Meet Emo: the New Indie-Rock

The emo revival you might have heard about is really just critics waking up.

As far as back in the early 2000s, “emo” has been sort of a disgusting word that plagued teenage life and blessed Hot Topic store sales. I’ve always associated it with the kids that I hated in high school and the music I thought was absolute shit. Straight hair, “scene kids,” bands like My Chemical Romance, Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional; “emo” was the epitome of immaturity and was considered a joke by many, myself included. It was an awful, embarrassing name.

Flash-foward to 2013, and all of the sudden, every major music publication on the Internet was non-stop talking about emo music and a new wave of bands that are leading an “emo revival.”

Recently, I learned a couple of things:

  1. Those bands I hated in the early 2000s are sometimes coined as “mall emo,” which literally explains its audience and appeal to the finest degree.
  2.  There are different styles of emo. Like most things with mainstream success and radio play, you shouldn’t judge its genre as a whole from what’s on the surface. In this case, not every emo band sounds like Jimmy Eat World or Fall Out Boy. Some emo is good.

In early 2013, I came across a record by a two-piece band named Dads that changed my entire perspective on the genre. That record is called American Radass (This Is Important), and I owe it all to Dads for showing me that the genre isn’t entirely trash. It was when I heard American Radass that I seriously considered that, ‘Hey, maybe emo is actually fucking awesome.’ I couldn’t even believe the album was labeled as emo in the first place. Beautiful singing-chants and twinkling guitars — the raw energy and feeling of what Dads brought reminded me of noise-rock bands like No Age, Japandroids, or Death From Above 1979.

I’m guessing 2013 was the time everyone else started saying emo wasn’t that bad as well. Music journalists/critics started using the term “emo revival,” to describe bands that sounded just like the critically acclaimed release from Dads I heard earlier in the year. Both Pitchfork and Stereogum published two different articles on Oct. 1, both using the term “emo revival,” both claiming the genre is back again, and both sites listing a slew of artists everyone should be paying attention to in said “emo revival.” Some publications went as far as claiming 2013 the year of emo due to its resurgence.

The thing is, bands similar to Dads exist, and they’ve been in existence way before music journalists started to cover the emo genre as a whole again. Bands like You Blew It!, Their/They’re/There, A Great Big Pile of Leaves, and many others who saw success with each album release. Yet, the genre was completely disregarded until recently.

How? Why is that? How can an entire genre of music be ignored by the majority of national music publications?

Bands like Cloud Nothings and Japandroids have lyrics that literally bleed as much as most emo bands do, while both groups had two of the best albums of 2012. Japandroids’ Celebration Rock topped a lot of year end lists, as did Cloud Nothings’, Attack on Memory. With lyrics like “Can I feel so utterly unreal, like nothing I can do will make things change / I’m stuck in here and I’m tired of everywhere, I’m never gonna learn to be alone,” from the latter, it’s almost amazing that most publications decided to ignore the entire genre on coverage, considering the extremely thin line of lyrical content between indie-rock and emo music.

Until recently, the genre of emo has been a mostly underground effort; self-released on Bandcamp or pushed out by one of the major pioneers of the genre, such as Topshelf Records (est. 2005) and Polyvinyl (who also houses Japandroids). A lot of bands that make emo or punk music tend to break up after making an EP or one album. You don’t really hear from them in terms of major blog coverage or online music publications, outside of sites like Absolute Punk.

Not only do most emo bands go unheard of, but most major music publications won’t give readers a list of essential emo albums to actually listen to. Why would they? So many have made fun of the genre and its fashion trends for years. There isn’t a reason for anyone other than emo “purists,” to even compile such an index of “classic,” emo albums.

But generally, since the early 2000s, music trends have been evolving alongside the growth of Internet-based publications. Pitchfork, Stereogum, Gorilla vs. Bear, Brooklyn Vegan — these publications started having more of an influence on what people were listening to. These guys still call the shots over Rolling Stone or Alternative Press. What was new and good was sought after at a faster pace than print could ever accomplish, and the web really took over influencing music trends and culture.

There was no place for emo in online publications like Pitchfork or Stereogum. Emo wasn’t exactly “cool,” and was generally considered, as stated before, what Dashboard Confessional and Fall Out Boy were associated with. Fashion trends mattered in music more, specifically those with the indie-rock sound, so connecting a band with its appearance was more common.

Around the same time as emo was slowly dying down in terms of mainstream coverage, bands like Vampire Weekend, LCD Soundsystem, Liars, and Cut Copy were a huge deal. Indie-rock and dance-punk seemed to dominate music, taking influences from bands before them such as The Strokes and Radiohead. Bands started getting cleaner with guitars and adapting electronic sounds into production qualities.

From around 2009 through 2012, noise/garage rock dominated the music blog world. Lo-fi was a big deal. Bands like Wavves, No Age, Best Coast, Male Bonding, Liars, and The Black Keys, were all taking over, providing a rougher, more exciting sound to music. This sound was raw, loud, and built on pure energy.

It seems like 2013 was the year that the noise scene really crashed, being that buzz began spotlighting more electronic sounding singer-songwriters and musicians. CHVRCHES, Disclosure, Daft Punk, James Blake — these artists all had albums in 2013 that critics seemed to favor over the previous lo-fi groups. Bands like Vampire Weekend and Deerhunter embraced their electronic influences, while Wavves and Best Coast dropped albums that weren’t as critically acclaimed as their previous releases. Even Danny Brown had a sonically more electronic/trap-type sound for the year.

What happened to the hype of the guitar? Where did the noise go?

Maybe it was lost with lo-fi music’s decline in critical success and found again in emo music. Both national publications and music blogs have been helping hype as of late (which I am extremely guilty of with this article). It could possibly get to the point where indie-rock is replaced with emo in terms of coverage and acclaim. And I fully welcome it with open arms.

Calling the latest emo genre a “revival,” though, would suggest the genre has been inactive since the last surge of coverage, meaning the early 2000s. That would be a lie and the scenesters would agree with me there, no doubt. But thanks to people like Ian Cohen of Pitchfork and Chris DeVille of Stereogum, the “revival,” term would mean emo is taking its spot into mainstream success again, proving its worthiness in pop today, and crafting the way of music in the next couple of years.

There was a point in indie-rock where noise rock bands kind of died out or stopped being talked about. Things got a bit more electronic in terms of what was “hot,” or “buzzworthy.” To me, the “emo revival,” is the point where people who were left high and dry from the noisy-rock hiatus found emo, and in the “revival,” aspect, found bands like You Blew It! and Frameworks and Dikembe. They were found as the outlet for the angst and energy everyone needed to connect with. Now it seems the revival is getting coverage, and in that aspect, it’s being pushed as trendy.

Ryan Willems, guitarist of Dikembe and bassist of Wavelets, seems to agree on emo being a ‘new trend,’ though we may not agree on why exactly it’s happening.

“I’ve seen established bands with no roots in our music scene try to retroactively brand themselves as part of the ’emo revival’ because it is a popular topic right now,” Willems said. “Whether or not the rise in popularity is a direct backlash to the processed music described, I’m not sure. I, for one, was drawn to the music for the reasons described, being that it feels so honest and raw.

“The fact that increasingly diverse and popular publications are covering our genre is fantastic,” he continued. “A few bands seem to be taking the step towards touring and making music a full time venture, which is something that I feel would have been near impossible a year or two ago. There was just this weird period when the articles first started rolling out where it all felt very voyeuristic.”

Colin Czerwinski of Big Awesome explained what he thought of the actual term “emo revival.” “It’s actually more of a ’emo survival’ than revival,” he said. “Emo has always been there. It’s just being recognized even more so than in the late ’90s and early 2000s.”

“In a way, I think it’s hurting this scene,” he said. “It was meant to be an outlet for those who didn’t want to listen to the mainstream crap on the radio but want true, passionate music that made them feel good. With all the coverage going around this ‘revival,’ I think people that have been listening to the mainstream stuff that find this ‘emo’ scene will just saturate it and take away from the ‘community-ness’ and ‘DIY’ feel of it.”

Willems doesn’t see the worry, though. “I do fear that popular opinion on the genre will swing the way of negativity based solely on the overexposure as it has to other genres in the past (remember chillwave?) but if that’s the case, it isn’t particularly preventable or worth worrying about.”

Understand, I am a complete outsider of the genre looking in. I can’t name any defining emo albums. Emo elitists probably hate me for even bringing some bands up in this article, as if I’m telling the world a huge secret. I don’t know shit about the genre.

But I do know I really enjoy that new You Blew It! record and I’ve recently found a love for A Great Big Pile of Leaves. I do know that the majority of artists I’ve heard off of of the multiple Topshelf Records year samplers are pretty fucking catchy and have demanded my full-attention. I’ve been exposed to some incredible music, and to my delight, there are literally over 50 bands I can choose from in the genre, available for me to dive into and genuinely appreciate. At this very moment in time, major publications will all agree: revival or not, emo is the word.

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  • Funny seeing what younger people (aka people your age) refer to as “emo.” When I was a teenager going to shows in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, emo was bands like Rival Schools, Promise Ring, Thursday, At The Drive-In, The Getup Kids, Thrice, mewithoutyou, Bright Eyes, Brand New, etc. All of these bands sound completely different from one another, but they also sound nothing at all like My Chemical Romance and Fallout Boy. All that stuff came after my generation moved from their teens to their 20’s, and we all pretty much collectively hated it. Just like we hated Slipknot, Linkin Park, and other “mallcore” bands as teens (our metal was way cooler).

    It’s also worth noting that emo stretches out way before the 90’s. Listen to Rites of Spring or Embrace. Those dudes started it all, and it stemmed out of the hardcore scene. Then Thursday released “Full Collapse” and it changed everything, but that’s a different story. These days, people refer to pretty much anything as emo. Bright Eyes is essentially folk music, but he’s an emo icon. Even Atom and His Package was classified as emo by most people and he was just weird, silly, synthy music about random shit like the metric system.

    I like to think that all the underclasmen who thought the senior punk kids in ’02 were cool tried too hard to imitate and just wound up ruining everything. Our metal was heavier, our emo (God, I hate that word) was less whiny and more thoughtful, fashion didn’t matter (blame Eighteen Visions for the whole fashioncore thing), and our scene was just better. But I guess that’s what every generation says when the new kids take over.

    Siderant: Anyone remember The Emo Game? That shit was amazing.

  • S. Jackson

    Thank you brownkidd for nailing everything I was thinking about writing while reading this article (and for hitting on Thursday’s game changer and the Eighteen Visions fashion-core influence, you couldn’t be more right! sadly i don’t remember the emo game though.). Bad journalism (I blame Rolling Stone and Spin mostly) created the mis-branding of emo but articles like this don’t exactly help right it.

    To our author, if you “don’t know shit about the genre,” please don’t try to write a timeline of it, even mentioning bands like My Chemical Romance. I also know and love my hip hop so I wouldn’t be this short sighted, but imagine if someone came on Mass Appeal and wrote a timeline of rap music during the golden era of hip hop in the 90’s and started namechecking people like Vanilla Ice as pioneers of a movement. It’s a disservice to the bands of that era and to those of us as fans who lost a whole lot of blood and sweat in the shitty clubs in the shittiest parts of our collective towns during our high school and college days.

    And you should also be aware that Jimmy Eat World were highly regarded in the “old” emo scene. They wrote a lot more songs than The Middle, a song that most Jimmy Eat World fans commonly despise as even being part of their catalogue (though the closing track on Bleed American, titled My Sundown, is one of their better songs so go figure). Ask any of your revivalist bands and I’m SURE they will credit both Clarity and Static Prevails as absolutely influential albums for their music. You should do yourself a favor and check those records out too before lumping such a great and influential band in with absolute agreed-upon dogshit like My Chemical Romance.

    And lastly, thanks for having the Dikembe guys in this piece. They are often too overlooked by the revivalist pieces I’ve seen, and in my humblest of opinions, they do it the best.

    Take care.