You might think Carrabba is a rock star. He's not. He's an emo star. Emo short for emotional has been around since the mid-'80s but is only now developing into a broad cultural phenomenon. Major labels are scurrying to land emo talent, just as they once pillaged Seattle for grunge. Emo is heavier music for heavier times, and it's starting to sell too. According to Nielsen SoundScan, Carrabba has moved 175,000 copies of his album The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most a phenomenal number for an independent release and in April MTV taped a Dashboard Confessional Unplugged, the first time the network has unlocked the gates of its signature music show for a non-platinum-selling act. "Obviously, we think this kind of music has a really big future," says Unplugged producer Alex Coletti.
Emo might be even bigger if anyone knew precisely how to define it. The standard line is that emo accentuates the emotional content of a song with screaming confessional lyrics over rising and falling guitars. "It's not music that follows any pattern," says John Szuch, founder of emo label Deep Elm Records, based in Charlotte, N.C. "Some of it's real accessible; some of it's not. Some of it's 10 minutes long and filled with all kinds of loud-soft dynamics, and some of it's just kind of normal." Carrabba puts it more succinctly: "I have no idea what emo is."
Part of the problem is the word emo. With punk or grunge, you know where you stand. But emo? Isn't all music emotional? Emo fans (and we will get to them in a minute) say comparing emo with mainstream rock is like comparing The Bell Jar with a Hallmark card.
So how can you know emo when you hear it?
--EMO HURTS The first emo band was Rites of Spring, a punk quartet named for the Stravinsky composition that caused a riot after its 1913 debut. When skinheads took over the Washington punk scene in the mid-'80s, Rites of Spring singer Guy Picciotto decided to change punk from a medium that glamorized aggression to one in which strength was measured by a band's willingness to share its pain with its listeners.
Rites of Spring lasted all of two years, but emo, a name that everyone detested even then, stuck. Now emo is musically broad enough to include country, thrash, acoustic and traditional pop sounds (no rap emo yet). The subject matter has gradually narrowed from the general pain of being an outsider to the specific hurt of a bad relationship. "When I'm talking to one of the singers in a band," says Szuch, "and he's broken up with his girlfriend and really depressed, we know there's a great record on the horizon."
--SENSITIVE KIDS LOVE EMO Adolescents can be divided into two categories: those who pretend to feel nothing and those who aspire to feel everything. The latter make up the emo demographic. Think Lisa Simpson: she values her individuality and brainpower while bemoaning the loneliness that goes along with being smart and artistic. As for emo's particular style, consider a pair of sample questions from an "Emo Purity Test" circulating on the Internet: Do you own a pair of horn-rimmed glasses? Do you buy T shirts at Goodwill that are too small for you?
--EMO IS SPECIFIC When Howard Greenfield wrote the lyrics to Breaking Up Is Hard to Do in 1962--"Don't take your love away from me/ Don't you leave my heart in misery"--he was clearly in some pain. But listen to Neil Sedaka sing the song the up-tempo chorus, the sugary vocals and you would think Sedaka was falling in love, not getting booted out of it. As with all good pop music, the contrast between the delivery and the lyrics makes the song abstract and thus accessible to lots of listeners, including those not in the midst of a breakup.
EMO IS THE ANTIPOP. It shuns abstraction to drive home a single point: woe is me. Carrabba went through an agonizing breakup and put it down more or less unfiltered in his songbook. "Take a lyric like 'Ooh I love you and only you,'" says Carrabba, creating an example of what he sees as typical pop emptiness. "Yeah, it's a love song, but where does it touch you?"
Carrabba's songs don't just touch; they aim to throttle. Screaming Infidelities, Carrabba's breakout hit about breaking up, includes the lines "I'm cuddling close to blankets and sheets/ You're not alone, you're not discreet/ You make sure I know who's taking you home." His guitar is mournful, his voice strained. The song isn't about being cheated on; it's about Carrabba's being cheated on. An average listener can empathize only so much before tuning out. A fragile teen being broken up with for the first time will wear the repeat button down to a nub.