For the emo kids who never cheered up
There is still a lot to complain about, and it’s healthy to do it together
A yellowish bruise is blossoming on my hip. It reminds me that I am getting older and can’t handle myself in a mosh pit like I used to (not that I ever really could).
Banking on the nostalgia of people who graduated high school in the mid- to late 2000s, two quintessential emo bands of that era swung through my town on a tour last week. Hawthorne Heights was playing songs off their 2004 album The Silence in Black and White, and Emery was playing The Weak’s End, also from 2004.
I live in the same metropolitan area where I grew up, so I walked into the bar with a mental list of friends from high school who I’d probably run into. They were all there, including roughly one-quarter of my church youth group.
Maybe it was the intoxicating effect of songs I had memorized at age 16, but the whole evening felt like a warm embrace. I collided a few times with a fellow dad whose kid goes to school with mine. My wife’s coworker tried to snap a picture of my embarrassing dance moves. Strangers smiled and swayed together.
It was in this safe and loving environment that I drank precisely one beer, carefully stretched, and hurled my body into the gentlest gaggle of slam dancers you could imagine.
While attempting something like the two-step dance move from the halcyon days of my youth, I slipped in a puddle and soared through the crowd horizontally, cartoon-like. I landed with a wet slap on the concrete floor. Hence the bruising.
The show I attended wasn’t part of a reunion tour; both bands are still active. It was fan service in the form of a time capsule. The merch table had T-shirts for sale that said “Keepers of the Sad” and “I used to listen to Hawthorne Heights in high school.” The doors opened at 6 p.m., and the singer from Emery joked about pitching in money for our babysitters if we stayed ‘til the end of the night.
They knew what sort of crowd would show up. This all got me thinking seriously about emo music for the first time in a decade.
What sort of a crowd were we? What forces conspired to bring unabashedly whiny songs to pop radio for a few years in the aughts, and not in the form of country music?
To answer the first question, the crowd looked like a lot of folks in their late 20s and early 30s; I don’t think I saw any high schoolers with X marks on their hands. I couldn’t tell you what else we had in common, but I could take a guess and say “diagnosed depression.”
As for emo music’s brief time in the zeitgeist, I need to take a step back and define my terms.
Emo, originally known as “emotional hardcore” (a label its earliest exemplars absolutely hated), started in the 1980s hardcore punk scene of Washington D.C. and branched off into indie-rock territory via bands like Sunny Day Real Estate. It got a lot more poppy after that, thanks to the mainstream success of groups like Jimmy Eat World, Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance, and (arguably, on Pinkerton) Weezer.
Musically, these were vaguely punk-adjacent bands that loved dramatic dynamic shifts, occasional hardcore breakdowns, and vocal performances that sounded like they hurt. Thematically, they tended to sing about their feelings and not about, say, politics or fighting cops.
The bands that my friends and I latched onto in high school were part of the third or fourth wave of emo (I think?). Purists hate the stuff we listened to, particularly the bands that flat-ironed their bangs, wore too much eyeliner, and shared too much information on Myspace. Genre boundaries are always squishy, but I’m sure the guys from Rites of Spring would have rolled their eyes at us.
Even at the height of pop-emo’s popularity, the genre was the butt of easy jokes. For a while there, Hot Topic had a whole wall of emo band T-shirts and a display of wristbands that said “CHEER UP, EMO KID.”
No matter. When I bought my first acoustic guitar in high school, it was with the express intent of learning every song on Dashboard Confessional’s A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. The year the Warped Tour came to my town, I went because I wanted to see the dudes from Underoath and Emery scream their lungs out live.
I can’t assume everyone my age had an emo phase, so when I talk about this part of my life, I usually lead with a little bit of mockery and self-deprecation: “Ha ha, remember emo? Ha ha yeah, some of that stuff was pretty corny — but also, do you remember what it felt like?”
When I do make a connection with a fellow emo, I’m often struck by how well-adjusted they turned out. All that angst found an outlet, or a healthy resolution, or a good therapist. I am genuinely proud of the progress we’ve made. For some of my friends, just surviving suicide attempts and self-harm was a victory in itself.
I wasn’t a big Hawthorne Heights fan growing up, but I knew their one mega-hit, “Ohio Is For Lovers,” talked explicitly about self-harm. It was right there in the chorus.
Seeing them live last week, I realized Hawthorne Heights was still a bigger draw than my home-state heroes Emery. Grown adults shed real tears. Couples waltzed arm in arm and sang every word to each other.
And then there was JT Woodruff, lead singer and songwriter, singing his heart out onstage. Pausing between songs, he sounded gentle and calm and fully aware that a few hundred people in the room were having flashbacks to their youth. He spoke words of encouragement, encouraged us to love one another, and generally played the role of Emo Elder Statesman for the evening.
I’ve been digging into the rest of the Hawthorne Heights discography since that evening, and I’m finding new salve for new angst. From here on out, I’m vowing not to mock the things I love.
I realize I wrote about emo in the past tense here, specifically referring to an era when emo was in the pop spotlight. Obviously bands are still out there making great emo music.
If you’re looking for recommendations, I don’t claim to be an expert but I’m pretty fond of the Midwest emo sound. Lately I’ve enjoyed bands like Dikembe, PUP, and Free Throw. Bandcamp had a cool feature story on the Asian emo scene a few years ago, “We Pretty Much Whine About the Same Things”: Emo in Asia. Dig around and find some music that makes you feel something!
For an analysis of emo music’s misogyny problem, check out Jenn Pelly’s 2017 Pitchfork essay, “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave.”
Finally, I’m recommending this essay by Mikkel Krause Frantzen in the L.A. Review of Books, “A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health.” It spoke to my heart and illuminated some connections between the struggle for mental health and the struggle for working-class power.