By Katie Fielding and Siddharth Jejurikar
Content warning: Sexual violence
“i am about to talk about something serious and i want to begin by saying that my actions have caused someone i care about deep emotional pain and i am so sorry. i have been accused of sexual coercion,” wrote Pinegrove’s frontman Evan Hall on the band’s official Facebook page on the 21st of November 2017, canceling all of the band’s tour dates and putting the project on hiatus. In all its uncapitalized shame, the announcement put the band in a light that starkly contrasts their position a mere year earlier. Pinegrove’s 2016 LP, Cardinal, had made notable waves for a small band from Montclair, New Jersey, landing on the “Top 50 Albums of 2016” lists of several publications, including Pitchfork, NPR, Consequence of Sound, and The A.V. Club. For fans, Hall’s post months later was shocking. Comments on the Facebook post ranged from anger to apologism but all carry with them a feeling of confusion. This confusion is understandable. Though their music may resemble Americana more than emo, Pinegrove is undeniably a product of the emo scene and the culture surrounding emo bands, and if emo fans are anything, it’s devoted—forming deep personal and emotional connections to the music they listen to. It isn’t easy to reconcile the fact that something you love was made by someone who has done terrible things. Harder still is coming to terms with the fact that parts of the songs you love reflect the fact that they come from dark sources, creators whose ethical character is questionable at best. Pinegrove is not an exceptional case, either; emo is a genre plagued by predators. In order for there to be progress it’s essential to focus on two questions: what are the causes of these problems in the emo community, and how can the situation change?
Where emo music differs from other genres, especially in its current revival wave, is in just how insular and tightly-knit its community is, complete with regionalism, fan loyalty, collaboration, and cults-of-personality.
A space like this produces a culture where reputations stick. In 2015, when Front Porch Step’s Jake Mcelfresh was accused by several underage girls of sexual harassment, the response from emo and punk bands was vehement. When it was revealed that Front Porch Step would still be playing at one stop of the Warped Tour that summer, other musicians, on the tour, including Senses Fail, Beartooth, The Swellers, Handgun, and The Wonder Years (via Alternative Press), immediately responded on Twitter, showing a degree of self-regulation and accountability. Mcelfresh still performed his set on July 1st, however, showing the shortcomings of this form of accountability. Additionally, a devoted and involved fanbase might refuse to believe women’s allegations, as has shown to be the case with Evan Hall. Clearly, the mechanisms the emo community already has in place are falling short.
Because fans form major emotional connections, they often begin to idolize the musicians in the bands. This imbalance puts the musicians, almost entirely men who are often older than their fans, in a position to abuse their power. The interactions with musicians that these young women may interpret as validation or appreciation are often actually men taking advantage of or sexually harassing them. For example, Brand New’s Jesse Lacey was able to solicit nude photos from underage fans while these women were unable to realize that they were being taken advantage of. Because someone they idolized was paying them attention, their judgement was clouded. Also contributing to the issue is the lack of gravity given to victims’ testimony by the industry. Years after her string of interactions with Lacey, one woman who was harassed by him said, “Judging by some of the apologies I’ve received from industry friends for not putting enough weight into what I had previously tried to communicate about him, it’s obvious that a lot of people in the touring community knew what he was like, or at least knew someone who had a story about him.” However, because of the lack of women in the emo music scene, the stories of victims were brushed off by other men, as women are not valued as much as men. The imbalance of power and representation creates a space in which men manipulate and take advantage of women by abusing their power, a space where women fear crowd surfing at shows because when a friend did so, a man put his hand up her shirt, a space that decidedly does not value the safety of women.
The prevalence of the problem unveils structural issues at play. Emo has always been a male-dominated genre with a largely young and female fanbase—a discrepancy that inevitably will have a significant effect. It’s frighteningly easy for predators like Mcelfresh to exploit the power dynamic that is inherent in this system, but emo isn’t alone in this either; hip-hop has always been marked with mostly male artists and hypermasculine lyrical themes, causing similar problems. Rick Ross, rapper and founder of the label Maybach Music Group, commented on why he wasn’t signing women to Maybach in a July 2017 Breakfast Club interview, “I just, I gotta be honest with you. You know, she looking good. I’m spending so much money on her photo shoots. I gotta fuck a couple times.” While Rick Ross certainly doesn’t speak for all of hip-hop, his comments do point out the kind of culture produced by overwhelming masculinity. On a lyrical level, rap isn’t too different from emo. Both present limited and androcentric worldviews; if women are talked about at all, it is at best only from the outside and at worst in a demeaning way. Both Rick Ross and Jesse Lacey have lyrics that flippantly refer to rape in the first person, for example. “I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans / My tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent / Bring you back to the bar get you out of the cold / My sober straight face gets you out of your clothes / … Barely conscious in the door where you stand / … If you let me have my way I swear I’ll tear you apart,” sings Lacey in the controversial song “Me vs Maradona vs Elvis.” Similarly, Ross raps, “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it,” in his song “U.O.E.N.O.”
It’s easy to dismiss these lines by claiming to dissociate the art from the artist, but simply knowing who these artists are and where their values lie makes separation impossible. Artists like these enforce rapeculture through their work, not only through their lyrical themes, but also from their clearly vile personal motivations and public personas. There is an inherent correlation between the artist and their work, as their personal beliefs and priorities infiltrate their lyrics. These contextual aspects reinforce the fact that their lyrics are not meant to be criticisms of the themes and ideas presented, or even accurate depictions of the problems of these ideas. They are, to a degree, representative of the actual feelings and values of the artist.
“Me vs Maradona vs Elvis” could be called an outlier in emo, but that doesn’t exonerate the genre. While hip-hop has faced criticism time-and-again for its representation of women, the same conversations aren’t often heard for emo music. This is likely due to the form misogyny takes in emo’s lyrical tropes. Emo songs are often narrative or confessional, with artists speaking directly about specific, often romantic, experiences in their lives. Because the vast majority of these writers are straight men, these kinds of songs are often about women. The problem is that these songs produce a narrow and absurd worldview in which women are almost always to blame for emotional turmoil. In these songs, relationship dilemmas are often presented as one-sided in a way that resembles gaslighting—distorting reality through blatant denial and contradiction. In Front Porch Step’s song Drown, Mcelfresh sings, “I know I couldn’t give you much / But I know I gave my best / You were always my princess / And now he’s sliding off your dress,” demonstrating this form of lyrical gaslighting. The male protagonist of this song is clearly victimizing himself with his words, attempting to turn the audience to his side against the woman while simultaneously slut-shaming her. Despite whatever an individual artist’s motivations are, that doesn’t change the fact that, from the perspective of an emo fan, the frequency of these depictions alone produces an incredibly one-sided view of women. This translates to the community as a whole, as well. Toxic attitudes towards women in emo culture are reinforced by the lyrical themes presented in the music itself. Fans who find the scene problematic can’t expect it to change without expecting the actual music to change as well, in terms of both lyrical themes and acceptance of female artists. The music makes the culture and the culture makes the music, and the problem will not and cannot be fixed by one side alone.
Some fans may defend this kind of lyrical content by bringing up the notion of emo itself. The popular conception is that things that are emo are dark, and they’re supposed to be that way by definition of being emo. The world of emo is characterized by deep emotional sentiment, often leading it to be characterized by feelings of sadness, anger, regret, and malice. Emo music, fashion, and culture is frequently associated with ideas of angst, self-deprecation, and misanthropy which makes topics like depression or suicide prevalent. For those who want to defend these artists, it’s easy to fall back on the idea that emo is defined by its objectionable material, but is that an accurate description of the genre? The term ‘emo’, short-hand for ‘emotional hardcore’, is a product of the genre’s roots in post-hardcore and hardcore punk. The first few undeniably emo bands, such as Rites of Spring, distinguished themselves from their inspirations primarily through atypical song structure, more complex guitar parts, and sudden changes in volume, but its lyrical departures are just as significant. Rites of Spring didn’t just take post-hardcore and give it more personal lyrics; it turned everything about their act into a form of emotional release, including the relationship between the band and its fans. This is the defining feature of emo music—emotional release. Talking about things that aren’t normally talked about, whether due to social norms or harmful expectations of masculinity, often is an incredibly healthy tool for overcoming trauma or depression. What people like Jesse Lacey have done is use this very same tool to turn emo into a platform to say things that shouldn’t be said and justify their worst inclinations by packaging and selling it as brutal honesty. Though it may be easy to confuse emotional honesty, a tool for coming to terms with trauma, distress, and anxiety, with rationalizations of terrible beliefs and thoughts due to their shared confessional nature, these are not the same thing. By recognizing the sexism their lyrics perpetuate, artists don’t necessarily have to sacrifice emotional honesty. In finding this balance, the people writing these lyrics can bring out the best in emo music, bringing it back to its roots as a medium for talking about issues like mental health, depression, and suicide.
Before the 1990s, punk music lacked representation of women, from which issues of sexism—similar to those in the emo scene—stemmed. Once the riot grrrl movement gained steam, however, women gained a platform from which to tell their stories, and in turn, people started listening, and while still not perfect, the punk genre made progress. From writing lyrics and publishing zines full of art and writing critiquing the patriarchy, to creating a community in which women supported and empowered each other, the movement amplified the voices and concerns of women in the punk scene and created a space in which women could feel comfortable getting involved. The riot grrrl movement went so far as to recognize that live shows were and still are an unsafe space for women and actively tried to push men to the back of venues. While in an ideal world, this would be unnecessary because men would not constantly grope women in the crowds, it is important that the riot grrrl movement recognized that something needed to be done to make women feel welcome in the punk scene. It may seem easy to ignore the sexism in the emo scene, however, because it is not spoken about as much it was in the punk community. There isn’t enough representation of and participation by women, so they have a hard time making their voices heard. On March 15, Pinegrove released a statement explaining that they had finished their album, but that they were waiting to release it until the sexual assault allegations against Hall have “been further resolved.” What Pinegrove has failed to understand, however, is that for the women involved, the issue will likely never be resolved. They must decide is not when it is resolved enough, but rather if their voice in the emo community is worth more than the voices of countless women that they and others like Hall have hurt. It has become clear recently that women are no longer going to allow men to act without consequence. Women are holding men accountable by speaking out, starting movements like #metoo. Emo artists, fans, and the industry must follow suit by making an active effort to raise up women, allowing them to tell their stories, and placing value on their safety. Through actions like boycotting or picketing shows of abusers, fans can tell bands that they will not support sexism. By bringing women on tour as openers, the primarily male bands can show fans, particularly female fans, that they value them and want them to be a part of the community. The emo scene needs to take a cue from similar social movements soon, or they will face consequence for prioritizing protecting men and perpetuating sexism and continued trauma for women.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, here are some resources:
Tufts OEO: 617-627-3298
Counseling & Mental Health Services: 617-627-3360
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center: 800-841-8371