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Bright Eyes perform on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Margaret Norton CTR
Bright Eyes perform on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

The People's Key rings true, and not just for emo kids

If Conor Oberst is the true voice of Emo that supposedly cool and young subset of Goths then the latest Bright Eyes album may be one of the scene's finest moments.

"EMO Cult Warning For Parents" screamed a headline in the British Daily Mail newspaper in 2006. It wasn't the first youth subculture to be misunderstood by grown-ups, and it won't be the last. All the same, for harnessing the hormonal navel-gazing of economically comfortable teenagers, exaggerating it, caricaturing it, and selling it back to them, "Emo" may just be the quintessential 21st century western youth malaise. Here's how the Mail presented the caricature: "Faces are chalky white, eyes and lips black. You can wear any colour you like so long as it's black. To achieve that just-got-out-of-a-coffin look, you need corsets, capes, Celtic crosses, an unseeing stare ... The Emos - short for Emotional - regard themselves as a cool, young subset of the Goths. Although the look is similar, the point of distinction, frightening for schools and parents, is a celebration of self harm."

Given that the main evidence for this cult of macabre masochism was The Emo Song, a terrible parody song about the same subculture, the hardly sudden popularity of horror films, and websites featuring "Emo conversation" (sighing, wailing, poetry), it's fair to say schools and parents did not have too much to worry about. The one thing the scandalised newspaper got mostly right was that these teenage "Goths and Emos... are a rebellion against sporty, manly cultures - which is perhaps why they flourish particularly in North European countries or North America".

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There is a trajectory which began with the so-called "invention of the teenager" in 1944, when the word first entered regular use, to which Emo provides the natural outcome. Create the right conditions for youth self-identity, grant financial independence at an age which has always been a difficult interregnum between the relative stability of childhood and adulthood, and you have both legitimised and monetised the chaos of young hormones.

"From the very start," wrote Jon Savage in the introduction to his book Teenage: The Creation of Youth, 1875-1945, "it was a marketing term that recognised the spending power of adolescents. Within a culture that conceptualised business in terms of national identity and individual freedom, the fact that youth had become a market also meant that it had become a discrete, separate age group with its own peer-generated rituals, rights and demands."

At first, in the 1990s and early part of the 2000s, Emo was a much less controversial, niche subculture, a musical genre rather than a marketised fashion style, short for "emotional hard-core" or "emocore". A spin-off from American hard-core punk, it kept the latter's relentless guitar assault and stoical refusal to compromise for commercial success but permitted itself the solitary vice of, well, emoting. In some cases the faster, "hard-core" bit of emotional hard-core was toned down, leaving an earnest, sincere type of guitar music initially popularised by bands such as Weezer and Jimmy Eat World.

By the late 2000s, teenagers known as "Emos'" were the subject of prominent youth culture wars in Mexico and Chile. The American broadcaster National Public Radio described how Mexican Emos were pegged as "androgynous suicidal misfits", noting that members of the group faced "homophobic slurs" as well as criticism for their "supposed 'lack of ideology'". Riot police had to be called in to protect them from being attacked. Meanwhile in Britain, fed up with the sensationalism over self-harm and "suicide music", Emo teens protested against the Daily Mail's persecution of their favourite band, the perfectly marketed, chart-topping My Chemical Romance. A hundred Emos kept a panda-eyed, black-clad vigil outside the newspaper's offices for an afternoon, singing the band's songs a cappella; most were accompanied by their parents.

Looking past My Chemical Romance, mass-marketed black hair dye and shocking inter-sub-cultural violence, Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes project has long represented the genre's intelligent, thoughtful core; less of the musical sulking and door-slamming but all of the heart and wit. Oberst is Emo's true bard. Now aged 31, he has just released his seventh and final album in this guise. As such, The People's Key represents a pinnacle of the 21st-century tendency towards the confessional mode, a trend which has dominated a perennially powerful musical demographic: young, white, male American rock bands.

Personal confession and diaries are definitive motifs for Oberst, as they were from the genre's outset. Blake Schwarzenbach from the seminal Emo band Jawbreaker often lifted lyrics directly from of his personal journal. Emo's other pioneers, Sunny Day Real Estate, named their 1994 debut Diary. For Oberst the diary is not only an emblem for all that is private, but also a marker of mortality. History and the passage of time recur as themes in his lyrics: "these clocks keep unwinding and completely ignore everything that we hate or adore / Once the page of a calendar is turned it's no more / So tell me then, what was it for?" he sings on A Scale, A Mirror And Those Indifferent Clocks from 2000's Fevers and Mirrors, perhaps the prototypical Bright Eyes lyric. His voice, as always, is pitched somewhere between a snarl and a wail.

On The People's Key, the stand-out track is the poignant Ladder Song, on which Oberst's voice cracks as he sings a piano hymn to a friend who committed suicide last year. Throughout the album we hear the document of an individual struggling to avoid drowning in the sea of post-Cold War affluence and unbelief. The slow drum-thud and slide guitar of Approximate Sunlight addresses the sad-eyed limits of a culture that is "post-everything" - "such opulence, such misery" he laments. The buzzing guitar riff of A Machine Spiritual talks of "a catatonic plateau" - it's another grim description of the present, but as ever, beautifully expressed, and with faint hints of salvation - "we're starting over" he repeats over the coda.

It's perhaps too flattering to Oberst, but there is a sense in which he represents a 2000s analogue to Bob Dylan in his 1960s phase. He uses the same combination of emotive guitars, harmonicas and jug-band blues and folk singalongs to tell passionate stories of youth angst, of those loved and lost. Like Dylan he reaches up to something bigger, to the political philosophy responsible for such despondency, as well as reaching sideways, to his fellow Americans, to tell fictionalised stories of ordinary people fighting in hard times. At its best Oberst's emotion faces outward as well as inward, as on One For You, One For Me from A People's Key. It is similarly exemplified on his 2005 track When The President Talks To God, which channelled Johnny Cash's sound into a typically angry, witty attack on George W Bush's crusading rhetoric about Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror.

Oberst excels when he joins the dots between universal teenage introspection, the privileged miserabilism induced by consumer capitalism, and the responsibility for the Emo kid's alienation that ought to be shouldered by "the public action figures, the cowboy presidents". Take To Love and Be Loved, the barnstorming nine-minute state-of-the-nation address that closed his masterpiece, 2002's Lifted: "As they take eye for an eye until no one can see, we must stumble blindly forward, repeating history / Well I guess we all fit into your slogan on the fast food marquee: red-blooded, white-skinned oh and the blues / Oh and the blues, I got the blues! That's me! That's me!"

Beyond sarcastically realigning the colours of the American flag, he has countered the stereotype of Emo's narcissism, organising fund-raising concerts and writing an anthem (Coyote Song) for The Sound Strike, an association of musicians boycotting the state of Arizona, after it introduced controversial legislation targeting those suspected of being illegal immigrants. He vocally backed Barack Obama's campaign for president, in another demonstration that Emo need not connote romantic solipsism. As he explained in an interview with Paste magazine in 2008: "We did shows for him before the Iowa caucuses. He was speaking in a grade school gymnasium, basically, and the kind of intensity there was in that room was unbelievable. You've got to believe it can be better."

Whether it's the slightly farcical scenario of 100 black-clad British teenagers singing My Chemical Romance songs outside the offices of a right-wing newspaper, or Oberst's earnest entreaties to togetherness, after a young adulthood blighted by the Bush era, the paradox of the lonely bedroom-bound teenager, the Emo kid, is that for all he or she feels ("no one else understands me"), the tonic is always in the company of like-minded souls. Besides, maybe they'll grow out of it in time.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.

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