As a teenager listening to his favorite “emo” CD, Josh Groffman always skipped one track.
Repelled by the overt violent imagery, he couldn't help but wonder, “Am I sick if I listen to this?”
Now as Dr. Joshua Groffman, assistant professor of music, he is revisiting the angsty genre to understand its appeal to teens and pre-teens.
Groffman presented a paper on the subject, “'I Know What You Feel Like': Harming Ourselves and Others in the Emo Genre” Feb. 25 at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music - U.S.'s annual conference held in Cleveland.
The emo (pronounced ee-mo) genre grew out of the punk movement and became popular in the 1990s.
Groffman explained that while emo has punk traits like “extreme distortion and blistering tempi,” one of its defining traits is the “aggressively thin, nasally timbre that is purposely immature.”
“Emo really is rooted in teenagers singing to teenagers,” he said of the vocal style.
Aside from musical traits, the subject matter of the genre is entrenched in the agony of adolescence. Lyrics are almost entirely self-referential, without consideration of politics, the culture at large or even non-teenagers.
“Emo pursues … the dramatization of the adolescent experience with almost no reference to anything outside the peer-group experiences of teens and tweens,” Groffman wrote.
Sometimes that expression takes the extreme form of violent imagery. The graphic intensity of some of the images - exposed viscera and blood, for example - “become a stand-in for the intensity of youthful feeling, the indignities of growing up.”
While Groffman argues that the brutality is metaphoric, he also acknowledges that it can still be troubling, particularly in the post-Columbine era.
“I think it's really hard to listen to this stuff and not be aware of the context,” he said.