Classic Jessica Hopper: “Emo Comes Off Like Rimbaud at the Food Court”
One of America's Great Rock Critics on a Half-Century of Sexist Rock n' Roll
A few months back, I was at a Strike Anywhere show. The band launched into “Refusal,” a song that offers solidarity with the feminist movement and bears witness to the struggles inherent to women’s lives. It is not a song of protection, there is no romantic undertow, it’s just about all people being equally important. Everyone was dancing, fanboys and girls at the lip of the stage screaming along—like so many shows at the Fireside. By the first chorus of the song, I was in tears with a sudden awareness: I’ve been going to three shows a week for the last decade and the number of times I’ve heard women’s reality acknowledged or portrayed in a song sung by a male-fronted band was at zero and holding. This song was the first.
It’s no wonder why my girlfriends and I have grown increasingly alienated and distanced from the scene, or have begun taking shelter from emo’s pervasive stronghold in the recesses of electronic, DJ or experimental music. No wonder girls I know are feeling dismissive and faithless towards music. No wonder I feel much more allegiance to MOP’s “Ante Up” than any song by an all-dude band about the singer’s romantic holocaust. Because as it stands in 2003 I simply cannot substantiate the effort it takes to give a flying fuck about the genre/plague that we know as emo or myopic songs that don’t consider the world beyond boy bodies, their broken hearts or their vans. Meanwhile, we’re left wondering—how did we get here?
As hardcore and political punk’s charged sentiments became more cliché towards the end of the ’80s and we all began slipping into the armchair comfort of the Clinton era—punk stopped looking outward and began stripping off its tough skin only and examined its squishy heart instead, forsaking songs about the impact of trickle down economics for ones about elusive kisses. Mixtapes across America became laden with relational eulogies—hopeful boys with their hearts masted to sleeves, their pillows soaked in tears. Punk’s songs became personal, often myopically so.
Perhaps we lost the map, or simply stopped consulting it. There was a time when emo seemed reasonable, encouraging, exciting—revivifying in its earnestness and personal stakes. These new bands modeled themselves on bands we all liked: Jawbox, Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate. The difference was, in those bands’ songs about women, the girls had names, details to their lives. Jawbox’s most popular song, “Savory,” was about recognizing male normative privilege, about the weight of objectification on a woman (“See you feign surprise / That I’m all eyes”). In Jawbreaker songs, women had leverage, had life, had animus and agency to them. Sometimes they were friends, or a sister, not always a girl to be bedded or dumped by. They were unidealized, realistic characters.
And then something broke—and not just Mr. Dashboard’s sensitive heart. Records by a legion of romantically-wronged boys suddenly lined the record store shelves. Every record was seemingly a concept album about a breakup, damning the girl on the other side. Emo’s contentious monologues—these balled-fist, Peter Pan mash-note dilemmas—have now gone from being descriptive to being prescriptive. Emo has become another forum where women were locked out, observing ourselves through the eyes of others.
Girls in emo songs today do not have names. We are not identified beyond our absence, our shape drawn by the pain we’ve caused. Our lives, our day-to-day-to-day does not exist, we do not get colored in. Our actions are portrayed solely through the detailing of neurotic self-entanglement of the boy singer—our region of personal power, simply, is our impact on his romantic life. We’re vessels redeemed in the light of boy-love. On a pedestal, on our backs. Muses at best. Cum rags or invisible at worst. Check out our pictures on the covers of records—we are sad-eyed and winsome and comely (thank you Hot Rod Circuit, The Crush, Cursive, Something Corporate, et al.)—the fantasy girl you could take home and comfort.
It’s evident from these bands’ lyrics and shared aesthetic that their knowledge of actual living, breathing women is notional at best. Emo’s characteristic vulnerable front is limited to self-sensitivity, every song a high-stakes game of control that involves “winning” or “losing” possession of the girl (see Dashboard Confessional, Brand New, New Found Glory and Glassjaw albums for prime examples). Yet, in the vulnerability there is no empathy, no peerage or parallelism. Emo’s yearning doesn’t connect it with women—it omits them.
As Andy Greenwald notes in his book about emo culture, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo, lyrically, emo singers “revel in their misery and suffering to an almost ecstatic degree, but with a limited use of subtlety and language. It tends to come off like Rimbaud relocated to the Food Court.” Women in emo songs are denied the dignity of humanization through both the language and narratives, we are omnipresent yet chimerical, only of consequence in romantic settings.
On a dance floor in Seattle, a boy I know decides to plumb the topic: “I heard you’re writing a column about how emo is sexist.”
“What do you mean ‘emo is sexist’? Emo songs are no different than all of rock history, than the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin.”
“I know—I’d rather not get into it right now.”
“How are songs about breaking up sexist though? Everyone breaks up. If you have a problem with emo, you have a problem with all of rock history!”
“I know. I do.”
To paraphrase Nixon sidekick H.R. Haldeman, “History is wack.” There must be some discussion, at least for context, about the well-worn narrative of the boy rebel’s broken heart, as exemplified by the last 50-plus years of blues-based music, that there are songs about loving and losing women; that men writing songs about women is practically the definition of rock ’n’ roll. And as a woman, as a music critic, as someone who lives and dies for music, there is a rift within, a struggle of how much deference you can afford, and how much you are willing to ignore what happens in these songs simply because you like the music.
Can you ignore the lyrical content of the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” because you like the song? Are you willing to? Or the heaping pile of dead or brutalized women that amasses in Big Black’s discography? Is emo exceptional in the scope of the rock canon either in terms of treatment of women or in its continual rubbing salute to its own trouble-boy cliché image? Is there anything that separates Dashboard Confessional’s condemnation of his bed-hopping betrayer and makes it any more egregious than any woman/mother/whore/ex-girlfriend showing up in songs of Jane’s Addiction, Nick Cave, The Animals or Justin Timberlake? Can you forgo judgment woe to women in the recorded catalog of Zeppelin because the first eight bars of “Communication Breakdown” is total fucking godhead? Where do you split? Do you even bother to care, because if you’re going to try and kick against it, you, as my dancing friend says, “have a problem with all of rock history,” and because who, other than a petty, too-serious bitch dismisses Zeppelin?! Do you accept the sexism and phallocentricity of the last few decades of popular music and in your punk rock community as just how it is?
Who do you excuse and why? Do you check your politics at the door and just dance or just rock or just let side A spin out? Can you ignore the marginalization of women’s lives on the records that line your record shelves in hopes that feigned ignorance will bridge the gulf, because it’s either that or purge your collection of everything but free jazz, micro house 12 inches and the Mr. Lady Records catalog?
It’s almost too big of a question to ask. I start to ask this of myself, to really start investigating, and stop, realizing full well that if I get an answer I might just have to retire to an adobe hut in the Italian countryside and not take any visitors for a long time. Or turn into the rock critical Andrea Dworkin, and report with resignation that all music made by men propagates the continual oppression and domination of women. Sometimes I feel like every rock song I hear is a sucker punch towards us. And I feel like no one takes that impact seriously, let alone notices it. It is “just” music.
My deepest concerns about the lingering effects of emo is not so much for myself or for my friends—we have refuge in our personal-political platforms and deep-crated record collections—but rather for the teenage girls I see crowding front and center at emo shows. The ones for whom this is their inaugural introduction to the underground, whose gateway may have been through Weezer or the Vagrant America tour or maybe Dashboard Confessional’s Unplugged. The ones who are seeking music out, who are wanting to stake some claim to punk rock, or an underground avenue, for a way out, a way under, to sate the seemingly unquenchable, nameless need—the same need I know I came to punk rock with. Emo is the province of the young, their foundation is fresh-laid, my concern is for people who have no other previous acquaintance with the underground, save for these bands and their songs.
When I was that age, I too had a hunger for a music that spoke a language I was just starting to decipher, music that affirmed my ninth grade fuck-you values—music that encouraged me to not allow my budding feminist ways to be bludgeoned by the weight of mainstream, patriarchal culture—I was lucky I was met at the door with things like the Bikini Kill demo, Fugazi and the first Kill Rock Stars comp. I was met with polemics and respectful address; I heard my life and concerns in those songs. I was met with girl heroes deep in guitar squall, kicking out the jams under the stage lights. I was being hurtled towards deeper rewards. Records and bands were triggering ideas and inspiration. I acknowledge the importance of all of that because I know I would not be who I am now, doing what I do, 12 years down the line, if I had not gotten those fundamentals, been presented with those big ideas about what music and, moreover, what life, can be about.
So now I watch these girls at emo shows more than I ever do the band. I watch them sing along, to see what parts they freak out over. I wonder if this does it for them, if seeing these bands, these dudes on stage, resonates and inspires them to want to pick up a guitar or drum sticks. Or if they just see this as something dudes do, since there are no girls, there is no them up there. I wonder if they see themselves as participants, or only as consumers or—if we reference the songs directly—the consumed. I wonder if this is where music will begin and end for them. If they can be radicalized in spite of this. If being denied keys to the clubhouse is enough to spur them into action.
I know that, for me, even as a teenage autodidact who thought her every idea was worthy of expression and an audience, it did not occur to me to start a band until I saw other women in one. It took seeing Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill to truly throw on the lights, to show me that there was more than one place, one role, for women to occupy, and that our participation was important and vital—it was YOU MATTER writ large.
I don’t want these front row girls to miss that. I don’t want girls leaving clubs denied of encouragement and potential. As lame as punk rock can be, as hollow as all of our self-serving claims ring—that the culture of punk is truly different somehow than that of median society—at its gnarled foundations still exists the possibilities for connection. There is still the possibility for exposure to radical notions, for punk rock to match up to what many kids dream, or hope for punk DIY to mean. But much of that hinges on the continual presence of radicalized women within the leagues, and those women being encouraged—given reasons to stay, to want to belong—rather than diminished by the music which glues the community together.
Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.
–2003, originally appearing in Punk Planet
From Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar and published in hardcover by Library of America. Copyright © 2003 by Jessica Hopper. Used by permission. All rights reserved.