The Miserable Business of Emo Masculinity

The Miserable Business of Emo Masculinity

“Tonight we’re playing this song for the last time for a really long time.” Paramore’s Hayley Williams sits on the stage floor of the storied Nashville Municipal Auditorium, floor lights on to disrupt the show and garner attention. “This is a choice that we’ve made because we feel that we should. We feel like it’s time to move away from it for a little.” The audience erupts in applause, excited that the band whose career exploded after the release of their biggest hit, 2007’s “Misery Business,” has announced they’ll never perform it live again—the rare example of a group excited to hear the new stuff, not the old. The date is September 7, 2018. Two years later, and Paramore has kept their word—they never attempted the song again.

A few months before Williams’s triumphant rejection of “Misery Business,” now read as infamously slut-shamey and chauvinistic for its lyric, “Once a whore, you’re nothing more,” I flew to Seattle to present a paper titled “Misery Business: Modern Pop-Punk & Emo’s Masculinity Problem” at Pop Conference, an annual music journalism and academic convention. That year, presentations centered around a broad theme of gender and music. As a woman and critic whose adolescence lined up perfectly with the aughts, with MySpace music, with pop-punk and emo boy bands on MTV’s TRL instead of the JTs and JCs that dominated the space years prior, the topic was irresistible. I could finally unpack what made the third-wave emo and pop-punk music I grew up on read as fundamentally misogynistic, while acknowledging what I found to be the failures of writing about emo: that toxic masculinity was foundational to the music’s framework and predicated on sexism, and that female fandom was an afterthought, to its listeners’ detriment and often, danger.

In fact, as journalist Megan Seling observed on the now-defunct Wondering Sound site in 2014, 53 percent of attendees at the annual Vans’ Warped Tour were female, while women made up only 6 percent of its performers (that’s ANY woman, in any role, in any group, in the year’s lineup of over 120 bands). As the premiere live music event for pop-punk and emo, the numbers were dismal. Simply put: men were on stage and women were left off it, as they continue to be—a visually striking and unsettling look into where the power lies, especially when the support of young women is the reason the scene still thrives.

Digging deeper, I found gender essentialist and sexist lyrics, unbalanced power structures that fostered abuse, a lack of musical virtuosity that celebrated cis male biology, and social processes that inform expressions of masculinity in emo performance. Basically, their whole musical world is fucked, dangerously posturing sensitive dudes in asymmetrical haircuts as an alternative to traditional forms of machismo instead of recognizing emo for what it was: the same shit by a different name. Now, two years removed, I’ve decided to revisit my presentation: to finally get at the heart of the miserable business of emo masculinity, a toxicity that continues to find new audiences and abuses.

In “The Cruel Truth About Rock and Roll,” for NPR, critic Ann Powers writes that “one of [rock] music’s fundamental functions has been to frame and express sexual feelings for and from the very young, and its culture has included real kids, the kind who feel free but remain very vulnerable, relating to older men whose glamour and influence encourages trust, not caution. The worst, weakest and most self-deluded of these men have stepped over moral lines, over and over again.” Third-wave emo and pop-punk is not exempt. In fact, that abuse of power—preying on young women in the audience whose connection to this music is sacred and obviously imperfect, a sensible form of fandom for a genre whose name is derived from the vague and intimate “emotional”—has become an overwhelming conversation when discussing the music, a symbol of how detrimental it can be when “sad, nice guy who can’t get the girl” music becomes literal.

In 2014, Jake McElfresh of the pop-punk band Front Porch Step faced multiple accusations of online sexual harassment of minors, the majority of claims involving explicit text messages sent to and from McElfresh, as well as solicitations of pornographic photos. He was removed from Warped Tour that year, then immediately allowed to perform again for one date under the guise of “rehabilitation,” the details of which were undisclosed. Roughly six outside security guards were hired to protect him, not the women in the crowd. Then, he disappeared for two years or so, reappearing on the scene as having had a “Christian awakening.” That’s a cool rebrand, right?

In 2015, Escape the Fate’s Ronnie Radke, recently out of prison for his involvement with the shooting of an 18-year-old in the Nevada desert, was accused of rape after a show in Salt Lake City. He sued the accuser for defamation—the ultimate form of silencing of a survivor. At the end of 2017, Pierce the Veil drummer Mike Fuentes was accused of sexual assault of a minor, the first incident of sexual violence allegedly took place at Warped Tour in 2006 when the victim was 16. British band Moose Blood parted ways with their drummer, Glenn Harvey, after sexual harassment allegations populated online in March 2017. In October 2017, claims against the band’s vocalist Eddy Brewerton surfaced.

That same year, two women accused Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey of sexual harassment, manipulative behavior, and child grooming. In 2019, dozens of women came forward with stories of sexual abuse at the hands of scene band Blood on the Dance Floor’s David Torres, known as Dahvie Vanity, including encounters with underage girls. There are hundreds of these stories, thousands, and they continue to crop up as more and more survivors come forward. It is a constant abuse of power by men, a violation of the bond between musician and fan.

Outside of those literal abuses, rock music has always been predicated on eroticism. Pop-punk and emo of the era, alternatively, was obsessed with its own sexual inaccessibility. The song’s protagonist, almost exclusively white and male and straight, is flaccid—he’s not getting some like the rockstars before him, he’s getting none. In doing so, he becomes frustrated, and effectively writes out any autonomy for the woman he’s crushing on. The Used’s “My foot on your neck and I finally have you right where I want you” from 2002’s “Buried Alive,” comes to mind, as does “You can lead a whore to water / And you can bet she’ll drink and follow orders,” from Glassjaw’s 2000 song “Pretty Lush,” though there are innumerable examples.

Emo masculinity presents itself as heterosexual misogyny in song because expressions of what is personal and difficult and painful is written by the bands without the consult or empathy of the unrequited love. These dudes don’t only get the last word in, they get the only word in, and women, meanwhile, are written as blood-sucking monsters without agency. Men are simply victims of their wrath. As Jessica Hopper wrote in Punk Planet, “Emo’s contentious monologues—these balled fist Peter Pan mash-note dilemmas—have now gone from being descriptive to being prescriptive. Emo has become another forum where women were locked out, observing ourselves through the eyes of others… Women in emo songs are denied the dignity of humanization through both the language and narratives.”

Hayley Williams, as stated previously, is an obvious exception, though she, too, was not immune to those cultural oppressions, as evidenced in “Misery Business.” “i’m a proud feminist, just maybe not a perfect one?” she wrote in 2015, apologizing for the song’s “very narrow-minded perspective.” It’s worth noting that she is one of very few emo performers of the time that have apologized for their less-than-savory songwriting, and I can’t help but think that as one of the few women in the scene, she’s been tasked with carrying the brunt of it. For example: Daryl Palumbo of Glassjaw told Alternative Press in 2017, after Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly brought up the lyrics to “Pretty Lush,” that when he wrote the song he was “a young guy, and I was supposed to be a man and I was not. I apologize for saying any of that… I was small-minded when I should’ve been a man,” reinforcing an idea that goodness, doing the right thing, owning up to mistakes—is an expression of manliness, what is masculine. It also continues to refuse to give agency to the women he villainized.

Male supremacy in emo exists not only in who is writing the music, but what performance is valued. There are a few parts that build the mid-’00s emo/pop-punk sound: the biggest one is the nasal-vocal performance, often described as a “whine”—and perhaps the best-known example is found in the 2003 Blink-182 single “I Miss You,” where guitarist Tom DeLonge’s voice elongates and parodies the adenoidal singing style he’d been known for in the band’s earlier days. It is a testosterone-affected, ugly singing that tends to be a privilege of cis male performers—the male vocalists in pop-punk and emo are not known for their singing ability and there’s no expectation towards talent in the traditional sense, skill set here is evaluated on ability to emote. (And, of course, the ability to emote is almost exclusively valued in male performers.) Women in emo and pop-punk, however, do not benefit from such masc privilege, and historically, have been exceptional vocalists—think Tonight Alive’s Jenna McDougall or better yet, Williams’ four-octave range.

It’s also worth noting that “whine” is only a few phrases away from “shrill,” an often gendered-criticism directed towards women or femme voice. Men in emo aren’t subverting stereotype or expressing comfort in performative masculinity by signing in a fashion some might find obnoxious or irritating, god forbid, bitchy—they’re benefitting from a very particular privilege on that does not extend to other genders outside of cis male identity. Women in emo, for sure, simply aren’t allowed to whine.

Image:Bryan Haraway (Getty Images)

Like hardcore before it, emo/pop-punk spaces are often physical and violent—girls can be found pushed to the very front when trampled over the barricade, or the very back, existing around a mosh pit or violent center, boundaries determined by its participants. On stage, musicians regardless of gender, too, perform masculinity—a manspreading stance, stretched over a monitor for optimal suggestiveness—the rock music legacy of phallic guitar stances alive and well. Consider it an example of Judith Butler’s notion of performativity as “the reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains”—a reinforcement of power dynamics through expressions of rock and roll hegemony. Simply put: it’s cock rock.

These physical gestures appear, at least, superficially, to disagree with the emo fashions of the ’00s, so what they are wearing onstage is a lazy androgyny—once defined as “metrosexual,” emo fashion co-opts materialistic expressions of femininity and queerdom—eyeliner on straight men was plentiful, dubbed “guyliner” to further create a gender divide. Unisex clothing was also popular—American Apparel hoodies, t-shirts with slogans like “Real men wear pink,” worn unironically, low-rise, skin tight skinny jeans, often dubbed “girl jeans” regardless of what section of the store they came from—another subtle othering presented as aesthetic accessibility.

Of course, all this fails to identify why women were and continue to be drawn to emo’s expression of masculinity. Now a few years removed, I’ve come to identify a couple of reasons. There is, of course, a desire to be desired. If you are better than the caricature of a Medusa-woman in an emo song, it is easy to believe you are capable of being wanted, accepted, and valued. And two: regardless of gender, this particular musical style can feel like an expression of who you are at the time you listened to it. For me, I was an emotive, frustrated, energetic, misunderstood, and curious teen, deeply entrenched in my own internalized misogyny—just like the emo I worshipped. It hit at a time where I defined my femininity by rejecting it, what younger people on Tik Tok and YouTube refer to as the “not like the other girls” trope.

And while that thinking requires a lot of unlearning, I don’t believe there’s any real harm in listening to emo, but there is in failing to interrogate the hateful places in which some of this music thrives—and in failing to interrogate the performative masculinity that allows abuse to exist, hidden in plain view. Maybe that begins with retiring songs like “Misery Business,” those catchy hooks and loathsome lyrics that remind us of how heinously non-men are treated in this world, and how they don’t need to be.

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