Why is screamo trendy again?
Art for the end of the neoliberal consensus and the apocalypse.
It should come as no surprise to readers of this occasional newsletter that I read a lot of articles about screamo. I don’t think of it as opposition research, but that’s sort of what it is – scoping out what’s going on in the press surrounding my peers, so as to market my own music as something unique. Recently, though, I’ve been reflecting on the fact that there is screamo press at all – and not just that, but it’s overwhelmingly positive (I don’t mean to be self-congratulatory). How, and why, did a genre so thoroughly maligned half a decade ago rebound in the critical consciousness?
I think it’s no coincidence that the wave of screamo-optimism (screamoptimism?) begins around 2017. In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election which, let’s not forget, took pretty much anyone who follows politics in any way by some level of surprise – the lackadaisical complacent Obama liberal consensus which had buoyed non-confrontational indie to the front of critics’ minds was shattered into a million little pieces. Real Estate, Tame Impala, Wild Nothing, Mac DeMarco… this kind of feel good music tracked for such a period of what felt to many like a political detente. Thinkpiece after thinkpiece hailed the impending end of conservatives’ political influence making way for a dynasty of the center-left, noting changing demographics and the voting habits of young people. Fukuyama was right! Just a little early.
Clearly, Donald Trump’s unprecedented presidential (ha) success disabused many of this childish notion. Not only was the identity-driven coalition of Democratic neoliberalism a strategic failure, but a leaky boat. Media culture was not the unilateral purview of “the left,” despite the cries of Fox News. Of course, I don’t believe that 2016 was the singular event which changed everything – mainstream rap, though never not aware of systemic injustices, became even more vocally discontent with the political situation following the 2014 murder of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, MO. (Obama’s inaction on this subject, and the continued outspokenness of prominent Black artists, perhaps should have signaled to Democrats that identity alone would not guarantee turnout in 2020. Just my media studies high horse here though.)
That said, I don’t think I have to argue that 2016 was a powerful inflection point.
After almost two years of media outlets hammering on that Hillary Clinton’s victory was a foregone conclusion, the status quo would be preserved, and justice would trickle down to all those deplorables who stood against progress – the Democrats suffered a psychologically walloping electoral defeat. For pop music, this meant little: the psychoses of the liberal ideological establishment sublimated into the milquetoast glamour of middling pop fandom. For mostly-white “indie” listeners, a group of very-online individuals who prided themselves on holding at least symbolically oppositional viewpoints to the cultural hegemony (despite the fact that they themselves were increasingly becoming a target demographic for media conglomerates), 2016 represented some kind of political upending. While many had surely become legitimately politically activated by the Bernie Sanders primary challenge to Clinton, it seemed to me at the time that few had an understanding of political machinations beyond the truism “the system is rigged” – now a dog-whistle for the conspiratorial right, but then an apt critique of Democratic funding and convention delegate weighting. So, when all the vestigial assumptions about the larger American political project were stripped away, I believe a deep cynicism, beyond the performative haughtiness already associated with that cadre, took root.
I talked in my previous entry of this newsletter (which didn’t get emailed out, for whatever reason) about how music journalism, and culture writing more generally, in the internet-age is a mirror of its readership. Where once critics represented the base for culture production; and the cultural capital of the art they wrote about, the superstructure – the need for clicks and ad revenue has inverted this economic structure, requiring that writers respond to readers’ proclivities, at least to some extent, in order to stay viable. As the “emo revival” repeated history and broke up or was subsumed by “indie rock” – those who cemented its relevance, began the response to the developing anxieties of that readership (already prepared to embrace a cringe genre after rehabilitating “emo”). While the label had been overtaken by the non-music media’s inability to classify “music with screaming” at the height of scenecore aesthetics of the 00’s and early 2010’s, screamo is the perfect fit for the disillusioned indie-emo connoisseur who has listened to Sunbather a few times. For one, it’s stylistically wide ranging: a catch-all for aggressive, screamed music which doesn’t fit into other genres particularly well. The experimental nature of this classification is appealing to listeners who build their identities on being different. It’s also esoteric. The classics lean heavily on philosophy and academia in a way that many other genres shy away from, a feature afforded by it eschewing the typical trappings of lyricism for more free-verse stylings and delivery. While to the veteran, this is normal – to the new listener, this is exciting and subversive.
The importance of the end of the emo revival, as well as the “post-hardcore” Wave, also cannot be understated when talking about the contemporary crop of screamo’s development in the current cultural conscience. Both of the aforementioned movements were heavily indebted to the trve skramz predecessors of the 90’s and early-early 00’s both stylistically and in ethos. Perhaps the most notable elements of this influence can be found on Touché Amoré’s To The Beat of a Dead Horse, which is a screamo album at it’s heart (despite detractors’ haughty whines.) The lineage from their first LP’s freneticism and brevity can be traced through their catalogue, and frontman Jeremy Bolm’s classic screamo record collection is itself infamous. While sonically it would make sense to have called Touché and Pianos Become The Teeth it, in 2009 nominally screamo records were certainly not en vogue – with groups like Alexisonfire and trends like “crabcore” more associated with the term than Orchid or Pg.99. Thus was born “The Wave”, the empath’s response to melodic hardcore. The emo revival carried screamo’s spirit with it as well – Old Gray’s An Autobiography being perhaps the largest breakout hit of that scene (sorry, Loma stans). This element of the revival was tied to Tumblr-ready aesthetic image macros of A-frame houses or dead birds paired with songs’ lyrics as a vector for its spread more than any major press. Both of these continuations petered out for the most part in the mid 2010’s though: The Wave broke apart or became more “mature” (read: marketable [with the notable exception of Touché]) and the scions of the emo revival were one-by-one cancelled leading to its slow, staggered, dramatic death.
On top of those pressures, these movements’ by-and-large focus on introspection and slice-of-life (again, exceptions abound) was itself outmoded by the end of the Obama years. In a cultural climate which was increasingly tainted by internet brain poisoning and chan-derived crypto-fascism, the inward turn and non-radical politique of the majority of these groups no longer met their most ardent fans’ want for counter-cultural narratives and aesthetics. The cultural Overton window, as it were, had shifted to the left, as hegemonic liberalism had shifted to the right in appeasement to the reactionary center.
It’s not as though screamo had totally faded from critical memory – several writers with whom you may be familiar had written about it in the intervening period between the breakup of the 00’s East Coast scene and the current revival. Even these pieces, however, recognized the seeming futility of the term’s reclamation (not an unfounded feeling judging from its association at the time.) The title of David Anthony’s A/V Club piece (much love) portrays this ethos perfectly: “Embracing the parts of screamo that aren’t totally embarrassing.” Maybe I’m biased here, but today “screamo,” despite its goofy portmanteau of a name and often over-the-top followers, is about as un-embarassing as music can get: reveling in the sincerity of its revolutionary politics and boundary breaking.
Where 90’s and 00’s screamo itself contained a reaction to the politics of its time and the increasingly apolitical bent of hardcore, in the near-apogee of its own inward turn (see: the Boston scene), Youth Crew revival (look no further than Ten Yard Fight, lol), and corporate political aestheticization (Rise Agaist, etc). Pg.99 continued in the tradition of Revolution Summer’s implicit messaging in songs like “Virginia” and “Punk Rock in the Wrong Hands;” while others conveyed their thoughts more candidly: Majority Rule in “Boeing” and “Kill the Cheat” (more on that here), Orchid’s “I Am Nietzche,” and Off Minor’s “Staring Down The Barrel Of Limited Options.” The list goes on. (More detail on the 00’s here. And, before people get mad, none of this is a condemnation – just an incomplete chronicling of macro- trends in retrospective. As Ellie themself said to me “no era of hardcore was ever as politically engaged as the 90’s,” so take my commentary with that in mind.)
The 90’s, up until 9/11 when the world was subsumed in totality by the hawkish, vengeful spirit of the U.S. military-cultural complex, were a bleak time from the outlook of young rebels. The 1990 recession set the stage for a corporatization of culture previously unimaginable, stifling possible futures in the minds of children despite the leaps and bounds of technology. In my view, the 2010’s have rerun an intensified version that same cultural change – an opinion shared by many active music listeners, artists, or critics. In the wake of the ‘08 financial collapse and bailout, the subsequent do-nothing Obama administration, and the ascendancy of Trump – amid the many ongoing ambient crises (climate, wealth gap, unemployment, housing, take your pick) all of which disproportionately affect (particularly marginalized) young people – screamo essentially seemed poised to have a resurgence. This predisposition, with the pump primed, was quickly legitimized in the music press – Noisey, BrooklynVegan, Stereogum, and eventually even Pitchfork. Time is a flat circle and emo writers’ gaze once again shifted to screamo, as had happened two decades prior.
Today’s screamo, while beginning in the introspection of the emo revival which preceded it, has largely turned its view outward to offer critiques of cultural-political structures. Combining the often cryptic, esoteric, and/or academic approach of their genre-forebears with straightforward punk sloganeering, screamo groups today reflect the pressures and anxieties of late capitalism, often positioning themselves as case studies. I think of albums like Massa Nera’s Los Pensamientos De una Cara Palida and songs like the opener to Ostraca’s 2018 album Enemy, “Big Star”:
“everybody’s dreams are losing steam from the start, spoonfed celebrity…squabbling for the smallest thrones”
which express a sort of fatalism in their lyrics, and an (I’m gonna say it) urgency and doom in their instrumentation giving sound to two generations’ feelings of confusion and dispossession. Explicitly, today’s lyricists will name the issues which afflict them, confronting each head-on: Soul Glo, the coalition of white supremacy; Supine, the political “old guard”; Nuvolascura, the healthcare industry; .giffromgod, all of the above; etc.
The unabashed calling out of the everyday trauma rendered to today’s disenfranchised make screamo relatable in a way perhaps previously unmatched. It not only talks about the problems, but sounds like their effects – in every instance pushing “hardcore” to different, sometimes unrecognizable places – chaotic compositions speaking to the environment from which they’re borne: one characterized by constant uncertainty and “bad luck.” It at once represents better than anything else both the frustration and helplessness felt by the presently young-and-hip. It only makes sense that it should follow the self-centered party of the emo revival, as if some cultural atonement for introspecting when everything else was going to shit.
While screamo is fun to laugh at online – whether because of its name’s tarnished history, infighting about its definition, or its brave sincerity in an irony-poisoned world – at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Screamo is back in a big way. Short-sighted onlookers may believe that in the wake of the Trump presidency, such desperate art might lose some sense of purpose in Biden’s “most progressive” world – but that would misunderstand the critique. Screamo is popular again now because it recognizes the inadequacies of the status-quo in its entirety. It’s here to stay – at least until the world burns, one way or another.
This week I revisited the Pity Sex demo – and goddamn what a perfect band from the start. There’s your music recommendation for the week.