February 7, 2011

In Defense of the Genre

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As a young man thoroughly enthralled by the hypnotic combination of rhythm, melody and harmony — henceforth known as music — it is absolutely mortifying to admit to the most heinous of taste crimes: an appreciation and acceptance of various musical genres that fall under the umbrella of emo. At the risk of losing my reader’s trust (already 75 percent of those who started reading have abandoned this column, left incomplete due to my perceived insanity), I plan on mounting a Cochranesque defense of emo and its many prickly branches.

Growing up on Long Island as a teenage fan of indie rock gateway drugs Weezer, Ben Folds Five and Pavement, I should have exhibited an overdeveloped musical elitism gland, like many of my Pitchfork-perusing cohorts strewn across the country. Luckily for my parents and anyone else I happened to interact with, this was not the case. Self-conscious as I was about it, I enjoyed the local punk music scene, which was knee-deep in its self-pitying, throat-abusing emo phase. Bands like Taking Back Sunday and Brand New were at the height of their powers, being featured on FuseTV and in sports video games. Local phenoms Patent Pending and Lack of Better Days seem poised to break out of the basement circuit and into the big time on the strength of their sweaty, chaotic shows. Emo permeated various genres: ska (The Arrogant Sons of Bitches), metal (From Autumn to Ashes) and even techno (just kidding).

Despite the critical shellacking such groups received from publications that were not The Alternative Press, they undoubtedly filled a void in the greater music scene. Mid-2000s indie rock is remembered mostly for its mopey, introspective stylings and rap music from that era was stuck in its “douchebags with lots of cars and bling” phase. What emo music provided for kids was a sort of link to a more distinguished musical lineage, including hardcore legends like Black Flag and Minor Threat and post-hardcore luminaries like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Dismemberment Plan, that provided an angry voice of discontent that was not obsessed with crime and guns, like some hip hop, or rape and dismemberment, like the more extreme forms of metal. It was highly relatable despite being pathetically self-obsessed (which says something very sad about the mental state of your average suburban teen). Plus, the shows were a blast; you were free to flail about and scream and swear with the harshest repercussion being a quick ousting by one of the immense bouncers.

Long Island’s emo scene has since managed to devolve into an even more annoying form. Defanged of its more aggressive leanings, performers have developed an uncanny resemblance to Justin Bieber, at least where their hair is involved. Musically, they are not much better than the Biebster. It’s often difficult to tell whether or not a group is trying to be another Sum 41 or another Jonas Brothers. Any attempts at musicality are relegated to grindcore bands that, for the most part, have abandoned the accessible hooks that gave emo its spunky charm in favor of heavier guitar tones and greater overall technicality.

With the death of emo, though, comes the return of a far more enjoyable and critically accepted strain of music: post-hardcore. Primarily finding its feet overseas, this revival of a shambling 90s American underground has found some crossover success, with songs from British bands, such as Dananananaykroyd and Los Campesinos!, appearing in such mainstream fair as FIFA video games and Budweiser commercials. These groups, along with Birmingham rabblerousers Johnny Foreigner, lead a scene that has captivated the underground British music press, including trend-setting publication NME and independent online zine Drowned in Sound. The sound is proving itself both commercially viable and self-perpetuating, with bands often vocally supporting each other or sporting one another’s t-shirts on stage or during interviews.

But is it just up to our neighbors across the pond to carry the torch for aggressive, emotional music with pop sensibilities? Not so much. Springsteen-indebted punk rockers Titus Andronicus combined high-minded storytelling with aggressive punk and quality hooks on last year’s excellent Civil War allegory The Monitor. And Toronto’s Fucked Up tour relentlessly behind their shoegaze-influenced take on hardcore.

The most exceptional — and probably the most stylistically emo — group to take up this mantle would be Canadian duo Japandroids, whose songs not only use distorted guitars and teenage, adenoidal screams, but contain lyrics that yearn for the simplicity of childhood and lament old relationships. As immature as it is to scream about good times lost and your lack of romantic prospects, it is a reality in the lives of many people, and, sometimes, it is important that you have the right band to soundtrack it. Plus, Japandroids do emo one better by somehow being uplifting about all of it.

Original Author: James Rainis