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Navel-Gazing Nation

A new book about emo shows how suburban teens came together over feeling alone.



Not long after finishing Andy Greenwald's Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, I got an e-mail from one of the book's subjects, Jimmy Eat World singer Jim Adkins (an old friend of mine from Arizona). "It's so weird, dude. I just did an interview with YM magazine," he wrote. "I guess they're trying to educate their readers about emo history, and they wanted me to talk about Jawbox."

That a glossy mainstream rag for teenage girls should take a sudden interest in an indie band that split up in 1997, after one unhappy year in the majors, isn't entirely surprising. If '91 was the year punk broke, 2003 was the year emo exploded, as exemplified by the Billboard-certified ascendancy of groups like Taking Back Sunday, Thursday, and Dashboard Confessional. Greenwald's book may ultimately be less a mile marker for emo than a tombstone. If YM is slotting stories about Jawbox between pieces about Britney and Christina, then emo's already as last year as Detroit garage.

Oddly enough, though, there still aren't many people who can tell you exactly what emo is. Greenwald posits it, correctly, as a lifestyle rather than a genre: There are emo dating sites, like, and the Web site is crawling with exhibitionist diary keepers who list "emo" as an interest. There's, an interactive adventure spoof where assorted emo icons do battle with archvillain Steven Tyler, and the Emo Purity Test, a quiz that gauges emo-ness with questions like "Do you own more than five sweaters or sweater vests?" There's even a page dedicated to emo jokes, like: "Why did the emo kid cross the road? To get a box of tissues!"

Interspersing cultural commentary with historical background, artist profiles, and some painfully earnest testimony from citizens of the emo nation past and present, Greenwald gives this frequently misunderstood phenomenon a serious and empathetic treatment, addressing the who, what, when, where, and how of emo. Why, though, is another story.

Greenwald explains that emo was originally short for emocore, a strain of hardcore punk notable for its explicit obsession with feelings (or, rather, feelings other than anger). He traces this back to the D.C. band Rites of Spring. "What happened in D.C. in the mid-eighties--the shift from anger to action, from extroverted rage to internal turmoil, from an individualized mass to a mass of individuals--was in many ways a test case for the transformation of the national punk scene over the next two decades," he writes. He then traces its development: how it came to be applied to bands that weren't punk, to fashion trends, to the sad-eyed boys in the back of the class.

The aesthetic germinated quietly for a decade, flowering in the mid-90s with the emergence of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Jawbreaker (in whose combined output you can see the blueprint for everything labeled emo over the next decade) and reaching its perfect embodiment, per Greenwald, with Nothing Feels Good, the 1997 Promise Ring album. (Greenwald does a solid job explaining the contributions of all these bands and several key others, including Mineral and Champaign heroes Braid, but reduces other influential 90s outfits, like Boys Life and Christie Front Drive, to footnotes.)

The narrative takes a pivotal turn with the rise of the Internet. The xeroxed fanzines and singles clubs that had served as the glue for the 80s indie-rock movement were marginalized in the late 90s by a far more efficient network of chat rooms, Web sites, and blogs. ("How can you tell it's an emo boy hitting on you and not a regular boy?" goes another joke. "Instead of your phone number, he asks for your blog.") File sharing helped bands and fans to bypass traditional distribution systems, allowing artists to get massively popular practically undetected by the industry radar. This accelerated word of mouth is how Taking Back Sunday (whose debut on Victory Records was aptly called Tell All Your Friends) penetrated the pop charts without the aid of a major label. It also helps explain how Jimmy Eat World, a band that sold in the low five figures with a pair of poorly marketed albums for Capitol in the late 90s, managed to go platinum on Dreamworks a few years later. In the intervening period, the band relied heavily on the Internet to cultivate moral and financial support, building their fan base and independently recording Jimmy Eat World before shopping for another deal.

"The history of emo is one of reinvention and bigger and bigger stages--of shifting musical styles and baggage across generations," writes Greenwald midway through the book. Accordingly, he devotes the remainder of the tome to the scene's biggest star, Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba. While Carrabba doesn't fit the stereotype of the bespectacled, becardiganed emo boy--he looks rather like a rockabilly refugee--his personal history reflects that of his fans. Raised upper-middle-class in suburbia by his divorced mom, Carrabba was in thrall to skating and punk rock by the time he hit his teens. He's a nice guy, a former grade school special-ed instructor. His albums, full of stripped-down, scabrous breakup songs like "The Sharp Hint of New Tears," have sold millions of copies to followers who know every word to every song--and prove it at his shows. As Greenwald writes, Dashboard concerts are a process of "kids finding a commonality in the music and lyrics--a shared experience--taking in the bitter carbon dioxide that Carrabba spits out and audiosynthesizing it into fresh oxygen, into a fresh start both for them and the rock star on stage."

Carrabba's sway over his fans is remarkable. Watching Dashboard's episode of MTV's Unplugged 2.0, I couldn't help but picture David Koresh strumming for a roomful of rapt Branch Davidians. And while it might seem extreme, the messianic analogy isn't entirely off base. For a youth population grown increasingly cynical toward traditional notions of religion--the by-product of America's overall apostasy--emo represents the rare opportunity to believe in something. A Christian emo movement, spearheaded by groups like Further Seems Forever and labels like Tooth & Nail, has flourished not just alongside its secular counterpart but within it.

For this segment of fans, at least, rock stars aren't just more popular than Jesus--they've actually come to replace him. It's an implicit theme in the book, expressed in stories from dozens of lost, desperate kids looking to artists like Carrabba as empathetic prophets. Some of the Dashboard fan endorsements read like baptismal testimony. One 15-year-old girl tells of how she was on the verge of suicide--mouth full of pills, glass of vodka in hand--but drew back from the precipice as she listened to Dashboard's "This Bitter Pill": "I spit out the pills, and I just...lay there. I was so amazed that someone could feel this way; the song made me feel like I wasn't alone. Someone somewhere knows how I'm feeling and has lived to tell about it. The person Chris is talking about is someone like me. I'm so thankful for his words, his voice and the band's talent. I really think about if I had never heard 'This Bitter Pill' would I still be alive?"

The music classified as emo these days ranges dramatically, from Sunny Day Real Estate's spiritual prog to the punky candy floss of the Get Up Kids, but the element that binds those bands together is a well-defined anti-rock-star attitude. (Like the music, the ascetic attitude has its roots in D.C., birthplace of straightedge.) Embedded on tours with Dashboard and Jimmy Eat World, Greenwald observes that many of the musicians have rejected the traditional hedonistic pleasures associated with rock 'n' roll--casual sex and drugs--preferring to eat cookies, play video games, or indulge in quiet conversation with fans. Jimmy Eat World's road crew, he writes, is more rock 'n' roll than the band. "We're not doing this to get our dicks sucked," says Jim Adkins. "We're doing it because we find fulfillment in writing, recording and performing music." Motley Crue's The Dirt this ain't.

While Nothing Feels Good is heavily tipped toward the fan perspective--loaded with interviews, e-mail exchanges, and lengthy chat room transcripts as well as the aforementioned testimonials--Greenwald stops short of delving into the reasons white suburban teens might invest their adolescence in a lifestyle so docile and chaste as emo. As unscientific a survey as they may be, the fan profiles indicate a lot of divorced parents and antidepressant use--but the same thing could probably be said of rap-metal fans. We're left to infer that in the context of a popular culture grown increasingly violent and sexualized since the early 90s--where porn is mainstream and gladiatorial fighting contests are considered family entertainment--emo is attractive because it can be perceived as rebellious.

After going to great lengths to describe what makes emo different, Greenwald comes to the somewhat predictable conclusion that it's just the latest manifestation of a long unbroken tradition of expression--what Nick Tosches has memorably described as "the many-faced and one-souled chimera of all that has come to be called American music." As Greenwald puts it, "As long as there are feelings, teenagers will claim they had them first." And superficially, at least, the mall punk braying along with his favorite Saves the Day song is not unlike the bobby-soxer swooning over Sinatra or the Munch-faced Beatlemaniac screaming for Paul. But no other big pop phenomenon has so efficiently narrowed the gap between fans and performers--despite the availability of the same technology to every rock star on the planet. And that's an evolution that definitely bears further analysis.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Ken Schiles, Josh Rothstein, Chris K. George, Richard Agudelo.

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