The fact that I’m 99% certain that no one reading this has understood the reference in the title saddens me. For your information, it’s the name of an album by Say Anything, a vastly underrated band who have often been described as “emo”. However, this brings me on to the crux of this little piece, which I lightly touched upon in the little fluffer piece I wrote last week. What makes a band emo, or not emo, and why does this label even matter? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, yet many who turn their noses up at the mention of pop punk will defend emo until death, despite the fact that both genres share musical features, lyrical traits, and, half the time, bands. So what makes emo?
Absolutely nothing. Genres are a construct. Mind blown. To some extent, this facetious statement is actually true. I’ve always been in support of the idea that you simply like what you like, and shouldn’t define your taste by genres. I spent much too long a time in khaki shorts and flannel shirts to think that any later generations should define themselves as pop punk kids. Been there, done that, bought way too many of the t-shirts. However, while often over-emphasised, genres serve a very useful purpose. I like the music of The Wonder Years (a hell of a lot, I might add). They fall under the genre of pop punk (although I’d say they’re leaning into emo now), and so I can use this to look into other similar bands, and find bands like Fireworks that follow a similar musical formula to The Wonder Years. The problem, however is that bands like Tigers Jaw and Turnover also come back to you when you search like this.
Here is the issue. The overlap between genres is immense. Between punk, pop punk, emo, indie, hardcore and post-hardcore, there is a massive, ridiculously complex venn diagram. Many of these genres share features with each other, whilst being starkly different in other areas. What Turnover did with Peripheral Vision certainly seems to fit with my mental image of “emo”, yet so do bands such as Mom Jeans, who sound almost nothing alike. So what kind of fucked up magnet draws these very disparate sounds together under one heading?
This isn’t a question that has a real answer, but I would say ethos, and I’d say that this definition of genre extends beyond emo as well. You only need to look at the nonsensical label of indie to see this. As a shortening of the word independent, this name itself means music independent of larger record producers, regardless of the appropriating of the word to mean bands who play bland music and people who wear Fred Perry. The meaning has extended to mean music that doesn’t fit into any real established genre, and again I can understand this meaning, its musically focused. So my view on emo is musically focused too.
Emo, at least in my eyes, revolves around one very simple thing: being a bit sad. While Peripheral Vision is haunting and emotional both in sounds and lyrics, Mom Jeans approach the genre with a generally more upbeat sound whilst retaining the confessional lyrics. This is a simple point, with even a cursory glance at Wikipedia telling you that emo is defined by emotional expression, but in an age where genres are becoming increasingly dependant on the non-conformist, yet ironically incredibly conforming subcultures that spring up around them, it is something that I feel people need to be reminded of.
In essence, the point of this piece isn’t to explain to you what emo really is. I’m not a big enough American Football fan to be the type of person to tell you what true emo is. However, the greater point to take away from this is the point of what genres are, and why they are useful, yet dangerous. Yes, they can help you find new music, and this is an incredibly powerful tool for exploring your musical tastes, but they can also be quite prescriptive, telling you what you should listen to, do, or wear.
However, I’m sure many people reading this may consider themselves as “indie”, imagining the genre as some sort of all-consuming lifestyle choice. So here is my cautionary tale for you: picture a skinny 16 year old in khaki shorts, vans, Real Friends merch and a flannel button up, finger pointing along to The Story So Far. Think about how much of an idiot that kid looks. That kid was me in 2014, and he’s the pop punk equivalent of your average indie in 2018. Wear whatever you feel like, but don’t let that shit consume you. Let music be about the music, not playing dress up. When you look back in a couple of years, you’ll think you look like a berk too.
Original photo credit: Chris Strong for the original American Football LP cover