquitous start-stop guitar riffs. That, while bands like the Postal Service are called emo-tronica, and hip-hop MCs like Slug from Atmosphere and Buck 65 are accused of emo-rap.

Emo in its original form was born as a reaction to the thuggish hard-core scene of the '80s. Bands like D.C.'s Rites of Spring and Embrace adopted expressive, emotional lyrics into their punk rock, anti-commercial aesthetic, and the term was coined. It was mostly used as an adjective, not a genre of its own, and "emo" escaped prevalence until the mid-'90s, when we were already post-post-hard-core and we needed a good description for the grand, super-sensitive guitar rock of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, and Drive Like Jehu.

Then there was a deluge of what Joan of Arc's singer Tim Kinsella more appropriately described as "post-emo melodicore," bands like the Promise Ring, the Valley's own Jimmy Eat World, Braid, the Get Up Kids, Jets to Brazil, and Texas Is the Reason. These bands were decidedly more poppy than their post-hard-core forebears. The Promise Ring painted its American landscape with pastel colors and populated its songs with Cherry Cokes and old Chevys on its landmark 30 degrees everywhere; Jimmy Eat World took the roar/hush formula to crazy new heights on Static Prevails; the Get Up Kids defined tortured adolescent heartbreak and lust on Five Minute Mile.

Though many of those bands are still around, their styles have matured beyond what we considered "emo" in the '90s. The sea change in the perception of emo really came around 2001, when Dashboard Confessional's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most hit record-store shelves. Songwriter Chris Carrabba's plaintive whining and eager acoustic strumming is lowest-common-denominator McEmo, and it sells like Happy Meals.

About the same time, people began retrofitting the emo tag onto bands that had previously escaped the slaggish term (until 2001, no self-respecting band actually referred to itself as emo). Suddenly Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and Radiohead are emo? Fucking whatever.

I say it's time to retire the term completely. Don't buy into the empty emo hype. Come up with something a little more fucking creative than calling any band with a song about a girl emo. No more screamo, no more emotronica, and please, no goddamn emo-rap. Indie hip-hoppers like Slug, Sage Francis, Buck 65, and Doseone are making some of the most innovative, touching and powerful music right now. They don't deserve to be bitch-slapped by the emo tag.

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Brendan Joel Kelley