The Summer Ends: The Story of Midwest Emo

The Summer Ends: The Story of Midwest Emo

For many music fans, the term ‘Emo’ is an instant turn-off. The monosyllabic word is often shunned with disgust or comical cynicism, eliciting in us memories of some our most embarrassing, angst-filled teen years. We think of the aesthetic: the eyeliner, the overgrown fringe, the meme-worthy ‘Rawr XD’-led speech conventions. But this view of emo is specific and limited, focusing on one particular style and era, and thereby ignoring many other interesting subgenres and off-chutes which have spawned since emo’s birth in the 1980s. In this article, I will explore a particular branch of emo which is fascinating, and I believe deserves greater recognition and appreciation: Midwest Emo.

To understand the origins of Midwest Emo, a little bit of context is required about the two larger genres which most influence its sound: Emo and Math Rock. Emo, for its part, is a subgenre of rock, known for focusing on emotional and personal lyricism. It was originally an alternative style of Post-Hardcore in the mid-80s Hardcore Punk scene, largely based in Washington, D.C. The style was first championed by pioneering bands such as Rites of Spring and Embrace, and was further developed by indie bands in the 90s, such as Jimmy Eat World and Weezer. In this period, a sector of Emo also began branching into the commercial mainstream.

On the other hand, Math Rock has always stayed far away from commerciality, and this component is integral to its sound. Inspired by the progressive rock of the 70s, the genre is known for its complex rhythmic structures, odd time signatures, and extended or dissonant melodies. It is very much focused on the technical, almost mathematic, experimentation of music, hence the name Math Rock. As for instrumentation, Math Rock is characterized by clean, acoustic sounds, with an emphasis on non-distorted tapping guitars and prominent drums. The instrumentals are more important than the lyrics in Math Rock, and vocals are often soft and overshadowed. Key bands in the genre include Battles and Tiny Moving Parts.

This new distinct sound became recognisable for its unconventional guitar riffs and acoustic melodies (drawn from Math Rock), as well as its anguished, heartbroken lyrical narratives and distorted electric backings (drawn from Emo).

Midwest Emo grew in prominence, as clear from the name, in the American Midwest, during the mid-90s, drawing major influence from both Emo and Math Rock. This new distinct sound became recognisable for its unconventional guitar riffs and acoustic melodies (drawn from Math Rock), as well as its anguished, heartbroken lyrical narratives and distorted electric backings (drawn from Emo). Emo had already softened in sound a fair bit from its hardcore punk roots since its birth and, with the arrival of Midwest Emo, the frailty and tenderness of the genre was truly realized. Midwest Emo bands soon started gaining huge traction and building large fan bases, such as American Football, The Promise Ring, Mineral, The Get Up Kids and Sunny Day Real Estate. Subsequently, many independent music labels noticed this trend and began specializing in the genre.

It is not sugar-coated: the songwriting here often opts for overtness over metaphor, giving a confessional, journal-like nature to the artists’ tales of heartbreak and pain.

It is not hard to see why Midwest Emo became such a force to be reckoned with by teens and young people in the 90s. Adolescence and the young adult years, for most of us, are incredibly difficult and tumultuous times, filled with high highs and low lows: feeling socially inadequate, fearing the unpredictability of the future, dealing with our first loves and our first heartbreaks. These experiences are fundamental in our personal growth, but they are also difficult. The image of ‘the simpler times’ and the ‘fun-filled freedom’ of one’s teen years are warped by nostalgia’s rosy-tinted glasses, and not in the least an accurate representation of a period bursting with explosive and polarising emotions. Midwest Emo channels that sorrow, that confusion, that angst, into a beautifully therapeutic and honest form. It is not sugar-coated: the song writing here often opts for overtness over metaphor, giving a confessional, journal-like nature to the artists’ tales of heartbreak and pain. Yet, unlike many other strands of Emo, or for that matter Rock, it is sonically contemplative, the soothing yet emotive nature of its instrumentals providing a therapeutic backdrop to their musical venting sessions. Occasionally, frustration overcomes the pensive softness, and the rawness of the harsh guitars and bellowing hoarse vocals are striking. It is a fascinating and enthralling genre, summarised as one of “introspective lyrics, emotional, raw screams…and thoughtful melodies.”

Heartbreak is the central theme of most Midwest Emo songs. The Get Up Kids were only 17 to 19 years old when they started getting attention in the 90s, and lead vocalist Matt Pryor perfectly described their sound in a 1997 interview as “Swinging dance numbers about crying.” Bassist Rob Pope, for his part, comically and self-deprecatingly stated that “Most of the lyrics are whiny and crybaby. ‘I miss my girlfriend.’ Blah, blah, blah.” In that interview, Pope states that all the band members, though young at the time, had experienced troubles with love and heartbreak, and these are the main sources of inspiration in their music.

That same sentiment of the overwhelming sadness that follows the end of a relationship is also the driving force behind American Football’s self-titled debut album from 1999, commonly referred to as LP1. As aptly stated in a Rolling Stone article, “If there is one thing that nobody ever tells you about young love, it’s that your days are numbered from the start.” Band frontman Mike Kinsella was moved to work on this album after a painful breakup he had at the age of 17, splitting ways with a girlfriend before going to university. The hurt throughout LP1 is palpable, true and deep. To this day it is considered one of the greatest, and subsequently most emotionally devastating, breakup albums of all time, “immediately becoming the soundtrack of hundreds of heartbroken young adults walking around forlornly in the late summer/early fall.”

In the commercial mainstream, Midwest Emo had lost its appeal by the early 2000s. The soft introspective indie flame of Emo’s 2nd wave had seemingly died out. In its place, Emo’s hair-metal-esque 3rd wave burst the mainstream doors wide open, with black eyeliner and huge studio arrangements leading the charge. Though this wave had its fair share of great releases in its own right, gone were the 90s’ unfiltered rawness, replaced instead by the polished and grandiose. Fueled By Ramen emerged as a record powerhouse for new 3rd-wave Emo acts, and the highly popular American traveling rock festival Warped Tour also served as a hub for the ever-expanding, radio-friendly scene. Bands like Panic! At the Disco, Paramore and My Chemical Romance overshadowed any mention of Midwest Emo, and the abandoned genre ended up finding solace and support on the internet instead.

The allure of some bands and some albums grew devoted, almost cult-like, followings on the internet.

Throughout online forums, Midwest Emo’s loyal fans continued spreading word about the genre and building a deeply passionate underground listening community. The allure of some bands and some albums grew devoted, almost cult-like, followings on the internet, with American Football’s LP1 (particularly the song ‘Never Meant’) leading the charge, beloved and praised on forum boards such Reddit’s /indieheads and 4chan’s /mu/. Other projects, such as The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good and Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, also generated large and persevering followings online. Many of these bands had already broken up by the early 2000s, but their internet-based fandoms became so fervent that their reunions were constantly speculated and demanded.

On top of this, Midwest Emo also became a beloved internet meme for its unique aesthetic. As explained in a Central Times article, “The genre has many assorted stereotypes such as band members that dress ‘nerdy’, names of bands that reference sports, and album covers that feature suburban houses. While some consider these as inside jokes, it’s also used by some to easily associate themselves with the genre.” A notable example of the inside jokes that are prolific within the community would be how the house featured on LP1’s album cover became one of the most popular photo opportunity locations in Urbana, Illinois.

The mainstream appeal of 3rd wave Emo simultaneously continued growing, with some of the aesthetics crossing over into the world of Pop Punk (Green Day springs to mind). And though eventually the wave dissipated, Emo continued to be a commercial force to be reckoned with after its merging with Hip-Hop in the 2010s. Pioneers like Kanye West, Drake and Kid Cudi helped usher in lyrical vulnerabilities and reflections on heartbreak within Rap, themes which are the central core of Emo. Over the past decade, many artists who were inspired by these trendsetters have also brought in a wave of sad and dejected Emo Rap into the mainstream: artists like Yung Lean, Trippie Redd, XXXTENTACION, Lil Peep, Juice WRLD and Post Malone carry through the Emo ethos of honesty and sentimentality in a large number of their songs.

This more understated style of Emo slowly started making a resurgence in popularity in the 2010s.

Meanwhile, Midwest Emo continued its steady yet low-key presence online throughout the 2000s and into the 2010s. Many bands continued independently releasing work in these years, home recordings which loyal fans would be quick to share and discuss with like-minded listeners online. As Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It. puts it, as 3rd wave ‘stadium’ Emo took centre stage, that traditional Midwest sound “went back into the basement.”

Through discussions, debates and memes on sites like Reddit, Tumblr and Property of Zack, however, this more understated style of Emo slowly started making a resurgence in popularity in the 2010s. After years of continued allegiance to a non-mainstream sound, these bands were surprisingly starting to gain considerable traction and recognition circa 2013. Those who had continued to be devoted listeners during the confined internet years were now helping to shine the light on the genre’s resurgence, whilst “latecomers discovered a fully functioning ecosystem of young people absolutely losing their shit over truly DIY guitar bands.”

This ‘revival’ is what became known as the 4th wave of Emo, and its influences lie largely within that 90s sound. And the revival was big, with bands like Modern Baseball, Title Fight and The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die quickly establishing themselves as prominent names in the scene, and publications which had long dismissed the genre praising it with rave review after rave review. As StereoGum’s Chris Deville puts it, “It was the kind of grassroots movement that demands attention, and attention is exactly what it got.”  This 4th wave remains popular today.

Emo has gone back to the small-scale, leaving the glamorous arena for the nostalgic dormitory, once more finding the honesty and vulnerability it possessed in the 90s. It now also dons a sizeable audience, as well as commercial and critical appeal. Some Midwest Emo bands have returned triumphantly in recent years, such as American Football, and other new bands have released albums which are quickly becoming as symbolic, recognisable and culturally beloved as LP1, such as Mom Jeans.’ Best Buds and The Hotelier’s Home, Like Noplace is There.

Emo, and specifically Midwest Emo, is about being open and honest with your emotions.

It can still seem embarrassing to tell someone you’re a fan of Emo music. But it shouldn’t be. Emo, and specifically Midwest Emo, is about being open and honest with your emotions. We all go through heartache and heartbreak at one point or another in our lives. Music is the solace during these times: it understands us, relates to us, moves us, letting us feel all the frustration, sadness, anger and weakness which comes during these low periods. Whilst some music can offer commendable distractions, helping us shift our focus onto optimistic alternatives during tough times, allowing us to dance and sing and be happy, it is also important for there to be a space for a genre like Midwest Emo in music: allowing us to feel everything we must feel instead of disassociating ourselves from what makes us human – our emotions.

Since its inception in the 90s, Midwest Emo has been a hub for multitudes of sad and lonely teenagers and young adults, who have formed a unique bond with the style and with other listeners.

The majority of Emo, particularly the DIY-indie-basement-suburbia-introverted-heartbroken Midwestern sect of Emo I am writing about, is by nature distinctly unfashionable and uncool. It is also, however, a deeply honest genre, and there’s a comforting quality to that. Since its inception in the 90s, Midwest Emo has been a hub for multitudes of sad and lonely teenagers and young adults, who have formed a unique bond with the style and with other listeners over internet forums and discussion boards. Perpetually underground, this community has now cracked through the surface, drawing many more keen participants and eager fans with its revival. The new audience is welcome: Emo is not exclusive. A genre whose lyrical foundations lie in the themes of love and heartbreak, it is at its core universally relatable, and the extent to which its popularity has grown in recent years only serves to make these confessional messages more widespread.

Life is full of low periods. We have to go through these periods to grow and develop as people, but there is no reason why we should have to go through them alone. Midwest Emo provides that therapeutic, cathartic and compassionate company which, at one point or another, we all need.

Featured image courtesy of Dan Keck via Flickr. No changes made to this image.

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Mateus de Sá

Journalist and musician from London

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