Cheer Up Emo Kid: Inside Music's Most Sensitive Genre

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On April 2, 2002 I had tears in my eyes. I attended the Dashboard Confessional show at the Funhouse Night Club in Lackawanna, New York and by the finale, I was one among everyone screaming out the last refrain to “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most” and feeling as though finally—as a 19-year-old young man about to graduate from his adolescence—somebody understood me. That somebody was Chris Carrabba, also known as Dashboard Confessional, a band that helped to lead one of the most hot-blooded movements in music: emo. While at many live shows, you might roll your eyes at that drunken girl beside you singing louder than the band, at any show considered emo (especially DC), your exploding vocal cords and welling eyes were not only welcomed, but warranted.

Those of you out there who consider yourself hardcore or punk fans (XXX and all) cringe at the word emo and what it has become. The word stems from the longer term “emotional hardcore” or “emo-core," a subgenre of both the aforementioned scenes. Emerging in the early '80s and then “disappearing” for years, emo had what I consider its heyday (or perhaps its break into the mainstream) in the late 20th / early 21st century, heavily influenced by '90s bands Sunny Day Real Estate and Jawbreaker. See the likes of Saves the Day, The Get Up Kids, Jimmy Eat World, The Juliana Theory, The Promise Ring. Even bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Weezer, and Bright Eyes could be considered emo depending on both who you’re talking to and what album you’re talking about. While the genre does have its defining characteristics, who and what are emo are as debated as who and what are hipsters.

And then there was fashion. Stores like Hot Topic took this trend and capitalized. Why go to a Starting Line show and buy a tee shirt when you can just buy one at a store, wear it, and pretend you went to the show? Why go through all the trouble of having your artist friend design you a hollowed-out star tattoo when you can just buy a temporary one and then wash it off when it’s time to go to Olive Garden with your grandparents? Like any movement mass marketed, things start to become stale and lame, or at least, popular opinion would have you think so. It’s surprising something as unappreciated as sensitivity became such a thing, but not surprising that it quickly died out, thick-framed glasses broken in two.

Andy Greenwald’s book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo described emo as “over the top lyrics about feelings wedded to dramatic but decidedly punk music.” And I agree. Lyrically, I believe so much of what these bands have written was inspired by not only The Smiths, and by not only one Smiths’ song but one specific line in “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”: and if a double-decker bus / crashes into us / to die by your side / is such a heavenly way to die. Simultaneously blending macabre imagery and corporeal emotion with devotion and pure melodrama, Morrissey strikes emo gold. From these words came some lines that came to define new emo. Here are five of my favorites:

Brand New: If looks could really kill, then my profession would be staring.


Taking Back Sunday: The truth is you can slit my throat / and with my one last gasping breath / I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt

Alkaline Trio: If Columbus was wrong / I’d drive straight off the edge

Saves the Day: My gut is burning / Won’t you find me some water? / Hey just forget it / Can you bring me gasoline?

Thursday: The broken watch you gave me / turns into a compass / Its two hands still point to the same time / 12:03 / our last goodbye

As a teenager (or for some slow-growing 20-somethings), the world just does not get you. When I discovered Dashboard Confessional and this whole emo movement freshman year of college, I could not believe there was music out there that sung about exploding hearts verbatim, because that’s what I thought my heart was doing, literally. The requisite sing-alongs at shows, the tears, the depression, the lonerism of it all, was a way for kids to connect with the changing world around them as well as an attempt to unknot the tangles within. And this was especially true when dealing with matters of unrequited love...
Jesse Lacey/Brand New

The frontman of a band is like a bartender: they are there to serve you but are pretty much untouchable. And, as your friends might tell you of both drink slingers and lead singers, don’t even try or you’ll only end up hurt. This was not the case for me and Jesse Lacey, head honcho of Long Island emo gods Brand New. The band pushed emo into a slightly different territory. While the lyrics remained heavy-handed, the musical arrangements were tighter, more mature than many of Brand New’s contemporaries. And of course, there was Jesse, the dreamboat frontman who could kill a girl (and me!) with a half-smile.

Jesse’s voice throughout their 2001 debut record, Your Favorite Weapon, was both sultry and fueled. Coming off a huge Smiths kick at that time, I recognized some phrases that Jesse used on that record that were references to Morrissey. For instance, in Brand New’s “Seventy Times Seven,” Jesse sings you’re as a subtle as a brick / in the small of my back while in the dirge “I Am Hated for Loving” released almost seven years earlier, Morrissey simply sings: a brick in the small of the back again. Obviously a simple allusion but an allusion nonetheless.

Now for the fun part. After a small show in Buffalo, Jesse and his band were drinking at the bar which was another fun part of emo shows: many times the walls between the audience and the music-makers were razed. I approached him with a racing heart and a dry mouth. We exchanged hellos and I told him how much I appreciated his Smiths references. And (surprise #1) he told me I was the first person to discover this and tell him. Major points. After some chitchat, we parted and I ran to my car to get Morrissey’s Vauxhall and I, the album to which Jesse made reference and I asked him to sign it for me. When I gave him the CD he said (surprise #2), this was one of the most amazing moments of his life. I kid you not. After some thought, he went on to sign the CD with a Morrissey quote, asked me what I was up to and I said going home because I was 17 and lame. I drove home the happiest girl in the world.

At the following summer’s Warped Tour, Brand New played to an enormous audience. Their popularity had grown three-fold and the band was unreachable. I needed to communicate with Jesse just to see if he remembered me. The tiny punk girl at the Brand New merch table said they “might” stop by the table “later” but they are busy with press and interviews. And so I did what anyone with a crush might do: I found a large rock on the ground and with logistical difficulty, wrote a Morrissey lyric on it and handed it to the girl and said she MUST give this to Jesse, tell him who I am and that this is for him. With a severely disturbed look on her face, the girl said she’d do her best and I was on my way. The rock read: I’d rather be famous than righteous or holy / anyday, anyday, anyday. I left the show feeling distraught and incomplete. This particular drive home I knew I would never see him again.

Vauxhall and I, as signed by Jesse Lacey
Vauxhall and I, as signed by Jesse Lacey

Need a little more emo magic today? Here's a playlist to help you feel all your feelings: