Tom Mullen’s Quest To Restore The Word ‘Emo’ From Easy Target To Respectability

Cultural Critic

Courtesy of Washed Up Emo/Michael Dubin

In 2007, a record industry executive named Tom Mullen started a blog devoted to the emo bands he grew up loving in the ’80s and ’90s. At the time Mullen’s labor of love, which he called Washed Up Emo, was out of step with what was fashionable in music. A commercial heyday earlier in the decade headlined by MTV favorites like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and Dashboard Confessional sparked a nasty backlash that turned “emo” into a dirty word. But Mullen nevertheless persisted, eventually starting a Washed Up Emo podcast in 2011 that was devoted to interviews with the scene’s most important figures, from its roots in ’80s hardcore through what Mullen calls emo’s “hair-metal” era in the 21st century.

After 10 years as a genre historian, Mullen has compiled several of those interviews into a new book, Anthology Of Emo Volume 1, that includes chapters on The Promise Ring, Dashboard Confessional, Texas Is The Reason, The Get Up Kids, American Football, Mineral, Knapsack, and Rainer Maria. Mullen deliberately had Anthology Of Emo designed to look like a reference book, to underline the seriousness of the enterprise. For Mullen, emo remains perpetually understood, no matter the so-called “emo revival” that has elevated dozens of worthy underground bands this decade.

The first sentence of your book is, “Emo was never a four letter word to me.” This is also a running theme on your podcast: You’re very protective of that word. Why?

It you ask 10 people on the street, eight out of 10 are gonna say, ‘Oh, it’s those people that are cutting themselves, with the haircuts, that go to Hot Topic.’ Unfortunately, the word has always been hated. I’ve done 100-plus interviews; I don’t think anybody has been like, ‘I’m so happy we are [considered emo].’

What exactly is so offensive about “emo”?

There’s an instant thought of: It’s not as good if you say it’s emo. It marginalizes bands. I think there are some writers out there that like to crack a joke. It’s an easy target, and they’ll make a joke about the crying. I don’t blame bands for being like, ‘We’re an indie rock band.’

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