Tag Archives: Nothing Feels Good

Just Short…

So, for folks who’ve been following along in this blog, I submitted a proposal to Continuum’s 33 1/3 series to write a book about The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good. Series editor David Barker emailed everyone who submitted a proposal today concerning those he picked to make it to the shortlist, the final compilation short of the 20 or so that Continuum will select to be turned into fully-fleshed out books (you can check out the shortlist). Unfortunately, my proposal wasn’t chosen for this list, for simple space reasons on the shortlist (I emailed David to find out specifics of why my proposal was turned down and it turns out it was one of a handful that barely missed the cut). In any case, I really enjoyed writing this proposal and speaking to those involved in creating the album about the process of writing a book on Nothing Feels Good. Rather than let it go to waste, I’ve decided to post my proposal here, below, for your enjoyment, complete with some multimedia elements that could not have been included in what was submitted to 33 1/3, but are helpful illustrators nonetheless. Enjoy it… and if anyone has any interest in further pursuing this project with me in some other forum, please feel free to contact me:

33 1/3 Book Proposal:

The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good

Guilty pleasures tend to rear their heads in an interview with music’s next big thing. So when a VBS TV correspondent was chatting it up with No Age, the uber-hip and critically acclaimed experimental punk duo from L.A., singer/drummer Dean Spunt interrupted guitarist Randy Randall’s ruminations on MC Hammer with a shocking revelation:

“I used to like The Promise Ring.”
Beat.
“Yeah, so did I,” replied the stylish interviewer.
The three guys proceeded to awkwardly chuckle and talk over each other until the interviewer brought up his stunning thought:
“Is it really at the point where MC Hammer is less embarrassing than The Promise Ring?”

Great question. And not unlike one I ask myself just about every time I crank up my stereo while playing 30 Degrees Everywhere or Wood/Water. What’s so embarrassing about The Promise Ring? It could be the band’s association with emo, the now-repugnant term for a post-hardcore genre that’s all but taken over the Billboard charts. It was the release of 1997’s Nothing Feels Good that the four “averages Joes” that made up The Promise Ring were presented with the title of poster boys of a genre once thought to be six feet under. The rest of the trials and tribulations of emo remain embedded in our international conscience thanks to numerous pop-punk acts influenced by The Promise Ring. Say what you will about your Fall Out Boys, My Chemical Romances, Dashboard Confessionals, Cute Is What We Aim Fors, Thrices, Taking Back Sundays, Panic! at the Discos, Saves the Days, Coheed & Cambrias, Alexisonfires, New Found Glorys, and Underoaths; when push comes to shove, most of these bands don’t come close to the potent passion, intelligence, and vibrancy of The Promise Ring and their sophomore effort, Nothing Feels Good.

Embarrassment aside, Spunt should have nothing to be ashamed of for name-dropping The Promise Ring as a band that’s clearly influenced the critically-lauded musician. The Promise Ring’s back catalog is filled with nugget and gems of post-hardcore-meets-pop bliss, and much like when No Age’s current work combining elements of pop with hardcore, the results are fantastic. Nothing Feels Good is The Promise Ring’s best and most succinct work, an anthemic, passionate burst of homegrown pop-punk, filtered through tales of existential crises, cross-country road trips, and references to modern Americana. The hooks are sharp, the lyrics poignant, and the performance still as unbelievably urgent as the day the original tapes were mastered over a decade ago.

Part of what’s so phenomenal about The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good is the impact the album had when it hit record stores in the fall of 1997. Neatly-packaged emo-pop amalgams are a dime a dozen these days, but there was nothing “neat” about Nothing Feels Good when it was released. Although the album’s music has the sugary-sweet taste of bubblegum pop that numerous artists today no doubt want to tap into, the band’s sound subverts the pretenses of slick pop on Nothing Feels Good with quick bursts of hardcore-influenced instrumentation that seem intent on spilling out of each track marking and into the life of the listener. To mis-quote The Promise Ring, it displays a sense that the band had of having no defined sense or absolute understanding of the world around them, but simply enjoying the view. Life’s peculiarities, ambiguities, and “big questions” aren’t shunned, but brought to the surface with keen observation. In frontman Davey von Bohlen’s hands and sweetly contorted lisp – a performance factor that only makes the music on Nothing Feels Good sound an umpteenth more sincere – The Promise Ring made an album of daring proportions and a musical document to the banalities, every day norms, and even celebrations of human existence not heard since Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Nothing Feels Good cover

Nothing Feels Good cover

Part of the story behind Nothing Feels Good is known, but little of it has a concentrated focus on the actual album or the band behind it. Beyond the musical content, Nothing Feels Good was a smashing success. For Jade Tree – The Promise Ring’s label – it meant financial stability, as the album surpassed their modest predictions and allowed the company to flourish, something of a miracle in the years following the alternative music buyout which had left many independent record labels for dead. For the national emo scene – a ragtag, ambiguous assemblage of independent artists around the U.S. – it legitimized their work in the face of the post-grunge milieu that ruled the radio waves and crippled mainstream creativity. For the members of The Promise Ring, it meant video premiers on MTV, critical acclamation, a position as one of the most creative bands operating in America’s underground music scene, and, much later, a place in cult-music lore for having inspired countless musicians to take emo (or whatever genre they called their own) in new and distinctly personal directions.

Although we’re still feeling the impact of Nothing Feels Good today, the known-narrative of the album’s creation is bare. What inspired the dozen songs on the album, and what transpired in their evolution from muddled creative concept into full-blown pop gold? What about the practices that hammered out the hooks, high-hats, and lo-fi hits in The Promise Ring’s oeuvre? What about the guys behind the instruments, their day-to-day existences and thoughts that no doubt burrowed their way into the band’s sophomore album? What were the moments before, during, and after 1997 that made Nothing Feels Good stand out from a mass of other bands and recordings that make up emo’s so-called second wave? What about each member’s upbringing, their lives in the Milwaukee area, relationships with friends, family, and significant-others? What made four young men band together to form The Promise Ring and create such a phenomenal release as heard in Nothing Feels Good?

These are the pivotal questions I’m seeking to answer with my book on The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good for Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series. Here is an album and a band who’s impact on music today in innumerable. Part of the unknown quality of The Promise Ring’s importance is due to the fact that these deep-seated questions have never been asked – or rather, published – on such a large-scale forum. Considering the fans that the band amassed since forming in 1995, a list that no doubt has been growing with every article, band, or cultural critic name-checking the quartet as one of indie rock’s great cult bands, The Promise Ring are more than due for their proper place in the rock narrative limelight. And the 33 1/3 series is the place I would like to bring the tale of The Promise Ring’s best album.

For this project, I plan on writing the kind of book that exemplifies the credence imbued in Nothing Feels Good. My model for this manuscript isn’t confined to the band-nostalgically-reminiscing-on-a-piece-of-the-past-type writing you may see in a lot of oral histories or straightforward music books out there. Certainly my work will represent the mold that previous 33 1/3 books have upheld, but I’m also inspired by the writing styles of the great new journalists and literary non-fiction pieces. In essence, I’m looking to produce a book that lives, breathes, eats, speaks, and plays music the way that the members of The Promise Ring did when they made Nothing Feels Good. I want to make someone who’s never heard the album feel as though they’ve been following the band since Day One, that they’re back in 1997 and sprinting to the record store in order to merely touch an album by a band that has touched them. Essentially, I want to write a book about The Promise Ring in the same way the band created their music.

My main informants for this project will be the members of The Promise Ring; as I want to get into their heads and extract information about their environment, attitudes, and memories, they will be my go-to source for the book. I’ve been in touch with Promise Ring singer/guitarist Davey von Bohlen for well over a year, having recruited his current band (Maritime) for a concert and Davey himself for a previous writing project. I have been corresponding with von Bohlen about this proposal for well over a month, and he has given this project his supportive and enthusiastic seal of approval, and has gotten me in touch with the other members of The Promise Ring. At the moment that I’ve submitted this proposal, I’ve been in touch with two other Promise Ring members, Jason Gnewikow (guitar) and Dan Didier (drums), and both are quite enthusiastic about the project. I plan on having extensive interviews with these three members, as well as the two bass players who played in The Promise Ring during their Nothing Feels Good era, Scott Schoenbeck and Scott Beschta.

Although interviews with the members of The Promise Ring will constitute a large portion of my research, I plan on culling information from as many sources as possible in order to make the narrative more vibrant and colorful. I plan on soliciting interviews with not only those closely associated to the band, but also their detractors and adoring fans. Alongside a list that includes friends and family, I plan on speaking to Tim Owen and Darren Walters (Jade Tree owners), J. Robbins (Nothing Feels Good producer), Stuart Sikes (Nothing Feels Good engineer), Jessica Hopper (former publicist), Tim Edwards (former booking agent), Josh Modell (creator of Milk Magazine and close friend), along with musicians who’ve worked with, influenced, or been influenced by The Promise Ring, including Tim and Mike Kinsella (Cap’n Jazz), Jim Adkins (Jimmy Eat World), Bob Nanna (Braid), Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate), Matthew Pryor (The Get Up Kids), Eric Richter (Christie Front Drive), Eric Axelson (The Dismemberment Plan/Maritime), Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional), Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy), Chris Simpson (Mineral), Chris Conley (Saves the Day), Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon), Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi), and countless others for their involvement in this project. Although not everyone listed is guaranteed to be involved, with my personal connections to some of the people previously listed and with the help from the former Promise Ring members, I will have an enormous number of people contributing to the book’s dialog.

Interviews aside, I plan on digging through swaths of information to aide in the creation of the book. Included will be the usual sources of information; articles on the band, reviews of their albums, zines, blogs, and any other published work that would enhance the narrative. But, I plan to go beyond those musings as well. I will approach the band members to see if I could use personal paraphernalia to help me spin a more personal yarn. This would include anything from old photographs, letters, journal entries, lyric sheets, music sheets, and even doodles scratched into scraps of paper they’ve kept through the years. I will also approach the narrative from the direction of an informed anthropologist by researching the socio-economic background of The Promise Ring’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Through census information, background information on area high school and college education systems, and the resources for youth in Wisconsin that was available at the same time Nothing Feels Good was in the making, I hope to gain a better sense of The Promise Ring’s background. I’ll also dig up information on American society’s views of Wisconsin and the Mid West and how that was reflected in the actions of those who lived there. It may seem onerous, but the brief scene in Wayne’s World that takes place in Milwaukee speaks volumes about the international perception of the place where The Promise Ring was formed. Throughout all of this, I hope to get a sense of why The Promise Ring did what they did, but from an entirely different perspective than the usual interview could warrant.

What I hope to accomplish after 15 months of research and writing is a work that can live up to how I felt after first popping Nothing Feels Good on the stereo, and something that will be as powerful as each subsequent listen to that album. My work may lack the aural quality of the album, but I hope it will be able to bring an entirely new sense of being to Nothing Feels Good, and one that will only boost the listening experience of longtime Promise Ring enthusiasts and bring some new fans to the album as well.

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597-Way Tie For Most Eclectic Proposal

What could have been - fake cover for a famously rejected proposal

What could have been - fake cover for a famously rejected proposal

The 33 1/3 blog released the final list of the nearly 600 potential books on a wide variety of albums that Continuum received after the call for open proposals a little while ago.

Needless to say, it’s quite a list. It’s interesting to see what albums people are passionate enough about to fill an entire book, and think about numerous individuals (who most likely don’t know one another) who came together at the same entry period and wrote a proposal about the same record (Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville and Slint’s Spiderland got a lot of props).

Perhaps what’s great to see is the number of emo albums that have been proposed. In general, it’s a generous heaping of bands in the large arc of emo’s narrative. There’s Fugazi (who received numerous proposals from their discography), Lungfish, Jawbreaker, Jimmy Eat World, Say Anything, and (of course) Fall Out Boy.

Now, I must admit, I submitted a proposal too. Mine is for The Promise Ring’s 1997 album, Nothing Feels Good.

Nothing Feels Good Album Cover

Nothing Feels Good Album Cover

From the looks of all the proposals, it sure must be tough to choose 20 or so out of hundreds of great ideas. But, I’ve got my fingers crossed for my idea. And it’s not just because I am the one who wrote and worked on the proposal. Rather, I feel it’s record that needs to be discussed, and one that hasn’t had the proper opportunity to be carefully observed and thoughtfully written about in the thorough manner that every 33 1/3 book requires. Nothing Feels Good is still as astounding today as the day it was released (nearly) twelve years ago, and its impact on popular music today is equaled by a handful of other albums. Hell, even the folks at Pitchfork who frequently turn their nose down on emo acts and albums loved The Promise Ring’s sophomore disc. If that doesn’t show some middle ground between mainstream popular music listening (to which TPR has had undeniable influence over and certainly had an appeal towards, despite the indie circuit with which they traveled in) and elitist-leaning tastemaking, I don’t know what does.

Hopefully, the editors of the series will think so as well. And one of the first handful of comments sure gave me some hope:

Anonymous Anonymous said…
I thought pitching a book on the Hold Steady was a long shot, but the fact that there were two other proposals for Separation Sunday puts some of my fears to rest…

I appreciate seeing some of my high school staples getting pitched: 24 hour revenge, clarity, nothing feels good… I can, indeed, still feel the butterflies…

tw

2:21 PM

Good luck to everyone who worked hard to get those proposals in on time, and same to the Continuum folks who no doubt will have a lot of hard thinking to do!

The Revolution Will Be Produced

It’s always nice getting some sort of personal email, especially when it’s in the form of a musical reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Well, “personal” isn’t quite the right word, but I certainly took the message as a sincere and direct one:

It’s with great pleasure we offer you a sneak peak by sharing an MP3 from the album. The song is called “Strange Overtones”.

The album in question is Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it’s the first collaboration from the two post-punk minds in decades. The duo last came together with the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. However, that album was overshadowed (and probably will always be overshadowed) by Byrne’s main musical artery, Talking Heads. Yet, Eno was a central tenant to the Talking Head’s success, as his role in the producer’s seat for three of the Heads’ best albums (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light) was as vital as any other performing member of the band. It was because of Eno’s previously-unforeseen creative control over the band – which according to the book Rip It Up And Start Again hit its tipping point when Eno and Byrne got writing credits for Remain in Light ahead of the other band members, who were simply written down under the umbrella of “Talking Heads” – that his relationship with the Talking Heads and Byrne deteriorated.

Talking Heads

Talking Heads

It took me quite a bit of time to realize what an impact certain producers have over the final musical product. I always assumed that the final version of a song and album was simply a record of what the musicians themselves had originally created. And in many cases, that is true, especially in the world of underground music (and on the flipside, with mainstream, conglomerate pop, there’s the tendency wherein the “musicians” have less control over the final sound – or even the original sound to begin with). But as I became more interested in music, its with the “behind the music” stories so to speak, that I realized what a fundamental role producers play. The most famous stories I can think of involving the influence of a producer are all about Rick Rubin, the man who transformed the Beastie Boys into a fully-fledged hip-hop act and brought guitars and turntables together with his idea to do a Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration.

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is the kind of guy who blends a musician’s sound with his own distinct style. His style is not quite overbearing, but you can hear distinct patterns and ideas in songs such as Jay-Z‘s “99 Problems”; with it’s big, chunky guitar riffs broken up by break-beats, its in the same ballpark as “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” or “Walk This Way.” It’s something I tend to notice coming out of my favorite producer today – Danger Mouse. Despite the fact that DM works with a diverse number of genres and artists, there’s a certain reliance on futuristic-soul (a bit faster than old skool soul) with a twist that flows through most of his repertoire. Don’t believe it? Take a quick listen to the Black Keys‘ “Strange Times” and compare it to Gnarls Barkley‘s “Go-Go Gadget Gospel.” They’re both excellent songs, but they share a pop-friendly downbeat and have the same hand-clap filled start.

Strange Times:

Go-Go Gadget Gospel:

It is partially due to production that emo transformed from an obtuse and ambiguous umbrella term for DC based post-hardcore, into a tangible genre. In its infancy, many of the bands who were tagged as “emo” simply produced their own records, or had friends produce their records. Everyone from Rites of Spring to Beefeater (note – their friend “Gumbo” MacKaye is said to have produced their overture) to Fugazi to Lungfish to Jawbox had band members working on both sides of the soundtrack. Hell, Happy Go Licky, the post-Rites of Spring group in a slightly different formation, only has one album, and its a collection of live recordings. The first wave of emo’s lack of a singular mode of production allowed for each act to create their own sounds uninhibited by any outside forces.

Happy Go Lickys Will Play

Happy Go Licky's Will Play

Enter the second wave of emo and there are noticeable changes and formulations drawn out that inevitably impact the future of the genre. The 2nd wave basically has two distinct halves: the spread of the DC-inspired sound to particular parts of the country in a small number of bands (Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, etc), and then the immediate spreading of “emo” under the influence of the previous 1st and 2nd wave bands (most notably throughout the Mid West). Of all of the groups in emo 2.1, Sunny Day Real Estate had the most influence, and yet, they themselves have two distinct parts in which their sound developed due in part to the band’s relationship to two producers: Brad Wood and Lou Giordano. Wood produced the first two Sunny Day albums (Diary and LP2), and the production value brought out a certain aural dissonance derived from the feedback of the band’s dual guitar-work. Considering the band found an instant fan base (albeit, rather small) isn’t unbelievable as their produced sound shared numerous qualities with grunge, which was still popular at the time (Wood worked his alterna-sweeping grunge sound into the work of other artists such as Red Red Meat, Hum, and Smashing Pumpkins). And yet, on LP2 you could sense that the band wanted to achieve something more powerful than the immediate gratification of sonic blasts, as songs such as “J’Nuh” delved into succinct, taught patterns. When they reformed, Sunny Day grabbed Giordano, who helped relieve the band of its excess dissonance in favor of sparse melodies, a concept which has carried on into the band members’ post-Sunny Day work (The Fire Theft, Enigk’s solo work). Sunny Day held their own individual sound throughout their career, but with the help of two different folks created two distinct portraits.

Sunny Days final form

Sunny Day's final form

As emo spread throughout the rest of America and bands began to share musical ideas, producers helped sift through the sounds to create something resembling a conglomerate creation. And the two people who had the most impact behind the bands themselves are Mark Trombino (former Drive Like Jehu drummer) and J Robbins (former Jawbox frontman). Trombino is best known for his production work with Jimmy Eat World, most notably on the album Clarity, a record which traded the band’s pop-punk leanings for ambient experimentation. Trombino’s relationship with Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, Knapsack, and Boys Life no doubt formed a core aesthetic for emo which mainly highlighted the band’s talents by simply teasing out the volume, focusing on the intertwined guitar flurries, and highlighting the singers’ vocals. It’s a style of down-tuned production that no-doubt has influenced countless pop-punk and emo bands today, many of whom Trombino has worked with.

J Robbins

J Robbins

As Trombino fiddled with certain bands’ sounds, J Robbins mostly covered the bases of bringing the bands to the studio. In the case of many J Robbins’ produced albums (most recently, his work on Ponytail’s Ice Cream Spiritual has gotten attention for bringing a notoriously hard-to-record-but-excellent-live band into the world of recorded sound), Robbins leaves much of the musicianship up to the band, but makes sure to twist the production knobs in a way that it gives each group the kind of pop-friendly gloss they were hoping to achieve. Even in the case of Texas Is The Reason (Do You Know Who You Are?), Robbins has been able to flesh out the noise-fetish in order to create approachable pop. In fact, Robbins’ work with one band in particular helped drive emo into the bubblegum chew of pop perfection: The Promise Ring. After TPR were upset with the sonic outcome of their debut, 30 Degrees Everywhere, they turned to Robbins for a little quality control. And that’s exactly what Robbins did, delivering the band’s two poppiest records; Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency. It’s with Robbins that certain aspects of the emo “sound” manage to stand out, because he managed to make the sounds all stand out; rather than bands being lost in a caterwaul of noise, Robbins’ produced material (from the Dismemberment Plan to Jets to Brazil to Braid to mewithoutyou) sounds clear and conscience, making the band stand out. And in music production, that’s what counts.

Brian Eno and David Byrne – Strange Overtones (fan video):

No More Phone Booths

Like any “normal” male adolescent in America, my elementary school days were filled with a love of sports and comic books. For me, it was more comic books than sports. As my friends dreamed of a future on the gridiron, I diligently worked on my impending comic book career. Somewhere along the line I became jaded; it could have been any number of adults and teachers who urged me to take art classes (an idea I despised), it could have been my critiques of my ability to draw or create a narrative, or it could have been middle school that did it.

My childhood - just as I remember it

My childhood - just as I remember it

As my dream job of creating my own super heroes slipped away, my love of comics stayed with me. My own maturation seems perfectly timed with the “maturation” of comic books from pubescent pulp to renowned artistic endeavors with the popularity of the graphic novel. Maus (the unmitigated classic), Palestine (what I’ve read of it – it’s an intense and engaging affair that I should devote more time to than idly flipping through chapters in my free time), Blankets (I remember picking this thing up to pass the time and stay out of the rain at a festival in Norway, and I was immediately absorbed), and others made my love of comics seemed refined. But the superheroes, those endless tales churned out week after week and once seen as a splotch on the American conscience, they remain my true guilty pleasure (perhaps that is why I find Watchmen so endearing; it combines the seemingly low-brow entertainment of super heroes with the high-brow narrative style of graphic novels). So, whenever a new superhero movie comes out, I jump at the ability to see it.

With each coming summer, there’s at least one high-flying comic book based (or inspired) tale on the big screen, and this year is no different. As The Dark Knight approaches, I’ve been subsumed in comic-book films recently and even movies with people obsessed with comic books. While I’ve missed out on The Incredible Hulk (or based on various reviews, not missed out), I celebrated the end of my college education with Iron Man on opening night, saw Hollywood make an altogether out-of-character film with Hancock, and devoured the graphic details that fill Hellboy 2. As I saw the later two films within the past week, two other occurrences have made me think about my adoration of superheroes more than I normally do. One was a great article by James Parker in last week’s Boston Phoenix on what the popularity of superhero films says about our nation’s identity. The second occurrence was a scene in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, where Stan Lee discusses with Brodie (played by Jason Lee) what drove him to create his best characters.

Jason Lee and Stan Lee in Mallrats

Jason Lee and Stan Lee in Mallrats

Although the scene in Mallrats was clearly scripted for the plot of the movie, the random chain of events in which I watched the three films and read the James Parker article got me thinking more about my personal interaction with comic books. The one thing that reminded me of what appealed to me about superheroes, particularly the Marvel chain of heroes, was one section of the Parker piece:

“I’m a DC Comics person,” says Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD, over iced coffee at Simon’s in Cambridge. Outside, the afternoon is horizontal with heat fatigue: the cars buzz drunkenly along Mass Ave. “By temperament, I suppose. Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman — they have a lot more moral clarity for me, a more serious code to which to aspire. Marvel is kind of the arena of the neurotic superhero, beginning with Spider-Man, who, of course, is a New Yorker. A neurotic and very introspective New Yorker! Now Batman is thoughtful, too, but he doesn’t think about himself. He broods, but what he’s doing is figuring out what action to take. So it looks like rumination, obsessive thoughts, but it’s actually problem solving. Whereas Marvel characters seem to go around and around.”

 

To me, DC comic characters always seemed so un-human in every aspect. They were nearly flawless (that includes Batman, despite his problems with the past), and aside from one minor problem they may have (such as kryptonite), their entire abilities just made their jobs seem so easy. It made the prospect of even reading the books sound pointless – there’s no way the characters couldn’t triumph over their enemies. Now the Marvel characters had it; they were unique, imperfect, and human; they had to struggle with their own place in the world in order to do good for the world. Sure, Spider-man could swing through Manhattan, but his own problems seemed so realistic, making his situation as a person with superpowers that much more believable. In many ways, this is what I find so appealing about emo; the subjects that are discussed within the lyrics are problems that at their core are undoubtedly human. Whether those problems are as morally thoughtful as corporate greed (Fugazi’s “Five Corporations”), as existentially obtuse as traveling beyond your natural habitat (The Promise Ring’s “Make Me A Chevy”), or simply about loss (Brand New’s “Sowing Season (Yeah)”), they all (hopefully) contain a poignant point about the problems in life, and how we deal with them. In that context, it’s no wonder love is so often discussed.

 

Hellboy and Liz Sherman in a scene from Hellboy 2

Hellboy and Liz Sherman in a scene from Hellboy 2

 

Love was the second big thing that I noticed about comic book superheroes. Well, not so much love as a consistent recalling of it in two films that made me think more about my own interaction with comic books and emo to a greater extent. Being a huge music fan, I often want to know what inspired the songs that I find really inspiring. What I find so appealing about emo (and comic books) is that there are many layers that inform a particular story or song, but in the end it’s what you take away from it that matters. There’s a particular section in Andy Greenwald’s reprehensible book on emo, Nothing Feels Good, where a Dashboard Confessional fan recounts a discussion he had with Chris Carrabba about a particular song; the fan thought the song was about one thing, but was surprised to find out that it was inspired by something totally different. Is the fan wrong to think about the song that way? Not at all – the song had personal meaning to him for a good reason. In the entire emo lineage, the brightest bands have created songs that are multi-faceted; they’re based in personal moments, but can be subsumed by any listener and thought of in a different way. And the thing is, no one is wrong. So, when Stan Lee tells Brodie in Mallrats that lost love inspired the creation of many of his greatest superhero creations, I find everything a little too coincidental. Sure, that story was Smith’s invention, but who’s to say he was wrong? It’s well known that the X-Men were created as a foil to the then-current struggle for Civil Rights, but who’s to say they don’t mean something different to Stan Lee (well, Stan Lee I guess).

 

In many ways, the more I think about it, the more I find the narratives of normalcy particularly appealing to me in terms of superheroes. I love action as much as the next person, but nothing is quite like the personal stories of the people behind the masks in the comic books and films. And again, it’s the same thing with emo; of all the cultures surrounding musical genres, emo is (for the most part) all about normalcy. The musicians and artists discuss personal problems and try and build communities among their fanbase. The world of the “Rock Star,” the realm of 80s Hair Metal; these are the “superheroes,” but they’re not so much super as they are larger-than-life purely due to the size of their egos. I could never equate that attitude with “good,” and I’ll take the normalcy of emo anyday.

 

Dashboard Confessional – Vindicated video (not my favorite, but it sums up the theme quite nicely):

An Introduction

Before things begin, I shall kick things off with the words of someone else. Ted Rall is a witty, no-holds-barred political cartoonist with a wonderful sense of humor. Shamefully, I don’t read his weekly comics as often as I’d like to/should. But, as I flipped through the most recent edition of the Weekly Dig, I noticed something particularly alarming. Take a look:

Ted Rall\'s Misconception

No, it wasn’t Rall’s commentary on Obama that was striking (although that is a particularly interesting comment on Obama’s policy, though I often feel that Rall reads in between the lines a bit too much… but that’s part of the humor of absurdity). It was Rall’s quick side-swipe at emo. For someone who combs through detail after detail in the search of the elusive truth in modern politics, the fact that he managed to quickly label emo as crap with his humorous jab is a bit frightening.

Now, I may have gotten ahead of myself or gotten off to a bad start. So, let me rewind here and explain:

This blog isn’t meant to be a place of bitter complaints and sideswipes. I can easily see the humor in Rall’s use of emo as an aural weapon for torture (in fact, I myself have done the same thing in the past, equating jam-based act OAR with musical punishment). I’m not getting needlessly upset by Rall’s quick side-comment; this is simply a starting place for my general frustration with our society’s close-mindedness as seen through the microcosmic scope of emo.

So, rather than complain and or try in vain attempts to change certain individuals’ perspectives on emo, I shall write my thoughts and concepts on the culture in this blog for anyone who is open-minded enough to see it. Of all the pop phenomenons to dominate the American mainstream and be a face of our country’s cultural output, emo has had a terrible rep. It’s been labeled a suicide-hungry cult. It’s apparently been the root cause of teenage violence and cultural friction in Mexico. It’s even been blamed for the death of a 13 year-old in the UK. And to think that a few years ago people thought of it as harmless love songs for punks.

If only things were so easy. To think, we could blame some cultural product for all of life’s problems. If that were the case, we wouldn’t really have to worry that much about anything. So, there are two options we as a society can take: start an anti-emo cult petition to fictitiously solve all our ails, or try and solve our problems not by blaming them on outside sources, but by making constructive attempts to work towards an actual solution.

Making an attempt to understand emo couldn’t hurt. In fact, solutions and emo should be thought of as being hand-in-hand. When the cultural movement and sound that was originally tagged as “emo,” short for “emotional hardcore,” arose, it was at the center of a community looking for self-improvement. Back in 1985, the DC punk scene was going through a Renaissance. After suffering the downfall of hardcore punk into violent, bigoted chaos, a handful of forward-thinking youngsters in the DC area decided to make a positive change. Centered around Dischord, the DIY record label home to DC’s most prominent hardcore acts, a burst of creativity surged through teens who had seen the best and worst of the underground hardcore movement. These individuals began to form bands that subverted the usual hardcore histrionics, taking the passion and power of hardcore and slowing it down, pumping it with a pop-friendly sense of musicality, and packing it with cunning lyrics imbued with ideas about change, maturity, community, self, and politics. And politics. They began to protest the Apartheid in South Africa and become more involved in the local DC community, with a particular bent towards helping the underprivileged communities of their fair city. And it was doomed to be called emo.

Since then, emo has spent two decades-plus in the American wilderness so to speak. For decades, emo thrived in the underground, changing and evolving with each community that was touched by it, until it’s come to the present state of popularity and misconception. But more on that later.

This blog will be more than a simple lesson in history. Some entries (in fact, most) will not even directly be associated with emo. To be truthful, most of what is commonly referred to as emo today simply doesn’t affect me in the way that the emo of previous years has. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, but alas, that is not the rule (and that may be one of the reasons why emo is generally thought of as terrible). But, whatever may crop up, I will inevitably find a way of connecting it with emo. Be it political debates, zombie movies, football, current subcultural movements, I will find a way of connecting it to emo… or at least try to. I’ll mostly touch upon the music that I find particularly appealing, and if it isn’t within the realm of emo, I’ll connect it to what I feel is one of the most important cultural forces in recent years.

Why is emo so important? It could be the fact that, unlike any other genre of pop music and its reflexive culture (with the exception of rock, which seems to include every form of pop), emo has covered the most rugged, twisted, and adventurous path. It could be the fact that it’s evolved in ways that mirror the various sub-genres of rock, yet it all seems to be contained within an odd three letter word. It could be the fact that, whatever the band from whatever year, nearly any fan of rock or pop could find an act that they could connect with. It could be the fact that with all its changes and intents, emo is one of the greatest reflections of our society. Or it could be the fact that emo simply is, and has been, an amorphous blob that’s been anything to anyone over decades of time.

This blog is called “Perfect Lines,” a title I cribbed from a song by 1990s emo wunder-band The Promise Ring. The Promise Ring is an act that I admire in particular for the cunning use of language that makes each song so vibrant. Singer Davey Von Bohlen’s words seem to bleed into each other, creating a sense of boundless ideas that make each listen a new experience. The lyrics are like little treasures that continue to give long after the gold has been found. Or just amazing puns that aren’t corny. I hope that my writings in this blog are similar to Von Bohlen’s capacity as a songwriter; the kind that always seem to have something new to say, where ideas are intertwined with a certain sense of ease. Simply put, I hope to write perfect lines.

The Promise Ring – \”Why Did Ever We Meet\”

(Sorry folks, it’s not “Perfect Lines,” but it is another great song by The Promise Ring off the same album – “Nothing Feels Good”)