Years of fantastic music that never quite hit the mainstream, maybe because it was never supposed to
When one of the flag-bearers of the emo revival, Snowing, broke up in 2011, their announcement post included a joke about how the band’s brief three year run made them “over 90 in emo years.” The post—which marked the end of a group that produced some of the rawest, purest emo in the last decade—comes to about 80 words.
The original emo movement came from the lonely basements of the midwest, birthed from more traditional hardcore punk and tempered by melancholy. Those groups—Braid, Mineral, Sunny Day Real Estate, Promise Ring, American Football, to name a few—were bits of lightning captured in the bottles of alternative tuning and reminiscence. All were unbelievably white and unbelievably overwrought in the best ways. And most died within a few years of their debut album. As it turns out, dwelling in songs about your own sadness for hundreds of basement shows isn’t a sustainable way to live.
For this reason and many others, few traditional emo acts have ever truly broken into the mainstream, and its current adherents follow the tradition of glorious two-album runs punctuated by implosion. Imagine what mindstate you’d have to put yourself in to write lines like “Wasting away any trace of normal blood so the fingers feel drunk/Erasing any prospect that the rest of life will feel less numb” (“Fuck, Dantooine is Big” by Marietta) or “Why is it that when we sneeze/There’s a chance we’ll die/Alone, alone, alone, alone” (“It’s Not What You Think It Is” by The Brave Little Abacus). Imagine then putting yourself back into that mindstate to sing those same ridiculous, terribly sad things two or three nights per week, every week. It seems rough. As a listener, you have the privilege of turning off the music whenever you want, but for those making it, it’s their life—they don’t get to stop the set when it becomes too much.
It’s not super surprising that what you might haughtily call “true emo” while turning your nose up at My Chemical Romance is hard to keep around, artistically. Multiply that by the factor of the subject matter being really heavily juvenile a lot of the time—high school crushes, feeling lonely and driving nowhere in particular, the minutiae of teen angst—and the equation looks dire for the bands of the late-2000s/early-2010s emo revival: Into it. Over it., Algernon Cadwallader, Foxing, The Hotelier, CSTVT, etc.
Dear and the Headlights, the pop-y, nearly country-ish emo revival group out of Arizona, followed this formula to the letter, just about. Two godly albums across three years, just peeking over the edge of relevance by touring with Paramore and Jimmy Eat World, only to throw it all away because it was boring work to deal with all the fame. The defining line of their (622 word) breakup post goes like this: “We started meeting and talking about how we could get more fans and how we could get people to our website and not just Myspace or Facebook.” (Yes, this was 2011.) Dismissing any parallels to flushing a lottery ticket down the toilet because you don’t want to talk to a bank clerk that might come to mind reading that line, there’s an almost Greek arc created by the band disappearing so early, warding off any chance of the senility and mediocrity that late-discography releases so often entail. Instead, the band is set in stone as a stellar unit of 2000s culture, a duo of classic albums that won’t age the way the rest of us will.
The emo revival is essentially over as of the mid 2010s, though of course that doesn’t mean that there’s no more emo music coming out. What it really means is that the intricate guitarwork and shrill vocals of that specific wave failed to break into the mainstream, and it happened because those bands were never supposed to. Emo probably wouldn’t be emo if more than a few bands at a time were allowed to graduate from basement solipsism. According to Tom Mullen in his book “Anthology of Emo: Vol. 1,” the genre itself is “music where every note sounds like it could be the last note that person ever played.” Now that’s emo.
Classic emo revival albums like “What It Takes To Move Forward” or “We Cool?” have already cemented themselves into (niche) music history, independent of the temporary nature of the genre. Good art usually gets remembered.
It’s a genre that’s embarrassing, childish and unmistakably heartfelt. And when kids from the midwest get sad enough again (maybe right now?) it will likely come back in full force. Bands like Origami Angel and Hot Mulligan are already picking up the existent slack from where the tide returned to the ocean, and the traditions of emo have long been carved into the annals of the Scene. Even beyond the genre proper, decades of the genre’s presence have had impact beyond emo’s own boundaries.
Proper emo music might never be anything but a rolling series of fireworks displays, with bands vanishing as fast as they light up, but it could be said that that’s really how it’s supposed to be. It’s a product of precious but transient immaturity, and everyone has to grow up at some point.
Dear and the Headlights ended their second and final album with “I Know,” a song railing against the performative sadness they’d engaged with up to that point, which takes on new meaning within the context that this really was their last song. It feels like an almost literary way to end a band—throwing away the very lens that brought them success in the first place. After the band’s breakup, frontman Ian Metzger moved east and got a job in a blueberry field.
Written by: Jacob Anderson — firstname.lastname@example.org