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Pumping Irony

Impossibly Sincere Emo Grows Up And Discovers Dollar Signs And Jaded Glee

FITTED SHIRT: Panic! At The Disco looks good--can't say the same about the way it sounds.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 7/5/2006

Lifetime plays the 9:30 Club July 7

Cartel's "Honestly" isn't the first music video with a moral, but it's definitely the first where that moral is "talking to girls in real life is more important than obsessing over your MySpace photo." The song is a tuneless little power-pop blurt, but the video is the nü-emo urtext, somehow impassioned and earnest and yet ironic and manipulative. The boys in the Cartel video fail at their quest, snubbed by their objects of affection. So they slink back to their computers, presumably listening to Cartel, or one of the several billion bands that sound just like it, on MySpace pages.

It happened quickly and quietly, like a deadly but invisible fog in a Stephen King novel, but when it comes to 2006 pop-rock, emo is the default user option. Sonically, the term is so broad as to be useless. Like an "alternative" for the '00s, emo encompasses just about any up-tempo guitar music that isn't made by crusty oldsters like the Chili Peppers. You may think you're listening to lukewarm metal or reheated pop-punk or disco-rock or even the cod-classical keyboards of prog. But you're not.

About the only thing that emo accurately describes these days is an attitude, and probably not even the one you're thinking. For a genre once characterized by an almost naive sincerity, emo 2006 is music for the hyper self-aware, self-obsessed, clued-in kids of the 21st century. It's like crying and winking at the same time.

The biggest emo band of the year is shaping up to be Panic! At the Disco, and tracing a line between its fey, flamboyant, and frequently infuriating pop and the blunt-force anguish of bands like Dashboard Confessional is difficult, if not impossible. Panic!'s A Fever You Can't Sweat Out (Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen) was released in 2005 but only became a Total Request Live smash this year. Musically, Panic! writes upbeat and undistinguished pop-punk ditties colored in with horns and vocoders and those awesomely terrifying and robotic ProTooled and auto-tuned harmonies. Sartorially, what began as the occasional daub of black mascara has bloomed into a boon for makeup manufacturers and Aveda resellers everywhere. Panic! dresses like some combination of Alex's droogs, Duran Duran circa "Rio," and Joel Grey in Cabaret.

But it's the lyrics that are extraordinary. The first song is called "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage." Later, singer Brendon Urie bleats that his band is a "wet dream for the web zines." MySpace itself makes at least one appearance. The metanarratives are so densely self-referential as to be headache inducing. Actually, they're not even narratives, just strung-together sound bites about the cycle of emo's media hype with at least three choruses. The way Urie constructs songs, you wonder if English is his first language; no pop Svengali or song doctor would have OK'd such doggerel. But growing up in the media bath-none of Panic!'s members is yet of drinking age-has made the band perfect pop stars without trying very hard. When your formative influence is Blink-182 and you've never known a world without MTV, being camera and radio ready comes easily.

Media manipulation is part and parcel of being an emo band these days, even for the ones that purportedly abhor pop stardom. Earlier this year, the midlevel Hawthorne Heights tried-and failed, proving a benevolent higher being does actually exist-to oust R&B youngster Ne-Yo from the top of the charts. It was an ultracynical marketing campaign, appealing to their teenage fan base's very 21st-century belief that lining up outside Best Buy and Target is supporting a grass-roots phenomenon. Hawthorne Heights and especially their label, Victory Records, have taken the spurious notion of punk as "real music"-Victory's advertising strapline-to Dadaesque new lows, abusing its young audience's need to belong and believe in something in a really icky way.

All this is extra-musical, of course, and would be completely academic if Hawthorne Heights could write a pop song as shit-hot as My Chemical Romance's "Helena" or Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Goin' Down." Unfortunately, Hawthorne's songs are about as enjoyable as a mouthful of charcoal granules. On their recent If Only You Were Lonely, the guitars grind as pleasurelessly as teenage masturbation. The fast parts and slow parts arrive with a tidal certainty. The lyrics are a romantic billy club. And like too many emo bands they think a pop-punk gem can be improved by a lot of tuneless yowling and screaming to punch a chorus home.

That's what galls the most about shit like Hawthorne Heights and Panic! At the Disco-its general crumminess as pop. Complaining about hairstyles or ugly jackets or even the lyrics can be written off as fogeyism. But so few of these third- and fourth-tier emo bands provide what pop music is supposed to: a big beat, a clever turn of phrase, catharsis, cool noises. These bands now have to compete with Amerie and Kelly Clarkson and Lil' Kim and Dem Franchize Boys. (No wonder Fall Out Boy wants Babyface to produce its next album.) Back when emo was mostly heard on tinny seven-inches and over crappy PAs at VFW halls, this feebleness was part of its charm: pop music played with the speed and ineptitude of hardcore. Vocal harmonies were a splash of color in an otherwise monochromatic world.

If you had called them an emo band, the members of Lifetime probably would have asked you to get off their punk-house lawn. Lifetime was a hardcore band, thank you very much, and could deliver a lyric like "Hardcore is not a background beat for you to move your dancing feet/ It's feeling living breathing/ It's the life for those who love living" with a poker face. Of course, Lifetime was also something like the perfect emo band. Ari Katz's lyrics were earnest and sweet, rather than winkingly sarcastic. His lovelorn plaints, delivered in a Joisey yelp that swallowed every other word, are probably too embarrassing for anyone over 20 that wasn't there at the time, but you can hear why they've become LiveJournal standards. And yeah, they had hooks and harmonies, but Lifetime songs were short and fast-no ballads, no bullshit.

So in the amount of time it takes to listen to Lifetime's new two-disc rarities collection, Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey, you could listen to its two best albums about six times. Somewhere is for fans only, the sound of the band fumbling toward the pop-hardcore mix it perfected on 1995's Hello Bastards and exhausted on 1997's Jersey's Best Dancers (all Jade Tree). But for a band that broke up nearly 10 years ago and barely made it off the East Coast during its existence, Lifetime has a lot of new fans. In the intervening decade, the band has become the key emo touchstone; Taking Back Sunday's Adam Lazzara famously has Katz's lyrics tattooed on his forearms.

Three or four years ago, Lifetime's ex-members were quick to point out-to anyone who asked-that they saw no connection between what they used to do and the new crop of emo heartthrobs. So when the band reformed last year to play a few one-off shows, it was a little surprising. And it was even more surprising when it announced this year that it would be recording a new album for Fall Out Boy frontman Pete Wentz's vanity label, Decaydance, which would make these thirtysomething day-jobbers the newest label mates of Panic! At the Disco.

It's hard not to see the dollar signs in the band's eyes, hooking up with the world's biggest emo bands at the height of emomania, but it's also hard to argue Lifetime doesn't deserve the success. Emo is a young man's game-in fact, its stars keep getting younger-and Lifetime may be too old and honest to really cash in. So is it more or less depressing when the fresh-faced kids are the industry cynics? Whatever Lifetime's Decaydance debut ends up sounding like, hopefully the Maybelline stays in the medicine cabinet.

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