NEW YORK — I landed in Brooklyn around 10 a.m. Friday morning wondering what the secret was.
On an impromptu, last-weekend-before-football-season trip, I flew east to visit Andrew, my best friend from childhood. He promised if I checked out his new home on the coast, he’d have something special in store.
I spent the days leading up to the trip Googling cheap events for two semi-broke 26-year-olds.
While blowing up an air mattress, he broke the news.
“I got us an RSVP to an Emo Nite,” he said.
Emo Nite is a party that features a DJ (and occasionally special guests) playing exclusively alternative pop-punk music from about 2002 to 2009. My Chemical Romance. Fall Out Boy. All Time Low. Music, for a select few in my millennial generation, that was the soundtrack of pimples and awkward hand holds and locker combinations.
At a ballroom down the street from his apartment, we’d get an evening face-to-face with the music I listened to secretly on my iPod in bed all those years ago while trying to put the chaotic world back together. Music that, in more ways than one, saved me.
And that night in New York, the music saved me again.
I need to tell you about Emo Nite because Saturday evening, there’s an Emo Nite in Omaha. And you need to go.
There is some embarrassment attached to even writing this. Middle school is not the epicenter of perfect cultural choices. And this “emo” music isn’t revered years later. It wasn’t then, either. My brother scoffed at the Paramore poster I pasted to my wall. Once, in science class, I snuck an earphone up my sweatshirt, put up my hood and turned on “When It Rains” by Paramore. After the first chorus, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Turn that emo crap down,” a guy behind me said.
You can call this type of music a lot of things. Bad punk. Lazy rock. Most land on “emo.” It’s overtly emotional (hence the name) and dramatic. It can be obnoxious and petty. The genre was born out of the popular punk of the ’90s. Dashboard Confessional and Fall Out Boy popularized the genre with hits — “Stolen” and “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs,” among them — that climbed the Top 40. But most of the music stayed away from the mainstream. In part because, objectively, it isn’t very good.
The playlist I made years ago with these songs is titled “Shameful.”
But for the self-loathing few who, like me, came from broken homes, felt torn between parents, had no real outlet, knew what types of magazines were in therapy waiting rooms and couldn’t piece together the puzzle of the world, the angry, loud music touched a nerve nothing else did. They sang what I wanted to scream. The guitars rocked me to sleep.
I was 13 when My Chemical Romance’s “Black Parade” album came out. I still know the songs word-for-word. I know the harmonies. Every night before bed, when things were really bad, I’d listen to the final track, “Famous Last Words,” until I fell asleep.
I was 14 when Paramore’s “Riot” came out. I brought the guitar tabs for my birthday. “Misery Business” was the second song I ever learned to play.
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The emo of the 2000s dissipated around 2010. Most bands weren’t commercially successful enough to keep it up. Others were so successful, the music changed and fans tapered off. By my senior year of high school in 2012, I stepped away from the emo scene thanks to therapy, my disdain for My Chemical Romance’s breakup and subsequent discovery of Arcade Fire and Coldplay.
That is, save for the occasional late-night ride by our high school while blasting “Weightless” by All Time Low.
I never really returned to the music, either. Or those feelings. Didn’t talk about it much. I buried it under my Vineyard Vines polo.
After I got married, there was a death in the family that brought everything to the surface. It threw me for a loop. I got quiet at home. Didn’t sleep well. I turned on the “Shameful” playlist again while washing dishes.
Soon after, I flew to New York. And Andrew had this RSVP.
The black shirts resurfaced that night, most breaking out band or tour T-shirts that had been buried in closets for years. The ballroom was packed, and the air inside the ballroom was stuffy. The drinks far too expensive.
At first, we stood in the back. It began somewhat innocently. All-American Rejects. Boys Like Girls. We slowly made our way to the middle.
Then Ryan Key, the lead singer of Yellowcard, came out in a jean jacket with a playlist that picked up the pace.
“Ocean Avenue” shook the walls. “Alive With The Glory of Love” by Say Anything warped the dance floor. The songs compounded, until time faded and 11 p.m. quickly gave way to 2 a.m.
No one was singing along as much as they were testifying to each other loudly, trying to explain to everyone in the room through the lyrics that this, this was the song that got them through. In those dark years, I struggled to communicate. I couldn’t tell people why I’d decided one night I was ready to jump, or why I wanted to isolate myself. But when I turned on the music, what those bands sang was what I wanted to say but couldn’t figure out how. And for years, I walked around with the lyrics in my head, hiding behind the ear buds, ashamed for even listening.
A decade later, we bounced around ballroom carpet, shameless, sharing this space screaming what we couldn’t say then. Euphoric that we’d found a place to share what we’d kept to ourselves for years. The bands didn’t last. The music died on the radio. But the brief history of the emo music didn’t die for any of us.
We were here, we’d made it, singing well into the morning past our past.
I unlocked my front door back in Omaha almost 24 hours after the concert began.
In the silence of my home, my ears were still ringing. They didn’t stop for two days.
The sound reminded me I was alive.
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