Don't Call It A Revival: Emo in 2016

"If emo's bad news, then you're a liar" – Adam Lazzara (paraphrased)

Feature by Chris Ogden | 29 Sep 2016

Emo's hit the big 3-0, but it's had a tough time getting here. Fans celebrate the genre for unflinching lyricism, urgent delivery and a unique sense of community – but the most heart-on-sleeve of alt-rock genres has suffered a dragging in the press, some mainstream misdirection and, yes, many truly regrettable haircuts. Is 2016 the year of the emo revival? Did emo ever really die? Does Skrillex have a place in this conversation? To investigate, The Skinny turns to the history books, the return of American Football and the advent of Glasgow’s Strugglefest on 1 October. 

Rites of Passage
Emo’s rise can be traced back to Washington D.C. hardcore punk acts; in the late 80s, bands like Jawbreaker and Embrace looked to escape the macho political posturing of the hardcore scene. Some claim that the emotional prototype is Rites of Spring’s 1985 self-titled album; the blistering pace of hardcore punk mixed with Guy Piccioto’s larynx-ripping vocals resulted in jangly, post-punk influenced guitar lines and nostalgic, histrionic lyrics: ‘I woke up this morning with a piece of the past caught in my throat / And then I choked.’ In response to Reagan and Thatcher’s neoliberal individualism, the original emocore turned political turmoil into personal struggle. 

Underground Success
In the 90s and early 00s the genre morphed. Under the mathy, melodic styling of Sunny Day Real Estate and American Football, the scene’s epicentre fell in the American Midwest – or Champaign, Urbana to be even more precise. The suburban house photographed on the cover of American Football’s 1999 debut would later become a genuine pilgrimage destination, a milestone of pop culture, and it reflected emo’s subtle shift towards the confessional. Examining knotty, awkward emotions with the analytical prowess of any isolated teenage dreamer, we'll give no prizes for guessing why SDRE’s debut album was titled Diary. 

So long and goodnight?
By the mid-2000s, emo was split by a coup more severe than Corbyn’s. Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and Dashboard Confessional harnessed aspects of the genre to mainstream pop sentiments, creating a major subcultural movement synonymous with those jet black fringe sweeps. There was barely a teenager alive in 2004 who didn’t know all the words to Hands Down or Helena, but the commercial mutation of emo became a double-edged sword.

Skrillex – then Sonny Moore, front man of From First To Last with a debut titled Dear Diary, My Teen Angst Has a Body Count – was a poster boy for the original MySpace pose, and the Daily Mail ran headlines warning against a widespread “emo death cult.” Mainstream media dismissed emo’s public, eye-linered face as dangerous, superficial and self-obsessed while Gerard Way’s band became festival headliners – to the dismay of parents and genre purists alike. 

Stay Positive: The Scope of Rebuilding
After some rocky teen years of its own, emo turned 30. While a few vestiges of the old genre cling on, the 2010s welcomed a new breed of mainstream emo in bands like Modern Baseball, The Hotelier, and The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die. This “fourth wave” remains as messy and intense as the genre’s ever been; The Hotelier’s second album Home, Like Noplace Is There is a devastating witness to suicide and abuse from a band who casually namedrop Nietzsche and Thoreau.

There are those who’ll argue that modern emo has rediscovered its political potential, but long-term listeners protest that it never disappeared. The genre's integration within the DIY punk scene sees bands playing intentionally all-ages, all-inclusive shows – or even all-dayers like Strugglefest, the Glasgow mini-fest hosted by non-profit punk label Struggletown Records. This year's bill (on 1 Oct) is topped by Chicago emo outfit Dowsing, who pay plenty respect to the genre's midwestern roots.

But while key UK DIY bands like Human Hands, Soul Structure, Arkless and Carson Wells hold the torch for emo's new wave, genre veterans American Football make a return in October after a seventeen year hiatus. Their spectacular second album carries the same twinkle of old with a new, more mature nod. A cover shot from that same front yard in Urbana could feel like opening a time capsule – but Mike Kinsella and co. avoid re-retreading musical ground.

In fact, emo's remit has broadened, becoming intruigingly open and experimental – as Pinegrove's Cardinal (2016) demonstates, with an Americana influenced interpretation of the genre. The overwhelming welcome given to the band when they first played Glasgow in September could well indicate the shape of things to come. With cathartic live shows and vital subject matter, modern day emo remains importantly, incredibly bonding; far from a pity party, the genre still carries a galvanising force for social change. And that’s the type of party we can all get involved in.