Every genre of music inevitably gets reduced to a stereotype in the eyes of the public. Hip hop is often cast as bluntly misogynistic party music. Jazz is thought to be impenetrable, highbrow virtuosity. The two words “heavy metal” immediately call to mind dudes with long beards, tattoos and leather jackets.

And for “emo” rock — a label now so derided that many bands who come close to the phrase will immediately disavow it — most people will picture immensely sad teenagers, the drama of their privileged lives so overwhelming that they can only find solace in overly emotional, directly relatable guitar music. You’ll hear the adjective “whiny” to describe every vocalist. The word “wristcutter” might be thrown around. It’s an unpleasant, derisive view of a subculture, and it’s no surprise that no band wants to be associated with it.

For this image, I blame Rivers Cuomo and Weezer. Of course, they didn’t invent emo (that dubious honor often gets awarded to ’80s D.C. hardcore band Rites of Spring), but Weezer parlayed its early success into 1996’s Pinkerton. Their sophomore record was a vast departure from the often kid-friendly, goofy image of The Blue Album, which propelled the band into stardom with hit singles like “Buddy Holly,” “My Name Is Jonas” and “The Sweater Song.”

Instead, Pinkerton followed in the footsteps of the first album’s “Say It Ain’t So,” a beautiful, personal ballad by Cuomo about his parents’ divorce, his stepfather and alcoholism. But where “Say It Ain’t So” felt perfectly crafted and poetic, these new songs were messy diary entries scrawled at 2 a.m., filled with awkward moments and way too much information. Pinkerton explores Cuomo’s Asian fetish, his infatuation with a lesbian and all of his deepest insecurities about fame and sex in the most painful detail.

While initial reaction was infamously negative, the record soon gained a cult following and an eventual reputation as the best Weezer album — which means that plenty of bands still cite it as an influence. Within less than ten years, emo went mainstream, as groups like Brand New, Paramore, My Chemical Romance and Simple Plan wrote catchy, overwrought anthems of the suffering caused by teenage hormones.

While I think all of these bands are great in their own right, their hit songs, coupled with the lesser efforts of trendy imitators, created the idea of the “emo aesthetic.” This label is perhaps best exemplified by Dashboard Confessional, whose frontman, Chris Carrabba, is the platonic ideal of emo. He’s a heavily tattooed, broodingly handsome acoustic-guitar strummer whose songs are almost always addressed to a beautiful female “you” who constantly gives him unbearable stress, hope, joy and pain.

Carrabba’s 2002 performance on on “MTV Unplugged” might be the defining moment of emo. He wasn’t an especially famous artist at that point in his career (Unplugged is his only album to go platinum), but Carrabba is surrounded by adoring young fans who sing every word back to him throughout the entire show, amplifying and validating all his most personal lyrics. It establishes this relative unknown as a great leader, a quasi-spiritual guide whose messages are filled with great meaning for his followers, and it opens your mind to how much impact a non-pop emo artist can have on people who understand what they’re saying.

As more and more kids became devoted to what these singers had to say, the oversharing and spitefulness of many emo rock artists soon spread to other genres. Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak and Yeezy’s general lack of a filter call to mind Pinkerton, while Drake’s tendency to name and describe his exes in vivid detail feels petty while also giving his songs an extra level of relatability. For many of these artists, authenticity is no longer the rejection of corporations or the cultivation of a “tough guy” image — it’s the revelation of their darkest secrets for the entertainment of a paying crowd.

But when painful emotions become a path to money, how do we actually deal with the pain?

In a piece for The Ringer from last year, Rachel Premack looked at the popular community of Tumblr users that suffer from depression. They post black-and-white pictures of a sad, lonely looking Lana Del Rey, or quotes like: “It’s not that I don’t enjoy being alive, but my favourite part of being alive is being asleep.” Premack’s piece explored the conflict and challenges of creating a community that accepts and destigmatizes mental illness without romanticizing it.

“It became cool to define yourself by mental illness (on Tumblr),” one user is quoted as saying. “Like, in order to be interesting or valid, you had to have some kind of it.”

In the same way, new emo artists are often judged by the depth of their backstories and pain of their past experiences. The traumas of songwriters make them interesting and cool. The worst thing that’s ever happened to them is the best thing they have to offer the public.

To quote fellow columnist Will Stewart, “When did hating yourself and feeling like you’re going to have a heart attack become a bragging right?”

But a new wave of bands is cutting against the trend of aestheticized pain, using their music as a path for real artistic catharsis and reminding us of its true power. Modern Baseball, originally a catchy band that whined about girls a lot, have matured a great deal and now use their platform for social activism and the destigmatization of mental illness. The Hotelier consistently have some of the best lyrics in rock, words that perfectly characterize the psychological fight against darkness. Meanwhile, Hop Along vocalist Frances Quinlan imbues every words she sings with nearly unfathomable emotion and power, and Kevin Abstract continued to tell heartfelt stories and create better representation for queer rappers with last year’s American Boyfriend.

Most recently, the punk band Sorority Noise has released You’re Not As_____As You Think, already one of the best records of the year and a potential landmark work in how we think about pain and art.

To get the elephant out of the room, yes, You’re Not As_____As You Think is “depressing.” In “Disappeared,” singer Cameron Boucher notes that “just this year I lost a basketball team to heaven,” and of this group, the suicide of a friend named Sean in particular hangs heavy over the music. The opening track sees Boucher forget that Sean is dead and make an impromptu visit to his old house. “I saw you in there / But I was looking at myself,” he sings hauntingly. Each track that follows continues to explore Boucher’s isolation, the pain and the grief caused by these tragedies.

But Boucher is not simply a man wallowing in his sadness, looking for pity from fans. You’re Not As_____As You Think is a brief album, and each word he sings sounds carefully considered, straining to hold the weight of a thousand other sentiments left unsaid. He pictures these touching images of where his friends are now, imagining them listening to The Gaslight Anthem in heaven or “shooting jumpers with Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” He’s trying so hard to fight against numbness and anxiety and loneliness, searching for humanity and connection and reality.

All stereotypes are dehumanizing, and while some are more harmful than others, the idea of emo rock as a genre for privileged kids to whine about their lame problems has never been more untrue or unfair to its artists. These melodies and lyrics are vehicles for connection and sanity in a terrifying, sometimes awful world. At the core of emo isn’t a glamorization of sadness or death, but an all-out high-stakes battle for life.

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