Why Emo Music Meant So Much To This Generation In Our Younger Years

By

At 15, I was a generally optimistic kid living in a perfectly benign suburb of New Jersey. I had friends and family and interests and ideas about a future that still felt safely far away; a compromise-free life I was still sure was utterly, all-inclusively attainable.

There wasn’t much to complain about, which I was, surprisingly, honest with myself about at the time.

Still, for reasons I've never examined until recently, that self-awareness didn’t stop me from blasting Taking Back Sunday and Motion City Soundtrack while I got ready for school every morning.

I'd go to emo shows every chance I got, grasping instinctively to the music and the dynamic, romantic struggle it seemed to stand for.

I struck a bizarre balance between identifying with the now cringe-inducing Abercrombie outfits I so proudly wore throughout high school and this nagging, sort of intoxicating feeling about how much life I had left to live and how much I still had to understand.

Though it often caused eye rolls from my well-intentioned mother, emo music represented a world I hadn't yet touched, one that welcomed me with open arms, nonetheless.

That lack of pretense and sense of inclusion is what makes this music so important to the people who love it.

These bands sang and screamed and pleaded about things the average teenager knows absolutely nothing about: raw, complicated love; transitions from one stage in life to the next; confusion and regret; an underlying, hope-driven desire to carry on, despite the circumstances.

Fifteen-year-old me wasn't oblivious enough to think she related directly to the music's subject matter, but she did authentically gravitate toward its essence: Never give up -- not on yourself, on your important relationships or on your principles. Things are weird and hard and, sometimes, unfair, but they're also gorgeous and rewarding and worth stopping to appreciate.

Emo music unapologetically encompassed all of what life seemed to be like on the other side of adolescence. It produced a sort of envy in me as a teenager, a fierce desire to be instantly older, more experienced and more challenged, so as to be more interesting and worthy of telling my story.

For so many of us, this music added an element of depth to what are naturally very bewildering years; it complemented our growing tendency to reflect on ourselves and our surroundings and on "what it all means," even if, parallel to those internal musings, we still chatted cheerfully on AIM about homecoming and weekend plans and the latest episode of "Gilmore Girls."

Now, more than 10 years later, I no longer frequent Bamboozle and Warped Tour or make CD mixes featuring Jack’s Mannequin and Motion City Soundtrack.

Still, whenever that music pops into my life, whether it’s in a movie, on a random playlist, or a drunken mention among those of my college friends who also half-heartedly describe their teenage selves as "emo kids," I am suddenly and seamlessly 15 again.

I am that curious, restless girl, desperate to burst out of her comfort zone and feel the kind of passion she so naïvely but earnestly nodded along to on a daily basis.

I think many 20-somethings adopted their own versions of this half-assed angst, and many of us would probably feature emo music in some form on the soundtracks to our unique coming-of-age stories.

Though many of these emo pop bands have continued to enjoy steady success in the years that followed our high school careers, in the minds of many current and former fans, their music from the early 2000s exists only there.

It's suspended somehow in our formative years; it's property, in some sentimental way, of our former selves.

No matter how long it's been, we hear Dashboard Confessional’s "Hands Down," for example, and immediately, we remember how sweet and overwhelming first loves, independence and life, in general, seemed.

We grew up; we felt most of those things; we started navigating the confusion and exhilaration about which these artists spoke.

We began to understand. But, still, this music transports us back to a time when everything was new and delicate; ongoing processes of discovering ourselves while also creating ourselves was just starting.

It’s nostalgia in its most genuine form; it’s a silent conversation between you and your teenage self, a sort of private smirk and a thought that yeah, (s)he'd probably be pretty proud of you. Or, maybe it's a gentle reminder to stop giving so much of a sh*t; (s)he would have wanted it that way.

That’s what happens when Millennials listen to this music. We listen to ourselves and to each other in a way that forces us to pay attention.

So, being in a room with several hundred of my peers doing just that at Emo Night LA was, frankly, magical.

What started out in a small dive bar transformed, and continues to transform, into a bonafide event; a nostalgic escape; a chance to reconnect with the music that, whether we realized it at the time or not, contributed greatly to our development as sensitive, determined, creative humans.

Emo Night is the brainchild of coworkers Barbara Szabo, TJ Petracca and Morgan Freed. It was born, like many great ideas, from a late-night karaoke sesh. The three share a love for emo music and decided last summer that other people in LA probably do, too. They were right.

The reception has been more than they could have hoped for; the once-monthly Emo Night LA, also known as Taking Back Tuesday, draws hundreds of people, all of them excited to party like it’s 2005 and more than happy to patiently wait in round-the-block lines, regardless of weather, to get in.

Each event, which happens one Tuesday night a month, features guest DJs, video messages from supportive band members and, of course, consistently crowd-exhilarating sets of the infatuating emo music of our youth.

When I decided to check it out, I was more than half-expecting gaggles of 16-year-olds to make up most of the audience, but that was a selfish assumption. After all, I am far from the only 20-something who was influenced by this music as a teenager.

Not a tween in sight, the venue turned out to packed with giddy, beer-spilling 20-somethings, all of us jumping, singing along and remembering why we loved this music so damn much in the first place; others questioning why we ever stopped listening to it at all.

The united energy of a giant group of strangers belting Panic! At The Disco sort of forces you out of your head and into the moment; there's nothing to stress about, no judgments to pass and no expectations to meet.

Consistently-packed venues and the regular participation of in-demand musicians speaks to just how enthusiastic our generation remains about emo music.

A portion of money from each show is donated to a charity selected by that night's surprise guest; Mark from Blink 182, for example, requested the money be sent to SPCA LA when he stopped by to DJ.

The founders' hope for Emo Night LA is that down the line, as its popularity and resources grow, they’ll be in a position to expand charity efforts.

Unlike a lot of other genres, I don’t think the artistic objective of emo music has ever been to provide a sense of clarity, resolution, decisiveness, or even distraction. Instead, it gives listeners permission to indulge in their confusion; to embrace their obstacles; to live passionately and bravely, despite their ever-present doubts.

Experiencing Emo Night LA reminded me of the purpose that brand of nostalgia serves; it doesn’t have to exist just when a certain song comes on, or when you're home for the holidays and snort-laugh at how ridiculous you were for doodling dramatic, despair-laden Brand New lyrics directly next to an entry in your high school journal about how much fun you had recently at the movies.

It should -- if we’re really honest with ourselves, it likely does -- exist on a deeper, more fluid level.

Whether it comforted us during truly difficult, painful years, or simply fostered a sort of faux angst often rooted in boredom, which, ultimately, taught us how to feel and dream freely and deeply, emo music, for many Millennials, had a notable impact on our still-unfolding journeys.

Much like our future selves will, inevitably, be the result of our present attitudes and experiences, it can be worth reflecting, too, on the fact that we are who we are today -- in all our independent, disorganized, adventure-seeking glory -- because of what we, at 15 years old, believed in, wondered about and, yes, listened to.