September 7, 2020

The geography of emo: Sun Belt anxiety vs. Rust Belt depression

As I explore the emo / scene / pop-punk genre, two major types stand out, each one tying into a different standard personality disorder. And as it turns out (see this entry on emo pop), they have origins in different regions of the country, reflecting the different demographic and economic trends within each one. Two different strains of negative emotions, stemming from two different material causes of bad vibes.

The first type is based in the Sun Belt, where young people have no roots but do have a future. Their parents (or even grandparents) uprooted their nuclear family from the extended family back where Americans have been living for a long time, and transplanted them to a carpetbagging colony.

This is where all the internal demographic growth has been happening during the neoliberal era, and where job growth is most promising. They aren't great jobs, but whatever the economy is actually offering, will continue to be invested in the Sun Belt. Originally this was to avoid higher taxes, regulation, and union power in the North, but by now it's taken on a life of its own.

So, there's less cause for doom and gloom among these young people. Their economic future is marked more by boredom than by deterioration and decay. And yet their so-called communities have no roots whatsoever, and they lack the extended family support that young people enjoy where they have deep roots. This leads to feelings of alienation and atomization, but in a way that is more bright than dark in tone.

Their negative emotions mainly take the form of anxiety, or nervousness, restlessness, worrying, being on-edge, tense, etc. These are symptoms of a lack of broad, reliable social support that would stabilize them, leaving members of a social species like ours to feel unsafe and insecure as we try to fend for ourselves. They are less gloomy and brooding, and more tender, vulnerable, and bittersweet. Softer rather than harder.

Major bands from the western Sun Belt include Jimmy Eat World from Mesa, AZ, Panic! at the Disco from Las Vegas, NV, and Metro Station from Los Angeles, CA. From the eastern Sun Belt, there's Paramore from the Nashville metro, TN, We the Kings from the Sarasota metro, FL, and Dashboard Confessional from Boca Raton, FL. They're kindred spirits with pop-punk Sun Belt groups like blink-182 (San Diego, CA), Green Day (East Bay, CA), and Bowling For Soup (Dallas, TX). A representative hit song:

The second type is based in the Rust Belt, where young people do have roots but do not have a material future, as deindustrialization has gutted their economic base and shows no signs of stopping in the near-term. Their communities are losing members in droves, rather than gaining hordes of transplants. If anything, their demographic decline is only balanced by legions of immigrants arriving from poor countries (a group to which we'll return later).

Young people's job prospects only look to get bleaker and bleaker in this region, and their physical environment and infrastructure is visibly in decay, resembling ruins in the bad areas. These portentous material conditions lead to a sense of doom and gloom, brooding, depression, suicidal thoughts, etc. If there's no future, why bother living?

Apart from the depressive symptoms, there's a pronounced streak of anger and rage. If the vanishing future is not just an accident, then someone is responsible -- and getting angry and raging against them may force them into turning the situation around, and redressing your grievances. Not necessarily because you're addressing the responsible forces directly, but at least they might want to make things better in order to not have to deal with so much undirected anger and unrest.

Anger, rage, and resentment also reflect the feelings of being abandoned by those who are leaving in droves -- it's an attempt to shame or coerce them into staying or returning, to provide critical social support for the majority of Rust Belters who remain in the Rust Belt.

Unlike the utterly unmoored Sun Belters, young people in the Rust Belt do enjoy a healthy level of social support (especially from extended families), owing to the deep rootedness of the region. But they can still sense the decreasing level of that support over their lifetimes, as a larger and larger minority flee to the Sun Belt. So they don't feel free-floating anxiety, tension, and insecurity, but doom, rage, and abandonment. It's a type of alienation and atomization that is darker in tone, and gives the music that appeals to them a harder edge.

Though fewer in number, the Rust Belt emo bands are more influential, including two members of the emo trinity. From the western Rust Belt, there's Fall Out Boy and Plain White T's (less rage-y, but still gloomy / depressive), both from the Chicago metro, IL. From the eastern Rust Belt, there's Taking Back Sunday from Long Island, NY, and the summit of the emo pantheon, My Chemical Romance from nearby Newark, NJ. They're kindred spirits with other dark, depressive, hard-edged Rust Belters like Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails in the Great Lakes region, and hardcore scenes from New York to DC in the eastern Rust Belt. A representative hit song:

That takes care of the majority of the emo creators and fan base, native-born whites. But from what I remember living out West in the late 2000s and early 2010s, emo / scene culture had a decent appeal to Hispanics as well. These were primarily children of recent immigrants, and not so much Tejanos or other groups who have roots going back many generations. They, too, were another group of rootless young people whose parents were (international) transplants, leaving them in a state of boredom, tension, and anxiety, while not really dreading their economic future.

Blacks are a different case, since most of them live in the Sun Belt but are not recent transplants with shallow roots. So their situation doesn't match that of most white and Hispanic youth in the Sun Belt. And as far as I know, they were never into emo of any kind, whether the original or emo-inflected rap.

The one exception is recent immigrants of African descent, and sure enough the biggest emo rapper from the South, XXXTentacion, was the rootless child of Jamaican immigrants, growing up in the Miami, FL metro. Even if he were an American descendant of slaves, he would've been rootless there, since no one of any race lived in southern Florida until a few decades ago. And like the original emo from the Sun Belt, his style is more on the vulnerable and bittersweet side than the doom-and-rage side.

The major emo rapper from the Rust Belt is not black, but white -- Eminem, from Detroit, MI -- and decidedly more on the doom-and-rage side than the anxious and bittersweet side. I haven't listened to much emo rap, though, so I'm not going to weigh in on how much it parallels emo rock in the Rust Belt. I expect it to sound harder and more doom-y / suicidal / apocalyptic than the Sun Belt variety.


  1. Aimee Terese joins the discussion of emo's heyday, MySpace, etc. on the latest What's Left? podcast (around 1hr mark):

    "Remember the emo phase?" How could we forget? xD

    She talks about the pre-fab nature of emo signifiers (the hair, the clothing, the etc.), but that's true for all sub-cultures, not just emo. If you wanted to try on a new persona, you could just dive right in during a trip to the mall over the weekend, and give yourself an identity makeover.

    But the pre-fab nature does show how it has greatest appeal where organic regional cultures have died out, and you don't "inherit" a cultural identity through generational transmission. So you're left to fend for yourself and make up one of your own.

    That's the one point I think she overlooks, that going emo was not just about an individual's persona, but joining a social group in which people look the same way, talk the same way, listen to the same music, and hang out at the same places. And then once you're in with that group, your identity gets formed socially through your interactions with the other members of the sub-culture.

    If her cousin was from the Lebanese immigrant side of her family, that also shows how (Sun Belt style) emo appealed to those without deep roots, but whose material future was not doomed to bleak decay. It spoke to the anxiety, tension, and restlessness of a newly arrived group, without having to spell out the source of anxiety and rootlessness -- however you came to be in that situation, we're speaking to you.

    I'd be curious to see if emo / scene culture ever caught on in the countries that their ancestors originally came from. Hard to imagine emo kids being a big thing in Lebanon itself -- because people there have very deep roots going back thousands of years, and if anything feel an insane level of social connectedness and links to their extended families.

    Aimee herself had a fairly scene-kid look, at least her hair in her old avatar. Big volume, strong side part, falling over the forehead and into the eyes.

    tfw no olive-skin emo gf...

  2. What about the Pacific Northwest? That has a bit of the rustbelt decline outside of Portland and Seattle. At the same the area is filling up with California transplants plus you have "knowledge economy" job centers in Seattle and Portland that often don't provide jobs for the locals. On top of that the low black population has allowed the urban working class whites to get very liberal.

  3. Grunge was like Rust Belt emo -- dark, hard-edged, rage, doom, abandonment. And mainly from people who were seeing the end of their material economy -- manufacturing, logging, etc.

    But since the '90s, the demographics are more like a Sun Belt transplant colony, so they stopped making that kind of music after grunge's heyday of the early '90s.

    I don't really know what's taken its place -- can't remember the last time I heard of a big band, scene, or phenomenon that came out of the PNW. Should be more of a Sun Belt style, though.

    Only PNW music I still play, and have always played, is "Hunger Strike" by Temple of the Dog.

  4. More example songs of the regional differences. I didn't want to clog the OP with endless YouTube embedded videos. These are all representative mega-hits, not cherry-picking.

    Sun Belt

    "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" by Panic! at the Disco

    "That's What You Get" by Paramore

    "Check Yes Juliet" by We the Kings

    Rust Belt

    "Hey There Delilah" by Plain White T's

    "MakeDamnSure" by Taking Back Sunday

    "Helena" by My Chemical Romance

  5. Babes still like blink! Had Enema of the State on while driving down the main drag near campus, and a pack of four cuties gave me some nice looks and smiles, fittingly as "Going Away to College" was playing.

    That got me horned up so that by the time "What's My Age Again" came on, I gave another pair an affectionate "honk-honk" while passing them from behind. The one who got my attention was not my usual type either -- tall and leggy, but very tan, black hair, light-blue daisy dukes and a blood-red crop top. No socks, low-tops.

    The ones who look like they're straight outta the early '90s, when I was going through puberty, just re-activate those feels all over again.

    I checked the rear-view mirror, and she and her friend were having a nice giggle and smile after receiving their random act of validation. No amount of likes on social media can make a girl smile and tingle like that -- only corporeal activities IRL, where some degree of risk is involved. No hiding behind pseudonyms, avatars, and ironic detachment when you're driving around with the windows down...


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