Ninety-nine percent of the time, when someone picks up an acoustic guitar at a party, you’re about to be serenaded with “Wonderwall,” or maybe “Wish You Were Here,” if everyone’s stoned. But if you’re with a certain suburban scene, you can be pleasantly surprised. This past summer I was in a friend’s basement in my hometown of Livonia, Michigan when a couple guys I’d known for years started to play a song for the small group — one on acoustic guitar and one singing. I could tell it was a song from one of the overwrought emotional bands that have a cult following where I’m from. I didn’t know what it was, but I liked its pseudo-poetic lyrics, its stream-of-consciousness delivery and the way it seemed to capture the room, enthralling everyone because the singer is just spewing his gut feelings to everyone within earshot while slowly building toward a grandiose tidal-wave climax.
I listened extra intently during the performance and then surreptitiously Googled the lyrics that I heard — the chorus of “I’m sure that we could find something for you to do on stage / Maybe shake a tambourine, or when I sing, you sing harmonies.” The song they were playing turned out to be “Twin Size Mattress” by The Front Bottoms, this folk-rock dramatic set piece about the end of a friendship, or a relationship, or just the collapse of something you know has to end even though you don’t want it to.
“Twin Size Mattress” is everything I love to hate about young suburban indie rock. Where I’m from — and I’m near-positive this is true for other medium-sized Midwestern cities with homogenous (i.e. very white) populations — there’s a huge group of kids that fall through the cracks of pop, country or rap and find themselves obsessed with “emo” or “post-hardcore” or whatever they want to call this tricky-to-label subgenre of rock that prides itself on emotional honesty and catharsis. If you’re the right person in the right frame of mind, listening to these bands on headphones can be just like hearing your own internal monologue. Something about the hormonal anxiety in the vocals and stories of losing and finding love in the most intense ways possible makes people memorize all the words and write them on their notebooks and scream them with furious conviction at shows.
After a boom in the ’90s with bands like Jawbreaker, American Football, Sunny Day Real Estate and even records from bands like Jimmy Eat World and Weezer, emo has gone through some ups and downs in the last couple decades. The Front Bottoms, who just released a new record on September 18, are one of the new rising stars of this scene, but in general, the genre feels like it’s experiencing a resurgence with other bands like The Menzingers, Into It Over It and Modern Baseball. But the Rosetta Stone for all these dramatic artists and emotional fans is a band called Brand New and an album called Déjà Entendu.
Brian Eno once said, though The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 30,000 copies in 1967, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Well, Déjà Entendu wasn’t a huge commercial success either, but everyone who bought that album started an artsy, serious Tumblr. After a debut album that expertly executed but slavishly followed all the tropes of emo, Brand New took their sophomore release as an opportunity to completely reinvent the genre. It’s hard to put into words exactly what it is that makes Déjà Entendu such a classic. Maybe you need to listen to it after you’ve pulled an all-nighter and the sun is rising on Sunday morning or after you’ve made a new connection with someone special or after you’ve fallen out of love for the first time, but something about that record plunges into the depths of your feelings, gets you to your core and stings you in a way that’s impossible to forget.
But if you become familiar with enough of these bands (not necessarily Brand New itself, but definitely the many acolytes they spawned), you’ll hear that practically all of these emo indie bands are exclusively made up of straight white men, and most of them are singing about youthful crushes and heartbreak. Here’s where we get to that “love to hate” part, because while I absolutely love ambitious rock music, sometimes you just want to shake all these heartbroken narrators and yell at them about how stupid they are. Whether they’re idealizing a nameless pretty girl and whining about how she doesn’t want to sleep with them or complaining that all the jocks are dating the girls they themselves want to be with or proclaiming how they’re the only ones who know how to treat a girl right, I’m so sick of what feels like the exact same dude in every single song dramatically complaining about how hard his privileged life is. I’m not saying the artists aren’t allowed to have problems, but at its worst, emo is loudly ignorant white male entitlement set to generic guitar music. (Jessica Hopper’s “Where the Girls Aren’t” is required reading if you love this genre.)
So that leads to an obvious question: How come I’ve been listening to these artists so much? Why listen to them at all? First of all, you don’t have to listen to this genre if you’re not into it. With the probable exception of Déjà Entendu, this scene hasn’t produced any objective modern classics. Emo is a genre that’s almost entirely shaped by the experiences and worldviews of its listeners, which means that if you’re not feeling the emotions or if you can’t relate to the feelings of the singer, don’t worry about appreciating it and just find something else you’ll enjoy.
But there’s a quote that I love in an oral history of the ’90s emo band Jawbreaker — this indie record label guy who said, “If you didn’t make out to a Jawbreaker song or wallow in self-pity after breaking up with somebody to a Jawbreaker song, then I don’t know what you were doing.” To me, that’s such an amazing reason to make music (or any kind of art). We should talk about all the problems of emo, because thousands of teenagers form their philosophies based on the artists, but when something about a song just makes you feel like it’s the center of the universe, that you want to do nothing but drive around all night and sing along until you lose your voice, that everything about it reminds you of your friends and lovers and infinite nights in your hometown, maybe that’s one of the greatest things a song can ever hope to do.