Last weekend, Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory played all acoustic sets at the tiny, sold-out, Highline Ballroom in the New York Meatpacking distract. Dashboard Confessional is already mostly acoustic — soft songs about breakups and heartache, but stripped-down NFG was practically a revelation. The pop-punkers are generally less snot-nosed versions of Blink 182, or Sum 41 — songs about breakup delivered with good natured snark, tongues-in-cheek. But at Highline, tearing out all the poppy electric hooks revealed a beating emo heart. They were still goofy, no doubt. They wore painted-on lounge suits on their t-shirts and bantered between songs. But they also suggested after every song that this wasn’t the occasion for moshpits, and prefacing their "My Friends Over You," a song about, essentially, the precept that "bros come before hos," they cautioned that it was one of the most serious songs they’ve ever written. The intention seemed ironic, but then they launched into the song and, yeah, it was pretty serious.
NFG lyricist Steve Klein is Jewish, as is bassist Ian Grushka. If you didn’t know before the show, you knew when lead vocalist Jordan Pundik wished all the Jews in the audience a Happy Channukah during a holiday song and then indicated Klein + Grushka playing behind him. Of the three holiday wishes (a Merry Christmas, a Happy Channukah and a Happy Kwanza), the second got the biggest applause from the crowd. It probably helped that the show actually took place during Channukah, but also suggested that a lot of NFG fans, at least in NYC, are Jewish emo kids. With another Jewish artist, Max Bemis, releasing the two best emo albums of the year (the collaborative project Two Tongues + his own band’s eponymous Say Anything), maybe it’s time to ask (as though we haven’t before), is there something Jewish about being emo?
Unlikely. Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional) is, as Rolling Stone puts it, the "godfather" of emo music, and his former band, Further Seems Forever, is explicitly Christian. But there are certain emo tropes that suggest some Judaism slipping through. (Full disclosure: I love emo music, so I’m willing to stretch this connection for the sake of personal titillation.) For one, the anxiety-ridden lyrical tropes of the genre, weeping over girls, worrying whether girls like you, worrying about how to ask a girl out, seem like natural reflections of the anxious Jewish public culture archetype. It’s probably not a coincidence that The OC’s very Jewish Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) loved emo music (side note: he also invented Chrismukkah). Moreover, if you ignore that King David was generally singing about God, there’s a lot of emo in Tehillim.
"They mounted up to the heaven, they went down to the deeps; their souls melted away because of trouble. They reeled to and fro, and staggered like a drunken man, and all their wisdom was swallowed up. They cried unto the LORD in their trouble, and He brought them out of their distresses." (107)
Emo! I mean, it’s a religion full of lamentations. Literally. In Lamentations, (attributed to Jeremiah), "She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks. She has no one to comfort her among all her lovers. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her. They have become her enemies." Am I wrong in thinking that this could easily be dealing with a woman contending with frenemies, as it could be dealing with the nation Israel?
At some point, I held out hope for a real Jewish emo band. Ie: One where the songs were about being a young religious Jew. It was ripe for the writing — tons of agony over being shomer negiah, over your Rabbis/Parents not understanding you, over how tough fast days are. Alas, as the decade comes to an end, and emo slips further and further into the passe regions of pop culture, it seems like that’ll never come to pass. I’ll assuage my own sorrow by listening to NFG + Say Anything and pretend they’re really really Jewish, and not just incidentally Jewish. The closest we ever came was a Say Anything song, Alive with the Glory of Love. It’s about falling in love in a Concentration Camp. It’s bleak, but when is emo (or Judaism) not? In "Stars of David," a book about Jews in, Grushka says about New Found Glory’s name sounding like a born-again Christian band, "Sometimes when people ask, I just say, ‘Yeah, we’re a Christian band.’ They’ll figure it out sooner or later." Maybe the secret Jewish message is in the weeping.
Mordechai Shinefield has written for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and the Forward. When he's not writing music criticism, he's working on a collection of short fiction. He lives with his wife, Charlotte, and his cat, Jonas (named after the Weezer song) in Washington Heights.