Emo Is Back! Maybe. Probably Not. No, Totally.
At the risk of offending everyone involved in the scene, I must report that 2013 was a stellar year for emo. In most genres, that might be cause for celebration, but as any emo fan will tell you, declarations of affection for and appreciation of that music are never straightforward. So while 2013 saw great releases from the likes of Their/They're/There, You Blew It!, Have Mercy, The Story So Far, Dads, Man Overboard, Balance and Composure, and dozens of others, you won't find any of them in the Pazz & Jop poll results. That's in part because the genre has always flown under the mainstream radar, but this year that isolationism was largely self-imposed; every time the word "emo" was mentioned by the music press, most of its fans and practitioners stubbornly refused to acknowledge the man behind the curtain in the Cap'n Jazz hoodie.
Back in April, I wrote a piece in the Voice pointing toward this resurgence in emo around the same time a similar piece appeared on MTV Hive. In the ensuing months, many other music publications dipped their toes into the salty-teared waters, with NPR, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Buzzfeed, the Chicago Reader, and more firing off lists of Emo Bands You Need to Hear, and heralding the dawn of a new era in twinkly, woebegone warbling. Then something happened that probably shouldn't have surprised me: People got really mad, in thousands of "get out of my room, dad" social media and blog reactions.
It's been about 30 years since the advent of emo, and while the genre has experienced a variety of well-covered changes over the decades, one thing has remained constant: No one seems to ever agree on how to define it. In part that's because it casts such a wide net — Touché Amoré don't sound anything like Turnover, for example, who sound nothing like Dowsing or Captain We're Sinking or Lemuria and on and on, and yet most anyone would call them all emo bands. Unfortunately, talking about emo forces a sort of musical existential crisis: In order to champion it, you have to admit that it even exists in the first place.
"For some reason, 'emo revival' has become a curse word in the past couple months," Tanner Jones of the Florida emo-revivalists You Blew It! says. "People that I used to freely use the term with treat it like jocks have always treated it."
Still, he agrees the emo revival was real, although with a caveat.
"It seems like the term 'emo revival' is only being used by the press to describe the recent popularization of records and bands that openly consider themselves emo," Tanner explains. "The revivalists, on the other hand, are pissed because they think that the press is claiming Dads is the very first emo band since The Get Up Kids broke up, when really there's an entire world of incredible acts that banded and disbanded in that time span." That's essentially the argument that Dan Ozzi made in his illustrative pushback against the trend piece for Noisey, "There's No Emo Revival, You Just Stopped Paying Attention."
"It's an awesome thing for these publications to be recognizing some cool music for what it is and bringing it to a larger audience," says Ian Farmer of Modern Baseball. "On the other hand, with just about every single music publication having some sort of article about the 'emo revival,' it begins to look like they have less of a genuine interest in the music and are jumping on a trend to get pageviews."
That's probably partly true, but it's an inevitable byproduct of the pop culture life cycle. I'm not saying most music writers aren't phony copycat hacks, because we are, but consider something Eric Ducker and Brad Nelson got at in their "A Rational Conversation: Is Emo Back?" on NPR. A lot of us, old fans in particular, are genuinely excited that there's so much more of this music to listen to now. And from a music writer's standpoint, that quorum is key. One band that sounds like old bands isn't a story. Ten bands that sound like very specific old bands might be. Thirty bands that sound like those old bands and they're actually good? It would be a dereliction of duty not to point that out.
You can't win for losing, says Andy Maddox of The Saddest Landscape. "People are going to get angry either way, especially online. If they didn't cover it, there would be cries about how the media is scared to cover anything worthwhile, and if they do cover it, cries of sellout can be heard far and wide."
See also: 2013: The Year of the Emo Reunion
Kevin Duquette of Topshelf Records, one of the labels at the center of the conversation about emo for the past few years, says the revival is already old news, and what we're talking about now is bands being influenced by bands who were influenced by emo nostalgia — it's the revival of a revival.
"Although bands in this niche are for sure borrowing from and building on what bands before them had done in the '90s and early '00s, I think the main source of inspiration for all of this is coming from peers and contemporaries," Duquette says. "There were some sparks early on with bands like Street Smart Cyclist, Algernon Cadwallader, Harrison Bergeron, Snowing, Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) — all of these bands were, or in some instances still are, part of regional scenes and a broader national scene that even years ago were truly booming when everyone was dismissing and mislabeling emo as swoop hair and eyeliner fodder."
John Bradley of Dads, another band commonly cited as representative of emo, in part for their Kinsella-core guitar style, and in part for their overstuffed, lengthy titles like on this year's standout Brush Your Teeth Again ;), says part of the spiteful response to the concept of an emo revival, or a denial thereof, comes from a fear of losing something special and unique for fans. "I completely get that this is a secret that people don't want others to find out. That happens with any 'underground' movement."
While Jones and his friends are happy to be getting attention, he's worried as well. "All this press is creating a bubble that will eventually pop. Whether it's six months or a decade from now, the word 'emo' will again be synonymous with Hot Topic, and that's scary."
In other words, the entire discussion about the emo revival essentially boils down to one group of fans offering up something they love to people they want to connect with, and another group being sad that the thing they love might be taken away from them. That's just about the pinnacle of emo. Well, besides dozens of undeniably emo bands and thousands of fans refusing to admit that such a movement is even going on. Just like the good old days, man. Emo is back.
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