Alive through Sound: Midwestern Emo is Here to Stay

By: JoAnn Snavely

Every October or so, as the leaves begin to change colors and descend from trees, the weather changes, signaling that fall is in the air. Pumpkin Spice Lattes are at the forefront of every Starbucks in the nation, and thus begins everyone’s annual fall traditions. For some, it may be decking out their homes for Halloween, lighting their favorite candles, or watching their favorite scary movies. For others, you may despise fall and are already watching Christmas movies and wrapping gifts. For me, fall began this year with the rejuvenation of Midwestern Emo, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

Midwestern Emo is a genre that has coasted on the outskirts of indie and emo genres for the past decade or so, having roots in the early stages of alternative music with an apparent mid-western focus. It’s a sub-genre of the hailed emo genre that was first seen in the 1990s. It was in rebuttal of the hardcore emo scene and couldn’t be a more polar opposite from the sub-genre that is hardcore emo. What makes midwestern emo different from traditional emo music?

It’s important to note that emo music as a genre traditionally possesses very hardcore punk roots with heavy metal influences and political polarization as far as lyricism goes. Midwestern emo shifted focus away from those punk roots and took from the indie genre that was becoming mainstream at the time. It is distinctive from its emo parents with its unmistakable guitar riffs and raw, weathered vocals. It has an almost folksy sound, but don’t be mistaken– midwestern emo is quite different.

One of the core bands at the roots of the sub-genre would be American Football, with songs like “Never Meant” and “Honestly” off their debut self-titled album. American Football as a band is one of the true kings as far as the birth of the genre. Being based in Urbana, IL, they are true to their genre name: midwestern emo. They officially began as a band in 1997, and in traditional alternative sub-genre fashion, they disbanded in 2000 before reuniting in 2014 to release the deluxe version of their debut album 15 years after its release. Since then, they have since released two additional albums (both of which remain self-titled).

Another band credited for being one of the first midwestern emo bands is titled Chamberlain. Their official start was in 1995 before disbanding in 2000. Similarly to American Football, they reunited in 2008 and have recently released their 4th studio album Red Weather in 2020. Nowadays, the band sporadically comes back together to do live shows here and there, although new music may be unlikely.

Similarly to most alternative subcultures, midwestern emo has many cultural impacts within the scene. It has very homemade undertones, with bands started in garages by teenagers with electric guitars, and I must say, this is precisely my cup of tea. I think the reason I latched onto this genre over the past couple of years is that it feels like something I can do. As a mediocre guitar player, I am so painfully inspired by this genre and the subsequent effortlessness that seems to flow from within it. I’m in awe of how these bands came together; they’re typically friends who grew up together and just casually got together to start a band. You would think that being a DIY type-band would make it hard for them to gain traction, but there are a few ways to do it. Doing it through social media is one way many new musicians are gaining traction. Through platforms like TikTok, it has become easier than ever to become famous overnight. Another way musicians gain traction is through live music.

This series is called ‘Alive through Sound,’ so let’s talk about how being alive through sound is powerful for musicians within the subgenre.

Live music is something that is at the core of not only midwestern emo but for most genres and subgenres under the umbrella of alternative music. It is something that has been a core and unifying component between the genres. Musicians that lie within the genres use shows at smaller, local venues to harbor attention and bring new fans in. This has always been a crucial part of most alternative subcultures, with underground garage shows being the core of the punk scene. Live shows are so important for these smaller independent bands, and that is something that the midwestern emo genre focuses explicitly on. Something unique about midwest emo is that it is notoriously better to hear live.

Not only is it good for the musicians, but it’s also good for the souls of the attendees. There is a plethora of science that backs up the positive correlation between live music and mental health. For decades, the connection between music and the human brain has been connected.

Music is crucial for the development of the human brain and can help with learning and associating feelings with music. Steven Mithens, a cognitive archaeologist (someone who studies the history/prehistory of the brain), wrote the book The Singing Neanderthal, where he explained humans’ connection to music as something that we have our pre-evolutionary ancestors to thank. He claimed that music was the foundation of communication and was used as the first form of linguistic communication. Although language has since evolved and become something  intricate and complex, music seems to have predated it. 

There isn’t conclusive evidence to prove that there’s something in our brain that is triggered when we listen to music and how it makes us feel, but still, it makes a lot of sense. More scientifically, Sarah Wilson, a cognitive neuroscientist, ran an extensive research project to see music and its connection to mental health, and her findings connect those puzzle pieces. She learned through a series of MRIs that music opens up a broader part of the brain than speech and linguistic-related brain functions. Maybe we aren’t as evolved as we initially believed, but we most certainly are connected by music. 

Additionally, humanity’s love for music goes beyond playing a vinyl on your record player or listening to your favorite playlist in the car. For others, they depend on making music or seeing it live to satisfy their music cravings, and there are even attendees who couldn’t care less about music or its impact. There are a lot of potential layers to music and how it can be received. Regardless, live music is crucial to the human experience, whether you know it or not. Live music is proven to regulate hormones, improve mental health, and even increase your life expectancy. The gallons of serotonin hidden within live gigs are something you should never pass up the opportunity to attend, and musicians depend on it as much as you do!

The moral of the story is to go to live shows. They help smaller, independent bands, and they help you.

Luckily, live shows have never been dead (unless you count 2020, the year when many of the greatest tours went to die), but with Midwestern emo on the rise and with a new generation of music-loving teens reaching the age of concert-going, it seems that this genre is receiving a revival that won’t stop anytime soon.

Today, the faces of the genre are bands like Mom Jeans, The Front Bottoms, Heart Attack Man, Modern Baseball, Tears for Fears, and McCafferty (I do not support him or his actions whatsoever). These musicians primarily popped up in the 2010s and have remained prominent within the sub-genre. 

Although it isn’t the most popular scene in the “emo” genre, it is without a doubt one of the top ones in regards to the emo scene. It received its initial prominence in the 90s and continued its prolonged rise. Nowadays, it has found itself within a particular niche of TikTok and Spotify, flying under the radar yet keeping its popularity with its strong fan base. 

Although, thanks to the new generation of music listeners aforementioned earlier, the genre is continuing its steady slope upwards. Without a doubt, its popularity has its painfully accurate depictions of the teenage experience and the ways it helps us cope. In an article by Isabella Mason from the Old Gold & Black (Wake Forest University’s student-led newspaper), Mason described the appeal of the genre perfectly; this genre was made for teens who feel like “I’m from the middle of nowhere, I’m emotionally lost, and love isn’t working out for me.” It’s so easy to feel lost and disconnected from the real world, and this genre targets those feelings and puts them into words; this can help you associate with those feelings as you navigate through those tough times.

I must admit, getting into a new genre of music seems pretty scary, so I aimed to figure out the ultimate guide to getting into midwestern emo. The first step I’d take is to see what music of yours pulls from Midwestern emo roots. Luckily, Spotify has a cool feature to do this; It’s called your “Midwest Emo Mix”. This mix curates a playlist of Midwestern emo music straight from your own personal playlists. You’ll see songs from your playlists that you didn’t even know fell under that genre, and you’ll even find new songs similar to your existing taste.

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If you find yourself being a fan of the genre or Spotify’s curation of it, I curated the ultimate playlist for all of your Midwestern emo needs! The playlist and a few other playlists and artists will be linked at the bottom of this article.

‘Alive through Sound’ Series

This is the fifth installment of the ‘Alive through Sound’ series at the herald. Check out the last article in the series ‘Alive through Sound: “Harvard/Oregon” by Briston Maroney’ where I break down Briston Maroney’s newest singles. Check out my favorite midwestern emo playlists/artists linked below until the next article in the series!

Playlist Links:

My Intro to Midwestern Emo Playlist

Intro to Midwestern Emo Music

Artist Links:

American Football

Chamberlain

The Front Bottoms

Modern Baseball

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