Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Transcendence: Or How the Emo Generation Finally Grew Up

It's about time that I wrote about happiness. Yeah, that's right, happiness. Even the art-school snobs like me run into it from time to time. I have a story, and it goes something like this:

It must have been 9 or 10AM. I'm somewhere on route 57, with a stomach full of Pad Thai and a heart that's relatively content. The stereo is playing the last album by the Promise Ring, and it fills me with a hope and joy that few things can surpass. In fact, I can think of very few artistic statements that make me as sincerely happy as this little gem. Why? You may ask... Because, simply, those silly little songs spoke volumes to someone like me. This is our affirmation: the angsty underground of Generation Y grew up, it says to me. All those pained pseudo-intellectuals finally made the step past a long-overextended adolescence. Happiness had finally found them - and us.

We grew up part of a miserable generation. In the hot lights of the mainstream, the rockers lived in a perpetual cloud of angst and gloom. Drug addiction, suicide, alienation were the subjects of the day. The big rap acts were embroiled in that deathly East Coast/West Coast rivalry. As far as art was concerned, life was war, life was pain. The economy of the time may have been better, sure, but that still didn't make the world seem like a friendlier place.

Underground, in the snobbier parts of the record shop, things weren't much better. Pedro the Lion was recounting the sins of our meaningless lives in every album he could spit out. Dashboard Confessional (yes, they were once an independent entity) was writing out a laundry list of every breakup in recent American history, and American Football wasn't far behind with their poppy teenage sobs. Sunny Day Real Estate and all their descendants were mourning their spiritual loss and loneliness. Boys Life was sobbing about something, but we weren't sure what.

And we were just lapping it up. An entire generation believing that art, music and intellectual endeavors should be misery to the roots. The heated yelp of one brief musical statement suddenly became the stance of an entire community. Artistry didn't concern itself with happiness, at least not in the independent world. Anything happier than, say, Tolstoy was pure heresy.

But that, dear reader, is where the Promise Ring comes in. Or...wait. No, let's back up about six months.

It must have been middle 2001. I remember seeing the Pedro the Lion vinyl for Progress packaged with something called "A Guitar for Janey." Dereck, our residential hipness guru, filled in the blank for us: it was a storybook. Alongside what could be the most depressing 7" in history was a children's storybook. Why was it there? "All the hipsters grew up and had families," he said with a shrug. "They got tired of being sad." And sure enough, it became even truer with time.

The Promise Ring gave us their final record that year, a magical little piece called Wood/Water, and the indie community went up in arms. No more frantic guitars or impassioned cries - it was a straight, calm pop record. And it was about finding happiness. This wasn't the sound of "the statement" of the last several years, but that was okay. We're tired of this eternally miserable stance, cried the music. We're ready to move on to something...more.

They were urging us to put down our misery for a bit - Just as the punk rockers of the 1970's finally set down their sociopolitical angst to explore other areas of the human experience (as well as explore the bounds of electronic, reggae and pop music), so was the emo generation doing, a good 25 years later. Braid, those lovestruck mopers, cried out on their last record: "Let's not settle for satisfaction /We are women and men of action/let's stop clapping/let's start doing/ a dream for the teens/ and inbetweens /and twenties yet unseen..." They spoke of being more; they spoke of reaching out to the stars and beyond to fulfill themselves.

Maybe not everyone grew happy, certainly, but it seems that growing up was in order all across the board. Death Cab for Cutie moved on from the throes of relationship death to explore aging, solitude and mortality on Plans. Joan of Arc and numerous others threw down on the political front and tried to make a difference in the stilted bipartisan battlefield. The Appleseed Cast explored the abstract fringes of music and the human existence. Rainer Maria's jagged and impassioned howls became sharp, angular explorations into intellectualism and existence.

And from there, the indie scene exploded outward into an era of post-emo exploration...In the same right, however, please do not read this as a rebuttal against misery in art. Certainly, we do need it as an element - J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, The Smashing Pumpkins' Adore, Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea. Misery is there as a matter of being the obstacle for our transcendence: The 7th Symphony leads to the glorious and joyful affirmation of the 9th, Adore's turbulent center leads to calm understanding at the end of the record.

Certainly, Wood/Water or Frame and Canvas will most likely not take the historical importance that emotionally-charged precursors like 30ยบ Everywhere or The Age of Octeen, the same way that Husker Du's Candy Apple Grey will never take the same historical spotlight their Zen Arcade has. More often than not, the heated moment is the one that stands out in history, but look deeper: sometimes the most understated moments are the most complex, the most genius.

For those of you who are interested in reading more about some of the independent music I've mentioned today, try Andy Greenwald's Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo, published by St. Martin Griffin or Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991.
If you'd like a faster introduction to the independent world of the last few years, try Wikipedia's articles on indie and emo, or try this hilarious parody of the genre's latter-day followers. Any of the records should be available at your local record shop or online at amazon.com. If you want a sample before you buy, try epitonic.com or any of these bands' record labels. If you feel that any of these records or books should be part of your local library, put in a request to the librarian - they'll be more than happy to consider the addition to the collection.

Until next time,

Nick Garcia
Adult Services Dept.


Blogger Lions-Online said...

Nick, you make me feel old...


10:32 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home