Mae Saslaw was last month's guest editor. She has just gotten to writing her second post.
Her pieces have appeared in Correspondence 1 & 2, and more of her work is available at maesaslaw.wordpress.com.
Some months ago, The Correspondence Society and friends wrote a series of essays on the nature of the hipster and what constitutes hipster culture, if there is such a thing. We overwhelmingly concluded that there is no unified hipster culture, that they produce no unique or identifiable cultural artifacts, and this is one of the primary reasons for their failure—or, since perhaps they weren’t trying in the first place—to form a distinct movement of any kind. I’ve heard arguments along the same lines applied to emo: that there is no identifiable emo music, literature, or art; that emo kids themselves disagree on what aesthetics define emo; that “real” emo was over long before the word/concept ever really took off, and so nothing after maybe 1998 (the year is highly debatable) counts as emo; etc. I have no better working definition of emo than the next emo kid, but I will argue that—unlike hipsters, though the difference between the two is not especially what I mean to emphasize—there are coherent ideas and thought processes running through the whole of the emo movement/scene/what have you, that the lifestyle or, really, epistemology, emerged in the wake of punk rock and still persists in some form. I do not pretend that the authenticity and quality of what is popularly considered emo music has maintained the high standard it once had (you can laugh here), and the degradation and hence bad reputation emo music has endured is in no small part due to the inevitable effects of commercialization. The point I mean to make is one about shared experience: whether your canonical emo band is Sunny Day Real Estate, or Brand New, or Bright Eyes, or Dashboard Confessional, etc., your general worldview has a great deal in common with that of another emo kid from a different time or place, etc. along the emo continuum.
The condition of the emo kid is easy to write off as unfettered vanity and self-indulgence, the case for this view being that emo kids are, in the main, relatively privileged and unaffected by what most people consider to be real traumas of contemporary life, ie, they are situated (usually) well above the poverty line, and have never been exposed to or threatened with extreme violence. We find it hard to sympathize with adolescents and young adults who have grown up sheltered at a time when millions of children have real problems. And, during my own stint as a self-described emo kid, the guilt I felt around feeling dissatisfied with my life (guilt from the knowledge that others had it way worse and yet I found so much about which to complain, or, more accurately, to almost deliberately make myself miserable) was a significant part of the system of malaise I wove in my head.
That said, it’s as hard to convincingly argue that emo kids do have at least a few actual problems, and that these problems are the common threads between different versions or incarnations of emo. And I’ll concede that, even in hindsight, I can’t say that they even were real problems, but it sure as fuck felt like it: the certainty and gravity of the conclusions I drew about myself and other people trumped any remaining capacity I had for objectivity. Everyone really was unendurably vapid and insensitive, and I really was going to maintain my destructive habits unto lifelong loneliness. That’s how it seemed. Part of ceasing to be emo—rather, as emo—was my growing need to apologize for how absurd I sounded in pretty much every communicative act I made, how absurdly I behaved for several solid years. The other part was discovering better art, better music, and most importantly better literature, and realizing that there were far more comprehensive and sustainable ways to deal with the world than the thought processes I mired myself in. And, as has become apparent in this essay, I still continually apologize for emo—to anyone who has been emo, and to anyone who has had any sort of relationship with an emo kid.
With the apology must come the explanation of what it is I am apologizing for. The epistemology of emo, I have decided centers around the following emotional ideology: The emo kid sees in herself some pattern of self-destructive behavior and finds herself both unable to stop and unwilling to continue, but because she is unable to stop, she must continually question whether or not she really is unwilling to continue, and if she is not, she must question what intrinsic flaw makes her weak-minded or truly self-destructive or both. The self-destructive behavior might be a desire for romantic relationships characterized by severe dependence and/or “trust issues,” a desire for meaningless sexual encounters, eating disorders, cutting, repeated alienation of friends, drug and alcohol problems of a fairly minor order, etc. Her ability to question whether or not she wants to stop in the first place leads her to conclude that she is not truly, hopelessly addicted to anything, and indeed she usually is not, but draws her conclusion from an assumption that truly, hopelessly addicted people have already lost the ability to question want vs. need vs. un- or subconscious drive. But, at the same time, the fact that she continues whatever destructive behavior she likely knows she has chosen leads her to further question why she hasn’t totally destroyed herself—ie. she is not dead, or incarcerated, or in rehab, or pregnant. She has never reached and maybe never been close to total destruction, and she sees this as evidence that she is still in control of her actions, and therefore fully capable of “fixing” herself without outside help. Her ultimate self-analysis, and this usually takes at least a year to arrive at, is that she enjoys being somewhat—but, obviously, not entirely—self-destructive, enjoys the level to which she can predict what causes her pain. There’s no real way to tally how many emo kids slowly pulled themselves out of the emo condition vs. how many did go to rehab or join a religious organization or otherwise make some drastic life change that shocked them out of their particular self-destructive behavior more or less overnight. And I am fairly certain that members of the latter category are harsher critics of emo, and those most willing to argue that the emo mentality has no redeeming qualities for anyone. I don’t blame them. I only want to describe, as clearly as possible, the strategies common in every emo kid’s approach to thought and life in general. I call the totality of my conclusions the epistemology of emo because the emo movement, for all its fragmentation, describes a condition of the individual that is all-encompassing. The reason, I think, why former emo kids are so easy to spot, and why they tend to stick together, is that the whole tempest of skewed logic leaves its etchings on the walls of the mind. It’s why someone ten years older than me uses the same word to describe incredibly different artistic periods: ever since punk rock gave us permission to question our role and agency as adolescents, and grunge gave us permission to rage inwardly at whatever we happen to hate about ourselves, emo kids have been inventing and perfecting the cultural artifacts that feed the attitude and vice versa.