The Best Defense is a Good Offense? To Emo or Not-Emo

This is a post of uncertainty. It is about a genre I think I know nothing about. Ignore it, if it seems senseless; set me right, if you know more.

Earlier I mentioned suffering reproach at the hands of a man with tattoos in his mouth for liking Wilco; during the same party I was also accused of liking Emo, as if this accusation alone could strip someone of any pretensions and aspirations of ‘coolness’. Years later, I still occasionally hear students mocking others for being ‘Emo’. At times I mock the Younger J for excoriating a girl for liking, nay, for being, Emo. Here’s the problem with these experiences: I have no clue what Emo is.

Aside 1: To the Younger J, your post is a fine illustration of why your success with the fairer sex has been rocky—your irascibility! One must sublimate the baser aspects of oneself for romantic accomplishment. Yes, I know you’ll claim that such an act is disingenuous, but I have a further claim: affiliations with social constructs like Emo, or in your case, not-Emo, are only skin-deep. Maybe the Emo girl was something more than her musical tastes; her avoidance of you certainly speaks of some integrity.

Aside 2: Here’s the problem with the millennial generation. I know that I admit freely of prejudging people based on musical poses, but at least in my day (to play the loathsome role of the judging elder) we had to talk to people in person to dismiss them, which provided at least some opportunity to overlook such differences. Now, with Facebook profiles and the terrible ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, we have a tendency to organize ourselves on initial, superficial differences. We have fewer opportunities to screw up; and, our fuck-ups are immortalized electronically. Romance, I must say, involves a significant degree of messing up, or forgetting, and of multiple chances toward the same goal.

Back to Emo: Social theorists and scientists have recognized that human-made phenomena (from technology to television shows) evolve following some of the same patterns that nature evinces. Rock music—a catch-all term I use for popular music over a 4/4 beat that privileges short songs over a flexible verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus structure—is constantly in a state of mutation akin to evolution (and note, I say evolution rather than natural selection). The forms diverge, change, and converge in a crowded and co-evolving marketplace with only speculation to illustrate the reasons.
Individual artists are at once products and producers of such change, often initiating chicken-or-the-egg questions about genesis and genius. I usually lean on the side of crediting larger cultural patterns over unique snowflakes, but there is always a back-and-forth between movements and particular members/movers within.

Not Ben Gibbard

So, I usually ignore what I consider to be rather minor generic distinctions. When it came to Emo, I was confused and put off by two things. First, I have a knee-jerk reaction to senselessly abbreviated words. “Emotional” is too difficult? Emo sounds moronic. Too close to the large flightless bird. In my unfortunate reaction, then, anyone talking about the genre morphs in my mind into stupid, large and useless bird.

Nevertheless, my reaction was rooted in ignorance, not conviction. Once I read the Younger J’s confession, I decided to figure out, finally, what Emo was. In the lazy manner of our age, I went to Wikipedia. There, I discovered a history of Emo, going back to hardcore bands in the 80’s and reaching an apogee with bands like Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World at the turn of the millennium. Emo, according to the Wiki-specters, is “characterized by melodic musicianship and expressive, often confessional lyrics” and can extend to a style in general.

Most shocking on the list for me is the album Pinkerton by Weezer, which is certainly less fun and more ‘confessional’ than the Blue Album but by no means deserves the level of scorn I sense reserved for Emo in general. In truth, I don’t like most of the recent bands described by Wikipedia as Emo. I find them maudlin (hence, Emo) but also flaccid. There’s nothing wrong with being emotional and honest, but I like to sense the proverbial “fire in the belly” behind the tears.
As an aside, I was sure that Death Cab for Cutie would be on the list, the band certainly deserves to be there. What I sense, however, in this exclusion is that the recent bands that are so identified are there because of the limited range of their expression—Death Cab, for all of its faults, is more than just emotion and confession.

But then again, couldn’t that be said for most of the bands listed under the label Emo? My only real question is why Emo, or rather the idea of Emo, has elicited such a backlash. For at almost a decade now, I have heard people use the term as one of derision. What’s so bad about Emo music? What is so bad about the label?
The only real answer I have is derived from amateur psychoanalysis. It seems to me that Emo is not so much a thing that people espouse or aspire to be as a collection of things that some people don’t like. In short, I suspect that the term is a catch-all for qualities that those who sneer at Emo wish to disavow. Emo, then, is not so much a real genre as a spectral anti-genre. Nothing so much unites the bands under this label as the fact that the performers mostly seem to be somewhat emasculated emoters who compose and sing sad songs.

Earlier and similar forms (hardcore, New Wave, some alt-rock) may have avoided the same type of scorn because their musical affiliations protected them—the form of the music and its newness or ease of designation allowed their expressions to be understood in an acceptable context. I fear that one reason for the Emo-backlash is the mediocrity of the music and the lack of surprise and innovation in the musical forms.

But, back to my first theory, I cannot abandon the idea altogether that these bands, all of which seem to express an angsty but less than aggressive male persona, combined with an overall erosion of conventionally masculine roles in our current age, elicit from certain listeners insecurity about their own masculinity. (For, I have heard only men complain about Emo.) In short, Emo’s stereotypes symbolize widespread anxieties about unmanly men. Hating Emo, in a perverse way, rather than merely dismissing it, makes you more masculine.
And, not to leave off without returning to my asides, I suspect that the label-conscious identity-making of the internet exacerbates these claims. When we have to create who we are by what we like and dislike online, it is easiest to do this through a cultural short-hand. Hating Emo is the easiest way to be not-Emo, whatever that is.

That said, all those words wasted, and I can only say that while I have been accused of being or liking Emo (or whatever) I am not and don’t, not really. But there must be something going on for me to try so hard to defend it by attacking its detractors, right?
What do you say, Brother? If you had won over the Emo girl, would you feel less threatened by the skinny jeans, the angular hair-cuts, and the sweet, emotional crooners she loved? Am I just another stupid flightless bird?

13 comments on “The Best Defense is a Good Offense? To Emo or Not-Emo

  1. professormortis says:

    Emo strikes me as being like the label Hipster (in its modern use): a meaningless derisive label applied to (white, upper middle class) shit you don’t like. Or is there more too it? Is this just like how my father probably couldn’t identify the difference between Punk and Metal?

  2. theelderj says:

    I agree completely, it really is an empty insult meant mainly to deride an unclassified group of others. But what of the fact that some champion the term? Am I already too old to understand?

    (Punk and metal are different? Yes. But did you ever see Guns N’ Roses described as both? I can imagine you shuddering now…)

    • professormortis says:

      I don’t know if you’re too old to understand, but I sure as hell am. To me Emo is actually the point that marks when I no longer even knew what the hell the labels were supposed to mean.

      Heh. Guns N’ Roses certainly aren’t both, but I would rather see them described that way than, say, Whitesnake. At least G’N”R’s first album has a certain unsavory streetwise attitude to it.

      • theyoungerj says:

        ok clearly punk and metal are vastly different. Second, I never felt threatened by anything emo. I just thought it was lame.

  3. professormortis says:

    YoungerJ, yes, they are; but I’m pretty sure my father couldn’t identify one from the other. He didn’t really understand what the labels meant. Which is how I feel about Emo…I don’t really get what its supposed to be.

  4. […] of meaning. (As an aside, I think that this sense of ambiguity is what makes the emotional tone of U2 not “Emo”, to continue an earlier discussion. Emo tends to be over-contextualized; it prizes the […]

  5. […] and has no exact equivalent in sound. It is at times dance music “Such Great Heights”, at times emo-esque keening (“This Place is a Prison”), and at times a reinvention of new wave pop (as in the […]

  6. […] put into the composition. I dare you to do this and then give two shits about whether or not it is too sentimental. This music is not merely pretty. It is honest, well-made, and sounds unlike anything I have ever […]

  7. […] new wave material and an update on some West Coast indie rock. They are maudlin without being Emo, if that makes any sense at all. I listened to them several times and then, for whatever reasons, I […]

  8. […] far as tertiary punk-type music with an EMO seasoning to its lyrics goes, I prefer Alkaline Trio. They have a more muscular vocal styling and their […]

  9. […] use what I consider to be too much noise. I have a taste for music that he, at times, considers too ‘emo’ or something like […]

  10. […] my band was too whiny and needed (as he put it later) “balls”. Perhaps this too may explain my brother’s disdain for ‘emo’. Who wants every day and self-pitying emotions  when stronger stuff is on offer, when angry music […]

  11. […] an aside, I think that this sense of ambiguity is what makes the emotional tone of U2 not “Emo”, to continue an earlier discussion. Emo tends to be over-contextualized; it prizes the […]

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