April 19, 2016


Emo Modernity: Intellectualizing Indie Male Voice

Jessica Flynn, Zack Ickes
Jessica Flynn, Zack Ickes

Before Philadelphia band Sorority Noise launches into the last song of its 25-minute set, "Using," frontman Cameron Boucher addresses the audience. He begins by letting us know he's going to address us, to hang on tight, we'll get through it. He starts with something along the lines of, "I suffer from manic depression, it's a real thing." His affectation is delicate but not somber, the exact opposite of his singing persona. Here, it's not so much that he's making excuses, but that he feels the need to let us down easy. He's completely right.

We're inside Brooklyn D.I.Y. punk space Market Hotel. In a previous life, the venue doubled as a home to local acts, most notably, brother band The So So Glos. Art weirdos lived in cubbie-style capsule rooms that rivaled the '70s mysticism of a NYC prior; it was pretty dingy. In 2016, it's remarkably clean. On a very sold-out night, Sorority Noise is the second of four bands. Judging by the ferocity of distinctly female voices shouting along, you'd think they'd pack the room solo.

Sorority Noise is an emo band. Like all acts branded with the three-letter word, they don't enjoy the classification, but they accept it—to them, language is pointed and instituted exclusively on a foundational level; if people connect to it, it's fine. The song "Using" is their best to date and thoroughly encapsulates this idea: in the chorus, Boucher scream-sings, "I stopped wishing I was dead / Learned to love myself before anyone else / Become more than just a burden / I know I'm more than worthy of your time." Reading it feels like he's actively working through something, hearing it feels much more declarative, a performative self-assurance. "Fake it 'til you make it" here is a balancing act, a conversation of mental difference. 

Even still: there's an inherent economy of language that's completely intentional, perhaps necessary (considering the music they make, you could argue for an economy of sound, too, but "Using" features a really strange key change in the latter half). Boucher is stripping down experience to its barest of bones. Once, he wanted to die. Now, not so much. Sometimes he still does. The song helps.

There's another band from the underground music hotbed of Philly called Modern Baseball. Boucher lives with one of the group's two frontmen, Brendan Lukens, an empathic soul who recently sought treatment at a rehabilitation clinic after almost taking his life. The folklore is that he climbed his roof, ready to jump, when he received a text from best friend and bandmate Jake Ewald. He can't remember what the text was, he thinks it was something marginal and stupid, but it was enough to remind him that life is worth living, even when every day is a struggle.

Modern Baseball, too, exists in a thematic world similar to Sorority Noise: their songs are two-minute perfect-blips of insecurity and anxiety, wholly void of pretension. It's the reason both bands have such large, passionate, young audiences (one welcoming to women, which is crucial.) In an art climate where music press so often only focuses on one or two of these kinds of bands ("emo" is still riddled with social stigma) Sorority Noise and Modern Baseball enjoy real success while playing to the essence of the genre.

At this year's EMP Pop Conference, an annual music writer nerd convention in Seattle, conversation focused in on voice. In many papers written for the conference, critics highlighted musicians with identity free of precarity, along with those who break that identity by fracturing their voice. The emo and indie rock genres are home to this purposefully "ugly" sound, championed almost exclusively by white cis men. It's nasally, it's aggressive. Sorority Noise and Modern Baseball, Boucher and Lukens do this, but not in a mall emo Hot Topic-hook sort of way—their voices can be most likened to '90s slacker indie rock, like Pavement or something. They're pulling from that inherent "cool" music to make something "uncool," something honest, something about almost dying and then not.

At SXSW 2016, Stereogum writer Chris DeVille used Sorority Noise as an example of a band who're challenging notions of indie rock while saving it—it feels sort of impossible to be an interesting underground band made up of cis, heteronormative white men, and they both are—simply by the virtue of being emo. Instead of hiding behind insecurities, they play to them and present it in a universal fashion.

The current state of independent music has a pretense towards expiration dates: if bands are going to make it, they need to be immediately good and for a short period of time before we lose interest. Both Modern Baseball and Sorority Noise subvert that—in their literal voices, and the music they make is always growing, shape-shifting. It seems important to note that both bands first put out girl-obsessed albums, villianized crushes and sort of othered the women around them. They learned from that mistake and became better bands because of it, you can hear it from record to record. The fact that they're able to progress is refreshing, and it's the only way guitar-based, largely white music can become engaging, future-seeking. It'll be interesting to see where these bands go in the next couple of years, but for now, it's reassuring to know that everything they do is predicated on the completely critical notion that we are alive.