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Oh the Angst. Oh the Sales.

Even as they head up the charts, 'emo' bands chafe at having their pain-drenched sound categorized

July 07, 2002|DEAN KUIPERS

Rock band the Promise Ring and its singer, Davey von Bohlen, have a problem. They really, really don't like the term "emo." Shorthand for "emotional," it's been used to describe the highly personal nature of their post-punk songs, many of which deal in excruciating detail with interpersonal relationships, love and longing.

There was a time when the band could live with that. But now emo is becoming a defined pop sound, a genre, a movement populated by such bands as Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, the Get-Up Kids, Saves the Day. There is a code, a uniform, even emo tours. There is a record-label feeding frenzy. There is the smell of money. It's the new grunge, and that's not where the Promise Ring wants to lead its fans.

"I think that's awful, wrong, bad, destructive, totally opposing everything that I believe in, and insulting," says Von Bohlen, 26, with a laugh. Von Bohlen has a sense of humor, and the Promise Ring wants success, like any band. But one of the reasons to play music that's come to be described as emo was to emote freely and not conform to mass trends. Von Bohlen can already feel the hot breath of the marketers closing in.

"If you limit your interests to a genre, you are joining a social scene, not enjoying art," he says. "I don't want to be part of a social scene. I want to be in a band and make music. Hopefully, the two are different."

This kind of posturing is, in its own way, totally emo. Bands have despised the term "emo" since it was first coined in the early '80s, even while acknowledging that it did vaguely describe their sound: guitar dynamics that explored both the softs and louds of punk in the same song with--most important--brutally confessional and even self-loathing lyrics. It also vaguely described the die-hard fans, largely ironic outsiders: Think of the two girls in the film "Ghost World."

Emo songs are mostly about pain. As a body, they are like middle-of-the-night journal entries exposing insecurity and suicidal thoughts. Or wanting the girl and even getting the girl, then going down under a swarm of conflicts and self-inflicted wounds and losing the girl to mopey confusion. In punk terms, emo is for crybabies and losers. It's math rock with smarty-pants lyrics. At best, it's rock for antiheroes. Calling something "emo" has always been something of an insult.

But now, the bands say, emo means conformity. Maybe we should all be a little concerned about what exactly that means. Whose emotions will be validated? What kind of pain will outsell the others? What Von Bohlen is saying, along with a lot of other bands, is that the bigger emo gets, the harder it is to play. Would anyone really want to enable a stadium full of weeping geeks?

And I can't tell if it's me or the meat that's rotting ...

and I think that I see that big blade coming

to slice open a great canyon through the earth

so you can watch me disappear.

--"All I'm Losing Is Me" by Saves the Day

Emo flagship band Saves the Day's new album, "Stay What You Are" on Vagrant Records, is pretty much a constant stream of this kind of soul purge, all of it delivered by singer Chris Conley in long, run-on lines that extend the litany of pain. It's a stone bummer for anyone who believes in the transformative power of rock music. For longtime Saves the Day fans, however, it's not nearly bummer enough. The new album has been savaged by emo fans on the Internet as a pop sellout.

But now emo is pop. Time magazine called it "anti-pop" for its unheroic stance, but new fans hear hooks and sing-along choruses just like any other radio-friendly music. "It's crazy, none of us ever thought in a million years we'd be playing a place like Madison Square Garden," says Saves the Day bassist Eben D'Amico, 22. "But we're not trying to do some kind of underground punk thing anymore. We want to be true to the music."

Their inclusion on a spring U.S. tour with Green Day and Blink-182 was mostly about their indie-pop sound, which is growing in popularity. Most of the bands now associated with emo came out of '90s indie rock and see themselves as part of the lineage of punk, but they seem to have more to do with the Foo Fighters than Fugazi. The result is a crossover from small but rabidly loyal indie followings to radio hits.

Saves the Day's breakthrough album, "Through Being Cool," sold more than 100,000 copies according to Nielsen SoundScan data, and its new one is already nearing 170,000, a huge number for a teeny indie label such as Vagrant. The year-old album by Dashboard Confessional, "The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most," has already sold more than 220,000 copies. MTV wanted a piece of emo so badly it bent its own rules, recently making Dashboard the first non-platinum act ever invited to tape its hallowed "Unplugged" show.

Jimmy Eat World is the champion of this alleged scene, with "The Middle" and "Sweetness" in heavy rotation on modern rock stations. Its 2001 eponymous DreamWorks release has sold 620,000 copies and is rising fast.

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