on tiktok midwest emo + the way we talk about music
If you're the kind of person who thinks people talking about genres is stupid and shouldn't happen, this isn't for you.
Lately I've been thrust onto emo tiktok. I don't want to be there. I want to use tiktok to go empty brain. I want to watch people cook beautiful meals and make cocktails and talk about books and visual art. I want to watch beautiful women pick out outfits and make coffee and complain about their terrible mother in laws (mothers in law?)
But the algorithm decided it's time for emo. If you're on a certain emo-tinged part of twitter, you may have seen a screenshot of someone listing out their favorite Midwest emo bands in a tiktok. It's like Modern Baseball, Mom Jeans, American Football, Marietta, The Front Bottoms, Slaughter Beach Dog, Macseal, Worst Party Ever.. I imagine it's really just a list of this person's favorite bands and people were making fun of it, but it's hardly an anomaly of a list. I see a lot of videos that are listing off a certain kind of band or referencing a certain kind of band and calling it "Midwest Emo," but they're mostly the kind of bands getting posted about on Tumblr in 2014.
Often the videos are sort of making fun of a type of male manipulator type guy or they're paired with a fit check of a person in a beanie with cuffed pants. It's a pretty defined lane of discussion with a pretty defined sort of band that gets the label. It's The Front Bottoms and Modern Baseball and Joyce Manor, the bands that play similar music to them, and also American Football.
I've found myself thinking, "what happened that this is what people are calling Midwest emo?" more than anything. To me, Midwest emo is pretty specific. It's usually one of two things:
- A regional style of mid-late 90s emo. Cap'n Jazz, American Football, The Promise Ring, Braid, that kind of thing. Lotta noodly, mathy guitars. Lotta lovelorn lyrics.
- Predominantly bands in the late 2000s/first half of the 2010s that were referencing and calling back to that regional mid-late 90s emo. When people say "Emo Revival" they're referencing "reviving" that 90s emo. The term is being applied to a style of music based on what's being referenced, not a region. Algernon, Everyone Everywhere, CSTVT. It's fine to use it for stuff that isn't from the Midwest.
That's always been my understanding because it's what my brain thinks makes sense. That's the way I've always used the term. I use Emo Revival as a subsect of Fourth Wave emo because "Emo Revival" only makes sense if we're referencing a specific kind of emo that was taken out of the spotlight when bands like My Chemical Romance became synonymous with the word Emo. Don't call it a revival.. unless there is something to be revived. So what happened that there is this alternative understanding? One might say incorrect understanding, but I've got thoughts and theories.
- This is a trickle-down result of "Emo Revival" music writing.
Trend writing means trying to force things into a box. It's an easy intro paragraph to be like "emo revival is reviving midwestern sounds of 90s Chicago and Milwaukee and these are some rockin bands!" That's a story, that's a trend. I think wires got crossed when you took a band like Modern Baseball or Joyce Manor who very much were not reviving sounds of 90s Chicago and put them inside this box where Midwest Emo and emo revival were being discussed together. I don't think music writing is like this all-powerful force, but I do think that there was a whole era of writing that didn't do a very good job differentiating between "these are the current cool and popular punk/DIY bands" and "this is Midwest Emo." I see that echoed through a game of genre telephone into considering any band that was popular during the height of Emo Revival as a music writing trend to just be Midwest Emo.
There is a huge swath of 2010s punk music is now not punk, it's all emo. Doesn't matter what it is. It's all emo. Kinda silly.
2. We're talking not about music, but about a type of guy.
Now, I'm a big proponent of Type Of Guy-ism. I love to describe a type of guy that listens to a certain kind of thing. It seems Midwest Emo Fan is usually more what people are talking about. Male manipulator, one could say. A shorthand for a certain kind of Soft Boy Artsy type. This kind of lumping makes as much sense to me as anything. It doesn't matter what the music he likes actually is, it just matters that they dress the same.
Lose the sweater vest and Rob Dobi nails the vibe. In a sense, this is midwest emo revival, too. Or maybe this guy just never changed his clothes. Don't call it a revival.
By nature of Type Of Guy-ism, you're making broad generalizations. I think that's okay and inevitably you'll get some bleeding across genre lines. I say Orgcore guy and he might really just listen to Folk Punk or Skramz. It's not really about the music, but it's about communicating something distinct.
Genre wars of what is Real Emo or whatever are stupid. There's no real reason to do it, but I do think there is a lot of value in being able to effectively and efficiently communicate about music. Just like there is practical value in knowing the difference between Modern and Contemporary art and the movements therein, there is practical value in being able to articulate what music you like. Genre discussions are too often concerned about how artists consider themselves when the real value in genre descriptor is the way it acts as a means of practical communication.
If I want to see Rothko's work, it's worth knowing what Abstract Expressionism means. Doesn't matter if he never said those words, I'm trying to find a museum that I'm gonna enjoy. I think of genres this way, too.
Now, does it matter that some people maintain an understanding of Midwest Emo that's just wrong? I don't know, but I do think you lose a lot of nuances and context about the bands that have been lumped together as Midwest Emo when they aren't.
I'd like to see Joyce Manor be contextualized within broader west coast punk of the 2000s and 2010s. I'd like to see the influence of folk punk on indie rock and indie punk discussed in a broader way. I'd like to be able to just call stuff punk, ya know? I think emo or, god forbid, DIY became such a dominant descriptor in its place and it just doesn't work. These are things I find more interesting, but I think the incorrect designation of Midwest Emo speaks to something that went on, too. It's effective in a certain way.
Mostly just to make fun of your ex-boyfriend's cuffed jeans, though.
Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, podcaster and law school drop out based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter and see me post about punk music, I guess, I don't have a good one for this installment: @mirandareinert. You may also just send me small bits of money at @miranda-reinert on venmo if you want. As always, thanks for reading!