“I called in sick from your funeral, the sight of your body made me feel uncomfortable, I couldn’t recognize your shell,” sang Christian Holden, the frontman of The Hotelier, a small emo revival band from Massachusetts. His three bandmates were floating around him on the stage at The Crocodile on the first night in September. The foursome was opening for The Get Up Kids, a popular second-wave emo band that had been recording albums and touring for twenty years. The crowd was made of teenagers and older millennials, combining the two demographics for the separate bands, but the audience was populated by pointed fingers of all ages in the air, and the venue was filled with a chorus of voices that stretched across boundaries of gender, age, and religion.
It was clear that something was at work in the room, even though formal spirituality was not being discussed. With these shows and an array of other factors, emo revival has allowed young people to confront the Gospel and other important themes of faith in ways that the bands in the contemporary Christian music industry do not.
Such is the case for the majority of emo revival shows; these gatherings are habitually affordable in price, open to all ages, and often involve musicians on stage professing confessional lyrics to a crowd that readily accepts and identifies with them. The Hotelier is just one act of a group formally classified as “emo revival,” in other words, what has now become the fourth wave of emo bands. This new generation or “scene” grows out of a rich history of ancestry that includes names like American Football, Pedro The Lion, and Sunny Day Real Estate. Continuing the evolution from the genre’s Washington D.C. roots, current emo revival bands like The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die (TWIABP), Into It. Over It., Hop Along, and Foxing have built a genre that is all-inclusive and incredibly diverse both lyrically and sonically.
When it comes to examining the emo revival scene in conjunction with contemporary Christian music (CCM), there are obvious and important distinctions. Much of the religious dialogue that surrounds emo revival exists because band members grew up in the Church and had formative, influential experiences in that environment, which influence the lyrics they write and the concepts that surround albums.
In her essay “The Passion of David Bazan,” Jessica Hopper examines the life of the Pedro The Lion frontman, and his fall from genre bending faithful to agnostic drinker. These musicians’ experiences often translate into forwardly addressing issues of premarital sex and purity, growth, finding a calling, and sometimes even direct union with God. The bold lyrics that these concepts promote in emo music is what attracts young people to the genre rather than exclusively Christian music. There are very few songs by Christian artists that even begin to address the questions young people have surrounding these aspects of faith. While Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, and TobyMac make music that is largely sonically generic and lyrically stale, emo revival bands fearlessly lead the pack of young people in their search for a faithful identity.
Another important aspect of attraction for young people to emo revival is the DIY mentality. In recent years, the CCM industry has become incredibly commercial, what with Hillsong United touring and basically charging admission for worship, and the ever present megachurches that populate much of the United States. The emo revival scene prioritizes individual identity and personal experience by both necessity and desire.
In his piece for the long-form division of Pitchfork, The Pitch, Ian Cohen explains this distinction further. One of TWIABP’s guitarists, Derrick Shanholtzer, ventures, “I lived in a two-stoplight town in West Virginia and [Law Abiding Citizens’] 30-year old guitarist explained to me how to book a show. Fourteen-year old me used paper route money to rent a PA and book a bunch of local bands. It was terrible, but I never stopped doing it.”
The ideology of DIY bleeds into all aspects of emo revival, from self-releasing records or joining a small independent label to playing in low-capacity venues. The genre returns to the idea of small congregations for live shows rather than the large, nondenominational, sparkly environment of Gungor concerts. Because of this, the revival’s all-inclusiveness and raw character is nearly tangible in contrast to the environment of CCM productions.
In his book Pop Goes Religion, Terry Mattingly argues that instead of viewing the modern world through an isolated sacred lens, evangelicals should be watching culture through a variety of lenses. Instead of attempting to appropriate what is considered “secular” and placing it in the context of the church, viewing pop culture through various lenses allows viewers to see where faith and entertainment already converge.
Building on this, William Romanowski notes that contemporary Christian music exists solely because of popular music in his essay “Evangelicals and Popular Music”. Romanowski reveals that “Jesus Music” was created by “co-opting existing musical styles and adding ‘Christian’ lyrics in the current vernacular.” The spiritual education of youth is not going to improve by adopting the sonic properties of “secular” music and changing the lyrics.
Additionally, many CCM songs deal with problematic and complicated theological questions in a nonchalant way, which makes incorrect ideas that much harder to erase from the mind, especially when they’re set to a catchy melody.
Mattingly also touches upon the importance of venues as sanctuaries when he says, “the typical modern American is much more likely to be exposed to a new religious insight or doctrine at the mall or the movie multiplex than in a traditional sanctuary.” In the context of emo shows, young people are able to gather together under one commonality to confront everything from anger to sadness, frustration to bliss, and to release these challenges by screaming out lyrics to songs sung by the band on stage. It’s no wonder that teenagers leave live shows wanting to go back for more but often feel the opposite about church services.
William Romanowski addresses how the commonly employed isolated lens of the religious ultimately promotes “culture wars” in his book Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life. While the term is derived from the German word Kulturkamph, these culture wars are fights between the American entertainment industry and the Church.
Evangelicals are constantly concerned that their children are finding their identities within the Harry Potter franchise or a Selena Gomez record, rather than in the book of Proverbs or a church service. What is being missed though, is the fact that the Harry Potter books as well as Selena Gomez’s songs, along with a number of other pop culture artifacts, address spiritual questions in ways that are relatable and comprehensive, unlike many of the abstract Bible verses or sermons young people often hear. By abolishing the boundaries of the sacred and the secular through the use of various lenses, youth are given the opportunity to venture out and understand God in both modern and mysterious ways.
An understanding of sonic mysticism is necessary to grasp the strong meaning and purpose that young people find and feel at live shows, especially of the emo revival persuasion. In his book, Blur, Jeff Keuss explains that this idea stems from religious mysticism as a process that brings one into union with a divine being through the steps of purgation, illumination, and union.
Purgation involves becoming aware of the self with the help of a song that catches a person’s attention and pulls them into an emotional and spiritual realm. Illumination is a movement to selflessness, similar to spending time listening to the entire discography of a single band in search of something beyond one’s self. Unity takes what has happened in the illumination stage and applies it to everyday life by motivating the listener to live in communion with the Spirit of God. In describing this final movement, Keuss writes, “This unity with other people and the movement of music itself is most perfectly realized in the live performance.” By combining these three steps in conjunction with the lyrical and sonic components of an emo revival song, a young person can be brought to see anew through hearing, and can grow closer to God through what is often considered a secular genre.
By combining the spirit of the sonic mystic with emo revival music, young people are able to question their beliefs and confront their emotions in an nonthreatening environment. Bands in the genre continue to address controversial and important religious topics like sex, gender roles, and communion with God in their music. The most recent example of this is Foxing’s newest record, Dealer. Since the album’s release, Conor Murphy, the band’s fontman, has talked extensively in interviews about his experiences growing up in Catholic school and how they shaped his ideas about sex and relationships.
The album’s first single, “The Magdalene,” deals directly with mixing sex and God. In the14th century nun and Spanish mystic Teresa Ávila’s autobiography, she writes about a confrontation with an angel who thrusts a spear into her heart. Ávila notes, “The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.” The first four lines of “The Magdalene” experiment with the story of St. Teresa and strongly set the tone for the rest of the song:
I’m going down with the rosary/
Tongue pressed on guilt from a dove in my teeth/
I could watch it drip down and cover my skin/
The taste of Christ sits still while I swallow your insides
From an autobiographic perspective, the woman with which Murphy is engaging with is a virgin, and the guilt he feels while “taking her virginity” is overpowering. Because Murphy attended Catholic school as a child, he is familiar with the religious concept of original sin, and his battle with his ideology and desires become incredibly apparent throughout the song and the entire album.
While the exploration and claim of virginity as a social construct is becoming more widely accepted in modern society, schools and churches across the country continue to engage in abstinence only sex education. In her book Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, Jessica Valenti dissects the common themes of sexual blame and guilt and how they are today’s leading young people astray.
Delving in to the concept of masculinity, Valenti notes, “As much as the virginity movement is based on the idea that a woman’s worth is dependent on her sexuality, it’s also mired in the belief that traditional masculinity is superior and its preservation is necessary.” This is not to say that there aren’t specific passages in the Bible that condemn premarital sex, but the fact that youth groups are not talking about sexuality and safe sex is breeding a group of young people who are curious, confused, and most likely scared.
In the context of Dealer, Murphy constantly wrestles with sexual guilt, a feeling that stems out of the forbiddenness of sex combined with the construct of virginity. This album meets young people directly where they stand with questions about sexuality in a religious context. When these questions are not even being addressed by some churches, bands like Foxing succeed in opening a dialogue for these conversations to be had in a comfortable environment.
In addition to Foxing’s important conversation about sexuality and the Church, other emo revival bands have ventured into the topics of spiritual growth, femininity, and engaging in direct dialogue with God. TWIABP’s “You Can’t Live There Forever” literally asks the questions What do you think is going right in your life/ What can you know about life if you’ve never died/ You think that the world is alright but that’s a lie cause we’re afraid to die and that’s alright/ Where is the action. These questions are posed over muted harmonies and strings, allowing them to carry hints of earnestness and honest curiosity.
Just by her presence, Francis Quinlan, the frontwoman of Hop Along, adds a female voice to the male-dominated genre. Her lyrics are of the most cerebral stanzas found in emo revival, and allow women to find their place in the scene as musicians, vocalists, and audiophiles.
Into It. Over It.’s incredible “The Shaking of Leaves” tells the story of lead singer Evan Weiss’ friend’s murder. While the actual material is emotionally heavy, the opening lines read like a letter to God: Late this afternoon I heard your voice/ It was the first time in what felt like years/ It was a whisper in my ears and then the wind in the trees/ It was the shaking of leaves that shook the streets while shaking me. There are few songs in the CCM genre that are as emotionally raw and confrontational as these. By taking personal experiences and sharing them with audiences, emo bands are teaching young people more about themselves and their relation to God than the Church is.
Many people of the Church will continue to cling to the distinctions of sacred and secular cultures for the foreseeable future, even when those boundaries constantly confuse youth. While the existence of the two categories is inherently detrimental, church leaders and educators can embrace the use of multiple lenses with which to examine modern culture. Through the employment of different theological and cultural perspectives, it will become apparent that spirituality does not solely reside within church walls or in media that originates there. Perhaps upon this realization, young people will feel less threatened by the Church and its leaders and begin to ask questions instead of sneaking out to attend emo shows.