I’ve been listening to a lot of 80’s and 90’s emo recently and it got me thinking – what happened to this music? Some of my favorite albums are by 90’s emo bands; and some of my least favorite are by emo bands from the 2000’s. Where did emo go? How did we go from Jawbreaker to Dashboard Confessional? What curse befell this music to warp it so unmistakably from its former self? Before we can begin to answer any of these questions, we undoubtedly need a (not so) brief emo history lesson.
“The stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”
This is how Ian MacKaye described emo, live on stage at a 1986 concert. MacKaye, lead singer for Fugazi, Minor Threat, and the pioneering, and oft-called emo band, Embrace, is a god in the D.C. music scene, the birthplace of emo. “Emo” as a label has always been controversial; as I type this blog post every instance of the word emo has red squiggly lines under it. There’s always been a struggle, both internally and externally, about how to apply the term. Is it a sensibility or a sound? Even some of the most decidedly emo bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Rites of Spring have “rock” and “punk” listed respectively as their genres on iTunes.
Rising from the Washington, D.C. punk and hardcore scene, emo (shortened from emo-core) was just a more emotional version of the music everyone was already making. The instruments and music hadn’t changed; just the lyrics and the feelings associated with them. The original emo music was made by guys like MacKaye, who had been in punk and hardcore bands their whole life. This music was rough, nasty, and most importantly, emotional. The divergence occurred when these guys decided to stop singing about Ronald Reagan and getting drunk, and started talking about their feelings and emotions. This shift changed music forever – and emo was let loose on the music world. The 80’s weren’t the most illustrious years for emo, but without them we wouldn’t have had what came next.
The 90’s were the heyday of emo. Bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, The Promise Ring, Jawbreaker, and Texas is the Reason adapted the grittier emo of the 80’s and put a slight polish on it. The music was still heavy, but had more indie and pop sensibilities. This is also when the word emo earned a lot of the negative connotation associated with it. Music from this era could easily be dismissed as sad boys moaning about their feelings. The Promise Ring song “Nothing Feels Good” from their self-titled album was playing while I was writing this: “I don’t know God / And I don’t know anyone / And I don’t know if anything at all will be alright.” One could see how this music got a bad rap. And I concede, it is whiny at times. But it has genuine, low-key, honesty – which is the key difference between 90’s emo and what followed it, and most other music in general.
The new millennium was the beginning of the end for emo. This is especially depressing for me personally, since 2001 was my first year of high school. I can’t help but feel like my generation helped to nail the coffin shut. That aside, emo exploded in the 2000’s. Riding on the popularity of 90’s emo bands, bands like Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, and Saves the Day took the next step with emo – into the mainstream. Gone were the punky riffs. This new generation of emo was lighter, acoustic, and somehow even wimpier. But not in a genuine, redeeming way. In a groomed, forced, record label-inspired kind of way. This begins to answer our original question – what really killed emo was itself.
The popularity that emo music began to enjoy led to more and more interest in the music, and an unavoidable overall dilution in quality. The music also changed. Gone were the days of gritty emotion screamed over punk music. Emo bands were now more alternative and poppy. By record labels becoming interested in emo as a genre, they began to alter and tailor the sound for the masses, for the lowest common denominator of fans. While this broadened the appeal of emo to more people, it took away some of the raw, real qualities that made emo so great in the 80′s and 90′s. The internet brings us a theory: Back in the 90’s, few people had internet access. One of the few groups that did were college students. So every September, there was a new generation of kids on the internet for the first time, being uncivilized hooligans. Eventually, the old guard would civilize them and things would go on as normal. Now, there are new people on the internet every day, and the internet is overrun with idiotic 14 year olds. This is known as “Eternal September,” like every day on the internet is that first day of college. This influx of new users has diluted the overall quality of the internet. The influx of new emo fans diluted its quality.
So in conclusion, what killed emo? Emo itself is the easiest answer. Its popularity brought it closer and closer to the mainstream until it reached critical mass and changed inexorably. More people got into emo and more bands formed and made emo music that tried to appeal to wider and wider audiences, transforming emo into some sort of alt-pop amalgamation. I don’t mean be elitist, or to say that more modern iterations of emo are bad, but I think somewhere along what was the natural progression from D.C. basements to MTV, emo had a magical, magical era.
Bonus: A necessity for any 90’s mixtape made for a girl, and one of my favorite emo songs:
Sunny Day Real Estate – Song About An Angel