Emo revival: the killers of rock reopen a wound nearly healed
Much has been written on why rock lost commercial viability heading into the 2010s, but for me, the answer is that it became exclusionary and off-putting when a certain cultural moment – such as emo – passed. Rock, and particularly metal and punk, have always been genres that suffered from excessive gatekeeping, but there was still new recruitment happening through popular bands that created a narrowing pipeline into more experimental sub-genres. Pretty much any white suburban kid could relate to Blink-182, for instance, and from them many delved deeper into post-hardcore, proto-metalcore or the hardcore scene itself. Not every Blink-182 fan ended up vegan, straight-edge and going to watch Earth Crisis, but there was an identifiable food chain from mainstream bands accessible to pretty much anyone.
This changed when ‘emo’ bands began to take over the rock conversation. I use ‘emo’ here in the same way as the mainstream media – interchangeably with ‘scene.’ Let me be clear: there are many bands from this era that are still making great music in the so-called emo-revival. Silverstein are going better than ever – 2017’s Dead Reflection was a career-defining masterpiece. Underoath took the screamo sounds on They’re Only Chasing Safety and gave us the shape of metalcore to come on Define The Great Line, marking a move away from the more hardcore focused proto-metalcore of bands like Converge.
My issue isn’t with the musicianship this period offered but with the aesthetics and culture surrounding the music. ‘Emo’ is a fundamentally alienating aesthetic to many people and became popular in a distinct cultural moment. People talk of an ‘emo phase’ because in modern society it is incredibly easy to pick up and dispose of identity characteristics as and when it suits the prevailing wind of the time. The problem is that it has been hard for bands that built their entire fanbase around this aesthetic to rebrand, and they have done so with varying degrees of success. In the meanwhile, we had the spectacle in the early 2010s for every remotely scene group to do exactly that – change their sound and aesthetic to stay popular in a way that no previous flagbearers of rock had done before.
‘it is incredibly easy to pick up and dispose of identity characteristics as and when it suits the prevailing wind of the time’
Rock was left with no representatives except those who predated the scene phase. This led people to look to bands like Foo Fighters and Muse, over a decade old at this point, for leadership – leading to an impression that rock itself had died. Although it wasn’t completely defeated, all of its leaders ditched their aesthetic and sound when it was no longer popular and left the genre stranded. Significant groups that changed their sound included Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco and Paramore, whilst the fourth of the big emo/pop-punk bands My Chemical Romance split up. On the heavier end, Sleeping with Sirens signed a major label deal and Pierce the Veil changed their sound while metalcore bands that had previously served as introductions to the scenes moved towards radio rock – think Of Mice and Men and especially Avenged Sevenfold.
The result of this is that when every large rock band abdicated their responsibilities to the genre at once, there were no ready-made replacements to take the crown. Many fans moved away with these artists, and still identify these groups as the ‘biggest’ rock bands. This exodus in the first half of this decade has taken a long time to recover from. With no massive bands to support them, groups have relied on their local scenes, along with vinyl and merch sales, to build up any sort of commercial viability. Out of this closeness with the more experimental subgenres, the next leaders of the genre have grown from the bottom up, without the Rockstar egos that plagued the genre before.
After placeholder leaders in bands like The Story So Far, The Wonder Years and Knuckle Puck, there is finally a new breed of rock bands gaining vast popularity with a much wider variety than at any point in the past. The pounding riffs and tight political lyricism of Architects; the early 2000s throwback of Neck Deep; the charm of State Champs; the emotional vulnerability of Trophy Eyes; the genre-bending of Issues and of course the sheer reverence for the DIY and hardcore scene from local core kids come good, Knocked Loose.
‘when every rock band abdicated their responsibilities to the genre at once, there were no ready-made replacements to take the crown’
After almost half a decade, rock is digging itself out of the hole made by its most popular acts fleeing the emo aesthetic when it became uncool, and this is why I fear for what the MCR reunion will do for modern rock. A bout of scene nostalgia could lead to the reinforcement of negative stereotypes that are often, and wrongly, made about bands like MCR. Let me be clear: liking emo does not mean you are sad, or damaged or have issues of any kind, but the way this music is portrayed to those on the outside very much makes it seem this way. Emo is presented in a way that popular rock bands like Metallica, Foo Fighters or Blink 182 simply were not. Allowing the media to reinforce the idea that rock is for people who dress in black or feel a certain way is the worst possible thing that could happen to the genre – especially when we have many bands breaking through and taking the genre in exciting new directions.
‘Allowing the media to reinforce the idea that rock is for people who dress in black or feel a certain way is the worst possible thing that could happen to the genre’
More than at any other point, rock now needs to look to the future, not tether itself to nostalgia for the very trend that nearly killed it. For the record, I actually like some of My Chemical Romance’s work, and there’s no denying that they’re an excellent band. In fact, I have very little issue with the band at all, except for the fact that they have actually reunited. While I eagerly await whatever new material they put out, I can’t help but feel that their re-union and the scene nostalgia that resulted from it is one of the worst things that could happen to the genre of rock right now. Let’s hope they prove me wrong.