Emo—that "male-dominated, compositionally complicated, often pained offshoot of American punk rock," according to NPR—has roared back into critical and commercial power. The once-grassroots scene is now a full-fledged trend, boasting its own Twitter hashtag: #emorevival.
But emo's new wave is no revival; these bands and ideas certainly existed in the decade-plus gap since emo's major mall-core moment. Emo has often been a pejorative term, shorthand for navel-gazing kids—most of them young, straight, white, suburban males—using autobiography to discuss the mundane and the significant. Two of the moment's leading lights, Modern Baseball and The Hotelier, are bucking that perception by having bigger concerns than themselves, so this is less an emo revival than a necessary reappraisal.
Both Modern Baseball's Holy Ghost and The Hotelier's Goodness push past emo's standard themes—fresh emotional wounds, imagined revenge, and self-loathing—to confront more grown-up worries. The Hotelier's 2014 LP, Home, Like Noplace Is There, dealt with death; Goodness takes excruciating stock of the damage and examines the complicated calculus of moving on. It steps into high thinking, too. The record, critic Jillian Mapes has noted, flirts with transcendentalism, the nineteenth-century philosophical movement that recognized the inherent goodness of humanity and the natural world. It's also sonically ambitious, abandoning traditional song structures for cosmic guitar interplay that means to shine life-affirming light into a void.
Likewise, Modern Baseball seems to find ambition life-affirming. On Holy Ghost finale "Just Another Face," Brendan Lukens actively chooses life. Lukens told The New York Times that, upon returning from a large tour with his heroes Say Anything, he climbed to the roof of the house that Modern Baseball's members had shared for years. He considered jumping. Instead, he got help for alcohol addiction, depression, and bipolar disorder. "I can feel the need to change me from the inside," he sings before the song's surging chorus.
Lukens's shout-alongs, he has said, are about "picking yourself up, and it being OK for others to pick you up." Throughout Holy Ghost, there's a thread of mid-twenties dudes figuring out who they want to be and how they can do good. "The glare from our stupid, spineless words just whining, every fucking day," co-frontman Jake Ewald spews on "Note to Self." "What do I really want to say?"
That line speaks to the emo revival's growing social conscience. Both The Hotelier and Modern Baseball have stopped performing tunes that include language that demeans women. Modern Baseball advocates the destigmatization of mental illness in every interview, and the band even offers a hotline for fans who feel harassed during a show.
Neither Modern Baseball nor The Hotelier legitimized—or re-legitimized, as the case may be—emo by themselves, but their growing appeal to listeners outside of emo's immediate grasp affirms the genre's crossover potential. These bands feel fresh and vital, even within a genre that crested two decades ago and resisted sonic evolution, largely because of their willingness to champion positive change.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Through Being Cool"