TRIGGER WARNING: this article will mention suicide/suicidal thoughts/self harm. Please be careful if you feel the need.
At the time of writing this, I am half way through 2018– what seems to be a world away from the domination of emo rock music in
the mainstream; key players in the rise of the genre have strayed away from the iconic sound they trademarked (if they’re still around at all) and we suffer the consequence of their impact everyday. If you aren’t keen to what makes emo distinctive, if you aren’t familiar with it beyond a couple of decade-old chart toppers, I will explain: emo music is a genre that found its footing underground in post-Nirvana America, even tho starting as a post-hardcore genre, bands like Jawbreaker or Jimmy Eat World took the genre through its first few baby steps, the latter having huge success worldwide with their 2001 hit “The Middle”. Eventually that success would lend its hand at creating a huge surge of widely popular bands such as Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and The Used by the mid-point mark of last decade. They were recognisable by their blending of metal, hardcore, and pop rock into one package, seemingly tied together by depressing lyrics and a cynical view of the world around them.
These bands weren’t metal, despite the fact that most of this genre was flooded with album after album of tracks loaded down with crunching guitar chords and shredded vocal chords, because they were a little too melodic. They weren’t pop punk either because their lyrical content tended to be way too depressing, fully embracing the underbelly of the human condition, that we suffer endlessly. Suicide and mental health consistently pops up in almost every popular track from this genre, and self harm references almost became a joke to critics as a cliché from bands in this genre by the peak of its power.
But, can this style only be tracked as far back as the mid-80’s or early 90’s? I think not. Now, I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to every single piece of recorded music that humanity has to offer so it’s hard to exactly how accurate this hypothesis is but from my own personal, life-long journey through musical history, there isn’t any other song I have found that encompasses this “emo mould” as perfectly as a 1966 track from legendary rock’n’roll band The Rolling Stones titled ‘Paint It, Black’. Look, it even has the unnecessary punctuation that would have made emo kids (and their MySpace name fields) rejoice. Rawr, indeed.
Admitting that the Stones were by far not the first band to travel down the road of bleak song topics doesn’t negate from my argument, if anything it may as well enhance it. For example, old blues tune by Son House titled ‘Death Letter’ can be depressing beyond words but a lot of these sad-as-hell tearjerker tunes from the 40’s and 50’s reflect sadness that comes from outside of oneself, is absorbed and kind of just dwells in the song’s protagonist, left there to to remain as a hollowed hole in the person in question. Let’s take a look at Buddy Holly’s ‘Last Kiss’, a notorious tearjerker, where the character holds his lover as she dies, suffering from a fatal car accident (emo kids love car accidents, so bonus emo points here) and gives her one last kiss. The main theme here is that he’s promising to be good (…?) so he can see her again in heaven (…??) which is probably the least edgy thing I can imagine and cancels out all emo points earned by dying in a car crash.
This is what sets ‘Paint It, Black’ apart from these types of songs. The first line (‘I see a red door and I want it painted black..’) really holds it up the emo edgelord anthem of all time and then it just progressively gets darker and darker from there. At the songs entrance, the character is so emo(tional) that he can’t even bare the sight of a red doors, cars, or attractive women. In modern context, this guy would probably be flipping his bang (or fringe) over one eye as he has to “look away and feel his darkness go”, it’s just that moody. What kid currently, or in retrospect, drowning in the depths of their emotional angst to the point where it is physically visible (be it by attitude, clothing, etc.) can not relate to passerby’s who “turn their heads and quickly look away” at the sight of this guy?
If you’re a curious person as myself, you’re probably wondering what is making him this miserable? Obviously, the song is covered in clues but it is not exactly bluntly stated in the lyrics. Often singer and songwriter of this song, Mick Jagger, sings of wanting to be reunited with an absent lover but the cause of the absence is what’s the most unclear. The natural thought would be that he is suffering from a broken heart caused by a break up of their relationship but for myself, that seemed too simple an explanation. There’s no way that this guy could be this upset that he doesn’t want to see any colors, whatsoever, or he feels that the sun should be destroyed to match his mood. One tell-tale clue for me is when Jagger writes “I could not foresee this thing happening to you”.. What thing? Death, perhaps? He then goes on to say that if he “looks hard enough into the setting sun, my love will laugh with me before the morning comes”, which indicates that he’s longing to join his lover. The setting sun often signifies death in song writing like this, and wanting to laugh with her before the sun returns sounds like the lover is in some state of darkness/devoid of light and he’s trying his best to get to that same place.
Lyrically, this is a far cry from “I’m a sad guy and my girlfriend makes me happy” type of content you get from Mick’s songwriting peers like Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney, this is full-on suicidal. John Lennon didn’t even really touch this topic too heavily until two whole years later on the white album. Honestly, the lyrics are just enough make this a basis of the emotional state of music that plagued the rock genre in particular earlier this century. The thing takes place what seems to be a funeral and looking at the emo content of last decade, funerals were pretty fucking popular with the emos. But, not surprisingly, the Stones take it a step further by laying all of that on top of an intense, banging rhythm. The intro of the song begins the sinister tone with a sitar solo played by Brian Jones, which honestly would sound metal as fuck if it were on a guitar, only to be abruptly interrupted by Charlie Watts on drums, smashing the snare with a vengeful attitude. Bassist Bill Wyman and guitarist Keith Richards chug along right behind him, the three of them bouncing off of each other like boys in a mosh pit.
For 1966, this is astoundingly hardcore and unprecedented to have a radio hit just smashing and thrashing around the air and into the ear, especially considering what it was accompanied by at the time on the waves; The Beatles were still singing Yellow Submarine, The Mama’s & The Papa’s were complaining about Mondays, and everything had a particularly sunny vibe, leading into 1967, where it would later be called the Summer of Love. I can’t imagine having this on the radio alongside those other tracks.
I can only kind of get an idea of how that affected the youth when I give the treasured indie album #1 Record by Big Star, coming nearly a decade later, on the track titled Thirteen, a song about being thirteen years old in the the decade before it, at one point goes, “won’t you tell your dad to get off my back? Tell him what we said about ‘Paint It, Black’, rock and roll is here to stay”, which signifies that young teens really championed this song as the basis of rock and roll to come, it spoke to the teenage angst they suffered at the time. At the end of the day, isn’t that what emo is? An outlet for kids to explore their dark emotions and the more sinister parts of their imagination?
No matter your opinion on emo as a genre, it happened and it was influential, but I feel it’s written out of the context of our current musical climate. It’s overlooked by journalists and “experts” who still write it off as silly, not realizing that rock’n’roll isn’t made for adult ears, it has always been for the young people who are searching more meaning in the midst of their confusion. We’re able to see ‘Paint It, Black’ for what it is now, a legendary track from a legendary band, so maybe one day we will be able to see the artist that defined American rock music last decade for what they were, instead of writing it off as silly and adolescent. Adolescence is the whole point, isn’t it?