Photo by Philip Cosores
Punk as Fuck is a monthly column in which Associate Editor Collin Brennan discusses issues in punk music and culture. This month’s column looks back on early 2000s emo and explores how the public’s perception of the genre has evolved after a decade under the influence.
A few days ago, the folks over at YouTube entertainment channel Super Deluxe thought they had stumbled upon a bit of comedy gold while perusing President Donald Trump’s famously petulant Twitter feed. “We noticed that @realdonaldtrump’s tweets are basically the lyrics to an early 2000s emo song,” they explained, “so we turned them into one.” The resulting video, in which Trump is depicted with a swooping bang of jet-black hair as a whiny, nasally male voice recites his tweets over compressed power chords, quickly went viral. It was another way for millennials to laugh at our incompetent leader, yes, but it only worked as satire because it had another, similarly easy target in mind.
Emo music has been the on-and-off subject of ridicule ever since it broke out into the mainstream 15 years ago, riding the backs of songs like Dashboard Confessional’s “Screaming Infidelities” and New Found Glory’s “My Friends Over You” to a new level of cultural prominence. I remember this era well because it coincided with my own formative years as a music listener, my nascent sense of self torn between the aloof irony of The Strokes’ Is This It and the heart-on-the-sleeve lyricism of Saves the Day’s Stay What You Are (both albums released 30 days apart in the summer of 2001). The former had the advantage of being pretty much the dictionary definition of “cool,” but the latter did its damage on a more visceral level. Emo and pop punk in the early 2000s eventually won over a generation of teenagers not because it was cool but because, to paraphrase an earlier Saves the Day record, it didn’t care about being cool.
“We kind of had different motives back then,” says Matt Watts, guitarist of the Philadelphia-based pop punk outfit The Starting Line, which formed in 1999 and released their debut full-length, Say It Like You Mean It, in 2002. “When we first started out, we were playing VFW halls and trying to scam our way onto shows with The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. We were looking for a sense of community and authenticity, and we really looked up to the bands that were building a scene.”
None of that sounds particularly cringe-worthy, but by the time emo became a cultural phenomenon, it had already graduated from those noble DIY days. Many of the genre’s newer adherents ditched the punk ethos but held fast to a set of superficial signifiers — thick black glasses, nasally vocals, a singular obsession with the minutiae of male heartbreak — that left them uniquely open to derision. Even bands like The Starting Line wrote songs almost exclusively about women who had scorned them, holding onto post-relationship grudges with a sense of sneering self-importance that would make Trump proud.
This is the picture of emo that Super Deluxe’s Emo Trump video mocks so effectively, and it’s one that many people who never gave their blood, sweat, and (yes) tears to the scene will recognize as worthy of mockery. But not everybody found that video amusing. I recently spoke with the three founders of Emo Nite, a monthly party held in Los Angeles and other cities that’s dedicated to bringing together people who share an unabashed love for emo and pop punk. They agree that memes like Emo Trump misrepresent the music they grew up loving and perpetuate a stereotype of the genre that misses what it’s really about.
“We would never post that on our social media because it doesn’t fly with how we want the genre to be perceived,” says TJ Petracca, who started Emo Nite a couple of years back with friends Barbara “Babs” Szabo and Morgan Freed. With artists like Skrillex, Machine Gun Kelly, and even The Chainsmokers making regular appearances at Emo Nite and talking about it publicly, the party’s founders consider it their duty to put emo’s best face forward at every event they host.
“I think we’re in an interesting position because there are a lot of stereotypes that surround the genre or the word, and I think that we have the ability to break that away,” says Petracca. When I ask if he’s ever felt ashamed about the music he listens to or unfairly judged by those outside the scene, he shrugs. “I never really felt ashamed of it. It’s more like, when I found somebody who liked this kind of music, I became best friends with them. I never felt embarrassed. I just always felt there was this underlying sense of community and connection.”
Photo by Ward Robinson
One of Emo Nite’s most beloved bands is Dashboard Confessional, whose frontman, Chris Carrabba, continues to tour and put out records more than a decade after the group’s initial heyday. Like Petracca, Carrabba doesn’t feel at all embarrassed about emo’s past or present. In fact, he seems to revel in the facets of the genre that are the easiest to mock, asserting that emo couldn’t exist without a wider culture to poke fun at it.
“All of us, the ones that came before and the ones that came after, are easy to mock because we’re unguarded,” he explains. “The objective was never to be cool, so it’s easy to make fun of.” He’s seen the Emo Trump video, too, and he’s able to laugh at it because 1) It’s done in a style that most bands would agree “has nothing to do with what emo really is,” and 2) “If you can’t have a sense of humor about all this stuff, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
Though he’s been one of emo’s figureheads for the better part of two decades, Carrabba’s perspective on the scene is refreshingly nuanced. He’s thrilled for the platinum-level success of bands like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, but he doesn’t think emo needs mainstream acceptance to thrive. “Punk rock wasn’t supposed to be for everybody, either,” he notes.
Talking to Carrabba and some of the other people who were immersed in the scene back in the early 2000s, it’s clear that they see a reflection of themselves in the recent crop of young bands that have taken the genre back to its late ‘90s roots — a time before it became associated with haircuts and guyliner and other superficial detritus.
Watts strayed away from emo after The Starting Line went on hiatus in 2008, feeling that the scene had become “more and more diluted” as different waves of bands came aboard. “Some of the stuff just got sort of silly,” he notes, likening emo in the late 2000s to ‘80s hair metal at its most egregious. “There was this wave of super-credible bands that helped bring the genre to new levels, whether that’s Taking Back Sunday or Brand New or Dashboard Confessional. Two or three generations later, you lost some of that authenticity and the motives became a little different.” He sees the pendulum beginning to swing back in the other direction thanks to bands like Modern Baseball, Beach Slang, and The Menzingers, all coincidentally from his hometown of Philly and all more interested in building a scene and connecting with fans than in scoring a hit record.
Photo by Jennifer Roehm
So, does emo deserve the bad rap it gets in pop culture? Yes and no. The truth about any genre or subgenre of music will always look different to the people closest to it than it does to those on the outside. Emo Nite co-founder Szabo admits this much, explaining that she lacks the perspective to understand emo as anything other than a lifelong obsession. “For me, it never went away,” she says. “Every time somebody asks me [if Emo Nite’s about nostalgia or irony], it’s hard for me to see outside what my life has been, because I still constantly listen to all the bands I grew up on.”
The bands at the center of the scene also have a hard time recognizing what emo has come to mean to those not steeped in its traditions. Sure, they know of its reputation for self-importance, whininess, and a woe-is-me approach to romantic relationships, but that doesn’t necessarily ring true with their experience. For some, like Carrabba, being mocked from time to time is a small price to pay for the gift of a scene that allows them to publicly indulge in the kind of sentimentality that most people keep locked away in journals, far from the judging eyes of the world.
“I’m a guy who writes about what he feels and is not embarrassed by that,” he says, unguarded as always.