Music is an entity that pervades every facet of life –- assuming you are not deaf –- but many people are often oblivious to the stultifying amount of different genres people enjoy all over the globe. One particularly impressive style of music is emo, which is rather obscure itself, but has its roots in the popular and revolutionary punk genre.

          Deriving its name from the word "emotional," the emo genre is an extension of punk and hardcore. Trusted indicators of the style are visceral yet complex guitar music driven by oscillating dynamics and deep personal lyrics. The term "emocore" was first employed during the mid-1980s to describe the music of the Washington, D.C.-based group Rites of Spring, often recognized as the progenitor of emo music.

          Although Rites of Spring may be the first to purport this unique style, their recognition is somewhat lacking. However, their brother of the same record label, Fugazi, is arguably the most popular and influential emo band, with albums dating from 1988 to the present Other big names in the genre are Jimmy Eat World, The Promise Ring, Mineral, and the Seattle-born Sunny Day Real Estate. Their styles range from post-punk spazzcore to radio friendly pop, but they all possess basic emocore underpinnings. The upstart band Get Up Kids have recently brought the emo style, enmeshed in punk, to a wider audience with radio and MTV hits from their Something to Write Home About album.

         Like all popular music genres, emo will one day relinquish its niche status and be renown to even the most casual aural audience. Especially, with terrific ambassadors of the genre like Noise Ratchet and Texas is the Reason. The starting gates have been flung open and a dark horse named emo has the potential to captivate the crowds.

See also, emo music. If you are into emo, you are most likely male (see also, a boy). If you are a girl (see also, female) then you are in it for the boys. Unless you are gay. (But that is just me generalizing.) The emo boys know that the girls like them. It's all a vicious cycle.

Typical emo wardrobe consists of four colors. Black, gray, brown. The fourth color is glasses. Glasses is a color, yes. Glasses should make you look sensitive and intelligent.

Your hair is mussed. You have sideburns OR you look like you just got off work at the office, extremely clean cut. I knew a punk rocker who was swore up and down that emo kids didn't have sideburns because they were _extremely clean cut_.

You are very opinionated about your music. Your sweaters fit snugly. Your messenger bag is your security blanket. You say records, not CD's. You don't own CD's. You scoff at people who own CD's.

You drink coffee and write poetry and try to make your voice worse than it is. You cry and you tell everyone about it. You are unashamed.

All of the above writeups are as correct as any can be about something as convoluted and broad as emo nomenclature.

It is correct that music termed 'emo' or 'emocore' sprang up in Washington DC in the mid-1980s, when bands like Rites of Spring, Soul Side and Embrace began to play more mid-tempo music with lyrics centered around lost love, loneliness, confusion, and other topics usually reserved for bad teenage poetry. The "DC sound" came to be dual guitars, usually played in unison, with propulsive basslines, often carrying the melody or being a musical center point. The vocals were usually sung in a hoarse voice, not shouted like in the hardcore punk of the time, although usually at the song's climax there would usually be a breakdown into screaming of some sort. Usually when someone nowadays refers to this sound, it will be called emocore.

While emo started in DC, it spread all over the country shortly. Finding longstanding homes in the midwest and in California.

Hardcore Emo started in and around Silicon Valley, with bands like Mohinder, Heroin and, later,Portraits of Past and Swing Kids. These bands played short songs, usually sub-two minutes, with screamed and howled vocals. The guitars were distorted sometimes beyond recognition and were often just noise. Lyrics of ultimate pain and anger were prevalent, and releases generally include lyrics so you can figure out what the singer is doing all that hollering about. A special note should be made about Portraits of Past, who, after their initial release (a split 7" with Bleed), began incorporating longer, epic structures into their songs. This resulted in one LP of crushingly beautiful hardcore, complete with tense buildups and descending, breakdowns.

Emo incorporating pop song structures, and more singing/less screaming, started in the Midwest with bands like Split Lip. It was often much less angry, and more melancholy than really sad. This genre has become very popular, with bands like The Promise Ring and The Get Up Kids being well-known by everyone, even getting alternative rock radio airplay, and appearances on MTV. This has been much more notable recently (9/03/02) with the appearance of bands like Thursday and Dashboard Confessional on MTV constantly. I, as a snob and elitist, don't consider these bands to be emo. They're pop bands plain and simple. (I'm sure there are a million rants I could insert here about (welcomed and sought after) commercialism replacing any meaning and sincerity that music has, and they're all tired and you've heard them all before. I'll leave it at that.)

Classically (89-96, let's say, to be rough about it), "emo" was a style of music with heavy emphasis on loud/soft dynamics, and bursting tension at the song's climax. Vocals can range from whispering or speaking during the quiet parts to full on screaming, crying, or wailing during the loud parts. Bands like Moss Icon, Indian Summer, and Hoover are especially known for this. The music is more complex than your average three chord punk rock, but the musicians were very rarely virtuosos. The guitars were quite distorted, and octave chords were frequently used to give the music a rich tone. Many bands preferred a buildup of single-note melodies into a chorus or breakdown of wildly thrashing chords and drums, still anchored with a steady bassline.

Emo isn't supposed to be a subjective term for things, but it seems to have become one. Use your own judgement. What I may call emo, you may call hardcore and what you call emo I may call pop or indie rock.

Emo has risen in popularity among high school and college students in particular as the punk genre grows increasingly more mainstream. The same rebellious spirit once harnessed by rock & roll has existed for decades in the subculture of punk music. The latest MTV generation cleansed punk of its raw sounds, anarchist sentiments and violent tendencies while retaining the "look" associated with spiky, colored hair, piercing and Salvation Army tee-shirts. The result was radio-friendly bands like Blink 182 and A New Found Glory- happier punk sounds without the societal views essential to the genre’s reputation as a political, not just musical, movement.

Always striving to avoid any mainstream spotlight, punk defectors, mainly male, looked to indie-rock for help. The resulting emo genre is not entirely new, but its growing popularity is. The hallmark of emo is the characteristic over-emotional lyrics. Extremely reminiscent of punk, the lyrics can be very basic, yet still hold a sense of honesty and even crudeness. An additional trait borrowed from the punk ideal is the inclusion of every contributor to the arena. Any musician with an emotional desire is welcome to wear the emo label. But there is a dress code.

Emo kids can still shop at Salvo; they just have to spend the extra $1.00 on a sweater. To be emo, as was to be punk, comes with a style. Distinguishing emo from other brands of emotional music is the desire to remain impoverished and away from popular America. This clearly helps the reflection process when creating songs. To be emo, as was to be punk, is to live the image.

Emo has branched out its musical sounds from the typical guitar driven ones that initially characterized the genre. While bands such as Death Cab for Cutie remain guitar focused, bands like The Get up Kids have punk influences, Jimmy Eat World are intensely rock, and others like The Dismemberment Plan are more experimental.

The punk band Screeching Weasel's 1999 album Emo, while not as catchy and "sing along" as other fan favorites like My Brain Hurts (1992) or Anthem for a New Tomorrow (1993) (I am partial to 1994's How to make Enemies and Irritate People), is arguably the band's1 best and most mature work in both lyrics and songwriting (yeah, I know it's still a punk band).

Still very pop punk (despite Ben's claim that "the songs are all in the Crimpshrine/Jawbreaker/Husker Du vein we've touched on before"), the album has a deliberate raw immediacy, musically, and is lyrically honest.

Background
Following yet another breakup and short stint as The Riverdales, SW signed with Fat Mike's (NOFX) label Fat Wreck Chords (this was after years with Lookout! Records, a relationship renewed later when they distributed the band's records released on their own label). It resulted in the release of the very poppy Bark Like a Dog (1996)2 and the good, but—with a few exceptions—unremarkable Televison City Dream (1998).

After Leaving Fat, they released the EP Major Label Debut (1998)3 on Ben and Jughead's Panic Button label (the reason they left Fat was to give a "name" and credibility to the new label). It was short, fast, catchy, and good—just like punk should be. Some fans were divided. But they would be even more divided when Emo came out the next year.

The recording
The album was recorded in Chicago (where Ben lives) during the "Blizzard of '99." Two of the members took eleven hours to make the 120 mile trip to his apartment where they had to dig out a parking place. Skipping rehearsals, they were given a tape of Ben singing and playing the songs solo in his living room for reference. For the album, he ended up returning to playing guitar in the band (since Bark Like a Dog) because the second guitarist had returned to college.

They would listen to the tape, run through the song a few times and then record it live in the studio (intentionally, as Ben wanted that "live" feeling on the recording). They kept the best takes and then he laid down vocal tracks while listening to the music on the studio speakers. This made for a "messier" production quality (as opposed to the very crisp, "clean" sound of Bark Like a Dog), but comes off very well. You are there with the band as they are playing. It fits with the material.

Emo
While the title hints at the well-known genre of punk, this is not an "emo" record. That said, it also sort of is. At heart, emo is supposed to be about emotional things (though sometimes, in practice, this ends up being whining about lost girlfriends and teenage angst) and Emo certainly is. Full of realizations about life, the album examines the patient who is Ben Foster. It's Ben coming to terms with things about his life and chosen career (despite the "for good" breakup in 2001 and his interest in writing books, there is no plan to stop recording—only as SW). What also helps is that he's not just out of the teenage years and has an older perspective (he was in junior high in 1980). Also that he has had a long (and prolific) career as a punk—the band having formed in 1986. This led to the more mature lyrical sensibility of the album.

The twelve songs begin with "Acknowledge," which is what it is about. In it "I" (who, without need for implication, is Ben), has come to "acknowledge the fact of my life" and realizes he cannot continue living apart from the world and "pretending that I don't give a shit." He had found that "there was guilt and shame, there was and fear and hate" before coming to terms with his relation to the world. He then says something few punks would admit to: "I appreciate the simple beauty of the world." "The meaning of life is life itself" and he realizes that the thing that has held him back from that realization is himself, that he has to "get out of my own way."

Following the first song are two with a harder edge. "Sidewalk Warrior," about the futility of conflict (particularly personal), especially about seemingly petty things and "[keeping] score" over a game with "primitive rules." He thinks "things have become insane when all you'll fight for is a piece of sidewalk" and asks "do you look back and count victories when things start feeling hopeless? It's hard to believe." The third is "Static," which gives the sense of the protagonist of the song (possibly Ben in light of his life and events of the time—more later) who is falling apart in all the "static" of life—society and culture implicated—leading one "crawling for the safety of your bed." That "if I see another crack I think I'm gonna crack 'cause I can't go on."

The fourth song, "The Scene," is his manifesto on himself as Ben Weasel, punk rocker. Anthem for a New Tomorrow's "A New Tomorrow" is another manifesto, but for punk in general with backup vocals from other people in the punk community. "The Scene" has no other voices and is mostly his guitar playing the chord progression until near the end (there is a bass, too, but the guitar is way up in the mix). He sees what he is and who he has become. Again he acknowledges that he is here and alive, "not by choice but by birth" and that despite "doubting my own worth" he has become a "permanent part of this society" (though acknowledging that his choices have also led him to where he is).

Having "arrived here by way of dirty looks and rejection and head scratching shrinks and frustrated parents and teachers," he also is aware that he isn't the first to have done so, nor will he be the last. There will always be another punk to come along. But he is satisfied with this—not "proud" or "ashamed"—it's his lot in life and while others can "afford to laugh," he can't because it's all he has but "it's good enough for me." He continues his defiance by asserting that he will (continue) to follow his own rules that brought him here: "My own world, my own rules, my own world."

"Let Go" is about the confusion and apprehension of the future, the unknown, "too many paths to choose from; so many already gone." These fears build up and leave one feeling almost helpless at the hands of the universe, "choices that come back to haunt me," "seeing nothing but emptiness for years." But there is an out. He realizes that he must "let go" and "experience the joy of life; a simple smile," giving the advice that one should "stand and walk. See things as new" because then "you've just begun to change the world." With similarities to song one, this shows the darkness of the journey to the point where he can "acknowledge."

Next is "Regroup," where he realizes that it's far too easy to criticize and do nothing. What can he do to "ease the suffering and pain" in the world and will any attempts to speak out be "drowned out by all the noise made by those who will profit from the peddling of comfortability"? He sees that he must "regroup" and start living those words. He has to "clean up my own backyard" because it is "up to me," not someone else.

That is followed by "Passion." He realizes that he needs "passion, emotion" and "action, devotion." He also realizes, again, that the thing that most holds him back from this (not "Warner Brothers" or the "government") lies within: "I have seen the enemy—he looks an awful lot like me." He has to follow that passion and not worry about "trying to look cool" or "acting like a fool." This is the only way he can make a "difference in the world" and to not "live a lie."

The next song is a (surprising) cover of the 1993 song "Linger" by the Cranberries. Though it's got a strong guitar sound it's not overpowering and manages to be an honest cover and seriously earnest—not a matter of "punkifying" some pop song for fun. And though his voice is hardly suited for the sadness, loss, and regret that the song requires, he sings it without a hint of irony or cynicism.

That leads into the album's downward spiral through fear, anger, loss, and finally a form of madness (and possible stability on his terms). "Last Night" is the gateway to that descent (full lyrics as written, not sung):

Where were you last night when I needed you just to be around me for a while? Last night. The worms crawled in, the worms crawled out, they tap-danced on my snout like I'd already died. Last night. Buildings crumbled to the ground, the sky was falling down and I was going down for the last time. Last night.

Things fall apart. Loneliness and abandonment and losing control.

Then "2-7 Split" follows the "night" into the questions of disintegration of a relationship (which might reflect contemporary events in his life). He wonders why they can't try one more time despite "accusations" from both sides (and being "so fucking unhappy being together"). There is confusion, seen in his declaration that "I am alone—this city's mine." He is faced with the knowledge that he is partly responsible ("is my existence just a force of habit?" and the "revolution"—whether it represents love or his life in general or something else, it seems to be of a personal nature—that is coming is a "lost cause") and that there's nothing he can do.

He thinks that it might be another failing. He tries "like a catcher in the rye but my arms are not big enough to catch you when you're falling" (implying a shared responsibility). Later it becomes "I can't stop either of us from destroying ourselves." Yet he admits that though "maybe I should kick you like a drug," "all that I know for sure is that I love you with all my heart." But in the end he's left with more loss and frustration asking if "she" knows that "the sun is rising for you. Do you feel it?" It doesn't seem to be for him.

"On My Own" is a self-assessment of his life, looking back on the angry and rebellious days of the past with "fists clenched," when "alcohol and sedatives kept it all at bay." He found no God or twelve-step program (echoing the first verse of "A New Tomorrow") that helped and rejected whatever didn't. Realizing that he is responsible for what he has become ("my own sick and damaged heart"), that he needs to look at himself—"especially all those things that I don't wanna see"—and without shame "face reality." And reality includes "hate and love and rage and pain." He also, contrary to the suggestion of the title seems to realize that he—despite all the defiance and self-sufficiency he's discussing in the songs—isn't able to do this on his own. He sees that "everything is interconnected" and decides to remain here with "you." What can keep things at bay can be "the power of love and the power of soul." Though it might be the "self-preservation" he needs to free himself of.

The final song, "Bark Like a Dog," has nothing to do with the album of the same name, lyrically or musically. It is a harsh look at himself (and how others see him), as well as more angry defiance that turns into (not entirely free of being self-indulgence) ranting at the end.5 The music reflects it and is hard and abrasive.

"They say that I'm insane," "that crazy Weasel never leaves his house, "he's total wacked." Some of the problems people have with him are because of his personality. He was highly critical in his Maximum Rock and Roll column, took crowd-baiting to an art form, then decided to discontinue touring for good (telling the fans that purchasing his album gave him no obligation to perform for them)4. For a short time he would answer questions on the message board at the official unofficial SW site (www.screechingweasel.com). He generally refused to discuss music, preferring to insult the inane (and occasionally honest) questions and preferring to talk about baseball or hockey. Though it was a friendly ribbing (he produced the album), the Queers song "Ben Weasel" (featuring "Ben Weasel, he's an asshole, Ben Weasel, he's a jerk") is not without a basis in reality.

But he has had relationship and financial problems throughout his life, both hitting him around the time the album was recorded. He was also trying to quit smoking again and the untimely death of the former drummer for the Queers hit a lot of the punk community pretty hard. His history of psychological problems, while not serious, also exacerbated things. All these things came to a head on Emo. He's "had my fill." He will only be true to himself, "hang out in places worth my time" and "love the people worth my fucking time." He asks "are you worth my fucking time?"

He goes into (with distorted vocals) his rant railing at the people who told him what to think and how to feel (angry enough to gloss over his part in it that comes through in the other songs). He tries to "see the sunshine through the clouds, stand in the rain and rejoice" but this "world is bullshit." He says he doesn't "know what I am but I know what I'm not." Continually saying he is "all right" but also just wants to "eat, drink and fuck."

Perhaps this all functions as a catharsis and he finally, in his anger, really believes he will be all right. The journey from "acknowledgment" to a sense of place in the world. That "simple beauty of the world" is not as simple as it seems—as he says "cheap, easy answers kill"—but it can be arrived at through a process. The album charts his attempt at that process.

From the liner notes (dropped the all-caps):

Yeah, I'm a shitty guitarist. Can't sing too great either. Fuck it. Low budget, a little loose—what do I care? It's the best record I've ever played on; best tunes I've written. It's Screeching Weasel whether the yappers like it or not. "The kids are gonna hate it." Fuck 'em. This is for the people who Get It and who always have. It's real + they'll know it + all the poor sales charts + pitifully small royalty checks + fan bitching + moaning in the world can't change that.
OK—
BW

Of course, it is really a snapshot in the life of the songwriter. There was no continuation of the themes on Emo, the cynicism and sarcasm returned and more typical SW songs appeared. Following a double album of unreleased songs, demos, and miscellaneous (including a full live show) in early 2000, they released their final album later that year. I found it a disappointment. Not because it wasn't Emo II (I didn't want that), it just seemed to be going through the motions. It seemed to lack the passion and care of earlier efforts.

1Screeching Weasel is essentially Ben Weasel's (Foster). Other than Jughead (sometimes "John Jughead," real name Ian Pierce), Ben is the only member since the band started. He also, almost exclusively, does the songwriting.

2According the Fat catalogue, "this album was originally called '...And Out Came the Chihuahuas,' but Ben didn't want to offend anyone." Namely Rancid—though Ben has rarely worried about offending people and it could be Fat Mike's sense of humor showing through. Personally, I think if the album had been recorded and released the same, only with Green Day as the band, it would've been a huge hit. But that kind of success wasn't meant for SW.

3During and after the Fat partnership, there were some re-releases and other work that came out. In 1997, they released the Formula 27 EP (out-takes from Bark Like a Dog) and re-released the first, eponymously titled album (from 1987—really an artifact for completests; the album is pretty bad). In 1998, they re-released their album length cover of the first Ramones album (originally recorded in 1992) backed with the four songs from the Formula 27 EP under the title Beat is on the Brat. In early 1999, the album Four on the Floor was released on Panic Button. Four bands each contributed four songs, SW had top billing.

4There were some scattered shows (about thirty minutes or less each time) during the last couple years before the final breakup.

5The "rant" isn't included in the lyrics and may have been ad-libbed during recording. As the song ends you hear someone say "you fucked up" and "it's a take."

(Sources: every Screeching Weasel CD in print, www.screechingweasel.com, an old Fat Wreck Chords catalogue mailer, a being a fan for around six years)

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