Wednesday, September 30, 2009

#92. 'Everything, everything will be alright'

Jimmy Eat World "The Middle"

You already know how much I hate hate hate the liberal misapplication of the term emo. Well, I hate the misapplication of any genre in any context, but there's something specific about the widespread misuse of emo to describe what is in essence power pop/rock that just irks me more than usual. I will admit that a part of it is that the bands that got the emo stamp this decade cast such a pall over the name that it scared away a good deal of people from delving into a rich, varied and overall damn good subgenre of music. And really, if you think emo means Fall Out Boy (pop-punk/pop-rock with arena rock hooks) or The Used (once again, pop-punk at its base but with a harsher edge) or Dashboard fucking Confessional (earnest, melodramatic singer-songwriter) or whatever other band that depressed teenagers more concerned with a fashion statements than actual, y'know, emotion are listening to while they write their LiveJournal entries, I don't entirely blame you for running screaming from anything that carries that tag. It sucks that you'll never get to hear stuff like Maximillian Colby or Hoover, but I can't blame you for being misled by the marketing team behind FOB and their whole scene.

So why did this happen? How is it that a largely underground genre became a part of the national lexicon? I'm laying the blame squarely at Jimmy Eat World's - and specifically at "The Middle"'s - doorstep. I can't argue with calling JEW an emo band, and I'm sure that everyone who has heard either Static Prevails or Clarity can agree with that label. It gets a bit sketchier on their third album though. There's still an undercurrent of emo to about half the tracks on Bleed American, but the rest were pretty much the precursor to all the faux-emo that started to dominate the poppier rock landscape a few years later, and "The Middle" along with its follow-up "Sweetness" fall decidedly into that half of the album. Now, "The Middle" becomes a mega hit, topping out at #5 in the US and being a fixture on music video channels thanks to a video that featured a lot of attractive twenty-somethings cavorting in their underwear. Since JEW are pretty widely regarded as an emo band this leads to "The Middle" being the first hit single from an emo band, and by a bit of odd conjecture it's the first emo hit.

And that's where the general misapplication starts. Now any song that sounds remotely like "The Middle," and that's to say any rock song with a huge pop chorus and a hint of malaise, is considered to be emo. Makes sense now, doesn't it? The minute that a song associated with a subgenre becomes the first to reach the levels of popularity that "The Middle" achieved it becomes the lazy touchstone for that genre. Any new band that sounds at all like it is lumped into the same genre, and that's usually all well and good. Except for the fact that in this case what happened was that the song being used as the touchstone was not part of the genre at all. As a result emo gets applied to ll manner of artists and songs that have nothing to do with the genre in any way shape or form. "Hey There Delilah"? Not emo. Fall Out Boy? Not emo. "The Middle"? Not emo, but that doesn't matter to anyone but me.

Do I bear any ill will towards "The Middle" for this? Fuck no. The issues don't arise from the song itself, which is a prime slice of power pop in the best traditions of the genre, but from the idiots that assumed it was emo and used it as the base for their understanding of what the genre entailed. "The Middle" still stands as one of those undeniably great songs, the kind that can act as middle ground for people of differing musical tastes. I speak from experience there as Bleed American was the first album that my whole family could agree on the greatness of, and considering that family consisted of a 14 year old metalhead son, a teenybopper daughter, and parents who were typical 40-somethings with multiple copies of Fleetwood Mac and Queen albums between them that wasn't exactly an easy trick to pull off. Even expanding out beyond that it seemed that no matter what type of music the person in question was a fan of they all had a soft spot for "The Middle" at least. It's an odd song to hold such a position, but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Between the strong hooks, the driving guitar pattern, the slightly more eventful than you'd expect guitar solo and the just plain good vibes that the song gave off it does offer something for pretty much everyone.

Back to the 'not emo' thing for a second: did anyone who called this emo realize that it was probably the most unabashedly happy single of the summer in '02? It was basically athree minute pep talk about how you, the listener, are just perfect the way you are and don't need to worry about the fact that other people don't realize that. Sappy as that reads on paper, and looking at that sentence I feel a distinct pain in my back teeth from the sugary tone of it, it never comes across as being too much on that side of the equation. It could be vocalist Jim Adkins' reassuring but not unhealthily chipper tone combined with the utter sincerity that comes from the words being directed as much at himself as anyone else. The song was apparently written as a sort of pick me up for the band after their initial flirtation with a major label fell through - and I bet Capitol was kicking themselves for that move after they heard this song - and the reflexive nature of the lyrics imbues them with a lot more feeling than they ought to have. It still comes across a little sappy, but it's forgivable when it feeds into moments as joyous the chorus - and the interplay between the vocal melody and that huge guitar chord every couple of bars absolutely makes the chorus doesn't it? - or the solo which comes across as a 'throw caution to the wind' moment than a calculated bit of showing off. It's an exercise in completely enjoying the moment all through the song, and it's hard to deny that sort of thing when it works.

Coming up tomorrow: Skateboarding love stories and up-and-comers.

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