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Future Islands, Emo, and How Honesty Became Cool

Or: Earnestness is the new black.
Future Islands. (Photo: rogerzmusic/Flickr)

Future Islands. (Photo: rogerzmusic/Flickr)

If you’re one of the few humans left in the world who didn’t see Future Islands perform their single “Seasons (Waiting on You)” a few weeks ago on The Late Show With David Letterman, then first things first:

Hey, so: Wasn’t that great? It was great. And the reason that it is great is, at first, a little hard to grasp, because, in the abstract, what did you just watch? You watched a balding man bellow into a microphone like some tent-revival preacher channeling a pissed-off love-spurned demon while a few other dudes played some vaguely '80s, pared-down synth pop. And as that man, wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black khakis, solid as a teamster, howled, he danced, or “danced”—moving as though he were trying to invent a new form of movement.

I’m not trying to poke fun at Future Islands, who are a very good band, or frontman Samuel T. Herring, who is a gifted singer, songwriter, and entertainer in general. But the popularity of Future Islands’ performance—so great that Letterman, who absolutely loved it, spoke about the band again in his monologue the next night—provides a fascinating case study in what makes a live band’s television appearance really resonate in 2014, when live bands appearing on television doesn’t have quite the cachet it used to.

If it’s done well—and this is important—then emotive, earnest, over-the-top: It’s cool.

Aside from the pure theatrics of Herring’s performance, which are formidable, there’s something else that stands out. As he whirls around, pounding his chest so hard the mic picks up the thud, tearing his voice apart, Herring’s earnestness is impossible to miss. And this earnestness, so rare and often discouraged in the paradigm of rock 'n' roll, or what’s left of it, is refreshing.

With Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr, we’re more in proximity with the stuff of feelings and emotion than ever before. Led by Drake and Kanye West, hip-hop has gone earnest, and people have responded to it enthusiastically. And now, it’s bleeding into other forms of entertainment. If it’s done well—and this is important—then emotive, earnest, over-the-top: It’s cool.

ON A PARALLEL PLANE to the release of Future Islands’ LP Singles, we have the fourth-wave emo revival. For some background, check out this Chicago Reader storyor this recent Stereogum piece, but the general thrust is this: One of music’s most maligned genres has gotten a new lease on life, to the point that it’s being championed by critics, not to mention selling out venues.

But the word emo always has been deceptive, and it remains so here. Emo came in the early aughts to be a catchall for any music that seemed a little more sensitive than a real rock-'n'-roller should be. In were lumped incredibly disparate bands: the progenitors of the genre, very different acts like Braid and Cap’n Jazz and Sunny Day Real Estate; pretty straight-up rock groups who happened to wear eyeliner and/or sing about isolation, like My Chemical Romance and Jimmy Eat World; screamers like the Used and Taking Back Sunday; clever weirdos like Brand New; and the pop-skewing poster boys who headlined the Warped Tour, the ones who had the weird flat-ironed haircuts.

In 2013, a few different bands—Into It. Over It. and The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die being two of the most prominent—began to lead what seemed like a curious upsurge of emo, coming out of nowhere. Except, this music had, finally, begun to capitalize on the things that initially made it seem curious and bizarre. First, there was the attention to earnestness and emotion and feeling in its lyrics, something that these bands now had in common with the biggest rappers in the world. Second, there was the emphasis on supporting each other. (You might even call it a network of “weak ties.”) As the rest of the music world fractured, the “emo” bands—again, folks playing what was often totally disparate music—were able to grow together.

This year, two ostensibly emo albums have been released that both mark another crest in what is becoming an intense high tide. Modern Baseball, a bunch of kids still in college, made You’re Gonna Miss It All, a witty, obnoxious, and straight-up funny album of caffeinated indie rock, all contained in the record’s best song, "Your Graduation." Meanwhile, the Hotelier, formerly the Hotel Year, put out Home, Like Noplace Is There, which is about as different from Modern Baseball as you can get. Home spreads from tuneful pop-punk to napalm hardcore. And the lyrics are heavy: Talk of death and suicide and funerals and disappointment. But the music isn’t a bummer, at all: It’s rousing and evocative, in a way that would inspire a lot of fist-pumping, sing-along camaraderie in a live setting.

There are still some esoteric elements to the emo scene, but emo’s rise out of the outcast basement, into something that the average adolescent wouldn’t feel weird about, has plenty in common with why Future Islands’ Letterman performance hit so hard. We’re used to genuine feeling now. In the avalanche of pundits provided by the proliferation of media, we sort of hope for it, as a balm against insincerity. That’s what this kind of music gives us. Calling it emo, a word that sounds trite and unreal, doesn’t feel right anymore—if it ever did.