Get Ready To Be Miserable Again: The Emo Sommelier Is Back!

Once again, it’s time to enter the over-stimulated, oft-mopey world of emo. But don’t fret: Emo expert Arye Dworken–a writer who blogs for both Jane Magazine and his own Bring Back Sincerity site–will hold your hand through the whole thing. After the click-through, his look back at 2006.

Judging from the year-end critics’ lists, it would seem that only two emo acts were worth discussing this year: My Chemical Romance, whose critically acclaimed Black Parade made the top-five spot in Blender and Entertainment Weekly, and Panic! At The Disco, whose A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out can be found legally in 1.5 million households, but which was nonetheless ignored by critics (certain magazines even put the band on their cover, yet left the emo-ballet act out of their best-of round-ups).

Considering the numerous similarities between the bands, the critical disconnect is initially puzzling: After all, both groups infused dramatic ambition back into rock, employing overwrought theatrics and excessive make-up, and both grappled with life’s big questions (death, god, teenage groupies). The video treatments for the two lead singles, “The Black Parade” and “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” both featured Depression-era circus imagery and old-time carnival revelers. Yet only MCR were the recipients of reviews that read, in some instances, like love letters: The NME claimed that Parade “is one to file alongside American Idiot, Doolittle and Nevermind on your greatest US rock albums shelf,” while Blender dubbed it “the Sgt. Pepper of screamo.”

So what factors made Parade a not-so-guilty pleasure and Fever an over-indulgent annoyance? Ultimately, in both execution and concept, Panic! At The Disco just feels inherently unlikable. There are only a few people in the world that can pull off the winking meta-self-referential awareness successfully; Charlie Kaufman is one, but four teenagers from Las Vegas? Not so much. Of the many problems with Panic’s debut, one is the awkward lyricism, which reads like self-conscious high-school poetry. “Oh we’re so young but desperate for attention,” sings Brandon Urie, who also knocks out such navel-fixated bon mots as “we’re just a wet dream for the webzines, make us it, make us hip, make us scene.” Compare these feigning blog entries to Parade‘s allegorical references to chemotherapy and cancer, and you’ll eventually come to resent P!ATD’s self-absorption.

Urie also make the mistake of assuming that, when a lyricist reveals his true self, approachability and “realness” will therein make the band more likable. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed listening to a band’s music in terms of how much fun I’d have with them if we were to hang out, and I have reason to believe that many critics feel the same way; more often than not, I’ll hear fellow journalists size up a musician or make assumptions about an artist’s character without ever meeting him or her in person (I have a soft spot for Dave Grohl solely based on this reasoning). It’s a slightly unfair critical rationale, but it’s also part of the job. Sadly, P!ATD takes itself way too seriously, and the band’s delusions of grandeur rival those of fellow Las Vegas ego titans the Killers (must be something in the Clark County water supply). The more interviews I read, the more I realize they must be a pain in the ass to hang out with. Artistry aside, this makes them less likable. If you remember high school, you’ll recall that you always resented the kids that took themselves too seriously, regularly pontificating (a word they would use) about their art, their passion, their drive and their music video with the Lucent Dossier Vaudeville Cirque. It’s like, dudes, chill out. You’re eighteen. Go illustrate a comic book or something.

But part of this resentment toward Panic’s antics might also stem from the ever-increasing emo generation gap. However you define “emo” and its origins, the genre has been around in some capacity for over twenty years, and its earliest fans are aging: Jimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails and the Promise Ring’s 30 Degrees Everywhere–two high-profile emo debuts–were both released in 1996. If you were 17 then, you’re 27 now, and while you might still have a thing for unrepentant pop-punk angst, you’re probably looking for something a tad more sophisticated than sad-sack laments–something that draws from the classic-rock canon (Queen, Pink Floyd) that most of us were weened on before discovering Jawbreaker. The wide divide between Panic! supporters and My Chem enthusiasts indicates that emo bands now come in two varieties: Bands that make us want to feel like we’re eighteen again, and bands that remind us that being eighteen actually sucked really hard.

And so, as adults, we begrudge the precocious teens in Panic! because, well, they’re precocious teens. They say stupid things in interviews (“We all listen to bands like Third Eye Blind and Counting Crows a ton. I think Stephen Jenkins is just an amazing song writer.”). They think winning a Video of the Year VMA still means something. They aspire to be “the next Radiohead” (whatever you do, do not request “Karma Police”). And they mistake pubescent small-mindedness for genuine brilliance and creativity.

But despite the critical lashing, P!ATD’s four members stand in adolescent defiance. Because, ultimately, what we say makes no difference, and our indictments of the band could even inspire the impressionable, rebellious youth of America to revolt against our own tastes, supporting the band further simply to spite us. P!ATD are the poster boys for the self-absorbed, the soundtrack for the reality-show addicted, the mirror image of the blasé mallrat set. MCR, on the other hand, understood there are more important topics to tackle than webzines, and while there are a few eye-rolling moments on Parade–this is, after all, an emo album–Gerard Way is focused less on personal drama, or more on grown-up topics like mortality, apathy, indifference, disenchantment, and remorse. How can anyone in their thirties not relate?

Perhaps Black Parade‘s most telling line is on the glam-inspired “Teenagers,” in which Way claims that “Teenagers scare the living shit out of me, they could care less.” Way probably intended it as an expression of envy for the carefree ways of adolescence, but it sounds to me as if he’s imagining a not-so-distant time where kids are inspired by Panic! At The Disco to write songs influenced by blog entries, or churn out shallow MySpace postings about “testosterone boys and harlequin girls.” And when you think about that possibility, well, yeah, that would scare the living shit out of me, too.

TOMORROW: The Emo Sommelier picks his favorite songs of ’06. Earlier: Get Ready To Be Miserable: Introducing The Emo Sommelier