Taking Back Tuesday: Emo Revival Vs. Emo Nostalgia

It was Taking Back Tuesday, and I had nothing to wear.

The Emo Night L.A. DJs brought another edition of their popular throwback party to the Marquis Theater last night, giving twenty- and thirty-somethings the chance to relive a very specific moment in recent music history — the third-wave emo-inflected pop punk of the early 2000s — and maybe even recapture a bit of the heightened emotions and hormones of their own Millennial youth.

I’m one of those twenty-/thirty-somethings, one of those former Millennial youths. But as I dug around my drawers for an old band T-shirt to wear — Jimmy Eat World, The Starting Line, Say Anything, Mae, New Found Glory, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday — I couldn't find anything. Then I remembered: I don’t have those shirts anymore.

Yet these days, suddenly, I need them again. Over the past couple of years, certain sectors of the music-listening public have experienced a so-called emo revival, with the heart-on-sleeve punk of bands like Joyce Manor and Pinegrove and Into It. Over It., who also perform at Marquis this Friday, March 25. On much larger stages, emo pop punk has molded the likes of snotty swoop-hair superstars Five Seconds of Summer and All Time Low (whose name is cribbed directly from a New Found Glory lyric).

Most of the emo shows today, however, are “revival” only in the sense of reanimating the dead. Last week, Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday announced a co-headlining summer tour, which includes a stop at Red Rocks. And last month, the Ataris, Hawthorne Heights and MEST hit Summit Music Hall.

In January, original piano punk Andrew McMahon brought an incarnation of Jack’s Mannequin to the Ogden to play the band’s breakthrough album, Everything in Transit, in its entirety. It’s ten years old. By 4 p.m. the day of that concert, a line of eager fans stretched down the sidewalk. At the show, tucked-in McMahon plunged through tracks that sounded as polished as they do on record, and belted like a theater kid you like but can't quite trust because he can cry on command. At one point during the show, McMahon described the album as a record of a “fucking crazy beautiful artful time in my past….a lot of us traveled that together...and here we are, ten years later. No wiser, but older.”

That’s not an emo revival. That’s emo nostalgia.
You might ask: Isn't it too soon for emo to incite either a revival or nostalgia? Yes, probably. At first glance, it seems these sensitive-boy bands are jumping on the legacy-act train earlier than their rock-and-roll predecessors did. Case in point: Blink-182 is reuniting — without co-leader Tom DeLonge. Nobody asked for that. Are these “reunion” or “anniversary” tours merely cash grabs at Millennials who have finally pushed past the recession they graduated into and have enough extra money in their pockets and enough office stress to justify a trip down memory lane?

I asked a recovering emo. Zach Gehring plays guitar in the band Mae, which toured with McMahon's precocious teenage project Something Corporate and embarked on its own nostalgia tour last year, celebrating the tenth anniversary of its popular 2005 concept album The Everglow.

“First response without proper reflection: I think that they are largely opportunistic,” Gehring said, “but opportunistic in a way that is unique to a particular era framed by the development and expansion of communicative technologies and social-media platforms. That is not to say they aren’t genuinely embarked upon.”

While I can understand the particular pleasures of teenage nostalgia for the audience, what is the benefit for the artist? Isn't a musician the one most obsessed with his next evolution?

According to Gehring, who, in his life outside of Mae, has started a family and is pursuing a master's degree in digital humanities: “There is a specific pleasure that came with our ten-year run characterized by less pressure and more enjoyment and new appreciations. But nostalgia isn't the same as new potential.”

Folks like to chatter about the supposed arrested development of Millennials — because of economic boom-and-bust, helicopter parenting, video games, screen-induced narcissism, no military draft, etc. — but is there some truth to it, evidenced within this Millennial music genre, which blew up alongside and perhaps because of those very conditions?

In addition to being a way for fans to originally connect with these bands in their heyday, Gehring said, “I think that social media and whatnot provides a new kind of optics or metrics, and bands can gauge more accurately how fans would respond [to another tour/release].”

But the motivation for emo reunions isn't necessarily cynical, Gehring said, since the bands were often as young as the fans and likely subject to similar nostalgia. “The lifespan of that era of bands was generally cut short because of the age of those bands…and the inexperience that led to missteps in careers. There was a deceptively short shelf life,” he said. “The music was very much characterized by age…but the visibility these bands received…the attention, the money, the success was misleading — but not unsubstantial.”

That’s the thing about emo that differentiates it from music of other eras or experiences that resonated with young people — pop or rock or hip-hop. While those genres could transcend audience age and the Beatles could even get the squares' toes tapping, emo is, by definition, teenage in its expression. And given audiences' access to musicians their own age via MySpace, and the power of social-media platforms to make them indie stars before the whole world got in on the business, this particular fan-artist relationship cements these emo bands in fans' hearts like high-school friends, the ones with whom you went through some really tough shit for the first time. The embrace of these songs is inherently crystalized in amber.

It’s true that I don’t have those emo band T-shirts in my drawer anymore, but it’s not what you think. I didn’t throw away these relics, make some symbolic break with my younger self, my spiritual texts. No, in college I cut up all my most beloved T-shirts, and my mother and I sewed them into a quilt. That quilt is in my current apartment, folded up on my bed. I may not be able to wear these bands emblazoned across my still-aching heart, but I preserved them. I’m 29, and I still wrap myself up in the trappings of teenage angst. No one can stay seventeen forever, or again, no matter how much you felt, how much it meant — and listening to the same old mixtape won't bring it back.

But then there's Taking Back Tuesday. Standing in a room with the people who loved the music you loved when you were younger and dumber, unabashedly screaming infidelities at the tops of your lungs like pain was brand-new — well, that's something almost timeless, almost like faith.
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Katie Moulton is a former Westword music editor. She's written about culture for alt-weeklies since 2009 and has also worked as a venue manager, radio DJ/producer and festival organizer. Her go-to karaoke jams are "Flagpole Sitta," by Harvey Danger, or "Ride Wit Me," by Nelly, which tells you a lot.
Contact: Katie Moulton