I came across this odd post entitled “The Origin of Emo” on an unusually blank WordPress blog (though the thing appears to be written by a Thom Lloyd, which is the gmail address at the bottom of the article). It’s the only post, and it’s written in a pseudo-term-paper light, with citations that don’t really say much of anything or connote to any one article/book/etc (though some of the names provided can be linked up via a quick search). It’s all very odd.
What’s even odder is Lloyd’s thesis statement on the origin of emo, which he sort of drops in at the end:
Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate did not start the emo genre.
Eh? Lloyd continues to throw out vague, inconsistencies, many of which I can agree with (genres are a culmination of the sounds that have influenced the bands), and some that are rife for contradiction. Namely the last point:
With all of these factors in place a band and or a label had to start the wheels in motion forming the emo genre.
Huh? Didn’t he just say Rites of Spring did not start emo? And Dischord doesn’t count because emo didn’t rise solely out of it?
This happens to be an ongoing problem with people seeking a solid definition for emo: the fact that the genre/sound exists as a fluid and evolving concept that many individuals ignore simply because of the condescending nature of the term makes it damn hard to tack a pin in it and call it a done day.
But, those irrelevancies aside. Rites are duly credited for starting emo: that’s where the term as a definition for a musical sound came from. Period. Not Husker Du, who Lloyd credits as an important factor. The fact is, Zen Arcade came out after Rites were a fully formed band with an entire pedigree of songs (1984 to be exact). Rites were listening to all sorts of hardcore (nothing I’ve read remotely mentions Husker Du though), and sought to challenge the trends within their own community by embracing a poppier sound. They took from many a British popper: The Buzzcocks are most credited as an influence there. But nothing about Husker Du.
And Lloyd’s idea of indie rock fusing the gap between Rites and Sunny Day is… well, a bit much. Lloyd also calls into play grunge as an important influence on emo and bridging these two bands: hardly. As far as grunge goes, the only role that played was its skyrocketing popularity behind Nirvana led to sale numbers that helped Sub Pop move out of the red zone and avoid bankruptcy so that they could go on and sign SDRE: grunge’s influence on emo is really relevant in a business capacity. Emo was a complete change from grunge, which is why Sunny Day startled so many people in Seattle: it was different. They were different. They took from hardcore, took from bands like Rites, Fugazi, Lungfish, Shudder To Think, and many of the DC bands that Lloyd overlooked. Yes, as Lloyd mentions, there are too many bands to name, and many of them he overlooked when trying to tie these two distinct bands (ROS + SDRE together). Since when do you need to fill in a time blank in terms of bands that came about that were important and led to another important band of the same sound anyway? How many of the new shitgaze (or whatever you want to call them) bands actually took other sounds and used them in their own songwriting? It’s always possible, and often an excellent appeal to change. But I can’t see Vivian Girls having taken lots of notes on IDM when they wrote their fuzzy, 60s surf garage rock sound. (It’s possible, but after the interview where they dissed bands that use a dancey drum beat, I doubt it.)
But there are plenty of bands that “filled in those years.” Just on Dischord there were a bunch (again, Embrace, Happy Go Licky, One Last Wish, Nation of Ulysses, Fugazi, Lungfish, Shudder To Think, Jawbox etc etc). And then there’s Jawbreaker’s take on the sound from DC. And then there’s Drive Like Jehu’s take on the DC sound and it’s impact on the San Diego scene: that whole arty-hardcore-meets-DC-emocore is indebted to the DC scene. Gravity Records, Heroin, Antioch Arrow, etc etc. And all of this in the years between 1984 (Rites of Spring) and 1994 (release of Diary).
That’s a lot of time, and many of these bands aren’t remembered because, in terms of folklore or the progression of a genre, only a few – those considered to be important for one reason or another – are consistently remembered and repeated to the next person, and the next person, and so on and so forth. That is an evolution of a genre, not some influential indie band that has nothing to do with these groups: no offense to The Pixies or Sonic Youth, but those bands hardly share anything with the first wave of emo. And because genres evolve, and many within different spheres and cultures (aka underground or mainstream), it may sound different at different points along the way. So, of course emo sounds different than it did before: it’s not static. Some things grew, other bands made their individual changes, and other bands made changes on other bands’ changes. Though the definition is rather fluid, a general line is fairly recognizable (one that doesn’t exactly include Sonic Youth, who were more no wave affiliated and who’s experimentation is mostly left out of many an “emo” act, or The Pixies, who tend to have a fairly basic pop sound that, as it’s well known, is more a grunge influence than an emo one) and observable.
I’ve got an odd relationship with downloading. I’m usually outspoken against it when discussing the subject with most of my friends, but usually for a variety of reasons that you really can’t articulate when these types of conversations boil down to lots of yelling. I’ll diffuse the normal “record labels and artists” and “pirating” and blah blah blah arguments that are usually the focus of the downloading conundrum for folks.
A big frustration for me with the design downloading is a certain culture that’s been generated because of its appeal. One would assume that, with millions and millions of songs and bands at one’s fingertips that one would relish the opportunity to listen to at no cost. In theory, it’s a great benefit for the consumer.
But really, from what I’ve witnessed, it (more often than not) creates a Consumer culture, with a big “C.” Considering the ease with which one can accumulate albums, the potential to seek out a hard-to-find gem in the same way that so many vinyl junkies can be whistfully nostalgic about is really gone. A few clicks of the mouse and it’s yours. And just about any other album you can think of.
So, instead of pouring over a piece of music, one can just accumulate a massive sonic library packed with things that they might never properly touch or listen to. The ability to say ‘I’ll download it” and not only not think twice, but not think about the album or song after the music is in your possession is increased tenfold.
How do I know this? Well, it could be from witnessing friends who ingest music without a thought (be it to the amount of time that was put into the piece of music or to the potential legal ramifications of their actions or merely stating the thought/sentence “I’ll just download it”) and, more often than not, usually let the music lay waste.
Or I could also know it from my own actions in the past. Not necessarily with illegal downloading of the sort: I maybe illegally downloaded a few dozen songs at the tail end of high school and promptly deleted most of those songs when I acquired the albums from other means. It’s more of my music acquisition in other areas. For example, I was a DJ at my college radio station for 4 years. During my shows, I’d pop a CD into the stereo system linked to the airwaves, eject it after it played, and then popped it into my computer. With literally thousands of CDs at my beckoning call, I could go on music binges, often uploading more songs than I could possibly listen to. I’d often try to, but I still come across the spare album I’ve rarely listened to (which makes for a fun listen in and of itself). (You could argue that, this action too, is just as illegal as downloading. But beyond my own arguments of merit, you have to take into account that most record companies realize that when they send music to a radio station – which are usually run by people who love music – people at radio stations are going to want what comes in the mail. Especially – gasp – college stations.)
At the same time, I also know I’m something of a music fanatic, and I take the time and energy to comb through blogs, newspapers, magazines, flyers, record stores, friends conversations, etc etc to find out about music. But my “Consumer kulture” really comes into play with a large majority of music listeners in the country. This mass is the same line of people who, decades before leading up to now (and even including the present), got their music listening “habits” from the major sources of music distribution, be it radio, television, newspapers, magazines. They listened to whatever landed on their grid, be it good, or bad (especially “or bad”). So now, today, when downloading – and illegal downloading – account for a majority of music consumption today, why is it that “bands” and “musical artists” such as, say, Nickelback (who I pick on a ton, but for good reason) continue to not only retain a large popularity of corporate radio/television while most critics and people who consider themselves to have musical taste largely detest the group? When Joel Tenenbaum‘s court case against the RIAA recently went to trial, were the illegal downloads in question the products of someone who poured through the dregs of the net in order to find these jewels? No. Nothing but Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and other 90s alternative ephemera that, while good music, is the kind of collection that corporate radio has been surviving on since 1991 and Joel himself was reared on as a child. Most folks who are sued for illegally downloading tend to get caught for gathering some monolithic singles, which happen to be under the ownership of the big record companies in America. I would be hard pressed to see the RIAA hightailing it after some kid who illegally downloaded Black Flag’s My War and a couple of Jade Tree albums, though color me red if that indeed has happened. However, that would be the mark of someone who used downloading to seek out unfamiliar, unavailable, and unique musics and took the time and energy to do so. And that’s not the case that I see with a majority of people who download.
Of course, that is all a mass generalization, but sometimes generalizations are needed in order to gain a perspective on a certain culture…
Anyway, this brings me to a certain situation one of my downloading fiend friends was so quick to throw back in my face:
A handful of weeks ago, I discovered an excellent MediaFire folder through last.fm, and it is like discovering a holy grail of sorts. It’s officially called “Emo: 1985-1999,” though the url attachment is “emoisdead” (a query I’d argue against, but that’s another aside). Upon opening the link, I was blown away. 36 pages of 1st and 2nd wave emo acts. Many of them rarer than rare. Obscurer than the most obscure, out of print 7″ out there. For who knows how long I was so overwhelmed all I could do was click through the pages and stare in awe. There was some stuff I’d only heard whiffs of. And all on one site. And all for free.
As I said, I haven’t downloaded anything that hasn’t had the artists consent since the tail end of high school. I’ve got ye olde emusic account, I still buy CDs, I’ll grab stuff from blogs, and scour the net for musician-approved downloads. But, from all the huff and puff and ribbings I’d give friends who’d download a torrent without hesitation or afterthought and (sometimes) no interest in the artist, it would be an awful conundrum for me, especially when I’d discuss this. Because how could I not. This was a find!
Of course, it came back to hit me in the ass with one friend. And of course, whenever I’d provide some sort of insight into why I’d want to download some of this stuff or any claim I thought was legitimate, the potential for real discourse was closed. And I understand why, and I certainly deserved a good ribbing.
But, for me, there’s so much more than just Consumption. I’ve got an academic-strength interest in emo, and, after all, I’ve got America Is Just A Word in the works. And I believe I’ve still got them principles to back it up. There’s plenty of stuff on the mediafire site, and plenty I won’t download. There’s some stuff from Gravity Records or Dischord that I just won’t dare touch. The music is still in print, I can still purchase it. I know (and in some cases, have met and talk to) the artists and labels benefit from this, that there’s not some convoluted big-label hierarchy that most of my money would be going to, but the people who’s work I genuinely support. (Though I don’t necessarily have any qualms for/against major labels and taking money away from them… I don’t care for a lot that goes on in their system, but man, there are some great bands on major labels.)
But the other stuff on there? Some of that stuff just isn’t available anymore. And some stuff never was available.
Like Strictly Ballroom, which featured The Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello on bass. Their 1997 record Hide Here Forever came out on Waxploitation Records and is out of print and not even available on iTunes in the US (and only partially elsewhere). And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or Trocar, who’s Citywater album, which is apparently available on Self-Satisfied records, except for that any link to purchase the CD from the location on myspace in nearly impossible to get to without some anti-virus spyware popping up warning of various hazards, and they even say download it if you so feel like having it and give a link too (though it ain’t their preference). And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or The Promise Ring’s 3 track demo, a tape that was never meant to be created to be distributed for commercial sake. And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or Watercolour, a band I can’t track down for the life of me, and one which has no discernible song titles on their unreleased album, Stories About Old Rich White People, but it’s available on the emo-themed MediaFire site.
More news on the progression of America Is Just A Word. Since the previous announcement of a few folks being involved in the writing process through personal interviews, a handful of other people have also shown their interest. New to the bill are Matt Anderson of Heroin and Gravity Records; Sam Zurick of Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, Owls, and Make Believe (among so many others); Rob Crow of Heavy Vegetable, Thingy, and Pinback (and countless others); and Geoff Farina of Karate. It’s a great feeling that all of these individuals are interested in the work and giving their feedback, especially when many are busy touring or working on various projects. It should be quite interesting when it’s all said and done!