The hardest question you will ever be asked in life is “What kind of music do you like?” If you avoid the usual responses (“a little bit of everything,” “anything but country and metal”) there is always the fear of being compartmentalized or misunderstood. People may refer to you as being the “folk loving hipster,” or “the weird kid who actually likes power-metal (or ska.)” But the bottom line is that people will always judge you based off of your tastes. So get over it, you wannna-be-pretentious dingus, you.
It is hard being misunderstood, and I get it. So when I am asked what kind of music I like, I am always hesitant about saying “Emo.” Why I am so hesitant is because I am usually met responses like “Oh so, like My Chemical Romance?” or, “I used to listen to Fall Out Boy in middle school!” I immediately feel the need to defend myself and I have to clarify that these bands are not emo, which usually confuses the person curious about my music taste even more. It is especially hard to explain to someone what emo sounds like if they do not actually experience the music for themselves. In these situations, I am forced to say it just sounds like indie rock.
So what really is considered to be emo? Emo was born out of the lighter strands of hardcore in the late 80s. It was coined as shorthand for emotive hardcore. Some of the bands that inspired this were Rites of Spring and Indian Summer. What emo actually is today was really first pioneered by a scrappy group of teenagers from Illinois calling themselves Cap’n Jazz. Founded by brothers Tim and Mike Kinsella, Cap’n Jazz brought inventiveness, lightness and passion to a very abrasive form of music. Cap’n Jazz started the music movement that is now known as Midwest emo. This genre is more sensitive and passionate than most other types of emo. The guitar work is usually very clean and pristine despite being very energetic. Cap’n Jazz has connections to other Midwestern emo such as Braid and The Promise Ring, who followed after a more pop-punk based form of emo. Yet what really singles out Cap’n Jazz from other bands was what some members of the band went on to do with their career after the band.
Mike Kinsella who had beat out the high energy rhythms for Cap’n Jazz went onto create one of the most influential records within the sphere of what is considered to be emo. Alongside other experimental musicians right before he graduated college at Champagne/Urbana, American Football was born. The self-titled record they made in 1997 became the stuff of legends. It breathes quietly, waxes delicately and is filled with twinkly guitar and mathy time signatures. Despite being quiet and not as explosive as the sound of Cap’n Jazz, this record is also considered emo.
Emo reached a more popular mainstream success level shortly after American Football in the early 00‘s through other bands more rooted in pop-punk. Artists like Brand New and Taking Back Sunday took on a more mass appeal due to the angst of their lyrics and the accessibility of melodies. Even within popular indie rock such as Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes, traces of emo can be found within their first releases. Death Cab’s first four records especially hold this title ranging from Something About Airplanes to Transatlanticism.
Emo went away somewhere in the mid 00’s but there was a resurgence through bands from the east coast such Algernon Cadwallader, Snowing and The World Is a Beautiful Place and I am No Longer Afraid to Die. These bands were of the first to engage in what is commonly referred to as the “Emo revival.”
Algernon and Snowing especially did a good job of snagging the wails of Cap’n Jazz and the intricacies of American Football, pushing them together to make a beautiful organized chaos of sound. The internet, especially Reddit, rallied around bands like these to help propel them to cult (and in some rare cases mainstream) acclaim. These bands have become categorized into the genre of “Twinkley emo,” emphasizing the crisp, polished sounds of the guitars. Sometimes they are referred to jokingly as “Twinkle daddies.” Greg Horbal, the guitar player from The World Is a Beautiful Place… coined the term as a gag, but it quickly caught on.
Most emo shows around the late 00’s and early 10’s took places in basements and were viewed as an underground affair. What made this cool was how shows like these were essentially bands playing for their friends who were their fans. A level of personal intimacy through relationships is still one of the major factors found within emo to this day.
Emo today has reached mainstream success through bands such as Modern Baseball and Foxing. Various music publications have championed each band and brought them into the public eye. Both Modern Baseball and Foxing provide their own spin on the emo sound. While Modern Baseball tries to create pop-rock anthems through emo, Foxing takes a delicate post-rock approach using orchestration to add even more depth to their feeling.
For me, the sheer vastness of what emo music has been and is currently becoming is tremendously exciting, and I hope I can share that excitement with you. Even though I absolutely hate the corporation Spotify, I have compiled a basic playlist of over twenty bands that have provided a unique and major impact within the world of emo. I encourage you to browse through the playlist and find something you like, then go to bandcamp (where all the good emo is) and find more of it. Support your local emo scene. Buy albums. Buy shirts. Emo is a gang.