When a tightly knit group of brainy, literate punk rockers centered around the band Rites of Spring invented emo in Washington, D.C., in the mid 1980s, they had a very specific goal: to reinject punk with some of the emotion and theatricality it had lost during the years of strident Reagan-era political engagement. Today, like any genre name more than three weeks old, emo refers to something far less particular: pretty much whatever trendy teenagers listen to while they pen overheated blog entries. The All-American Rejects, from Oklahoma, sound blissfully unaware of emo's origins. The group's model-handsome frontman, Tyson Ritter, sings about romantic turmoil and terminal disappointment, while his band mates churn out ultra-peppy pop that has the blithe insouciance of a star cheerleader. On Move Along, the Rejects' second album, the producer Howard Benson gives the band's high-sheen songs an extra layer of in-studio luster: "Stab My Back" surges with rock-candy electric guitars, while "It Ends Tonight" is built around a weepy prom-night piano.
JamisonParker—not a white-shoe East Coast law firm, but two guys named Jamison Covington and Parker Case—advance a similar notion of emo on their major-label debut. Their radio-ready power ballads are just as shiny and confident as those sung by the boys from Oklahoma. The difference is in the delivery. Whereas Ritter expresses his post-adolescent ardor by pushing his voice to its frayed edge, Covington sings in an amped-up whisper that's supposed to indicate a great deal of suppressed passion. (One of emo's central themes is society's unwillingness to let the sensitive male be as sensitive as he'd like.) In small doses it's a sexy sound, but about halfway through Sleepwalker you just want to shake the dude and tell him to clear his throat.
Denver Dalley, the improbably named singer-songwriter behind Omaha's Statistics, also plays guitar in Desaparecidos, a grunge-rock side project of Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst. (Emo doesn't just sound like a high-school lunchroom; it functions like one, too.) If Oberst is currently emo's crown prince of literary torment (in other words, its Kurt Cobain), Dalley might be its Dave Grohl. Like the former Nirvana drummer now does in Foo Fighters, Dalley mellows a severe sound for more streamlined tastes. Often Lie, the second Statistics full-length, is a big improvement over the first, with catchier melodies and a satisfying, Weezer-ish guitar crunch. Still, Grohl found life after Nirvana by wringing meaning out of the everyday; Dalley, who writes about the minutiae of running his radio show, just comes off as everyday.
Emo is at root an American music, and, in terms of subtlety, its hysterical twentysomethings are the musical equivalent of Yanks who visit the Vatican in Birkenstocks and dark socks. But the Welsh group Funeral for a Friend prove that we've exported this culture of complaint just fine. "I'm sick and I'm tired of always being the good guy," singer Matt Davies howls in "All the Rage," the opening track of the group's second album. FFAF play harder and faster than a lot of emo acts; some lingual genius actually invented the term "screamo" to describe bands with a more aggressive bent. But the extra sound and fury still functions in the service of the same callow melodrama. In "The End of Nothing," atop complicated guitar solos cribbed from late-'70s English heavy metal, Davies likens a breakup to murder.
Sufjan Stevens Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty, 2005) Listen to "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois" and "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!"
One encouraging byproduct of emo's mainstreaming is that there is now room inside the big tent for outsiders. So far, Sufjan Stevens is the freak to beat: He's an underground Christian folk-pop balladeer with a bold project to make an album for each of the 50 states. He's done two so far. Illinois follows 2003's Michigan, and it's a stunner, full of long, rambling story-songs that detail road trips to Chicago, UFO sightings near Highland, and a wild alligator in Decatur. Stevens' gorgeous arrangements, rich with horns and strings and sleigh bells, redeem the evangelical excess of the choir-robed Polyphonic Spree. And though the personal details Stevens sews into the geography are typically histrionic, he also attempts to make emo a place suitable for community, not just solipsism: "Celebrate the few," he sings at one point. "It can only start with you."