It changed the genre so much, now we call it “pop-punk”
What it means to be emo in 2020 has drastically changed since its mainstream peak in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Traditionally characterized by bands like blink-182, My Chemical Romance, and Taking Band Sunday, “emo” music portrayed that it’s okay to be mad or melancholy about your life.
It represented that it’s okay if everything’s not okay. As Paramore’s Hayley Williams once said: “Everything’s gonna be everything.” (See, I’m Not Okay by My Chemical Romance).
Yet, as our emo leaders either broke up (My Chemical Romance), aged out of mainstream relevance (New Found Glory), or shifted their style (Fall out Boy)…
a new wave of bands infused with catchy riffs, melody, and angst emerged.
As these pioneers moved on, others raised: A Day to Remember and All Time Low spearheaded the next wave. Even then, the tone was changing.
A Day to Remember’s masterpiece Homesick talks more of success, optimism, and busting out of life’s sinister situations. “Meet me out past the train tracks I’m leaving and not coming back,” Jeremy writes in the first track, Downfall of Us All, as he sang of leaving his hometown for bigger things.
All Time Low followed showcased their own optimism that same year, 2009, with, “Maybe it’s not my weekend, but it’s gonna be my year” on Nothing Personal’s Weightless.
The cracks of the emo wall left by its commercially most successful era were filled in by the subtle optimism of the next generation.
Then, Neck Deep provided the final bazooka to blow the wall to bits, with their sophomore album, Life’s Not Out to Get You, and rebuilt the genre with themes of acceptance, gratitude, and moving on to better things.
This record, in collaboration with Jeremy McKinnon, Tom Denney, and Andrew Wade of A Day to Remember, shattered ‘emo’ so much, a new wall had to be built… and it needed a new label. So it seems, now we mostly call it ‘pop-punk.’
On the musical side, we have to recognize Neck Deep’s smooth blend with ADTR’s brilliance. The catchy melodies and crisp production ADTR is known for translated perfectly to Neck Deep’s style.
As Ben Barlow, Neck Deep’s lead singer, said in an interview when asked about what he thought of LNOTGY, “It still sounds like us, only better.” Yeah. Working the ADTR will do that to you.
Musically it was a home run—a fusion of ADTR’s melody and musical formula with Neck Deep’s unique flair. But the melody only opened the gates for Barlow’s breaths to inspire and unite listeners in a way nobody else in the genre had done for more than a few tracks.
Sure, ADTR’s “Right Back at it Again” is a big pump-up track, but Common Courtesy is full of angst and heartbreak.
Whereas Ben, in every track goes one layer deeper. Where emo says “I’m sad” Neck Deep says, “Yeah, I’m sad, but…”
Symbolically it’s used to contrast what can be seen as a bad situation—a breakup, a shitty hometown, an uncertain future in a risky career path. Lyrically Neck Deep went beyond that to portray those elements throughout the whole record.
Whether it’s the album’s bling of positivity, Gold Steps, to its unforgettable acoustic jam December Neck Deep shows optimism and the maturity to see the good, or at least, to accept every situation.
In Gold Steps, there’s no better representation. “Because sometimes things will bend you, but trust me you’ll be fine…” Neck Deep encourages all of us to move our proverbial mountains.
“Smooth Seas Don’t Make Good Sailors,” offers a different lens. “The world’s a fucked up place, but it depends on how you see it.”
Even in the admittedly angsty, I Hope This Comes Back to Haunt You Ben ends with the fading out lyric, “I’ll be okay.”
Life’s Not Out to Get You takes the bad—accepts it—and spins it for a better future.
Positives in the Negatives:
For the boys at Neck Deep, it’s not all roses (although there are references to roses). But, they look at the bad and the good together (a bit of a prequel to their subsequent record — The Peace And The Panic). In the colossally catchy Kali Ma, Ben yells in the first verse, “Count my blessings on one hand, and my curses on the other…” as he recognizes that the good and the bad coexist.
Even in December—the break-up acoustic track—Neck Deep shows their maturity. At first glance, it’s the typical heartbreak song, but he wishes his ex a much better fate: “I hope you get your ballroom floor your perfect house with rose-red doors.” There are no ill-wishes, no “I need you,” no toxic neediness.
Embracing the Moment:
This album touches on the moment we can’t get back. Whether it’s reminiscing about the good and bad of our childhood hometown in Can’t Kick Up The Roots, to seizing special places like the aptly named Lime St, Neck Deep embraces it all.
In the jumpy Lime St. Barlow paints the moment: “One cig left in the packet. Stood shy in your dad’s jacket. A moment I’ll always keep, oh take me back to Lime St.”
Then, there’s the album’s first single, the often overlooked Threat Level Midnight. The track gets into the head of a band on the cusp of breaking out, of yearning to seize the moment when Barlow sings, “…to seal our place in space in time; before we have to walk the line; before we all move in life; before the sun comes up tonight.”
And of course, the track that makes us simultaneously reminisce and resent our shitty hometown—Can’t Kick Up the Roots where Barlow brings us right back to high school. “I guess I can’t kick up the roots, it’s home and that’s the truth.”
Neck Deep seized the moment and ran with it to cross-continental acclaim and certified silver status.
Building Pop-Punk With Neck Deep:
State Champs, a great colleague, don’t have the masterpiece ND has, but even in that year, they had so many of the same themes. “I’m breaking out of this upstate town, staring away from the safe and sound,” State Champs’ Derek DiScanio sang on Around the World and Back.
The Story So Far has grown and changed, away from Parker Cannon’s finger-pointing teenage angst, to a refined, accepting sound in Proper Dose.
Surely, other bands will come. They’re playing in their hometown garages right now. And they’re influenced by Neck Deep—staring at the mountains in the background of the highway, and pushing against them with the thunder of their thrashing power chords as we speak.
Do We Need To Rename Emo Nite?
All right, Ohio is for Lovers and A Decade Under the Influence are still bops, but there’s a new wave out there building on Neck Deep’s foundation, battling through the demons and painting them in a positive light, even amidst world events that make it seem like life is out to get us sometimes.
And I hope emo nite and other DJ sets start to adjust to the changing wave and include more songs from this decade. When are we going to hear Can’t Kick Up The Roots or Gold Steps? Whenever it comes, I know so many of us who went that night to dance, sing, let loose, and reflect on the ups and downs life has thrown at us, will leave with our heads a little bit higher. Maybe, after all, life isn’t out to get us.
More Emo-related essays
On Some Emo Meditation Practice – how music taught me how to meditate.
Holden Caulfield Was Emo As Hell – how A Day to Remember and The Catcher In The Rye taught me to embrace myself.