The return of Indonesian emo
Indonesian emo is making a comeback — it’s just not sure if it actually wants to.
While some of the genre’s most popular bands have survived by essentially catering to the pop mainstream, the original progenitors of local emo went out without much fanfare. Now, a host of new bands taking the harsher elements of “real” emo are flooding the underground with equal amounts of sincerity and selfconsciousness. If this music that they are so passionate about has been linked with a mainstream that they feel disconnected with, do they still want to call it “emo”?
A genre that dares not speak its name, emo has always been the hardcore stepchild that no one professed to like but which many actually did.
Unlike the majority of other musical genres that became trends, even the names associated with emo’s — short for “emotional” — earliest days (which would be the 1980s American hardcore scene, which was going through a process of shedding its violent macho tendencies) took umbrage at the term.
Bands such as Embrace and Rites of Spring — now considered the first emo acts — embraced (no pun intended) an unabashedly naked sincerity to their lyrics and live shows, which were often marked with band members breaking down on stage while giving it their all. But none wanted to be marked with the dreaded “emotional-core” tag.
By the time the American mid-west bred second generation emo bands such as the Promise Ring, Planes Mistaken for Stars, Jejune and The Get Up Kids came around in the mid 1990s, things were getting “poppier” — both in the melodic and “popular” sense of the word. It was getting okay to be emo. As the emo experts interviewed for this article admit, however, by this time emo hadn’t yet reached Indonesian shores.
Then the 2000s came, and emo hit it big everywhere. With the drama punched up through marketable rock-star looks and radio-ready production, emo-infused bands such as Jimmy Eat World, Yellowcard, My Chemical Romance, The Used and Thursday made their way across the world. Indonesia was ready. The dynamic shifts, throaty angst and sentimental romanticism went into calculated overdrive and were easier to grasp.
Indonesian groups of the ilk started cropping up — creating communities, a fashion style and lots of commercial appeal. Emo created a subculture of sorts, with misunderstood teens adopting the term as a cloud of self-pity and an overzealous self-styled identity (mascara, tight pants, long hair brushed sidewards). It became hard for the first generation of Indonesian emo kids to declare their love without fear of being unfairly ridiculed.
“I heard the word emo/post-hardcore for the first time back in 1999/2000 when I was getting into bands like At The Drive-in and Jimmy Eat World,” explains Yudhistira who sings and plays guitar in Vague, a band whose music borrows from emo’s earlier, more abrasive approach.
“Shortly after, the more commercial bands like The Used and Finch received a lot of radio airplay and were featured heavily on MTV and Channel V. And not before long, you could easily find albums by these bands at big chain music store like Aquarius. And suddenly it’s everywhere. I thought it was cool that kids were inspired to pick up their instruments and make their own music,” he says.
Akhmad Alfan, who along with his fellow Malangscenester Indra Menus has curated many local emo/ post-hardcore compilations, says that emo became so big that even kids from smaller cities were inspired. He credits local bands such as Palembang’s Daggerstab, Surabaya’s Never Ending Story, Malang’s Kids Next Door and Take This Life, and Jakarta’s Killed By Butterfly, Alone At Last and Fall as bringing the genre to the local forefront.
“I think Indonesians started to wave the emo flag when those bands contributed songs to the  local emo compilation Anthems of Tomorrow, which gained the bands recognition through lots of MTV airplay, local gigs and magazine exposure,” Akhmad says, adding that smaller cities such as Malang got bitten by the emo bug with the help of internet cafes and imported music magazines circulated among friends.
The peak of local emo came with the mainstream rise of Pee Wee Gaskins, Jolly Jumper, Killing Me Inside and Alone At Last, all of whom adopted an evenmore commercially appealing version of emo-infused arena pop-rock. These bands remain some of the biggest rock acts in the country today precisely of because of how well they adapted to the mainstream.
The other acts, however, went and died with the trend. And now, newer emo-infused acts such as Vague, Wreck, Gauth, and Rekah are bringing the emotion back on stage. But this time, they are purposely more-dissonant, more abrasive and less willing to play nice with those who’d like their music to stand out as yet another fashion statement.
“Emo in Indonesia has experienced its rise and fall,” says Akhmad, who blames mainstream emo for overwhelming fans, who then eventually became sick of it. He theorizes that it was the internet that, at the beginning in 2010, gave rise to the new kind of emo now pulsating through the scene.
Aldy Firstanto, who plays in the first generation emo band Seems Like Yesterday, agrees, calling the country’s first generation emo bands “more mainstream kind of emo, while the newer bands are taking it back to the roots of emo, with rawer sounds — less distorted but more screaming.”
The media has taken notice too, with an increasing amount of coverage of these new emo bands.
“The newer bands are more creative in exploring what they could sound like — injecting elements of spoken word or post-rock [another debatable genre] into their sound. They are, at the same time, also more in touch with the true history of emo,” says Alvin Bahar, a journalist who has written about some of these bands for the teen-oriented Hai magazine.
Tomo Hartono from the band Rekah points to the weekly underground emo gigs around Jakarta as evidence of this new, harsher rise of true emo. For him, emo thrives because no matter what uncool facade it may have adopted in the past, in remains a true reflection of human emotions — especially in a country with ups and downs such as Indonesia.
“It’s like this; in a society that represses and reduces any kind of emotional expression as something that is counterproductive, what could be more revolutionary than singing proudly about how you feel? For me, emo opened up new possibilities of talking about things which modern society considers taboo: mental health, existential crises, alienation, oppression, whatever [...] the possibilities are wide. All those things are driven by something that is very primal — desire and emotions. It’s honest and
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