Everybody Hurts: an Uneven Cultural Study
The first track off Fall Out Boy’s sophomore release, From Under the Cork Tree, contains such a stew of punk and popular music clichés from the past 10 years, it’s hard to keep track of the actual lyrics. “Our Lawyers Made Us Change the Name of this Song,” aside from having an obnoxiously long title, contains a hodgepodge of pop punk staples, most noticeably distorted power chords (the churning hardcore type, the anthemic pop staple, the muted punk accompaniment) and genre-specific vocals (the vulnerable whimper, the shout, the scream). The song’s form is a flood, curving off in many different directions at once, first the verse, then the pre-chorus, then the chorus … The song is an extreme example of “emo gone wrong”, but it’s a case study that anyone who watches MTV or reads music magazines is familiar with.
If Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture, written by Alternative Press staffers Leslie Simon and Trevor Kelley, were an emo song, the music and lyrics would be written by Fall Out Boy. The book, which is ostensibly a guide to all things emo, suffers from as many identity crises as “Lawyers”.
Simon and Kelley are two 20-something journalists who have lived the scene—on the back cover, Simon purports to making Conor Oberst paper dolls, and Kelly writes that he is a Taking Back Sunday fan—but the book, while witty at times, suffers from a burning desire to be cool. Allusions to Myspace, Livejournal and other internet-frending phenomena fit with the narrative on first reference, but become incongruous when mentioned ad nauseum in every chapter. References to Facebook are noticeably absent, but the chapter on the Internet—each chapter is winnowed down to the basics: fashion, film, literature, ideology, etc.—instructs emo kids on how to make a Myspace page and then surf the Internet for scene-worthy porn.
Throughout the book, the authors confuse allusions—like Fall Out Boy, the authors try to do too much—by bringing in esoteric references from the ’70s and ’80s, a time before most of the target audience was born. Someone who would get all the references in the book is Andy Greenwald, a former Spin-staffer who provides a funny introduction, lending some authenticity to this newest guide.
Greenwald penned Nothing Feels Good in 2003, as excellent exploration of emo as a culture: where it came from, what it means, why it matters. Greenwald’s tome collected the stories of bands like The Promise Ring and other nascent emo miscreants and made the case for their music. He took the word ‘emo’, gave it a face, and explained why it was popular.
He also debunked some myths. Early emo kids weren’t bawling high schoolers, and the bands weren’t laced with frontmen who wept through their words and made screaming sound like whining. The first wave of emo was indebted to hardcore music and, while the lyrics were emotional and about feelings, the music was confrontational.
In turn, Simon and Kelley want to celebrate this culture, but they focus on the here and now, touting the latest wave of bands. In keeping with the culture aspect of the book, the authors choose to focus more on the fans then the actual musicians, detailing what audience members wear, how they interact with strangers, and a host of other psychological and sociological factors.
This is where the book takes a misstep. The authors purport to be writing a guidebook for insiders, for people already in the scene, but the text is written from an outsider’s viewpoint. There are a few knowing jokes in the book, but, for the most part, each chapter is about what to do to become emo, not anything that emo kids don’t already know.
The book does have its charms. Each chapter is written in an informal manner, almost like a journal entry and includes amusing lists of emo “must haves”. The literature chapter is filled with snarky tidbits: One page blames the downfall of book-learning on the Harry Potter books, and the section of emo-appropriate Cliff’s Notes pokes gentle fun at literature snobs. The chapter is darkened, however, by the self-promotional “A Brief History of Alternative Press,” which contains no full disclosure notes or other warnings from the authors who are plugging their own employer.
Rob Dobi’s illustrations work well with the text, breaking up blocks of grey with cartoonish figures sporting designer emo comb-overs and wearing heavy eye shadow. But, like the Fall Out Boy song, the sum of these parts does not make for an entertaining product.