NPR logo I'm Not Sad, I'm Emo

I'm Not Sad, I'm Emo

Sub Pop is reissuing two seminal albums, Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary and LP2. I recall sitting in a shared house in Olympia, Wash., when my roommate brought home Diary on vinyl. The cover depicted a toy family in their kitchen; the scene was sterile, institutional. Smoke billowed from a toaster and everything appeared on the verge of disintegration, including the family's plastic smiles.

As for the music, I knew what to expect before we put the record on. I'd known Jeremy Enigk and William Goldsmith since high school; Jeremy lived in the neighborhood next to mine. He taught me how to play guitar by showing me chords to R.E.M. and Sinead O'Connor songs. And William's early bands played at the occasional house party I'd have when my parents were away for the weekends.

Yet knowing what each musician was capable of didn't prepare me for the scope and depth that Sunny Day laid out on that debut record. The songs were unafraid to be beautiful, shameless in their grandiosity, their reaching and their tenderness. The playing was tighter than on other albums coming out of the Pacific Northwest, pristine but not inaccessible. In fact, Sunny Day's fragile and measured music tapped into fans' angst, alienation and heartache just as much as any band was doing by screaming and wailing.

Ah, the wonders of emo.

I've always been under the impression that Rites of Spring was the original emo band (probably pre-dating the term itself), but perhaps I'm wrong. Certainly, Sunny Day — along with The Promise Ring and the like — resurrected the genre. And what about Jawbreaker? Were they emo or just pop-punk? Or Drive Like Jehu? And then there were groups like The Get Up Kids, Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World, ones who turned emo music into a viable moneymaking machine.

There is such a vast difference between Rites of Spring and Dashboard Confessional that it's perplexing to lump them into the same category. Is "emo" merely a synonym for "sensitive"? Do the singers need to love poetry? But that would make Jewel an emo artist. Maybe there has to be a connection to or influence culled from hardcore music.

Either way, I'm excited to check out the new Sunny Day reissues. Also, I'm very curious to know: What defines emo music for you? And who do you consider the original and the ultimate emo band?