Emo: A Personal History in Three Parts — Part 3, 2004–2019

Norman Brannon talks Texas is the Reason, Emo Night, and the genre's lasting legacy.

As infants acquiring language, names are the first words we truly learn. We respond to names before we even understand why we respond to them because, on some instinctual level, we just know that these words are not like the others. What’s less understood, though, is that every time we answer to the names we’ve been given, we undergo a process of internalization that has much less to do with identity formation than it does with identity assignment: We become our names by turning our heads when we are called, and in doing so, we allow ourselves to be named. In that moment, the person who calls for you creates you.

It’s no secret that when people started calling Texas is the Reason “emo” — more frequently after we’d already broken up in 1997 — we never turned our heads. But that didn’t seem to matter. By the end of the decade, a strong narrative had begun to take hold, and we were handily swept up in its through line: First-generation emo belonged to Embrace, Rites of Spring, and the bands of Revolution Summer in Washington D.C. Second-generation emo covered a wider field, both temporally and geographically, led by bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Mineral, and us. The third generation was the first to properly “break through” into the semi-mainstream, when bands like Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day, and Thursday started selling more records than almost all of the bands before them combined. After that, well, who can even keep track anymore?

As the years passed — and as our defunct band felt further disconnected from many of the newer artists that inhabited the “emo” space — it felt like we’d lost control of our singular identity. A new name had been attached to our work, and with it, a new lens through which we would now forever be seen, evaluated, and identified. It feels obvious to say it now, but we didn’t exactly want our band to be re-created.

That’s just what names do.

In the fall of 2012, after 15 years of saying we’d never do it, we finally did: Texas is the Reason got back together for an extended-but-finite period of activity that included recording two “new” songs (that were written in 1997), releasing an anthology collection of our complete recorded catalog, and playing 22 shows across America, Canada, and Europe. One of the first people to reach out to me about the reunion was a ‘90s hardcore kid I knew, but didn’t really know, named Tom Mullen.

At first glance, Tom might come off like a nice guy with a weird hobby. A little over eight years ago he started the very first ever “Emo Night” in the country — a party he originally named after Texas is the Reason’s only album, Do You Know Who You Are? — and not long after that he started a podcast called Washed Up Emo, which at the time seemed both brazen in its use of the E-word and happily drenched in its own self-awareness. But peel back a layer or two, and it becomes clear that Tom is less hobbyist, more man-on-a-mission: He started these projects intent on reclaiming the word “emo” from the popular culture — and from epithet status. Applying equal parts stewardship and subversion to the term, he’s played a huge part in reshaping the public conversation about emo.

Unlike almost everyone else, Tom saw “emo” as an imperfect but ultimately valuable category whose ambiguous quality was not a bug, but its greatest feature; he saw a legitimate musical movement that needed a name, and the word “emo” — which, again, is as meaningless as it is meaningful — was as good a word as any. In the world of Washed Up Emo, haziness is an advantage. It’s a place where Cap’n Jazz coexists with Fall Out Boy, Lungfish with the Menzingers, the Van Pelt with Taking Back Sunday. It’s a place where you can be 21 years old and living a past you didn’t experience, 31 years old and waxing nostalgic over your salad days, or 41 years old and thinking, “How the fuck did this happen?”

That a phrase like “Washed Up Emo” could be coined to celebrate an arbitrary body of work (whose contested existence has been affirmed by practically no one!) seemed satirical to the point of sincere. So when Tom asked me if Texas is the Reason would consider being guest DJs — and holding our official record release party — at his Emo Night in February 2013, of course I said yes. Because I saw where he was coming from, and it was a good place, and it was authentic, and it was right.

The inexplicable longevity of our band, a band whose entire catalog consists of fifteen songs, isn’t really so inexplicable: The cultural effect of being called “one of the cornerstones of the ’90s emo movement” is that Texas is the Reason has continued to occupy the public consciousness for the last 22 years since our break-up, and it virtually guarantees that our band will continue to find new listeners for years to come.

As an artist, all I ever wanted was to feel seen and heard. Most people don’t get that one album that lives longer than you do. But I got that album, and to some extent, this feat was made possible because of a word I never wanted anything to do with. Having to rethink my relationship with that word in light of all this would be unavoidable. 

If you had asked me in 1987 whether or not I considered myself “emo,” I would have told you to fuck off. But these days, it doesn’t really bother me so much. There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one, I cannot possibly reflect on my lived experience of the word “emo” without acknowledging that the more comfortable I became in my own skin over time, the less discomfort I felt over being associated with a word that once connoted weakness and sentimentalism. I spent a great deal of time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s basically terrified of being “found out” as gay, and while this fear was not unfounded — there were hardcore kids being arrested for murdering a gay man in New York City as recently as the summer of 1990 — it may have been somewhat misplaced.

Being vulnerable or in touch with your full range of emotions isn’t “gay” as much as it’s human. The closet denied me of my total humanity in that way, and it has almost become my life’s work to reverse the damage I caused to others and myself by living that way. Those things that people now identify as “emo” from my work in the ‘90s, I see as my coming out. A slow, but meaningful coming out. Texas is the Reason and Anti-Matter were projects that did an inordinate amount of the heavy lifting in helping me accept myself for who I was, and over the years, I’ve heard time and again that they’ve also played a direct part in giving other hardcore kids the permission they felt they needed to become fuller versions of their own unique selves. If that’s called “emo” now, then I want to continue to be a part of that.

What’s even more amazing, though, is that I’d argue “emo” is doing good work outside of the music scene that gave it life — whether people accept it or not. More than ever, I’m seeing a kind of honesty and personal exposure in the broader culture that shares a sensibility with emo as a mode of expression. When I look at mainstream pop artists like Billie Eilish or Khalid, I recognize the emo aesthetic in a newer, younger, and possibly even more brutally honest form. When I watch wry, confessional shows on TV like Please Like Me or Shrill, I see the same kind of self-consciousness through self-deprecation that inspired my band to write songs with titles like “There’s No Way I Can Talk Myself Out of This One Tonight (The Drinking Song).” When I see authors like Matt Haig experiencing enormous success in both the fiction and nonfiction aisles writing deeply personal books about depression, anxiety, and the conflicted nature of modern living, I see a literary analog to Jawbreaker’s Dear You. And, hey, serious question: Could an astoundingly effective song about suicidal ideation with the phone number of a suicide prevention hotline as its title — namely, Logic’s “1-800-273-8255” — have ever existed in a world without emo? Maybe, but I’m not so sure it would have been a hit record. Believe what you like, but the legacy of “emo” is saving lives.

In the end, I am still the kind of person who gets wrapped up in his own identity kit, the kind of stubborn individualist who bristles at the thought of being remade in someone else’s image. But I’ve also learned to trust you, the reader and the listener, with the things I put out into the world. I trust you to experience them fully, to care for them, and to make a space for them wherever you have room in your heart. I trust you to make them your own.

Once it’s out there, you can call it whatever you want. I can finally live with that.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Norman Brannon is a musician, writer, and educator in Brooklyn, New York. Best known for his work in bands like Texas Is the Reason, New End Original, 108, Shelter, and Ressurection, Brannon has also maintained a steady, albeit whimsical career in music criticism, worked as a TV presenter on a gay cable network, and has been recognized by his music-loving students while working as a university lecturer. You can follow him on Twitter here.