The Bamboozle Festival and the Emo Takeover

“Aaaah! My subgenre has become the dominant strain of rock music for an entire generation of young people! Aaaah!”

The Bamboozle Festival
May 6 & 7, 2006

“The most embarrassing moment in emo history,” said Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz from the stage. He was talking about when someone posted cell-phone pictures of his dick posted on the internet, but in doing so he was creating his own emo-history moment, becoming the first guy in an emo band I’ve ever heard use the word emo onstage. Emo bands have been ducking that term for about twenty years now, but they may as well embrace it, especially now that emo has become the default rock genre for an entire generation of high-school kids, 30,000 of whom packed onto the Giants Stadium parking lot for two days of absolutely nothing but emo bands. Plenty of weird stuff has fallen under the emo umbrella over the last five years or so, willingly or not: Bright Eyes, Atmosphere, Blood Brothers, Rainer Maria. But none of that stuff was in evidence at the Bamboozle festival; what we got instead was 96 bands and six stages’ worth of the small-tent version of emo. Looking at the Bamboozle website’s artists page is an exercise in hypnotic repetition, thumbnail pic after thumbnail pic of wounded dudes with sallow faces and longish hair pulled off to the side, nobody smiling. When the Warped Tour started ten years ago, I was amped: a whole day of skatepunk, just when Lollapalooza was starting to get irredeemably wack. But still, I was struck by the lack of variation: just pop-punk and ska-punk and punkabilly where Lolla had grunge and rap and punk and industrial and shit like the Jesus Lizard that nobody liked. Well, Bamboozle has effectively Warped Toured the Warped Tour, which looks like a feast of options in retrospect. Everything at Bamboozle was some variation of emo or screamo or closely-related stuff like hardcore or metalcore. The only way a non-eem band could get booked at the festival way by being a total novelty, like art-school concept-act Captured By Robots or joke-metal band Van Stone, who wear chain-mail and spiked codpieces and play guitars shaped like buzzsaws and battle-axes but who actually sound more like proto-metal bar-rock, early Kiss if early Kiss totally sucked. Also maybe a novelty: onetime King of NY (according to Sickamore) and the Wu-Tang Clan’s unofficial ambassador to white people for over a decade Method Man, whose goofy professionalism went over just fine. Raekwon, who emerged to do his verse from “C.R.E.A.M.,” was a little befuddled, even apologizing for cussing: “People’s grandmothers and shit here.”

People’s grandmothers and shit were there. Between the two stages, armies of parents walked around sucking down $6.75 beers out of plastic bottles and talking on cell phones, rocking Rolling Stones and Eagles and Save CBGB and Old Guys are Cool T-shirts. Elsewhere, teenage awkwardness was in full effect: kids wandering in gender-segregated packs, girls pulling up the bottom halves of their wifebeaters to show where some dude in a band had just autographed their stomachs, dudes (a fairly huge percentage of whome looked like first-season AJ Soprano) wearing T-shirts with lyrics written in magic markers. The singer of Hawthorne Heights asked the crowd how many people were there for their first show, and a sea of hands went up. So maybe all that youth was why recently-reunited Jersey eem OGs Lifetime played to the smallest main-stage crowd I saw all day on Sunday, despite huge props from damn near every band on the bill and a prime early-evening timeslot between HIM and AFI. Lifetime may have inadvertently birthed the current wave of emo stars like Thursday and Taking Back Sunday, but their music is fast, hearty, meat-and-potatoes mid-90s East Coast punk like Avail or the Bouncing Souls, and emo doesn’t sound anything like that anymore.

So the challenge for a band at Bamboozle was to find a way to distinguish itself from the hordes of similar bands that surrounded them while staying within a strict set of genre parameters, hard since the sound at the parking-lot had a way of flattening songs out and making them sound just like each other. Plenty of bands utterly failed to make any sort of impact; if thoroughly workmanlike screamo bands like Silverstein and Senses Fail are different from one another in any way, I couldn’t hear it, though admittedly I spent most of Senses Fail’s set buying and eating chicken fingers. Some bands went for extremes. Reliant K went soft: whiney and rhythmless pop-punk with prissily clear vocals. From First to Last went hard: lots of cussing (“We are here for one fucking reason! To set all you motherfuckers on fire!”), hookless but impressive metalcore crunch. Panic! at the Disco has managed to completely absorb both dancepunk and high-school drama-nerd sensibilities into its emo, and the result is a truly ghastly pileup of plinky pianos and canned disco hi-hats and operatic warbling. Saves the Day was uber-wimpy even when they were playing fast, and their singer had about the worst pink dye-job I’ve ever seen. Streetlight Manifesto had newsboy hats and a full horn section and one black guy, but they weren’t ska or even ska-punk, just herky-jerk Fat Wreck pop-punk. Or maybe that’s what ska-punk is these days, all the one-drop beats altogether gone. Implied ska. I certainly saw a few kids trying to skank to it. Much better than any of them was Underoath, who pulled off a soaring churn and whipped themselves around the stage with total commitment before finally telling the clueless what all their songs were about: “This band would not exist without the love of Jesus Christ in our hearts.” And then: “If we’re all honest, we can all get along, whatever we believe.”

One of the most intriguing inclusions was the Finnish “love-metal” band HIM, who are absolutely fucking huge if the kids at the middle school across the street from my apartment are to be believed. “Love-metal” apparently means triumphantly gothy glam-rock with hair-metal guitar solos, dramatic anime-anthem stuff. Singer Ville Valo stands still and straight at the center of the stage, not dancing or even really acknowledging the music at all but grabbing the mic in a way that makes the wind blow his hair off to the side and saying stuff like “The only last remaining existentialist question is: How many vampires are there out there?” Unfortunately, this stuff doesn’t seem all that sweeping or tragic in the middle of a New Jersey parking lot before the sun has a chance to set, but I liked their glassy keyboards and their cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” The “love-metal” thing might also apply to AFI, who have certainly gone through some changes since I saw them at a Baltimore garage almost ten years ago, the night before I turned 17. Back then, they were a pretty great West Coast skate-core band. Now, they’re all pancake makeup and choreographed spinkicks and billowing smoke machines, totally theatrical, every moment a big moment. They had the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands.

That theatricality served AFI well, since one of the festival’s biggest problems was the charisma vacuum. The whole sincerity thing is pretty much emo’s raison d’etre, of course, but it means that emo frontmen generally can’t think of anything better to do onstage than spout platitudes like “We love you guys!” and “Thanks for hanging out with us!” It didn’t help anything that women were reduced to spectators and song-subjects; I didn’t see a single girl in on either of the two main stages. (Hawthorne Heights guy: “Ladies, this song goes out to you because you break our hearts,” word to Jessica Hopper.) Thursday, always my favorite emo band, looked a bit lost up there. The last time I saw them, Geoff Rickly was talking about how this band didn’t just come to your town to rock you, how they came to be a part of something along with you. That stuff doesn’t play from 50 yards away, so Rickly was reduced to talking about the new album and doing the Trent Reznor foot-on-monitor pose. And so the cocky dickitude of All American Rejects frontman Tyson Ritter immediately stood out. The band isn’t even really emo; its professional pop-punk is more about sticky hooks and hyper-slick hair-tosses than screaming climaxes or transcendent despair. And those hooks, combined with Ritter’s wilingness to be the festival’s only haughty rockstar, made the Rejects my favorite band and the festival. Also playing to the metaphoric cheap seats were Fall Out Boy, whose guitar-spins were just as cleanly executed as their big choruses. They’re not stars, not exactly, not yet, but they’re getting there.

But then, the festival wasn’t about the bands onstage so much as the kids who built these bands up to the point where they could play these big stages and who never tire of hearing how these bands wouldn’t be anywhere without them. During Taking Back Sunday’s set, one of the biggest cheers came when someone in the audience climbed thirty feet up a parking-lot lamppost and then slid back down, presumably without getting hurt. Another nice moment: the guy from From First to Last telling the crowd to throw every piece of trash they could find into the air, resulting in a plastic-bottle storm that looked something like the lottery-ball tumbler on TV. When Poison the Well played one of the side stages, nobody watched them; everyone was too busy watching kids pull off ridiculously intricate jumpkicky spin-moves. If there hadn’t been any bands at all, this festival might not have been all that different, except then I guess it would’ve been a rave, and those aren’t cool anymore.

Voice review: Zach Baron on Lifetime’s Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey
Voice review: Joshua Langhoff on HIM’s Deep Shadows and Brilliant Highlights

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