On learning to forget, or, the fall of emo capitalism and the indie resurrection

Post Author:
The Hotelier

Last week, as Pitchfork debuted the advance stream of Worcester, MA-band the Hotelier's new album Home, Like No Place Is There, the silence was deafening. There was no backlash, the critical consensus was already in: This was an emo record, and it was good. One of the most dickish and judgmental, not to mention powerful, publications in independent rock had just given their blessing to a little independent emo band. This was a website who once published a review of Jet that simply featured a monkey pissing in its own mouth, the same website that published Marc Hogan's review of Jimmy Eat World's 2004 record Futures with the opening line, “Jimmy Eat World's fifth full-length represents what I hope is the final stage in emo's devolution.” Hogan closed with, “it's hard to think of an album more mundane than Futures.” Ten years changed everything. If emo was assuredly “back”, this time with the explicit consecration of the most backlash-hardened corners of the Internet, where had it gone in the first place, and why were we all suddenly comfortable with it again? Like a nearly forgotten romance, the public would be forced to confront its torrid (if complex) relationship with the genre.

On my freshman hallway in the fall of 2001, an admittedly anecdotal and limited sample size, the two CDs that passed most aerobically between the bunch of us were the Strokes' Is This It and Jimmy Eat World's then-titled Bleed American—it was later renamed as the self-titled Jimmy Eat World in the wake of September 11, only to return to its original moniker in 2008, another artifact of the abstraction of the Bush years. The Strokes lost “New York City Cops” off their record in the same moment for the same reasons. If I was entirely honest about how I felt then, Jimmy Eat World was the more important, less boutique, of the two bands. Unsurprisingly, though Is This It peaked on Billboard at #33 and Bleed America/Jimmy Eat World only went to #54, the latter went on to be certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America in the summer of 2002, selling a million copies in its first year; the Strokes' Is This It took ten years to achieve the same. By the time the third track on Bleed American, “The Middle” went to radio in 2001, it seemed like this band, and this movement of emotive alternative rock music couldn't be stopped. This was bigger than The Strokes. Fast-forward through the litanies of a fad: Fueled By Ramen, sort of the Lehman Brothers or the AIG of the emo bubble, took away America's heart, money, and finally their interest with bands like Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Cobra Starship and Panic at the Disco.

By 2008, when Bleed American got its name back, the whole genre felt like a bad dream: Emo was more than stupid; it was provincial, suburban music for fly-over states and their denizens. But the Red States were moving on too. The country was about to experience a financial crisis that would unite its coasts and its center and a presidential election that would divide it along the same lines, but music listeners among the bourgeois coastal elite and Red Staters organized firmly against emo. The next national trend would be toward bands Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers, the heirs to the dumbest parts of emo. (If you need proof of this, read Lumineers lyrics like, “It's better to feel pain than nothing at all” out loud and ask yourself if these could also belong to Dashboard Confessional.) This next bubble was a few years off and the record labels that profited so wildly from the success of emo were slow to realize shifting public opinion. In late 2007 I had just recently left working for Virgin/Capitol Records. It was that fall and winter when the label dropped We Are Scientists, buried recent Capitol-signee the Decemberists, failed to capitalize on LCD Soundsystem's excellent second LP Sounds of Silver, and instead spent loads of money promoting The Starting Line and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. It was as bad a bet as a mortgage on a house in Florida or Arizona that same fall.

Like the housing crisis, the machinery for our national binge on emo began far earlier. Like many Americans in 2001, I had already been through an ill-advised high school punk phase that involved everything from Green Day and Blink 182 to the Get Up Kids. I played all of the above loudly, unironically in my parents' 1993 Corolla as I drove too fast through the flourescent orange street lighting of my hometown. F. Scott Fitzgerald, something of an OG for the overly emotional, wrote in The Great Gatsby, “So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight,” but that was New York in the 1920s, and this was Providence in the 90s; I drove on in the darkness toward nothing. Pop punk bands seemed to understand this level of nihilism. The Warped Tour, which I attended with two good friends on a blisteringly hot day in the summer of 2001 at Suffolk Downs in Boston, rode the steady mainstreaming of punk to national success. My college experience brought kids from places like suburban Pennsylvania and Florida who had seen Chris Carrabba play as Dashboard Confessional, swore by Saves The Day, knew about and liked Promise Ring. Mainstream punk fans became emo from the bottom up. These kids were the ones who gave me Bleed American with their full recommendation, though for the purpose of credibility, they would quickly add that Clarity was their favorite Jimmy Eat World album. Their big, black nylon CD cases came with other emo records from bands like Thursday and Taking Back Sunday. I later toured to a few colleges as a comedian with the joke, “Taking Back Sunday . . . from who? . . . God?”, a reflection of the straw-man absurdity contained in the genre, but, largely, I, like so many others, bought in.

The fall and winter of 2001, I sent monthly mixtapes to my then girlfriend who attended University of Pennsylvania—what could have been more emo than a long-distance relationship from high school?—and each one contained something from Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard Confessional. It wasn't just my youth, though this undeniably played a role in putting a song like “Age Six Racer” on a mix CD without a hint of irony, none of us had experienced the head-whipping backlash machine that was the Internet in its final form. Embedded video was five or six years in the future, the iTunes music store wasn't open yet, streaming music services were two wars away from existence, Facebook and Twitter weren't things yet; irony didn't operate in the way it does now. Of all the thoughts I had about Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard that fall, I never once considered that they might be stupid. Songs like “Again I Go Unnoticed” or “The Sweetness” weren't an ounce overdone, they were just right.

[Dashboard Confessionl, MTV Unplugged by Scott Gries]

My interest, like so much of the general public, was real and unfettered. Consider the audience at Dashboard Confessional's MTV Unplugged performance in 2002, a group of kids screaming all the lyrics, louder than the singer himself, to Carrabba's songs on cable television. It represents a historical artifact, not only of a bygone era but a lost way of feeling about things. Unscientifically, Carrabba sings about 60% of the time, even letting his crowd sing the final movement of that night's second song “Best Deceptions” in its entirety, the world's whitest, most mediocre chorus of fans chanting, “I'm waiting for blood to flow to my fingers, I'll be alright when my hands get warm.” Carrabba introduced “Best Deceptions” that night as a song about “feeling bad and feeling better.” No one blinked; they knew and sang every word. It's hard to imagine any other artist in recent memory doing the same in their televised debut. It's hard to picture anyone caring about music, or anything for that matter, with this level of fervor. What happened that night was as deeply weird as it was deeply authentic. Irony simply did not exist for Carrabba or his fans.

The decline of emo is already well-documented. Carrabba and Dashboard Confessional became a sort of self-parody, finally releasing a song in 2007 called “Stolen” with a chorus that went the way of the literally ridiculous, “You have stolen my heart.” Carrabba, like always, wasn't kidding. “Stolen” went to #44 on the Billboard charts, the band's best performance ever. Their next album, 2008's The Shade of the Poison Trees had two singles that failed to chart. The market had shifted. My friend Chuck—still the only authority I trust with punk and emo—was then interested in a band called 1997 who made ebullient emo out of Chicago. We went to see them at the Knitting Factory when it was still in Manhattan. The show was early, 6pm, an unsettling portent for what came next. The only people besides us in the audience were parents, standing cross-armed in the back, and middle school students. Chuck leaned over to me, stating the obvious, “I don't think we should talk to anyone here.” Unsurprisingly, the video for the band's best song, “Garden of Evil” opens with the guitarist talking to what looks like a 12-year old before the band plays, maybe ironically but maybe not, for a bunch of middle school students. If there was a joke, they weren't in on it and neither were we. The bubble burst, and the music that came from suburban Florida and the Middle West was discredited in kind. Emo was now a middle school phenomenon, exclusively childish. I remember well my embarrassment sending out copies of The Starting Line's 2007 record Direction for Virgin EMI. We were working a KT Tunstall album at the same time, and it was hard to decide which of these two was more humiliating.

[The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus]

Like a lame sauce Mad Men, a few afternoons that fall of 2007 one of my bosses at Virgin and I sat in his office drinking Bud Heavies as he bemoaned being know as “the guy who brought emo to radio.” This title was, even then, becoming something of an ignominious distinction. It had made him good money, he told me—it was the reason for his Vice Presidency at the company—but it made him something of a pariah. The next evolution of late 90s rap-rock was pop-punk, the next was emo; radio still sucked, some industry people blamed him. In a coincidence that revealed this unholy alliances at Alternative Rock radio, we were also working the new Korn record that fall, but it was The Starting Line and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus that seemed the dumbest use of our collective time. They were all nice people, my boss said, before regaling me with stories about venues with lines around the block for Dashboard in 2000. He took station managers from places like Denver and Portland, Maine to see the scene. He transformed Vagrant Records into a major player before, like the bands he repped, moving to a major label. He built his career on convincing station directors and program directors that something was happening in the clubs in the early part of the decade, convincing his label bosses that these kids, the Napster generation, would still buy records. They were all moved, and once emo went to radio the rest was history. Something had been happening then, and now it certainly wasn't.

The Starting Line's 2007 record Direction went to #30 on Billboard though their previous record, 2005's Based on a True Story landed at #18 while still a somewhat forgotten band on Geffen Records (The label had not sent the album's single to radio, effectively burying the band.). Virgin signed the band as the Geffen relationship imploded when Virgin Records President Jason Flom attended a Starting Line show with 10,000 kids singing along. This was the exact paradigm my boss had been selling for almost a decade. Their fans were the kids who were supposed to save a dying record industry, but we were all flying in the face of a shifting market by 2007. Emo was dying. Direction's single, “Island” went to #21 on the Modern Rock chart, behind the personal connections and cajoling of my boss and my innovative ability to print and adhere shipping labels for sending their album to radio. Four weeks after its release Direction was off the chart, no longer even one of America's favorite 200 records. By March 2008 the Starting Line was on indefinite hiatus and in the process of being dropped from Virgin. That same month Bear Stearns received life-support loans from the Fed before being officially euthanized by JP Morgan at two dollars a share. The world as we knew it collapsed around our ears.

[Modern Baseball]

Emo is now making its way back, but this time working from the critical centers outward. Modern Baseball, a band who are the closest heirs the emo scene of the early 2000s, just watched their most recent record, You're Gonna Miss It All, a perfectly nostalgic title for the reemergence of the genre, go to #84 on Billboard in its first week despite no radio single and being on a small label with a limited promotional budget. They certainly didn't get the Starting Line treatment. The album charmed critics too. Ian Cohen, the often colicky writer from Pitchfork, gave the record a 7.2, just short of being labeled with the coveted Best New Music distinction, in the same month as he punished releases from Thumpers, Drowners, and Warpaint, all mainstream indie rock bands that Cohen rightly derided for their lack of innovation or for their exceptionally derivative qualities. And yet Modern Baseball owes more than a little to Dashboard Confessional—a band who, in the ultimate “fuck you,” Pitchfork has never written about—but Modern Baseball escaped being labeled a regurgitator. Their emo aesthetic, according to Cohen, seems new and honest, small but important. They are, in essence, indie rock. The lead-singer is 21, a Drexel University student, and this is touted as street cred, a Rousseauian noble savagery of sorts instead of helpless insouciance.

On Tuesday, another component of this return of emo emerged from the Hotelier, a band both so straight-forward and winking at irony that the first song off Home, Like No Place Is There, is called “An Introduction to the Album”. Even the LP's title plays on our expectations, taking a well-tread aphorism and spinning it slightly off-kilter. Our eye fights to read it as “Home, Like No Place There Is” before being forced into correction. Our ears are doing the same trick. This is emo, it should be a bad joke, a parody, and yet it is lethally serious. It is an album that is immensely listenable and will be well-reviewed; it also features choruses like, “I called in sick from your funeral.” We are miles from Marc Hogan's 2004 pronouncement of the lameness of Jimmy Eat World and the genre of emo. You can decide what to do with this as you sing along and think about all the bad things you thought and said about emo in the last six years. What we're feeling is complicated and satisfying, like seeing an ex-lover under non-acrimonious circumstances: She still looks pretty, and you can't remember why you ever broke things off. This is less admonishment and more cultural correction. Either way, emo is back, and its avenue from scene to mainstream isn't the radio this time, it's independent rock critics.

[the Hotelier]

Bands like Modern Baseball, the Hotelier and, to an extent, Grass Is Green, reflect the transition of basement scene to larger acclaim, but the reasons for their critical blessings bear examination. Each band comes from a northeastern city, perhaps a part of critics' comfortability with them as opposed to hypothetical acts from Jacksonville and Cheyenne; coastal elites can still be dicks. Importantly, however, none of these bands are from Brooklyn. If this is a scene, it's not The Scene. This new credibility and interest from rock critics transcends simple geography, it is part of a larger trend of historical forgetting, maybe our one defense mechanism against the sea-sick progression of modernity. As we have forgotten the financial crisis, we have successfully forgotten how disgusted we were with ourselves for ever liking Dashboard and Jimmy Eat World. Now their emotive qualities, repackaged in small bands, sound like playful forthrightness. They are seemingly more honest than—and I'm using Cohen again here—a band like Drowners who actively cribbs footnotes from the Strokes and the Arctic Monkeys. Those latter thefts are more than inexcusable, they're obvious. For Modern Baseball and the Hotelier, their influences are not any further back chronologically, but they are behind the curve, or maybe thrown in the face of public backlash against emo. In this sense, their emo tropes feel fresh, maybe even jocular, a bull move in a bear market. It is this contrarianism, the empowering of irony that holds the cipher to making sense of this new critical consensus about emo.

The world changed since 2001, an inevitable and unsurprising development, but mostly it clarified the way we processed and consumed narrative and counter-narrative. The layperson calls this discussion “irony”. We couldn't have stars any more, mainstream and counter-culture got tangled up. We needed Tom Cruise to dance as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder to save us from Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise. Success needed to be, in some sense, self-parody. John Mayer's frankly unbelievable 2010 interview for Playboy laid the architecture of new fame bare—the Cruise example, full disclosure, is Mayer's idea. Artists and celebrities, in order to stave off the counter-narrative of the Internet, had to willingly hijack it. You either make fun of yourself first, open yourself to self-parody, or let millions of people do it for you. In these advanced years of irony, it was not bad business to release a sex tape, provided you were the one releasing it. The worst thing you could do in 2014 was not be in on the joke.

For critics like Cohen, the trick is easy: Modern Baseball wear their influences self-consciously, playfully even, Drowners can't or won't. It's one thing to play music that sounds a lot like Dashboard Confessional or Promise Ring or Jimmy Eat World with full knowledge of the tropes, it's quite another to faithfully imitate the Strokes. Maybe it involves the citing of your sources, making the plagiarism so clear that it is obvious you were stealing. Of all the things you can say about Modern Baseball and the Hotelier, they know exactly what and who they're doing on stage and on record. They've claimed the tropes, freeing them from becoming one. Running the calculation backwards: This lack of authenticity grants them authenticity.

[Panic At The Disco]

In the ultimate contrarian twist, emo isn't in any sense “back” because it never in any sense “left”. While the country at large turned on emo, and the bands of its bubble either blew up, changed (consider the career arc of Panic at the Disco from 2005's “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” to 2008's “Nine In The Afternoon”, a sonic admission that the emo party was, absolutely, over), or got dropped from their labels, an underground DIY scene carried on. This basement scene in places like Worcester, MA, or Philly or Boston, never paid much attention to the the bubble fueled by Fueled By Ramen. These are merely teenagers or young adults who grew up listening to emo and hardcore without thinking about who liked it, or what labels were involved or the fact that a nation of music listeners would turn towards and then away from a genre. And “emo” was never an entirely clear genre distinction anyhow. The distance from early Built to Spill and Modest Mouse to Jimmy Eat World or Dashboard is only a minor qualitative discussion of approachability—“You get the car, I'll get the night off”, “I want to see movies of my dreams”, and “I'm trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away” could just as easily be Chris Carrabba lines. What was the essential difference between Death Cab and Dashboard fans in 2001? Maybe elements of emo are simply elements of pop, a history with which we are well acquainted and accustomed.

The irony of listening to these bands now, or relistening to Bleed American or Clarity, is clear and pleasant, a winsome, almost bucolic nostalgia for an allegedly more simple time when people said dumb, simple things like “You're either with us or you're with the enemy, that's clear,” without a hint of irony. In 2001 when Chris Carrabba screamed, “Your hair is everywhere,” you felt feelings instead of laughing your ass off.

Culturally, we got older, colder, and more fraught. Like Carrabba, we were waiting for blood to flow to our fingers. Everything was stupid, or embarrassing, or only cool until the wrong marginal person began liking it, then we turned on our former loves, sometimes for their popularity alone. We became complex self-haters, losing emo, something we had earnestly loved, was just one example of our fickle taste and brief attention span. Our cultural heads whipped like spectators at an especially vicious and grinding tennis match; the counter-narrative ate us alive. And now, in 2014, some of the re-emergence of emo for the critic and the fan is a desire to return to that time, the early Bush years before anyone knew what a Credit Default Swap was or had an opinion on Quantitative Easing or took a position on the Debt Ceiling. Bush was easy to love for some and easy to hate for others. Bush was easy as we rode our housing market into the ground, our blithe optimism and fatalism intertwined on the way down. He never had to say, “Let me be clear.”

Things are more complicated now, our technologies have defeated us, and we've defeated ourselves. Maybe it's all meaningless, and we can only scream into the void knowing that Zach Braff already wrote that movie. We can put “Age Six Racer” on a mix, this time a Spotify playlist, because it is such a silly and uncredible thing to do. We can claim the irony; the bands of emo's resurgence already have. It feels good, maybe honest and playful at once, the best power of modern simulacra. We can listen to Modern Baseball and the Hotelier knowing they know who they sound like. It something we said we would never do again, and yet here we are doing it.