Early last Tuesday night, the only thing on the Crocodile's dance floor was a pile of black-and-white balloons dead-still under harsh pink lights. The words SAD AS FUCK were printed across some of them. Others featured a drawing of a cracked tombstone that read "Emo Nite." (The event was so self-aware, it contained its own obituary.)
Mopey hiphop was piped in through the speakers. "Club Going Up on a Tuesday" played twice. Protected by a thick coat of irony, those in attendance would eventually feel safe enough to rush the boards and enter Emo Nostalgialand, where we could experience all of the joy and none of the drawbacks of having a bluebird neck tattoo.
The PBR-sipping wallflowers who framed the floor were wearing their Warped Tour costumes: studded belts, Vans, lots of dudes in mascara. About 20 percent of the crowd looked like Rivers Cuomo, irrespective of gender. A few soft goths sympathetic to the cause were perched in the corner. The black-metal bartenders showed admirable restraint in their efforts not to systematically administer purple nurples to everyone in the crowd. Lord knows I was trying to stop myself from doing the same, and I'm the kind of guy who used to get the purplest nurples.
But every ounce of irony and frustration fell away when a skinny dude with dyed blond hair wearing an oversize T-shirt and woolen beanie—in late May—pressed the space bar on his black MacBook Pro and blasted Brand New's "Sic Transit Gloria," a song about trying but failing to deny a woman's sexual advances in order to protect her from your bad-/sad-boy self, a sentiment I felt deeply when the song was released in 2003, a full year before I had even had sex for the first time.
At the sound of that song's marauding bass line, a wave of deep recognition washed across the faces of the crowd and the black-and-white balloons started flying all over the place. The blond dude cut the volume on the chorus, and the whole crowd, including me, screamed (forgive me), "Die young and save yourself!" at the dude onstage who, and I can't stress this enough, was simply playing a playlist that he and his similarly skinny-and-oversize-T-shirted friend had put together on a computer. Occasionally the two would make those mangled hand gestures that emo frontmen make in the middle of a particularly strenuous scream sesh, or else point at us and sing along. The stage was their bedroom, their beat-up Honda full of their friends who were returning from a show with a gas station burrito in each of their laps.
"They" are the people who organize Taking Back Tuesday (aka Emo Nite), a traveling emo club experience based in Los Angeles. The blond guy's name is Morgan Freed. The other guy's named in T.J. Petracca. And the woman who may or may not have pressed computer buttons in an official capacity at the end of last week's show is named Barbara Szabo. On their website, they say they're not a band. They say they're not DJs. And they're not. But they do serve a function. They're selling my nostalgia back to me, wrapping it up in packaging perfectly suited to my affection for noncommittal irony. For $7, they shout my joy back at me, affirming and validating an entire five-year period of my musical-emotional life, a whole era full of band names and song titles I blush to think of.
And yet. Before the non-DJs played the old Brand New song, I had been standing off to the side of the stage feeling like an elder statesman, privately forming a lot of sharp opinions about the first two tracks of the set. They opened with Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Goin' Down," which for me is non-canon. I thought we'd all agreed that emo proper began with Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary, achieved full glory on Weezer's Blue Album, was reinvigorated by Saves the Day's Through Being Cool, and had been dead since 2004, when Taking Back Sunday's second album, Where You Want to Be, ended up sucking. There were pop punk and screamo bands who sought shelter under the emo tent, but that Fall Out Boy / Panic! at the Disco shit came out in 2005 and was already way passé for this swoopy-haired sad boy. When the skinny duo played a song off the fourth TBS album, New Again, I was ready to consider the evening a third-wave emo wash.
But then they played the Get Up Kids, an old Lawrence, Kansas/Kansas City, Missouri band. They played "Seventy Times 7" off Brand New's first record, Your Favorite Weapon. They played Dude Ranch–era Blink-182. They played Jimmy Eat World, early My Chemical Romance, and Dashboard Confessional, and suddenly I hoped that I was as happy as I was pretending. I was 16 years old again, missing her. I fell in love with the woman in the green sleeveless shirt standing next to me as a kind of reflex. My heart leapt when the soft goths swooped down from their roost, brushed past me, and jumped onstage to sing "Say It Ain't So." This was the music of my teenage years—not my mom's Motown or my dad's 1960s folk or the television's Britney Spears—it was the first music I'd chosen to love. And like all first loves, I'd never truly be rid of my affection for it.
Which sucks. Because most of the music sucks. Objectively. (Well, Piebald holds up.) But the rest is punk without the politics, pop without the candy, rock without the rebellion. A bunch of white young men with Peter Pan complexes shouting borderline and sometimes absolutely misogynistic lyrics about the day she didn't call back.
But you have to understand. It was the early aughts. I lived in a hick suburb south of Kansas City, Missouri. In my town, you were who you listened to. The jocks were listening to rap, pop country, mainstream pop, and dad rock—and those people punched me in the arm in the locker room. They hurled the word "fag" at me from the windows of their trucks before I ever considered putting on a size-small black band T-shirt. I didn't like those people. The poor-kid weirdos were slowly morphing into Juggalos and Juggalettes, and they freaked me the fuck out. The goths looked sickly. Emo felt like the only alternative to the alternatives.
Plus, I was starting to make out with people and to feel semi-complicated emotional feelings about that. The adults and peers in my town had absolutely no language to describe the complexities of interpersonal relationships. "So you're crushing on Candice but you're not sure if she's crushing on you back, and she might be hooking up with your best friend as we speak?" Coach Gorky might say. "Great. Hand me that football and run a post pattern. I'll hit ya on the turn."
Brand New singer Jesse Lacey's arguably clever turns of phrase ("I've seen more spine in jellyfish/I've seen more guts in 11-year-old kids) and River Cuomo's absurd poetry ("Somebody's Heine' is crowding my icebox...") helped me articulate the many passions and rages of my teenage years.
It's been nearly 20 years since I listened to Through Being Cool on repeat, and, according to some weird immutable law of the music and fashion industries, we're at the beginning of the emo nostalgia wave. Emo Nite offers former sad kids the opportunity to get pitted on that wave, a chance to acknowledge and reflect on and so affirm a shared musical reality. But in that act of cultural affirmation, I am denied my individual relationship to and experience with that music, which is what made it feel so special in the first place. I mean, Say Anything are emo, but they weren't fucking emo, right?
And what's weirder still is the artists who do fit in this genre haven't finished making music. Brand New are touring with Modest Mouse this summer in anticipation of the release of their new (possibly final) album. Google searches for "Saves the Day" still yield recent results, including an album from 2013. Rockstar Energy Drink is sponsoring the Taste of Chaos Tour with Dashboard Confessional and Taking Back Sunday, plus special guests Saosin. Culture now moves so quickly that we're getting nostalgic for eras that aren't even over.
I have feelings about that.
Taking Back Tuesday/Emo Nite will return to Seattle in the fall.