Cheer up: The rise and fall of the emo generation

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These days, the state of being “emo” is nothing more than an act of irony. Quark Henares retraces the history — both personal and cultural — of the emo generation and tries to pinpoint where exactly it lost all cred.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At 1:30 a.m. on a Friday night in Black Market’s Mao Den, Kim Marvilla is playing “Cute Without the E” on full blast. I have never seen Mao Den this full, and especially not with hoodie-clad kids with their eyes closed, holding their fists to their hearts and singing along at the top of their lungs. Mikko Santos, owner of the restaurant The Bowery, has opted to not hang at his venue tonight and instead bring all his friends to scream to their hearts’ content. Paolo Cruz, one of the first champions of emo in the Philippines, enters the room already pumping his fist and singing: “Will you tell all your friends you’ve got your gun to my head?!” Niles Chong, former vocalist of Angulo, disappears into the crowd, as much a fan as the people who used to cut to his music.

I am not of the so-called Emo Generation. In fact, I spent a lot of my young adulthood making fun of it. After an increasing movement toward toughness in rock ‘n’ roll, from new wave to hair bands to grunge to nü metal, rock music seemed to devolve into its equivalent of what many Filipinos call “senti music.” Funnily enough, the abbreviation was similar: senti is short for sentimental just as emo is derived from emotional.

mao den The mad (and sad) turnout for the first emo night at Mao Den in Black Market, "Friday Seems Forever." Photo by BRENDAN GOCO  

Punks and metalheads, laugh all you want — but nothing is more metal than screaming out lyrics in tears, unable to wipe your snot because you are too busy holding hands with other heterosexual men.

 

I first heard of emo in 1998, when I was playing a band called Seam in the car and my bandmate Marie Jamora went, “Who are these guys? They’re so emo-sounding.” Later I asked our bassist, Mikey Amistoso, what “emo” meant. “Ewan ko nga, e,” he said. “‘Di ko nga alam kung paano i-spell ‘yan, e.”

I got my answer a day later, when I asked Myrene Academia, the bassist of Sandwich, the same question. “Ah,” she said. “Emotional core. [It’s] when hardcore kids get tired and mellow out.”

Emocore, an attempt to label a genre by affixing “core” after the core word. Marie gave me a crash course on the genre, letting me listen to bands like Texas Is The Reason, The Promise Ring, Braid, The Get-Up Kids, and Sunny Day Real Estate. In 1999, I finally did get to see Seam, and was blown away by the opening act: a little-known emo band called Jimmy Eat World. There was a rawness to these bands, a certain “no one else can understand our pain” quality that was admirable. I heard stories of people actually crying together at these gigs. And yes, punks and metalheads, laugh all you want — but nothing is more metal than screaming out lyrics in tears, unable to wipe your snot because you are too busy holding hands with other heterosexual men.

So what is emo, really? It’s a question that has eluded me so much that I even dedicated a five-minute montage in my movie “Rakenrol” to defining it: wailing lead guitars, short staccato strums, boses na parang natatae ka, lyrics na parang gusto mo nang magpakamatay.

 

In the Philippines, Laguna for the longest time had the edge over Manila when it came to emo, with bands like On A Day Like Today performing with lit candles onstage and Xs on their wrists. I only found out through Paolo Cruz recently that Mark Redito, aka the electro-pop musician Spazzkid, was the vocalist of On A Day Like Today, which makes things even more interesting. Another group of Laguna natives is what many OG emo kids consider to be the Pinoy emo band: Typecast, who went on to open for bands like Saosin and Thursday, and become one of the biggest Southeast Asian bands on MySpace — yes, MySpace.

This nü metal band I used to manage, Chico Science, traded in their baggy pants and dreads for skintight jeans and bangs and made a killing by dropping the “-ence” in their name and leaving kupaw (local slang for nü metal) behind to become hands down the most popular emo band in the country. I must admit, I still get a surge of kilig when I hear the “a-one … a-two … a-one, two, three, four” that kicks off their song “Paris.” It is now an anthem, and deservedly so.

I remember when it all changed. In 2002 a friend told me that I had to listen to this band called Dashboard Confessional. “They’re amazing,” she said. “They speak to my soul.” And so I bought their CD “The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most,” and midway through listening to the first song, I just looked at my player and went, “What in God’s name is this?!”

One must understand the uniqueness of emo: It was a movement that didn’t want to be a movement, a direct result of the frustration and ennui kids were feeling in the modern age.

 

And I’m not dissing Dashboard Confessional here — OK, maybe I am — but this brings us to the question: How did emo die? It’s definitely not the bands, because inasmuch as people were using the emo ethos to create tween-friendly music with lyrics about good-eyed snipers and going down, down in an earlier round, a number of extremely talented artists like Saosin and Brand New popped up. To get to the bottom of the question, one must understand the uniqueness of emo: It was a movement that didn’t want to be a movement, a direct result of the frustration and ennui kids were feeling in the modern age. Hearing the music made people feel like they weren’t alone, that the pain they felt was being felt by others around the world as well. But unlike with mod or punk or metal, many of those who loved the music didn’t want to be labeled the E-word. I mean, think about it, it’s like going out and just screaming “I’m sad and lonely” at people. We used to joke that the best way to spot an emo kid was to have them get really annoyed by the word and vehemently say, “I’m not emo.”

 

And yet, emo suddenly became this catchphrase among the teen set. ABS-CBN sitcoms like Kimerald’s “Let’s Go” would have characters say, “Ang emo mo, ha,” to each other. The number one thing placed after every college kid’s LiveJournal “currently feeling” status was “emo,” usually followed by a frowny emoticon. There was a fricking dress code, for God’s sake, consisting of long bangs, studded belts, chain wallets, Converse/Vans/Saucony sneakers, and thick-rimmed black glasses. TV shows like “One Tree Hill” or movies like “The Incredibles” would always have one token emo character, dressed up in the aforementioned style. I remember going to the Fall Out Boy concert in Araneta Coliseum and being surrounded by 12-year-old fans happily jumping around. Companies were turning people’s pain into marketing tools, and the powers that be were making a business out of misery. And as a result, to many people who genuinely loved the music, this post-hardcore genre didn’t feel like home anymore.

So here we are, 10 years later, where upwardly mobile yuppies are getting drunk at a dance club and belting out to a Taking Back Sunday track at the top of their lungs. In retrospect, emo turned out to be a bigger movement than I thought it would be. It certainly had more staying power than its contemporaries nü metal and dance-punk, and I see nothing wrong with that. I’d take raw emotional honesty any day over misdirected anger or snarky hipster irony. Emo must really be dead, though, because Carlo Casas — organizer of Friday Seems Forever, a monthly dance event where DJs spin emo classics — is wearing a shirt that says, “Sad as Fuck,” but tonight he looks happy as fuck, because he is finally home.

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Quark Henares is a writer, director, musician, and DJ who owes his Friday Seems Forever set to the girl he’s dating with an embarrassing emo past.