At the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards in Miami, Kelly Clarkson, 23 at the time, was beginning to lose her voice. She was singing at the top of her range, with the adrenaline pumping through her 5-foot-3-inch frame, raising the pitch with reckless abandon, so much so that her throat began to tense up.
The emotional stress in her vocals was followed by a special effect — simulated rainfall, in the pit. Clarkson soon was soaked, hopping around in her bare feet and singing in the middle of a group of orgiastic teens who knew every word. The crowd became a part of the performance, a Top 40 rain dance. The less control Clarkson had of her voice, the more she emoted the feeling of catharsis during the soaked chorus of her hit anthem, “Since U Been Gone.”
With her mascara starting to melt, and her dyed blond hair sticking to her forehead, Clarkson looked “sad as fuck.” Hold that thought, because that's exactly what Emo Nite is like.
In an interview with Spin from 2007, cognitive scientist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, described this sort of vocal intensity: “The brain is attuned to the strain that comes with singing at the top of your range and senses emotional urgency, which is perfect for emo.”
It's 11:52 p.m. and I'm standing atop a leather couch at the Echoplex in Echo Park. Above me is a projection, a bat signal of sorts, showing a gravestone with a crack on it. Emo, as you may already know, borrows from goth. Which is why there are black-and-white balloons (purple or violet also is part of the acceptable emo color spectrum) hovering over at least 500 20-somethings, probably more, between the mainstage, the bar and the Echo upstairs, all singing along to “Since U Been Gone.” Freshly unleashed endorphins are being pumping through a crowd that's drenched, like Clarkson on MTV, in everything from water to Champagne and beer.
It has the same energy of a live performance by a major pop star, except Kelly Clarkson isn't onstage. It's a guest DJ instead, Craig Owens, lead singer of Chiodos, playing Clarkson's hit from an Apple MacBook Pro and surrounded by pretty, young and mostly drunken millennials on their iPhone 7s capturing the crowd's bizarrely over-the-top reaction to a song that isn't emo. Or is it? For the moment at least, being “sad as fuck” to Kelly Clarkson feels about as emo as it gets.
It's now the second anniversary of Emo Nite L.A., a derivative of Diary in San Francisco, an emo night that began in 2009, and Emo Night NYC, which began in 2011. None of them, including L.A., holds the trademark to either “Emo Nite” or “Emo Night,” and L.A. rebranded earlier this year from “Taking Back Tuesdays” to “Emo Nite” just as Adam Lazzara of emo band Taking Back Sunday told Billboard, “Those motherfuckers owe me some money.”
Those same enterprising “motherfuckers,” Barbara Szabo, T.J. Petracca and Morgan Freed, have managed to take the concept of emo into the ravelike simulation of a real concert and created a sadness ecosystem that has a tagline (the aforementioned “Sad as Fuck”), cheeky merchandise, Snapchat filters, a live stream on Twitch, and celebrity evangelists such as Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 (who's been a guest DJ). Emo Nite's target demographic includes epic chorus fetishists who arrive on the first Tuesday of every month and fist-pump dementedly to everything from Fall Out Boy's lyrically confusing hit “Sugar, We're Goin' Down” to Paramore's “Misery Business.” While emo drives about 90 percent of the event's playlist, the other 10 percent can come from Top 40 club bangers, swag rap and EDM remixes, as well as bands like Linkin Park, whose emo cred is questionable.
I tried to make sense of some of this by talking to Emo Nite superfan April O'Neil, the adult-film star and pinball wizard, whose emo origins date back to her teen years when she became obsessed with bands like The Starting Line. “I've come to every single Emo Nite except the first one,” she says, wearing black rim glasses and looking fashionably emo. I ask her if being emo is a phase. “I've never stopped,” she says.
Elizabeth Le Fey of Globelamp, a singer-songwriter based in Orange County, tells me emo music saved her life. “It was the first genre of music that I could relate to and find a community in.”
Emo does save lives, it seems. In a video package projected onto the big screen to open the event, a young girl summarized the power of Emo Nite as turning “the saddest years of your life into the happiest day of the month.”
To celebrate the two-year anniversary of their wildly successful emo rave, which recently went on a tour across the nation, the organizers brought in a marching band and an a cappella group, both of which came onstage at separate points in the night and played My Chemical Romance's “Welcome to the Black Parade.” There were guest DJs, like Jordan Pundik of New Found Glory, and acoustic performances by members of All-American Rejects and Aaron Gillespie of The Almost. Booking this kind of talent and hiring a PR firm to create buzz for Emo Nite is part of why the L.A. scene has become the franchise city of the emo revival. But that's just the dressing for what's really going on through the looking glass.
On the stage, for most of the night, were ridiculously attractive 20-somethings with colorful hair, chokers, Emo Nite regalia and a shockingly robust lyrical grasp of just about every emo song ever. Audience participation is the real draw of Emo Nite. There isn't a single song that seems to stump people; they know the words, along with the drum patterns, climaxes and power chords, which they mimic with the mastery of a professional musician holding an invisible instrument.
Ex-cheerleaders, jocks, goths, hipsters with floral dresses and thigh tattoos, girls dressed up like witches, black, white and Mexican kids with bleached hair — all are in it together. They pound back tall cans, get emotional and sing along to choruses from bands that celebrate Americana like it's porn: The All-American Rejects, Taking Back Sunday, Saves the Day, Jimmy Eat World, Weezer (for one album), Brand New, The Used, Blink-182 (if only for Tom Delonge's deliciously whiny vocals) and Kelly Clarkson's “Since U Been Gone,” depending on how loose your definition of emo is.
Last night, at both the Echo and Echoplex, we were all Kelly Clarkson from the 2005 VMAs: wet, happy as fuck, losing our voices as we screamed together the words to songs we either knew by memory or simply pretended to know in what is now L.A.'s most shamelessly successful group karaoke night.