Unlike certain great, eternal rock mysteries (“What is glam?” or “Who invented the cowbell?”), the question “What is emo?” is destined for a Trivial Pursuit afterlife at best. That’s because the term “emo” denotes a murky feeling-tone more than a musical genre — and the music it does represent is, for the most part, unoriginal and annoying. Emo is a pseudo-genre so ill conceived, it makes other dodgy umbrella terms like “electro-clash” look positively descriptive by comparison.

The term comes from “emo-core,” short for “emotional hardcore” — which is, verily, the most retarded name ever cobbled for a musical genre. Various self-appointed emo experts tell me that the whole emotional-hardcore thing is basically Fugazi’s fault. (All that earnest hollering and lyric writing and van touring and no-drug-taking and hairline receding, dontcha know. They weren’t the first, but the most famous.)

If only emo began and ended with DC hardcore. Unfortunately, part of the problem with defining emo is that as hardcore melted into post-hardcore, “emo” got passed around like mono. The term changed hands so many times over the years, it eventually mutated to mean just about anything sung by a whiny white guy with sneakers and no sense of humor.

Super,” you say, all fresh and optimistic. “I think I get it. That Ben Lee guy from Australia — totally emo, right? What a chump! And that wimpy Beck album, Sea Change. So emo. Nick Drake. Coldplay! Oh, Elliott Smith! The Shins!” Well, technically, yes, those should all be filed under emo — but only some of them are. Welcome to my nightmare.

To complicate things, there’s also this old idea that proper emo should have a certain hollering whininess to it, the better to irritate, and express true earnestness.

“Oh, like Incubus? Or is it more like the Mars Volta? — no, Morrissey! The Smiths!”

Again, yes, yes, yes and yes — logically, they should all be considered The Emo, but no, no no and no, they’re not precisely-exactly.

“Okay,” you say. “Well, if emo’s all about being emotional and ‘real’ and indie and shit, and hollery-whiny, then, like, Nirvana must be emo, right? Bleach, at least?”

Again, yes, but no. Which is why this genre sucks. Instead of Bleach, the Rosetta stone of emo is often considered to be Weezer’s Pinkerton. Now, Pinkerton is a good album. But it’s no Bleach. So why isn’t Bleach “emo”? Probably because, unlike Pinkerton, it rocks like a motherfucker, has a genuine sense of humor, and isn’t remotely precious. And it’s not obsessed with breakups. (I mean, just for starters, it’s not a concept album based on a tragic opera.) Plus it’s got an ultrabitchin’ Alice Cooper reference (“School”).

“So if none of these sorta-emo bands are actually emo, who is?” you ask.

Fuck if I know. A million tiny bands I don’t know or want to know, and then more famous people like Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Dashboard Confessional, the Promise Ring, the Shins, Elliott Smith, et al. Some “post-punk” radio bands are vaguely emo, from Jimmy Eat World to Fall Out Boy.

“Back the fuck up, bitch,” you snap suddenly. (Getting testy?) “Death Cab for Cutie and the Shins aren’t all hollery-whiny. And what, oh what, doBright EyesandWeez-goddamn-erhave in common? For that matter, what do Fugazi and Elliott Smith have in common?”

The answer: nothing.

The lack of musical connection between “emo” bands is actually the key to understanding emo. Bright Eyes is the indier-than-thou troubadour from Omaha; Weezer is the Gen-X pseudo-metaler from Hollywood. Death Cab are the arty twee-popsters from Washington state; Fall Out Boy are the Midwestern post-punks from Illinois. These bands subscribe faithfully to distinct musical genres. All may be talented, but none are formal innovators within their respective traditions. And none of these emo guys ever signed up to be “emo.” They signed up to be punks, or Beatlesque singer-songwriters, or pop bands, or plain old rock & rollers.

Musically, emo means almost nothing as a discipline per se. It’s the American Studies of indie rock.

You couldn’t point to a universal musical source for emo, or even a universal checklist of signifiers. (If drunk enough, I might contend that emo dudes overenunciate.) In truth, Pinkerton is only the Rosetta stone for a certain type of emo band. The Foo Fighters have a greater Fugazi influence than Death Cab for Cutie. And unlike stoner-metal or alt-country or whatever, emo bands are not a community of like-minded mavericks who stand together,against something else, and are proud to fly the flag, and love and hate and admire each other. The main thing is that they all hate being called emo by their fans. In other words, what the fullness of the emo roster really shares is not a set of musical or aesthetic values, but a fan base. Emo is the first and (so far) only pop “genre” to be defined not by music but by the curatorial whims of its fans.

Personally, I’m more concerned for Emo Philips. Before his name got ruined, the comedian once said, “Probably the toughest time in anyone’s life is when you have to murder a loved one because they’re the devil.”

The second hardest time in anyone’s life is probably when you have to murder a loved one because they like Dashboard Confessional.

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