Rock band the Promise Ring and its singer, Davey von Bohlen, have a problem. They really, really don't like the term "emo." Shorthand for "emotional," it's been used to describe the highly personal nature of their post-punk songs, many of which deal in excruciating detail with interpersonal relationships, love and longing.
There was a time when the band could live with that. But now emo is becoming a defined pop sound, a genre, a movement populated by such bands as Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, the Get-Up Kids, Saves the Day. There is a code, a uniform, even emo tours. There is a record-label feeding frenzy. There is the smell of money. It's the new grunge, and that's not where the Promise Ring wants to lead its fans.
"I think that's awful, wrong, bad, destructive, totally opposing everything that I believe in, and insulting," says Von Bohlen, 26, with a laugh. Von Bohlen has a sense of humor, and the Promise Ring wants success, like any band. But one of the reasons to play music that's come to be described as emo was to emote freely and not conform to mass trends. Von Bohlen can already feel the hot breath of the marketers closing in.
"If you limit your interests to a genre, you are joining a social scene, not enjoying art," he says. "I don't want to be part of a social scene. I want to be in a band and make music. Hopefully, the two are different."
This kind of posturing is, in its own way, totally emo. Bands have despised the term "emo" since it was first coined in the early '80s, even while acknowledging that it did vaguely describe their sound: guitar dynamics that explored both the softs and louds of punk in the same song with--most important--brutally confessional and even self-loathing lyrics. It also vaguely described the die-hard fans, largely ironic outsiders: Think of the two girls in the film "Ghost World."
Emo songs are mostly about pain. As a body, they are like middle-of-the-night journal entries exposing insecurity and suicidal thoughts. Or wanting the girl and even getting the girl, then going down under a swarm of conflicts and self-inflicted wounds and losing the girl to mopey confusion. In punk terms, emo is for crybabies and losers. It's math rock with smarty-pants lyrics. At best, it's rock for antiheroes. Calling something "emo" has always been something of an insult.
But now, the bands say, emo means conformity. Maybe we should all be a little concerned about what exactly that means. Whose emotions will be validated? What kind of pain will outsell the others? What Von Bohlen is saying, along with a lot of other bands, is that the bigger emo gets, the harder it is to play. Would anyone really want to enable a stadium full of weeping geeks?
And I can't tell if it's me or the meat that's rotting ...
and I think that I see that big blade coming
to slice open a great canyon through the earth
so you can watch me disappear.
--"All I'm Losing Is Me" by Saves the Day
Emo flagship band Saves the Day's new album, "Stay What You Are" on Vagrant Records, is pretty much a constant stream of this kind of soul purge, all of it delivered by singer Chris Conley in long, run-on lines that extend the litany of pain. It's a stone bummer for anyone who believes in the transformative power of rock music. For longtime Saves the Day fans, however, it's not nearly bummer enough. The new album has been savaged by emo fans on the Internet as a pop sellout.
But now emo is pop. Time magazine called it "anti-pop" for its unheroic stance, but new fans hear hooks and sing-along choruses just like any other radio-friendly music. "It's crazy, none of us ever thought in a million years we'd be playing a place like Madison Square Garden," says Saves the Day bassist Eben D'Amico, 22. "But we're not trying to do some kind of underground punk thing anymore. We want to be true to the music."
Their inclusion on a spring U.S. tour with Green Day and Blink-182 was mostly about their indie-pop sound, which is growing in popularity. Most of the bands now associated with emo came out of '90s indie rock and see themselves as part of the lineage of punk, but they seem to have more to do with the Foo Fighters than Fugazi. The result is a crossover from small but rabidly loyal indie followings to radio hits.
Saves the Day's breakthrough album, "Through Being Cool," sold more than 100,000 copies according to Nielsen SoundScan data, and its new one is already nearing 170,000, a huge number for a teeny indie label such as Vagrant. The year-old album by Dashboard Confessional, "The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most," has already sold more than 220,000 copies. MTV wanted a piece of emo so badly it bent its own rules, recently making Dashboard the first non-platinum act ever invited to tape its hallowed "Unplugged" show.
Jimmy Eat World is the champion of this alleged scene, with "The Middle" and "Sweetness" in heavy rotation on modern rock stations. Its 2001 eponymous DreamWorks release has sold 620,000 copies and is rising fast.
"There's an industry use for the term 'emo' now, and it's just being used to sell music," says Ian Mackaye, 40, co-leader of Washington, D.C., punk band Fugazi, one of the first tagged as emo. "Why don't one of you examine the roots of what it is--media hype?"
Rites of Spring, a D.C. hard-core punk band fronted by guitarist Guy Picciotto before he joined Mackaye in Fugazi, is generally acknowledged as the root of all emo. The quartet released one album, 1985's "End on End," a raw and cosmic howl mostly about relationships. It came out at a time when new territory was being defined by terms such as "metal-core" or "horror-core."
Rites of Spring was more emotional or sensitive to personal issues, so they were "emo-core."
"But when you used that term, it was a tease!" Mackaye says with a laugh. "It was pejorative, sort of an insult."
This isn't the first time emo has been reborn. Mackaye points to an early-'90s New York-Connecticut emo scene whose bands were outrageously aggressive.
"Guys were screaming, rolling around on the floor," Mackaye says. "I was at least impressed by their level of commitment. I've seen only one of the newer crop of emo bands, and the strongest impression was only how reserved they were. I don't want to put anyone down, but this is like anti-emotional."
That change from frantic to feng shui came about five years ago, when emo suddenly meant indie band Sunny Day Real Estate. The emphasis on intelligent, soul-scraping lyrics was still there, but Sunny Day's milder temperament nixed the buzz saw guitars, and emo lost its "core."
In fact, in terms of sound, emo has almost ceased to mean anything at all.
"I don't have any idea what emo is," says Rich Egan, 33, president and chief executive of Vagrant Records. The L.A. label is home to a lot of what is considered emo, including Dashboard Confessional, Get-Up Kids, Saves the Day and Hot Rod Circuit. Egan says it was never a marketing ploy.
"We never went out and said, 'Let's corner the market on emo.' My favorite band is the Replacements, so I tend to sign bands that sound like them, punk bands that write serious songs with poppy punk hooks.... The Replacements were called post-punk. Maybe that's what this is."
"Emo is whatever you want it to be," says Jim Adkins, 26, singer and principal songwriter for Jimmy Eat World. "My band plays guitar-based, melodic rock.
"I mean, Weezer has just been written up as an emo band," Adkins snorts. "That boggles my mind. They were a very successful band in 1996, and no journalist was writing about emo-core then! Emo is just what people have been calling the up-and-coming bands that haven't quite broken into the mainstream."
Thematically, the distance from Jimmy Eat World to Weezer is not that big a stretch. Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo's well-publicized search for validation and social acceptance has made him a poster boy for the Emo Nation.
Musically, however, Weezer's pop is big and bright and digestible. The only line of connection with emo is pain. Emo can be anything because anything can be about pain. Indeed, in the case of Chris Carrabba, who performs solo under the name Dashboard Confessional, emo means an almost absurdly personal brand of folk music.
Sitting onstage strumming an acoustic guitar, he flings his tormented love songs into the crowd like he's ripping pages out of his diary before jumping off of a building. His devoted fans eat this up, howling the lyrics in sheer delight. For these emo fans, feeling bad has never felt so good.
"We were just in England, and a journalist said to us, 'It's so cool to see two emo bands like Hot Rod Circuit and the Cave-Ins touring together," says Andy Jackson, 27, singer for Hot Rod Circuit. "I was like, 'What? The Cave-Ins sound like Pink Floyd!' "
Pink Floyd, emo? Why not? Where does the pain begin or end? Wouldn't Billy Corgan be emo? How about Courtney Love? P.O.D. or Korn? In the midst of the hype, some bands like the Promise Ring are looking to distance themselves from the pack. The Get-Up Kids, who've been closely identified with the movement for years, took their new album, "On a Wire," in a decidedly lighter, more jangle-pop direction. Predictably, they've been lambasted by fans for getting too cute and mellow. They may also miss out on the summer's biggest fashion trend.
"There's definitely a scene out there, relating to the word 'emo,' " Jackson says. "They buy the glasses, the thrift store jeans and T-shirt, the Converse sneakers." Buddy Holly-style eyeglasses, long the symbol of geekdom, are also now de rigueur.
All signs indicate that this summer's tours, including the Promise Ring-Jimmy Eat World bill, will definitely see the triumphant return of geek chic.
"Certainly, there are short-term benefits to being part of a movement, but there are also long-term drawbacks," says Vagrant's Egan. "As soon as a sound becomes the flavor of the day, the clock is ticking on it, in terms of its relevance to the listener."
Emo fans, however, aren't buying this. They're hungry for more and deeper descriptions of What's Wrong With Me, and emo seems poised to deliver. Maybe teens have been barraged with so many issues that this has become the easiest thing to relate to.
"Emo, to me, has more intelligent lyrics about love or relationships," says Brandon Hughes, 17, a student at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. "But it's also just great music. Saves the Day may be singing about depression or anorexia, but it'll be the most upbeat, poppy sound you've ever heard."
In the end, this is a pop phenomenon built around a few hit songs that are providing a thinking kid's alternative to mainstream rock.
"People are looking for music with more substance now," says Hughes. "We're getting out of jock rock like Limp Bizkit or Korn, the materialistic Hollywood bands. You can relate to the lyrics of Dashboard Confessional. All you ever see is Fred Durst at the Playboy Mansion. Well, I've never been to the Playboy Mansion. But I have broken up with a girl before, and when you're going through something like that, Dashboard is what you listen to."
Dean Kuipers is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.