By Brett Yates
I was hired in 2008 as a youth culture columnist for the Mountain Times, just a few months after my 20th birthday, and one of the earliest articles I wrote was an impassioned denunciation of emo music, as feverishly and embarrassingly over-the-top as the genre itself. My polemic identified the key ingredients of the typical emo song as an unvaryingly “furious, ungraceful guitar performance”; a “nasal, vaguely dorky voice alternating between a whine and a shout but never quite singing”; and lyrics that “remind me of nothing more than the cries and threats of an 11-year- old who’s been sent to his room – vengeful, apologetic, apocalyptic, and sulky by turns.”
I noted that the “singers usually address an anonymous female, but the females are always viewed from a distance, through a screen of indignation or idolatry – rarely is it clear that the narrator has ever heard a word spoken by the girl about whom he sings.” If I had realized in 2008 that the emo genre – a permanently overwrought style of rock aimed even more squarely at the insecure and confused teenage psyche than the rest of popular music – was already near death, I might have modulated my tone, but I had no idea then that American kids’ interest in this exclusively white shelter for angsty, suburban, middle-class navel-gazing was about to decline precipitously. By 2009, it wasn’t as though its consumer base had disappeared, but its former listeners seemed to have observed a broadening of life’s possibilities and to have sensed an impetus to connect. My Chemical Romance fans became Kanye fans. From what I remember, it’s true that, for a young person during the Bush-Cheney years, all you could really do was dwell on your own misery.
Meanwhile, the burden to sustain the remaining market for sensitive, confessional songs about young love – and specifically for breakup songs in which blame for the dissolution of a relationship obviously plagued by mutual immaturity was shifted entirely onto the narrator’s former object of affection – was given over wholesale to a still teenage Taylor Swift, who proved up to the task, steadily extricating herself from the regionalism of faux-country and becoming a one-woman industry for all young Americans with generic “feelings.” This made sense: previously, for emo’s perhaps predominantly female listeners, it had been an impressive act of will to overlook the aggressive misogyny that undergirded its vindictive, slut-shaming ballads of doomed adolescent romance in order to find catharsis for their boy problems. Swift removed the issue.
I rehash all this because it’s recently come to my attention that the greatest emo album of all time, “Nothing Feels Good” by the Promise Ring, is now 20 years old: it was released on October 11, 1997. The Milwaukee-based band’s second LP – whose wonderfully apt title may be the most iconic and archetypal of any in the emo canon – is regarded (along with the Get Up Kids’ “Four Minute Mile,” released less than two weeks earlier) as a foundational record of second-wave emo, when the genre distanced itself from its hardcore punk roots and settled into a softer sound. When one listens to “Nothing Feels Good” today, the aesthetic distance between it and the popular emo records that followed in the 2000s is equally striking.
First of all, the “furious, ungraceful guitar performance” whose ubiquity I asserted at age 20 is entirely absent here; the whole album is beautifully melodic – alternately tender or excited (even frantic) but never quite angry in the manner of a Hawthorne Heights song. Primarily, “Nothing Feels Good” registers as a slightly minimalistic pop record, distinct only for its uncommon emotional vulnerability and, in its title track, for the purity of its emotional desolation.
The album’s other notable feature is its lyrical ambiguity, relative to the diary-entry literalism of a band like Dashboard Confessional: in “Nothing Feels Good,” it’s never quite clear what’s happening, or what’s happened – there are no pithy accounts of lost love, betrayals of friendship, or depressive episodes. The songwriter’s feelings are explored in a free-roaming spirit of imagination. There’s nothing sticky or cliché-bound about the record’s sentimentality – it sparkles.
After “Nothing Feels Good,” the Promise Ring put forth two more albums, in 1999 and 2002, neither yielding quite the same magic. In the meantime, emo had to begun to merge with the only other genre on the musical spectrum as singularly white and male as itself: pop-punk, whose more rambunctious, radio-driven sound had proven teen-friendly with Green Day and The Offspring even in the absence of emo’s relentless focus on adolescent interiority. The infusion of pop-punk brought emo to new commercial heights, as Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco both went multi-platinum. But this higher-energy aesthetic was not necessarily compatible with genuine expressions of tenderness, and somehow the benign boyishness of pop-punk’s Blink-182 mutated, within emo, into the truly repugnant, bullying sexism of Brand New and New Found Glory. Still, it must be acknowledged that teenagers of all genders enjoyed the commodification of their misery: the music turned their daily high school drudgery into an entertaining soap opera, and its slickness of production only matched the soulless consumer landscape they already inhabited.
Yet I think I was mostly right about the genre when I evaluated it back in 2008: on the whole, it was pretty bad. The column made no mention of the Promise Ring, whom I hadn’t heard of at the time, but if I had, I probably would have felt compelled to reject them, determined as I was to hate this genre that had sprung from oversensitive white males, of which I self-consciously and uncomfortably was one. In 2017, I’m ready to admit that one of my all-time favorite albums is an emo record; fortunately, it’s also more than that, being in some sense (like any real work of art) unclassifiable – a delineation of anhedonia that somehow still locates a broad range of imagery, sensation, and experience, allowing depression to meld, quite naturally, with joy.