Emo Goes Crazy
They'll probably keep making ass-ugly covers like this one, though
There are plenty of reasons why emo has become the default modern-rock music for teenagers circa now. The meanings of the word emo have basically nothing to do with what they were as little as five years ago, when I was totally blown away by the prospect of Thursday getting radio play. It's unapologetically sugary, chirpy, hooky guitar-pop with big scenery-chewing hooks and literal-minded sensitive-dude lyrics. Its flagship bands are pretty much OK with making big-budget novelty-joke videos and co-hosting the MTV Movie Awards' red-carpet pre-show and generally playing the game. More than anything else, though, it has the best business plan. Emo bands aren't scared of vertical integration or symmetry. Bigger bands take smaller bands on tour, and sometimes those smaller bands blow up huge and then take the bigger bands they once opened for on tour. Festivals like the Warped Tour or Bamboozled work as vague meritocracies, where bands that put on fierce performances inevitably walk out of the shows with more fans than the bands that coasted through their sets. Everyone has a MySpace page. The bands mostly look the same: same clothes, same haircuts, same race, same gender. Everyone works within a very specific and somewhat limited musical template, so all the fans have a pretty easy time agreeing on who's good and who isn't. It's all quite efficient. But some of these bands have perfected that specific style so much that they've become famous and transcended the scene that birthed them, and bands do crazy shit when they become famous and transcend their scenes. A lot of interesting things are happening at the pop extreme of mall-emo, and it's only going to get stranger from here.
Take, for instance, Fall Out Boy, last year's big emo success story. Fall Out Boy have always operated a bit weirdly. The bass player, who writes the shitty lyrics and doesn't sing, walks around like he's the band's frontman, while the actual singer/guitarist, who writes the glittering melodies that actually caused the band to become famous, hides out in the shadows and doesn't even speak into the mic between songs at their live shows. They also made the classic Puffy-circa-"Victory" mistake of doing a big, expensive video and then overdubbing the sound-effects so loudly that it becomes impossibly to actually enjoy the song. But they're really running off the rails now that they're spending forever on their new album. The progress reports get more ridiculous all the time: Jay-Z is doing the album's intro, Babyface is producing a couple of tracks, they're experimenting with techno. Since emo has mostly only been willing to acknowledge the existence of other genres when the bands are looking for ironic-cover-song material, there's something refreshing about their hubris, but this album could potentially be more of a sophomore-slump trainwreck than Sam's Town. If the album's first single is any indication, though, it'll at least be a fun ride. Lyrically, "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race" is on some disillusioned-celebrity In Utero shit: "Bandwagon's full, please find another," that sort of thing. But none of it is really all that convincing, since the band has clearly worked extremely hard to fill that bandwagon. Musically, all sorts of wacky shit is going on; the band piles a synthy house-music thump and a gospel-choir coda on top of their standard-issue mall-emo yammer. And the song's video, which hit YouTube yesterday, makes the becoming-famous growing-pains all the more apparent. It starts out on the set of the "Dance Dance" video, with the band finishing up and walking past an army of fake cut-out people. They're in the studio with a "hip-hop super producer," flailing around while black people laugh at them and then eventually beat them up, some real insecure white-people shit. Some sleazy fashion photographer coaxes bassist/fake-frontman Pete Wentz into pulling his dick out on a photo shoot. The band has a pillow-fight with a bunch of lingerie-clad video chicks, and one guy falls out a hotel window. At a funeral, someone plays a guitar solo on top of the casket, an old video trick that Avenged Sevenfold pulled out only semi-ironically earlier this year. And then Pete Wentz wakes up; it was all a dream, and it's 2003 and the band is about to play some packed-in VFW Hall in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere, filling their rightful place in the emo network. It's like Fall Out Boy's marketing plan has worked too well, and they aren't sure what to do now. So they make a video that dismisses their current fame and wallows in nostalgia for, like, three years ago while at the same time celebrating and playing up that fame. The last time a popular rock band was this visibly, publically confused, someone killed himself.
And even with all this fallout, Fall Out Boy isn't the first emo band to go batshit-ass insane in public. That would be My Chemical Romance, who released the delirious, overwhelming The Black Parade earlier this year. It's a concept album about cancer or something, and it's full of outlandish genre-moves and expensively bright classic-rock production and histrionic vocal tantrums and bald pretension. It's a total mess, and I really like it; it's my favorite emo album since the last Alkaline Trio album. Now that the band has taken to rocking marching-band skeleton-costumes and frontman Gerard Way has chopped off and bleached his hair so he can get better into character. And somehow all this insanity has resulted in the gloriously snotty "Teenagers," the best song I've ever heard from this band. I'm curious whether the same thing will happen to Panic! at the Disco, a band who already had flamboyant drama-nerd tendencies fully visible by the time they became ridiculously popular but who can't write a song for shit. If every popular emo band suddenly starts writing great songs once they hit their crazy phase, I'm going to have to start watching Fuse more often.
Voice review: Mikael Wood on Fall Out Boy's From Under the Cork Tree
Voice review: Sean Howe on My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade