The Rockin’ Rock Reckoning

Emo music is having a renaissance, and it’s making former emo dudes like me realize emo dudes weren’t always the good guys.

by MATT STOKES | FEBRUARY 16, 2018

When I was 19 or 20, I remember reading a short essay on Liz Phair’s 1993 album Exile In Guyville. The essay, written by Mimi O’Connor, appeared in a coffee table book produced by VH1 on the 100 greatest albums ever, and I was at the time ingesting and absorbing the book’s recommendations. The essay says of Phair and her album that, “The twenty-six-year old, middle class Oberlin College grad unleashed her first effort in 1993, and with it took aim at the male-dominated rock ‘n’ roll scene with a track-by-track response to the Rolling Stones’s canonized cock-rock epic Exile on Main Street.”

It was my first-ever exposure to the term cock rock, and I couldn’t quite suss out what was meant by it. Earlier in the very same book, Exile On Main Street was rated the 12th-greatest album of all time, and its write-up (by a different author) mentioned nothing about misogyny or male domination. As a big fan of the Rolling Stones and of Exile On Main Street, I was hurt that there could be a critique of the album for non-musical reasons. What about it was exactly cock rock? To me, that album was the pinnacle of rock’s artistic achievement… how could anybody have a problem with it?

When Queens Of the Stone Age singer Josh Homme fired his longtime friend and collaborator Nick Oliveri from the band in 2004, rumors attributed the firing to Homme learning that Oliveri had physically abused his girlfriend. “A couple years ago, I spoke to Nick about a rumor I heard,” Homme told Billboard in 2005. He went on: “I said, ‘If I ever find out that this is true, I can’t know you, man.'” I remember the reaction in the music press was mixed—critics were worried about the loss of such a vital member of the band, and they seemed a little putt off by Homme’s explanation. “I mean, that’s very noble of you, Josh, to have your ideals!” they would sarcastically say. It seemed, at the time, like a strange reason to kick somebody out of a band.

The rumors about Oliveri and domestic violence have never been confirmed, but if it was truly the reason he was fired by Homme, it would be in keeping with Homme’s longstanding devotion to gender equality in rock music. The very name of the band was intended to strike at that—he once explained why the band switched its name from Kings of the Stone Age to Queens: “Kings would be too macho. The Kings of the Stone Age wear armor and have axes and wrestle. The Queens of the Stone Age hang out with the Kings of the Stone Age’s girlfriends when they wrestle… Rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls. That way everyone’s happy and it’s more of a party. Kings of the Stone Age is too lopsided.”

With rare masculine credibility, Homme had no problem addressing gender dynamics years before it was the wide-open discussion it is today. He would often say that he was making rock music for both men and women.I)In an article he wrote for The Guardian, Homme described their music as “trance robot music for girls.” Whenever I would hear him say this, I would think, incorrectly, “But all music is made for all people. Right?”

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Now, obviously women are fans of rock music—half of all rock fans are women or female-identifying. But the music itself and the industry supporting it—record labels, management companies, roadies, venue staff, public relations, studio personnel, session musicians, and music critics—has historically been dominated by men. Some of this is gradually improving, but rock’s history precedes it. Lists of rock’s all-time great albums and songs are mainly filled up with work by men. Women rarely make lists of rock’s all-time greatest instrumentalists either. And, most crucially, the bands themselves are overwhelmingly male. (This can all also be said for race in addition to gender… rock music is dominated by white people at the exclusion of other races.)

This matters for many reasons—representation is tremendously important. The social and cultural barriers to women’s participation in rock music also means that half the pool of the world’s available rock musicians has been blocked off, meaning we don’t know what great music we could otherwise have had.

But it’s also important because rock musicII)Okay, music in general, but I’m talking here about rock because it’s what I know. tends to mean the most to people when they are at their most formative. It is music largely consumed by teenagers and people in their early twenties, a time at which most people are developing their identities. And when the viewpoint we all digest as young people only comes from men, our ideas about ourselves and each other can be incredibly skewed.

When I was a teenager, the dominant rock movement was emo. Emo music holds special appeal for teenagers because of the rawness of its emotional content, but also because it speaks to an awakening autonomy teenagers experience. Teenagers grow an awareness that they are ultimately in charge of whether they live or die, and it aligns perfectly with the violent lyrics emo often features, lyrics obsessed with death and physical pain.

Because the generation that grew up during emo’s heyday is now in its thirties and has real purchasing power, emo nostalgia has blossomed.  Emo Nights at bars and clubs are becoming big business. And bands whose popularity peaked in the mid-aughts now have celebratory anniversary tours, playing old albums in full for young professionals who only want to hear the early stuff.

If emo has a narrative, it is that people who feel Othered embrace the depth of their emotions, and the honesty and sincerity of the feeling creates a sort of integrity. To an emo guy, toxic masculinity is what is practiced by the popular jock, that amorphous Other. Emo guys are sensitive guys. Good guys.

But I see three things that have happened in the past few years that have necessitated a reevaluation of the emo narrative.

The first is some combination of GamerGate and everything associated with the alt-right, where men who in an earlier era would be dismissed as geeks prove to be as insidiously misogynistic and threatening as the dudebros emo guys were railing against. Being a non-jock, then—whether it’s a nerd or a sensitive artist—does not mean the same thing as being a “good guy.”

The second is the Me Too movement in general. Because the Emo Renaissance has happened at the same time as Me Too, those old emo songs are getting more scrutiny than their now-grown-up authors are probably comfortable with. Violence and sexism run rampant in the lyrics of Fall Out Boy, Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, Glassjaw, Senses Fail, Alkaline Trio, Saves the Day, Say Anything, The Used, My Chemical Romance, and countless other emo and pop-punk bands from the era. This is not a surprise to fans of those bands, but, for me at least, the language didn’t exist at the time for explaining what we were hearing.

In a piece for The Atlantic called “When Pop Culture Sells Dangerous Myths About Romance,” Julie Beck explores, among other things, romantic songs and movies infecting how men view what they do in the name of “getting the girl.” John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything is the classic example—the guy who, once rejected by the girl, nevertheless continues to pursue, harass, and even stalk her until she relents.

Blink-182’s song “Voyeur” is the tale of a peeping tom watching a girl change clothes from outside her window. We could treat this song with the lack of seriousness it seems to invite (“Can’t you tell I’m joking?”) if the writer of the song, Tom DeLonge, didn’t also write a song about the same subject for his post-Blink band Angels & Airwaves. That song, “Sirens,” presents the experience much more romantically. When I saw Angels & Airwaves live in 2008, DeLonge introduced the song over ambient space sound effects for maximum epicness, describing the story that inspired him to write “Sirens”: “She started taking off her clothes. It was awesome.”

I don’t know that hearing songs about peeping toms actually turns young men into peeping toms. But I know that when we hear these songs as young people, we internalize them, and can always measure up against them—”This is okay, right? Blink-182 has a song about it.” The cumulative effect of so many songs written and performed by men about women who are objects more than people surely does something to the young male mind. Even when lyrics don’t discuss or celebrate illegal and/or perverse acts, they can, in the name of emotional honesty, admit to emotional abuse. In Taking Back Sunday’s “One-Eighty By Summer,” the singer declares, “Well I’ll just say it: I need you defenseless, dependent, and alone.” (he’s #justsayin)

Now, obviously we are talking about art and artists are free to explore whatever they wish to explore. Lyrics are neither necessarily autobiographical nor confessional. But artists do have an ethical responsibility for the effect their words can have on listeners, and it’s good that these artists are now addressing their own works either through removing problematic songs from setlists or engaging with fans on social media about their lyrics.

In a piece for Pitchfork, Jenn Pelly recounts a conversation she had with a friend and fellow traveler of the mid-aughts emo scene:

“Talking about relationships that way was so normal, though. I never thought about the sexism in the scene back then because it wasn’t in my schema. I was naive—I think a lot of us were. But I think about it a lot now. It makes me rethink the boys I dated during that time,” Strom continues, “the actions and words I let slide because my favorite bands sang about the same things I was experiencing. Like, ‘oooh my boyfriend is just such a moody musician!'”

The third thing that happened is that one of emo’s biggest and most respected stars, Jesse Lacey of Brand New (one of my all-time favorite bands) was accused of soliciting nude images from underage fans. Lacey subsequently apologized without specifically admitting to anything, and Brand New canceled their tour.

Suddenly a literal reevaluation of Brand New’s music was necessary. I always felt that the underlying promise of Brand New was that the lyrics could address dark and even creepy subjects because of course the person singing them wasn’t speaking autobiographically. But with so many random Brand New lyrics like, “I’m gonna stay 18 forever so it can stay like this forever,” and “What difference does this difference in age make?” the entire enterprise feels… icky.

The ripple effects of the Lacey story spread far and wide in the scene. Virtually every emo artist has had to answer questions from journalists about Lacey in particular and the pervasive misogyny of the scene in general. In advance of new albums from both Glassjaw and Senses Fail, the singers of both bands expressed regret over the chauvinistic content of their band’s earlier songs. Glassjaw’s Daryl Palumbo told Alternative Press:

Those are some absurd things to say. The sentiment was frustration. I was a young guy, and I was supposed to be a man and I was not. I apologize for saying any of that. You can be frustrated, but I really wished I had written better lyrics. I wish I had better taste; I wish I wasn’t so insensitive

And Senses Fail’s Buddy Nielsen told Billboard:

Yeah, there are definitely things I said on there [the band’s first album, Let It Enfold You] that I’d never say now. Specifically, sort of misogynistic, overtly misogynistic things. Songs just that lack a level of depth. Overall, there’s a couple lines where I’ll cringe, like ‘whore.’ Or I have a song about pushing a girl off a building.

Both expressed regret but also noted that they were much younger people when they wrote their songs, that they didn’t know better. And this is certainly a valid explanation, but power is often not realizing that you have power.

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Fugazi’s “Suggestion” is a song originally released in 1988, written and performed by a man who in the song takes the point of view of a woman and addresses men sexually charging otherwise normal interactions with women. “Why can’t I walk down a street free of suggestion?” the song opens, beginning a takedown of toxic masculinity. “You spent yourself, boy, watching me suffer/Suffer you words, suffer your eyes, suffer your hands/Suffer your interpretation of what it is to be a man.”

“Suggestion” by Fugazi (LYRICS)

Toward the end of the song, the perspective shifts from the woman’s to a man’s: “She does nothing to conceal it/He touches her ’cause he wants to feel it/We blame her for being there.” It’s kind of amazing to hear a rock song from 1988 arguing that society too often blames the victims of sexual assault when the at-fault party is obvious. Even more amazing, it implicates all men—even the good guys—for their suggestions that poison everyday life for women. The cause of all this is an idea—manliness—that pollutes everything and hurts everybody.

But when I discovered Fugazi as a dipshit 18-year-old, I couldn’t grasp what the song was trying to say. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the message of the song, it’s more that I was baffled at the idea that somebody would write a song about the subject at all. I might as well have been a peasant in medieval England getting a message from a future time traveler telling me to buy index funds—the individual words make sense but their meaning together is unclear.

But I loved the song. I thought its opening guitar riff was awesome (It rules!) and I set it as my MySpace music. Still, I never considered what its lyrics were addressing, other than to respond, incorrectly, to the conclusion of the song when singer Ian MacKaye, resuming the male perspective, stops singing and speaks directly to the listener: “We are all here, we are all guilty.” Still not comprehending but nevertheless enjoying the way it sounded, I’d hear that ending and think, “Yeah, man, totally. But not me. Right?”

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Footnotes   [ + ]

I. In an article he wrote for The Guardian, Homme described their music as “trance robot music for girls.”
II. Okay, music in general, but I’m talking here about rock because it’s what I know.