nothing feels good
’90s emo music: a quick cure for valentine’s day loneliness
It’s Valentine’s Day—that unique yearly moment when we gather together, buy each other cheap Hallmark cards (or maybe a heart-shaped box of those plastic-tasting Russell Stover chocolates), and declare our undying love for whomever we happen to be dating/hooking up with/crushing on at this particular run through the calendar. But, for a moment, let’s forget that Valentine’s Day is an expertly conceived corporate racket designed to sell teddy bears and roses. Let’s pretend the date February 14 signifies anything at all. And let’s remember (if you haven’t already been forced to by the numbing recognition that “we’re all alone,” or however you’ve decided to justify this year’s romantic malaise) that for a lot of people, Valentine’s Day isn’t about cute-if-overpriced love grams—it’s the reminder that they’ve failed to conform to an age-old (inexplicably privileged) social standard: that everyone should have a love life.
It is for this dilemma—spending Valentine’s Day alone—that I’d like to propose a musical solution: emo. And no, I don’t mean that you should tune into your local alt radio station and try to catch “The Middle” and “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” as many times as possible. I’m talking about a deep dive: a well-researched foray into the weird and wonderful world of white guys singing about how sad they are over twinkly waterfalls of electric guitar and the occasional trumpet.
Emo gets a bad rap, and there are good reasons for that. I mean, it’s hard to name your band The World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die without coming off like a bit of an asshole. And with blink-182 dominating the genre’s radio representation, despite blurring the line between emo and the oft-dreaded pop punk (as well as what words have “o” sounds vs. “oi” sounds), it’s not hard to see why people today dismiss emo music wholesale: It appears kind of puerile and, well, morbidly embarrassing. But emo music wasn’t always humiliatingly prolix or produced by the same people who wrote “I Wanna F*** a Dog in the *ss.” There’s an entire era of alternative music—what we’ll call “emo proper”—from the late ’90s and very early ’00s that has faded from popular memory. These bands were created for and by lonely people everywhere, and unlike their modern successors, you don’t need your Oxford English Dictionary to understand what they’re singing about (sample 2014 emo lyric: “I searched for a way out, don’t we all? / An existentialist recall: turn in all dichotomies and truths”).
What stalwart defenders of the genre and pretentious jerks like myself might call “real” emo grew out of the post-hardcore scene—bands whose innovations married instrumental complexity to punkish intensity. Likewise, early emo was more interested in depth of sound than it was with clever wordplay or straightforward radio-stable chord progressions. The introspective lyrics were there, of course, and distinguished the genre. Some of you have probably heard “Never Meant” by American Football, the most obvious single to bandy about as evidence of the wistful beauty of early emo, and it’s hard to deny that “I just think it’s best / because you can’t miss what you forget / so let’s just pretend / everything and anything / between you and me / was never meant” hits like a kick in the teeth. But often the lyrics weren’t the focus at all—bands were more interested in exploring topics like How To Make Our Guitars Sound Really Loud and How To Do That Thing Where My Strat Sounds Like A Streak Of Iridium Light Across A Darkening Violet Sky.
The other thing that people who once saw a picture of All Time Low and thought ew are missing about early emo is that it’s actually an incredibly multifaceted genre of music despite adhering to similar lyrical premises. The difference in sound between two genre-defining classics, Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary (1994) and Mineral’s EndSerenading (1998), is drastic—the former much hookier and post-hardcore-influenced and the latter more slowcore-adjacent and melancholy, with drawn-out vocal performances abound. And both bands are distinctly opposed to the sweeter sounds of contemporaries like American Football and The Get Up Kids, who were more liable to, say, toss in a trumpet melody from time to time. Hell, talk about sonic diversity—SDRE’s How It Feels to Be Something On has got to be one of the weirdest albums I’ve ever heard, combining their emo roots with eastern influences to create music evoking a six-week spiritual march through the desert into the mouth of a flaming sun (no, that’s not gratuitous—it’s just true).
The artists involved in this early scene were brimming with creativity and musicality. I’d hazard to guess that if 20 years ago you’d told the dudes from The Promise Ring that their musical legacy was going to be influencing Sleeping With Sirens, they’d have been pretty pissed off. And the kicker is that not all emo is even sad! The Appleseed Cast’s Mare Vitalis, which I’m pretty sure means something approximating “sea of life,” features some of the most vital music I’ve ever come across, rife with rollicking guitar riffs and wistful references to the mysteries of the ocean. Buried beneath the loneliness of good emo is a kind of joie de vivre (for interested parties, there’s an early 2010s emo band that’s actually called Joie de Vivre—how apt!), an unquenchable vivacity that only the sorts of people who look at the sun setting on the cold hairline of the trees and think, I’m gonna write a song about this, could musically communicate.
Is emo self-indulgent? Yep. Is it ultimately a genre dominated by a bunch of white dudes singing about mostly invented problems? Most definitely. But on a holiday that’s all about indulgence and is, by all accounts, concerned with mostly invented traditions, I’d recommend letting go and checking out music from any of the artists mentioned here, especially if you’re in need of an upper while your friends are out buying those chalky heart candies for their S.O.’s. Emo’s full of artistry and complexity, but it’s also all about catharsis—mostly romantic—the kind needed by the lonely hearts of the world. If you’re a solo Casanova tonight, don’t despair—sad white dudes from the ’90s have your back. And besides, this holiday is pretty damn stupid anyway.