|The Emo genre and subculture has become something that is very hard to define. Because of this it is difficult to trace its ancestry. Most people who claim to be “in the know” cite the D.C. hardcore/punk scene and more specifically the band Rites Of Spring as the founders of emo. However, history has shown that it is rash to attribute the formation of a musical genre to one band. By looking at the musical scenes of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s we can better determine the roots and influences that started and continue to affect the emo genre and subculture.
Before one can understand where “emo” comes from one must first understand what it is today. “I prefer to think of it [emo] as punk rock that’s more melodic and introspective/depressing than hardcore, but still tapping into that primal energy and anger” (DeRogatis 1). This style of music has spawned a subculture of and scene that has been continually growing since the early nineties. Most of the kids look like nerds; wear dark rimmed glasses, chuck taylor high tops, and thrift store clothes. It is pretty easy to stereotype an “emo” kid, which is ironic because no can seem to define “emo” music.
The best way to describe “emo” music is by soft arpeggiated guitars overtop soft airy vocals that build up and release into an orchestra of heavy distorted guitars and then brought back down to the original quiet part. Emo lyrics are generally very poetic and range from topics of lost love to religious beliefs or other emotional subjects. Yet “emo” covers a wide variety of bands these days, from the soft melodic pines of American Football to the hard driving sounds of At the Drive In. How can a genre so large be traced to anything?
The problem is that what one person defines as “emo” is not to the next, it all depends on your point of view. Jason Gnewikow from The Promise Ring states it well, “ I could validate the point that we are an emo band, and I could also go on the other side and invalidate it. It all comes down of whoever’s asking, their perception of what it is” (DeRogatis 3). The prevailing perception of emo usually comes from the band Sunny Day Real Estate. Started in Seattle in 1992, SDRE combined their roots in hardcore with melodic vocals and a “pop” feel. Their 1994 release of “Diary” changed the emo scene forever. “Sunny Day came out of nowhere and changed a lot of peoples lives,” (Kurland 2) says Jeremy Gomez, bass player for the band Mineral. “Most people today when they think of emo think of the The Get Up Kids, Mineral. , and bands like that, that are coming from Sunny Day Real Estate” (DegRatis 3).
Many people argue that Sunny Day is not emo at all. They claim that “emo” rose out of the D.C. hardcore/punk scene and the band Rites of Spring. “[Rites of Spring] was a melodic hardcore group, but what set it apart was the subject matter of its songs. Rather than ranting about revolution and anger, Picciotto sang about lost love and forgotten memories” (Kurland 1). While Rites of Spring did bring a more melodic sound to hardcore/punk, they certainly were not the first, and they also were not the first hardcore punk band to focus their lyrics on other subject matter.
The hardcore/punk scene as a whole had been moving in this direction. A Rolling Stone article in 1985 cites this growing trend, “Primal punk is passé… They have learned how to play their instruments. They have discovered melody, guitar solos and lyrics that are more than shouted political slogans” (Goldberg 1). Bands like Hüsker Dü had been pioneering new avenues in hardcore punk. “For the past two years, Hüsker Dü has been confounding warrior punks and mainstream rockers alike with a rapidly evolving fusion of high-speed thrash, recombinant pop-song structures, and emotionally scared lyric confessions” (Frickle 1).
Rites of Spring put out one full album and an EP; they lasted for a little less than 2 years and played around fourteen shows. Lead singer Guy Picciotta then went on to start the band Fugazi, whom took some of what Rites of Spring started and progressed from there. However, only “to some extent Fugazi moved the legacy of Rites of Spring and Embrace forward, though its music was never quite as emotionally exposed. It would fall on the bands that followed to fashion emo into the style heard today” (DeRogatis 1).
Although the influence of Fugazi and the Washington D.C. scene on emo were substantial, emo, as we know it today did not rise solely from hardcore scene. What is disturbing is that most sources that try to trace the history of emo leave a huge gap between the “D.C. Dischord sound” of the mid to late eighties and Sunny Day Real Estate of the mid nineties. How did emo get where it is today? I propose it was a marriage between hardcore and indie rock with grunge as the father of the bride, paying for the wedding.
While bands like Rites of Spring and Hüsker Dü were breaking new ground in the hardcore scene, a band named Sonic Youth was transforming the indie/underground scene. “Sonic Youth used guitar riff hooks as the bait, but obliterated melodies and conventional song structures with long passages of drone, odd guitar strains and scathing atmospherics” (McGurgan 1). Their 1987 release of Sister would prove to be a hugely influential album.
“On this record they use the soft, warm sound as a base from which each of the song's emotions flower. The effect is comforting and primal, like the hum of a mother cooing her child to sleep. Then out of nowhere, like the opening bars on "(I Got A) Catholic Block," guitars crash in and twist the pervading sense of peace into feelings of disruptive frustration. As the lyrics and the tempo converge and take the song's feelings to a pitch, the pace slows down; the guitars slowly drop off as if the emotions had been spent…” (Neumann 1)Sonic Youth continued to redefine the predictable rock song by producing progressive albums throughout the 1980’s, following Sister with their masterpiece Daydream Nation. Their influence on rock music is almost unprecedented, especially for a band that never had a Top 40 hit. However, full recognition of their significance would not come until the effect of Nirvana’s Nevermind was felt throughout the rock community.
Another band that was redefining the indie scene at this time was The Pixies. They formed in 1986 when lead singer Charles Thompson placed an ad in Boston for a “bassist for a Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul, & Mary band” (Kane 1). Once Charles had all the members he needed The Pixies began to write songs and play shows around the Boston area. Their music is typified by stop/start-distorted guitar beneath Thompson’s vocals as he “veers from a whisper to a scream” (1).
“The Pixies' busy, brief songs, extreme dynamics and subversion of pop song structures proved one of the touchstones of '90s alternative rock” (Erlewine 1). However, more importantly The Pixies laid the groundwork for the alternative explosion of the early '90s. They were one of the first indie bands to break through the pop charts giving the lesser-known underground bands of the early 90’s an opening to gain success.
As the eighties moved into the nineties the American youth was looking for a new direction in music. Kids were tired of the fake pop anthems sung only to make a dollar. “There has been a return to the emotionally charged performance, the display of raw power as an assurance of the truthfulness and sincerity of the performer(s)” (Santiago 189). These Generation X’ers wanted music that mirrored their feelings. “They defined nineties rock with an angry metal/punk and rap, which reflected their fears, frustration, desperation, and hopes” (Szatmary 315). Out of this need for emotion, feeling, and true music came the grunge scene and eventually the emo scene.
Seattle’s Sup Pop label arguably was the impetus behind the grunge and emo movements. “Sup Pop scored its first success with Soundgarden” (326). They began signing other similar acts in the early nineties and eventually stumbled upon a local band named Nirvana. The Seattle scene and the “Sup Pop sound” had shaped a worldwide explosion of ripped-jeaned, flannel shirt wearing teenagers. “By the end of 1990, Sub Pop had helped to create the image of Seattle as the site of an exciting, emerging music scene” (328).
Nirvana was the band that broke things open in Seattle. After their first album, Bleach, on Sub Pop, Nirvana went on a European tour with Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth introduced Nirvana to David Geffen, owner of the DGC label. Geffen paid off Sub Pop and singed Nirvana to his label. In 1991 Nirvana released their landmark album Nevermind. “[Nevermind] was the perfect embodiment of punk attitude, classic rock, and pop melody -- the combination of which had never been embraced, or heard before” (Gulla 1).
“In early 1992 Nirvana hit the top of the chart…within a year the band had sold 10 million copies of their debut…” (Szatmary 328). Nirvana was the quintessential overnight success story, giving record labels and garage bands everywhere a dream that they could find or become the next big thing. “Everywhere music critics spoke of the search for the ‘next Nirvana.’ Major labels scoured Seattle for still – unsigned bands” (Bertsch 1). Now the music industry had an ear to the underground and underground bands now had a platform to stand on.
After Nirvana left Sub Pop, they continued to look for new ground breaking talent. They discovered local Seattle band Sunny Day Real Estate and released their first full-length album in 1994. “On "Seven" and "In Circles," the first two songs of its debut album Diary, Seattle's Sunny Day Real Estate practically drew up the blueprints for an entire genre of rock” (Cohen 1). It was with this album “that emo began making waves outside the hardcore community” (Kurland 1).
“Sunny Day Real Estate inadvertently signaled ‘go’ for the emo-core frenzy with Diary” (Cohen 1). Jeremy Egnik's powerful falsetto voice coupled with vast dynamic shifts and heartfelt lyrics typify Sunny Day revolutionary sound. Their influence on the emo community was immense considering the low profile they kept, only doing one interview and never playing a show in the state of California. In 1995, before the release of their second album, LP2, Sunny Day Real Estate disbanded, however, their impact had already been made.
The emo-core genre was now off and running. With bands such as Mineral, Texas is the Reason , and Christie Front Drive following in Sunny Day’s wake the genre had begun planting its roots around the country. Today, emo has evolved into many different styles and sounds with every new band adding it’s own twist to the genre. Because of these artist’s diversity I would not be surprised if many other genres of music will develop from the huge canopy of emo.
Music is something that does not change overnight it evolves slowly yet dramatically. Music advances because artists are constantly pushing the boundaries, striving to be different, striving to be original. No true musician wants to be labeled or put in a box and that is why few bands want the “emo” stereotype. The fact is that the underground/indie scene evolves within itself, even within different genres, labels, and subcultures.
In order to trace this evolution we must look at the scenes and genres in general that contributed to emo. While certain bands become more popular than their other contemporaries, and other great artists are overlooked it is important to touch on the larger more influential group and artists so that a general consensus can be reached. There are far too many bands that have influenced the emo genre to list, however, by looking at the main artists in a genre one can get a general feel of what was happening in that genre at the time.
Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate did not start the emo genre. They were two of the more influential bands in the development of emo. Emo was the culmination of many bands and genres all brought together at the right place and the right time. Many bands had to build bridges for underground artists to be heard in the mainstream. Many other bands also brought about new sounds and ideas that helped to form the emo sound. With all of these factors in place a band and or a label had to start the wheels in motion forming the emo genre.
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