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Music: Emotional Rescue

7 minute read
Josh Tyrangiel

Chris Carrabba has a fine, high voice and looks like a genetic cross between Luke Perry and Jason Priestley. But these attributes have little to do with his success. Frequently, Carrabba–who goes by the stage name Dashboard Confessional–doesn’t even sing during his performances. He just strums an acoustic guitar while the audience of mostly middle-class white kids shouts every word of his desperate, heartbroken lyrics in a sort of primal-scream karaoke. “It’s almost cultlike,” says Carrabba of his fans’ spooky intensity. “I know they’re endearing songs, but there are a lot of endearing songs.”

You might think Carrabba is a rock star. He’s not. He’s an emo star. Emo–short for emotional–has been around since the mid-’80s but is only now developing into a broad cultural phenomenon. Major labels are scurrying to land emo talent, just as they once pillaged Seattle for grunge. Emo is heavier music for heavier times, and it’s starting to sell too. According to Nielsen SoundScan, Carrabba has moved 175,000 copies of his album The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most–a phenomenal number for an independent release–and in April MTV taped a Dashboard Confessional Unplugged, the first time the network has unlocked the gates of its signature music show for a non-platinum-selling act. “Obviously, we think this kind of music has a really big future,” says Unplugged producer Alex Coletti.

Emo might be even bigger if anyone knew precisely how to define it. The standard line is that emo accentuates the emotional content of a song with screaming confessional lyrics over rising and falling guitars. “It’s not music that follows any pattern,” says John Szuch, founder of emo label Deep Elm Records, based in Charlotte, N.C. “Some of it’s real accessible; some of it’s not. Some of it’s 10 minutes long and filled with all kinds of loud-soft dynamics, and some of it’s just kind of normal.” Carrabba puts it more succinctly: “I have no idea what emo is.”

Part of the problem is the word emo. With punk or grunge, you know where you stand. But emo? Isn’t all music emotional? Emo fans (and we will get to them in a minute) say comparing emo with mainstream rock is like comparing The Bell Jar with a Hallmark card.

So how can you know emo when you hear it?


The first emo band was Rites of Spring, a punk quartet named for the Stravinsky composition that caused a riot after its 1913 debut. When skinheads took over the Washington punk scene in the mid-’80s, Rites of Spring singer Guy Picciotto decided to change punk from a medium that glamorized aggression to one in which strength was measured by a band’s willingness to share its pain with its listeners.

Rites of Spring lasted all of two years, but emo, a name that everyone detested even then, stuck. Now emo is musically broad enough to include country, thrash, acoustic and traditional pop sounds (no rap emo yet). The subject matter has gradually narrowed from the general pain of being an outsider to the specific hurt of a bad relationship. “When I’m talking to one of the singers in a band,” says Szuch, “and he’s broken up with his girlfriend and really depressed, we know there’s a great record on the horizon.”


Adolescents can be divided into two categories: those who pretend to feel nothing and those who aspire to feel everything. The latter make up the emo demographic. Think Lisa Simpson: she values her individuality and brainpower while bemoaning the loneliness that goes along with being smart and artistic. As for emo’s particular style, consider a pair of sample questions from an “Emo Purity Test” circulating on the Internet: Do you own a pair of horn-rimmed glasses? Do you buy T shirts at Goodwill that are too small for you?


When Howard Greenfield wrote the lyrics to Breaking Up Is Hard to Do in 1962–“Don’t take your love away from me/ Don’t you leave my heart in misery”–he was clearly in some pain. But listen to Neil Sedaka sing the song–the up-tempo chorus, the sugary vocals–and you would think Sedaka was falling in love, not getting booted out of it. As with all good pop music, the contrast between the delivery and the lyrics makes the song abstract and thus accessible to lots of listeners, including those not in the midst of a breakup.

Emo is the antipop. It shuns abstraction to drive home a single point: woe is me. Carrabba went through an agonizing breakup and put it down more or less unfiltered in his songbook. “Take a lyric like ‘Ooh I love you and only you,'” says Carrabba, creating an example of what he sees as typical pop emptiness. “Yeah, it’s a love song, but where does it touch you?”

Carrabba’s songs don’t just touch; they aim to throttle. Screaming Infidelities, Carrabba’s breakout hit about breaking up, includes the lines “I’m cuddling close to blankets and sheets/ You’re not alone, you’re not discreet/ You make sure I know who’s taking you home.” His guitar is mournful, his voice strained. The song isn’t about being cheated on; it’s about Carrabba’s being cheated on. An average listener can empathize only so much before tuning out. A fragile teen being broken up with for the first time will wear the repeat button down to a nub.


Most emo band names blend irony and sincerity as if they were the same thing (which, in the current adolescent idiom, they are): Sunny Day Real Estate, This Beautiful Mess, Dead Red Sea, the Get Up Kids, Saves the Day, Boys Life, Jenny Piccolo, Living War Room.


True to its punk roots, emo has a self-sufficient community that functions outside the mainstream. While dozens of emo bands have signed with major labels, the great majority remain on independents like Deep Elm and Jade Tree. These labels put out CDs and compilations like The Emo Diaries on the cheap, and they don’t have major record-store distribution. Kids buy albums directly from the label websites, then huddle online at diaryland.com makeoutclub.com and the emo postpunk Web ring to bare their souls and trade reviews.

But the emo community can be just as domineering and spiteful as any other. Many bands get filed under emo against their will. “Any group of artists thrown randomly into a bag with a bunch of other ones are going to resent it,” says Davey von Bohlen, lead singer of the Promise Ring. Emo fans go ballistic when they think a band is selling out. The Promise Ring released a lovely mature rock album, Wood/Water, last month, but emo fans howled because the band sounded overproduced and it had abandoned tiny, emo-friendly Jade Tree for slightly less tiny Epitaph. “I don’t care who pays for your college. Why should you care who pays for our records?” asks guitarist Jason Gnewikow.


On Death and Destruction, a song from Weezer’s new album, Maladroit, singer Rivers Cuomo groans, “I can’t say that you love me, so I cry and I’m hurting.” Now that’s emo.

Weezer is on a major label and has sold millions of albums, but despite these sins the band is beloved by emo fans, largely because Cuomo is an emo Everyman. After Weezer sold 3.9 million copies of its first two albums, Cuomo abandoned music, went to Harvard and put himself through an extremely painful surgery to even the lengths of his legs. When he realized that Harvard was not a cure for feelings of social inadequacy, Cuomo returned to Weezer and started banking song after song. What does Weezer’s success prove? That emo kids–who pride themselves on not being like everybody else–don’t mind living vicariously through a star, particularly an overwrought one, much as everybody else does. It’s tough to avoid the conclusion that the emo faithful, like Red Sox fans, are only happy when they’re sad.

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