Saturday, July 06, 2002

Musical Pain

Take the article, "The." Add to it an obscure descriptive noun, as well as a one referring to an idea or plan. Or try an unusual male or female name... place it first or last, doesn't matter... and pair it with "of" and an odd noun or verb. Or perhaps you can reference a month or a season, or something related to aviation. And maybe make it all lower case to be more poetic. The results? You get variations like "the recess theory," "Ordination of Aaron," and "Rockets to the Moon." No, it's not poetry by refrigerator magnets (though that would work as well). Rather, it's how you name an emo band.

Emo is the latest genre of popular music to stumble towards the mainstream. Joining Swing, Be-Bop, Do-Wop, Motown, Rock & Roll, Disco, R&B, Country, Metal, Indie, Grunge, Bubblegum and Thrash, this post-punk movement is the newest to be noted and cataloged, along with the hits and stars that define the category. You think you're hip if you listen to House and Hip-Hop, to Techno and Tejano? Well, forget it. You're as square as your parents if you don't have the latest vinyl... yes, vinyl... of Weezer's "Maladroit."

Just what is this stuff, the current pretender to the throne formerly occupied by Brit Rock, Rockabilly and Boy Bands? Emo... short for emotional... has been around since the eighties, but is just now reaching out to a wider audience. Almost the opposite of feel good music, emo is tough to define, other than to say that it's a downer. The closest description is that it's a punk rock derivative that, according to one enthusiast, consists of "screaming confessional lyrics over rising and falling guitars." An anti Bobby McFerrin angle... a sort of "Please Worry, Don't Be Happy" approach... emo is focused on specific personal pain, usually involving bad relationships. Or as John Szuch, the founder of Deep Elm Records, a major emo label says, "When I'm talking to one of the singers in a band, and he's broken up with his girlfriend and really depressed, I know there's a great record on the horizon."

The generally accepted first emo band was Rites of Spring, a punk quartet from Washington DC, which is to emo what Seattle was to grunge. The band was looking for a different approach, while keeping their trademark speed and frenzy. Abandoning pure aggression and trying to connect with the audience via shared pain, it changed the core emphasis of the music from energy to emotion. Striking a chord, other bands started to follow suit. And so, even with the breakup of Rites of Spring, the movement shouldered onwards.

As with any style of music, as the word spread and copied, various offshoots occurred. But while even the faithful were not crazy about the moniker, emo kept reaching out, attracting more and more attention. Released mostly on small independent labels, many of the early bands themselves disintegrated and reformed quickly, making establishing a commercially successful beachhead difficult. Nonetheless, a few stalwarts survived and flourished, using names like Jimmy Eat World, Saves the Day and Get Up Kids.

But if the instrumental side was reprocessed punk, the vocals were not. Intense only begins to describe it, ranging as it does from normal singing in the quiet parts to a kind of pleading howl to gut-wrenching screams to actual sobbing and crying. During live shows, emo bands like to play with their backs to the audience during the calm parts. During the loud, exploding sections, the musicians have a tendency to jump and shake unpredictably and knock things over... especially mic stands. Combine this with the fact that the singers often fail to make it to the mic in time to sing, and decide just to scream at the absolute top of their lungs wherever they are when the time comes, and often an entire show will pass without the audience being able to hear the vocals. Perry Como it's not.

Of course, as with any music, some bands have broken out of the pack, though to hear the faithful talk, this almost negates their credentials. The current top-of-the-pops is the aforementioned Weezer, fronted by lead singer Rivers Cuomo, as well as Dashboard Confessional. Weezer packs 'em in with such uplifting lyrics as "I can't say that you love me, so I cry and I'm hurting." And Dashboard Confessional... actually an acoustic solo act known to the rest of us Eagles fans as Chris Carrabba... sits on stage and strums chords while his audience screams out his lyrics such as "Close lipped/another goodnight kiss/is robbed of all it's passion/your grip/another time, is slack/it leaves me feeling empty." It's like Rod McKuen on downers.

In terms of record sales, the most prolific emo bands sell a few hundred thousand copies on their albums at best. There are exceptions... Weezer has more than 2 million copies of its self titled debut album in print. But the movement is growing, and with it, the audience for CD's. At the moment, N'Sync has nothing to worry about at Sam Goody's... that is, unless they encounter an emo band in person, in which case the band would probably kick their butts, and then write a depressing song about how bad it made them feel.

It's all up to the fans. There is a seemingly endless well of teenage angst to plumb, and those are the folks buying the records. Hopefully, success and the mainstream won't go to their heads. Or as Josh Tyrangiel of Time Magazine noted about emo, "like Boston Red Sox fans, in emo, you're only happy when you're sad."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is still trying to understand and appreciate Miles Davis. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.