Friday, October 28, 2005

Defining and Undefining Emo

A couple of years ago now, when I had barely heard the term "emo" at all, I mentioned to some friends that among the CDs I had just bought were Ben Lee and Sun Kil Moon. I may have also, thinking nothing of it, mentioned having bought a Modest Mouse disc, which could possibly have contributed to the resulting confusion. For, in reference, I thought, to the Ben Lee & Sun Kil Moon purchases, my friend Justin responded, "Boy, you really do like that emo stuff, huh?"

So for the next couple of years, I thought emo was a style exemplified by such artists as Lee and Mark Kozelek, so I was somewhat confused during a discussion at work about what the term really meant. One co-worker said that he had the understanding it referred to any sort of music that's very emotive--including such things, I believe he mentioned at various points, as blues and bluegrass and even the rapper Lil Jon.* While I knew that was wrong, I didn't know what the right answer actually was. Another guy said that emo is basically just watered-down new wave, which was basically just watered-down punk (though I'm confident he used phrasing more profane than "watered-down"). The punk angle seemed odd, since I had Ben Lee and Sun Kil Moon in mind.

In an effort to clear this up, I checked both and my copy of The Rock Snob's Dictionary. First, doesn't associate Ben Lee or Sun Kil Moon with emo (nor did any useful result I could find from some Google searches). Instead, it turns out that co-worker number two is on the right track. explains emo in the following ways: It says that it's "originally an outgrowth of hardcore punk" and that it's "full of complex guitar work, unorthodox song structures, arty noise, and extreme dynamic shifts." Apparently, while some emo is close to punk-pop, it's a bit more intricate.
Emo lyrics are deeply personal, usually either free-associative poetry or intimate confessionals. Though it's far less macho, emo is a direct descendant of hardcore's preoccupations with authenticity and anti-commercialism; it grew out of the conviction that commercially oriented music was too artificial and calculated to express any genuine emotion.
It seems that "emo ideal is authentic, deeply felt emotion that defies rational analysis" and at its best, it has a "a sweeping power that manages to be visceral, challenging, and intimate all at once." The term "emo" was intially used to describe "hardcore bands who favored expressive vocals over the typical barking rants" and the first true emo band was some outfit I've never heard of, followed by a bunch of others I've never heard of. The most notable bands in the emo genre seem to be Sunny Day Real Estate, Fugazi, Jimmy Eat World, Weezer, and Modest Mouse. There's more details there, though, even after the mention that "some vocalists literally wept onstage during song climaxes, earning derision from hardcore purists" and the references to "dramatic melodies and introspective mysticism" and "wry, geeky introspection and catchy punk-pop." Go take a look if you're interested.

The Rock Snob's Dictionary defines it this way (with a conclusion I particularly like):
Controversial term for a strain of punk-steeped yet thoughtful rock popular among depressive teens and twenty-somethings. Arising out of a Washington, D.C., scene of the mid-eighties in which hardcore bands got tired of playing noise and went slightly sensitive and mid-tempo, emo matured into a codified national movement in the late nineties with such bands as Jimmy Eat World and Promise Ring, which played pained hard rock overlaid with boyish vocals characterized by odd, flatulent vowel pronunciations. By the turn of the century, emo had broadened in scope to accommodate the madlin Dashboard Confessional, the somewhat more jaundiced Cursive and Yellowcard, and the countryish Bright Eyes. Aptly, given the hypersensitivity of the genere's practitioners, most emo artists recoil at being called "emo," claim that their music is unique and uncategorizable, and insist that you don't even know what the term means anyway.

(*Update: I've been advised that the Lil Jon comment, which he made later than the others, was, in fact, a joke. I have more than my fair share of humor-impaired moments.)


Anonymous Laura said...

I don't think I'd agree that Weezer is emo. I do consider Death Cab for Cutie emo. Weezer and bands like it were the forefathers of emo, I believe. Mitch and I have had long discussions about this. Weezer is what we like to call Nerd Rock. I'm a nerd rock geek chick. Ben Folds is also nerd rock. Nerd rock is what came right before emo. I don't's hard to define any of this stuff, really, but I can tell you one thing...if you tell hard core weezer fans who've loved weezer since 1994 that weezer is emo, you're in for a fight. So be prepared when you get to work...I'm kickin' your ass.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Steve Ely said...

Hey, kick Stephen Thomas Erlewine's or Greg Prato's ass or whoever it is at who lists emo as one of the styles on the Weezer page. I'm just quoting here. And cravenly trying to avoid an ass-kicking.

5:17 PM  

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