I’ve lived in Virginia all my life, and while I doubt many non-natives think of my home state as a particularly warm place, I can tell you that summer lasts longer here than any other season. Weeklong heat waves in April are relatively common (we had a brutal one this year), while it’s rare for the first frost to appear before Halloween. The humidity is a bit of an endurance test, but on the bright side, we get plenty of sunny days on which the weather is perfect for driving with the windows down, blasting music. When I think of summer jams, I think of music for which driving fast with the wind in your hair is the optimal listening environment. And for me, the music I most enjoy hearing at those times is emo.
The arrival in my life of my first car probably has something to do with this. In the summer of 1997, I was 21 years old. I’d had the use of one of my parents’ cars when I was in high school and college, but after dropping out and moving into the city, I spent over a year getting around by bicycle. This greatly limited my job prospects, and forced me to live in less than ideal circumstances–cramming, along with half a dozen other kids, into tiny two-bedroom apartments was my standard MO when I was in my early 20s. That’s also why finally getting a car that was truly MINE spelled freedom for me. I could finally escape my noisy roommates and crowded living conditions and get some space to think. That first summer with a car, I would leave my house with no destination in mind, sometimes driving around for hours before coming back home. I had a few different mixtapes that I would play regularly in my car’s tape deck while I was driving around on those days, and a lot of the songs on the mix I’m sharing with you now were on one or more of those tapes.
These days, emo is synonymous with teenagers wearing eyeliner and hanging out in front of Hot Topic at the local mall, but in the mid-90s, it was still an underground movement. Weezer hadn’t yet been retconned into their current emo-pioneer status, so there weren’t any well-known groups to which anyone would apply the tag. The underground scene hated the term, of course, as they always had, but there wasn’t any stigma attached to listening to the bands in the genre (though fans, myself definitely included, would twist themselves into rhetorical pretzels trying to define the genre with less offensive terms). Plenty of bands that fell under that genre label at the time were still screaming, rolling around onstage, and doing arpeggiated buildups into octave-chord breakdowns (another retcon: the term “screamo,” which was invented in 2000 or so and immediately applied to a decade’s worth of defunct bands). But Cap’n Jazz, Texas Is The Reason, Lifetime, and several other groups had inaugurated a wave of emo bands starting in 1994 or so that dared to be both melodic and upbeat, permanently changing the sound of emo in the process. I loved all of those bands, bought all of their records, and put all of their best songs on the mixtapes I played in my car.
And sure, those tapes sounded great on sunny afternoons, but they were appropriate for another reason too. Half the time, when I stormed out of my house to go drive around for two hours, it was the middle of the night. The longest relationship of my life was coming to an end, and its slow, horrible dissolution lasted for months, spreading itself across my entire summer one anguished late-night phone conversation at a time. There were so many nights on which sleep was out of the question, when I had to get out of the house and drive around for hours, replaying snatches of arguments in my head and trying to squeeze every potential ramification out of every turn of phrase. On those nights, it was the lyrics I paid closer attention to. Samuel’s “Empty And Then Some” hit particularly close to home on nights like these. A song about the same sort of slow-motion breakup I was then going through, the choruses were framed as an argument between Vanessa Downing’s lead vocal and the backing vocals of guitarist Josh Deutsch. As Deutsch sings, “Make me another offer, I can’t understand you asking me to choose,” Downing declares, “The same lines–I’ve heard them all before. It’s just a different face, a different name.” By the end of the chorus, the two of them are singing in unison: “I find that I can’t be myself with you.” But the really devastating part is not that first chorus, but the last one, where the two of them build up to screaming “I think I’m better off alone!” I may have spent happy summer afternoons playing along with the drum fills on my steering wheel, but at night, I sang along with the lyrics until my voice broke.
Maybe the combination of upbeat music with depressing lyrics is a cliche by now; after all, Morrissey and the Smiths were doing it ten years before any of these emo bands ever started. And yet, it has not lost its impact, at least not if these songs are any indication. All of them have the power to get me excited, make me want to sing along and rock out when I’m driving, but they also all relate to struggles I go through in my life to this very day. It makes me feel better to realize that I’m not the only one having these problems. “Paperweights and Coffee Stains” by Race The Sun is about being broke all the time. “I empty both these cluttered pockets to scrounge for change,” the singer tells us, and I’ve been there plenty of times. In an unusual move for an emo band, Piebald express political concerns on “American Hearts.” “Have you heard that this country is unequal still? History continues itself, and I did not create the rules,” Travis Shettel sings, before pointing the finger at all of us, and by extension himself, on the song’s falsely jubilant chorus: “Hey! You’re part of it.” Even the relentlessly posi-core group Set Your Goals admit vulnerability on “Like You To Me:” “I’m getting so nervous scripting out these thoughts. I’m hoping that I don’t mess this part up. Communication’s something I still don’t get.” Their chorus, at least, is still encouraging, telling us “Don’t be afraid to find a way; communicate your thoughts when it’s your own line. It’s better to know, and get yes or no, than wonder if it was worth the wait.”
My relationship with music is inextricably bound up with my emotions. Anything that has touched my heart deeply enough to keep me reaching for it year after year probably also has something profound to say about the feelings I struggle with on a daily basis. Even the things that I love when I’m in a great mood, the songs I want to rock out and dance like an idiot to, are also intensely personal touchstones. When I’m in a good mood, they provide a joyful release for me. When I’m feeling bad, they help to lift me up, and make me feel a little less alone in the world. Sometimes I could benefit from a bit of that even on the sunniest of summer days.
1. Cap’n Jazz – Little League
2. Elliott – Miracle
3. Kid Kilowatt – Peeping Tomboy
4. Chamberlain – Her Side Of Sundown
5. Texas Is The Reason – If It’s Here When We Get Back It’s Ours
6. The Promise Ring – Red Paint
7. Mineral – Gloria
8. Samuel – Empty And Then Some
9. Jejune – Early Stars
10. Copper – Freckle
11. Sunny Day Real Estate – 8
12. Jimmy Eat World – What Would I Say To You Now
13. Piebald – American Hearts
14. The Get Up Kids – Second Place
15. New Found Glory – Dressed To Kill
16. Race The Sun – Paperweights And Coffee Stains
17. Fall Out Boy – “Tell That Mick He Just Made My List Of Things To Do Today”
18. Lifetime – 25 Cent Giraffes
19. Set Your Goals – Like You To Me
20. Gameface – Song