In the back of a tour bus parked outside Amos' Southend Music Hall in Charlotte, North Carolina, in early October, All Time Low singer Alex Gaskarth sits barefoot, his knees pulled almost to his chest, his nose and mouth buried deeply in a Vicks Personal Steam Inhaler. Between deep breaths from the small humidifier, he works his voice up and down a scale.
"Zoo zoo zoo zoo zooooo zooooo." Deep breath.
Gaskarth usually starts warming up his voice an hour before stepping onstage, slowly working it from the lower range he speaks in to the higher range he sings in. Today, he's struggling.
He coughs, then blows his nose. "Shit, it's so breathy. It's fatigue. I've been partying too hard."
Voice problems notwithstanding, Gaskarth is doing all right. Ten days ago, his band released their second album -- think Jimmy Eat World if they'd just graduated high school -- which sold nearly 15,000 copies its first week, an impressive number for a bunch of 19-year-olds on a midsize indie label like Hopeless Records. Outside the venue two hours ago, he was mobbed by teen girls requesting photos, autographs, hugs, and in one case, a bracelet off his wrist. And in 20 minutes he'll take the stage -- third on a four-band bill that includes like-minded outfits Boys Like Girls, the Audition, and We the Kings -- to the ear-piercing squeals of those same girls. When he does, he'll sound considerably raspier than he does on record, but even those who've never heard his band before will likely recognize Gaskarth's highpitched keen. While it would be unfair to accuse each of tonight's singers of sounding identical, they all traffic in a vocal style that's become a sort of emo and pop-punk membership card.
"There's this connotation with pop punk that the vocalists are often whiny and monotone," Gaskarth said over dinner hours earlier. "[Producers] push the vocals a lot and compress them, so it sounds as if it was lo-fi. People just get used to hearing it."
An incomplete list of bands whose singers can be categorized as purveyors of "emo voice" would include Fall Out Boy, Plain White T's, the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Hawthorne Heights, Motion City Soundtrack, the All-American Rejects, Yellowcard, the Starting Line, Cobra Starship, and Permanent Me. Surf MySpace's emo pages and the sound is inescapable.
And at a time when nobody is supposed to be buying music, Fall Out Boy have sold more than four million albums, the All-American Rejects around three million, Yellowcard more than two million, and both Plain White T's and the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus' most recent releases will likely go platinum. More important perhaps, even the bands without major-label marketing dollars are selling well: Besides All Time Low's recent release, Hawthorne Heights' two Victory Records albums have sold 1.5 million copies, and Motion City Soundtrack's Even If It Kills Me debuted at No. 16, moving 33,000 copies its first week. Not since alt rock was a post-grunge playground dominated by the likes of Bush, Creed, Silverchair, Live, Candlebox, and 3 Doors Down have so many bands become so successful by sounding so much alike.
"Every ten years in rock, there's a new voice that defines the next generation," says Matt Squire, who coproduced All Time Low's latest and has worked on albums by Boys Like Girls, Permanent Me, and Panic! At the Disco. "When I was growing up, it was the grunge thing -- that man voice that started with Eddie Vedder and Alice in Chains. This latest generation has a very distinct style. For me, there's a lot of bounce and attitude in it."
Daniel Levitin is a former producer and recording engineer who is now a cognitive scientist and author of the book This Is Your Brain on Music, which examines humans' psychological and physiological reactions to music. He points out that there's a good reason this has become the genre's dominant style. "When a singer is singing near the top of his range, adrenaline starts pumping, the body and vocal chords tense up, and that raises the pitch," he says. "This signals an intensity and an investment in the material you don't get in the lower ranges. The brain is attuned to the strain that comes with singing at the top of your range and senses emotional urgency, which is perfect for emo."
But there's a sense within the community that emo voice is wearing out its welcome. "Too many singers want to sound as sweet and innocent as possible," says the Starting Line's Kenny Vasoli. "People are less aggressive in this music than they should be, considering it came from punk rock. You don't hear a lot of guys in the emo scene with dark, smoky, soulful voices."
Some observers, like producer Tim O'Heir, who has worked with the All-American Rejects, the Starting Line, and Say Anything, are even more fed up. "It's a lack of style," he says. "It doesn't seem like a lot of these people actually grew up wanting to be rock singers. We don't have many Jaggers and Bowies. Nobody wants to be ostentatious; they want to keep it humble. The rock singer of yesterday is not the rock star of today."
Most genre tags are problematic ways of classifying music, but few have been the source of such near-universal derision as emo, short for emotional hardcore. Those credited as its earliest practitioners, from the mid-'80s to early '90s -- Rites of Spring, Embrace, Jawbox, Jawbreaker -- accepted the designation grudgingly at best but were spiritually united in their mission to bring a sense of melody and lyrical sensitivity to hardcore punk. The singers in this first wave didn't adhere to a single style or come off as particularly whiny. But with the bands that followed -- notably Sunny Day Real Estate, the Promise Ring, Lifetime, and the Get Up Kids -- the general contours of what is now recognized as emo voice began to take shape.
Interestingly, though, in a poll of 17 emo or poppunk singers (see sidebar), those pioneering bands were rarely mentioned as particularly influential. Instead, the touchstones were more recent: Jimmy Eat World's Jim Adkins, Saves the Day's Chris Conley, Taking Back Sunday's Adam Lazzara, New Found Glory's Jordan Pundik, and especially blink-182's Tom DeLonge. "This era we're in is really when all the kids who were influenced by blink now have their own bands," says DeLonge, whose new group, Angels & Airwaves, recently released their sophomore album. "I hear the influences in the way they sing."
As O'Heir sees it, "blink really opened the door for this same-sounding vocal thing where you adhere stringently to the melody. Fall Out Boy is a prime example. [Patrick Stump] is a phenomenal talent, but he doesn't stray from the notes he writes."
On Fall Out Boy's early material, Stump's voice is decent but undistinguished. However, on their more recent work, particularly this year's Infinity on High, his voice is fuller and at times practically soulful, suggesting that emo voice could be as much a product of youth and inexperience as anything else. "The thing is, most of us probably never had vocal lessons and don't know how to sing technically," Stump says. "But we want to do something melodic and clean. Those two things are at odds with each other; that makes for the nasally quality. But I also remember emulating bands like NOFX and the Sex Pistols who sang out of their noses."
Max Bemis, frontman for Say Anything, whose pointedly titled recent album, In Defense of the Genre, features cameos by Conley, Lazzara, Pundik, Vasoli, and Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba, says he went through an evolution similar to Stump's. "When I was 17, I'd try to ape Chris [Conley] all the time," he says. "But I think I've developed my own voice. Touring has a lot to do with it -- learning how to use the microphone as an instrument."
Even Conley admits, "Back in the day, I'd sing as high as I possibly could, because I didn't know how to get my emotions out. As I grew older, I didn't have to strain like that -- I was more willing to let those emotions come out gently. The strained vocal is something high school kids that don't fit in might identify with, because it makes them feel like someone is feeling their pain."
O'Heir, for one, finds the pervasive influence of singers like Conley distressing. "Saves the Day: Here's an adult who sings like he's in sixth grade," he says. "Maybe it's a generational thing, because I like wit, sex, and violence in vocalists -- Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones." O'Heir, who's 44, contends that this new generation of rock singers grew up watching and listening to industry-assembled pop stars, which has resulted in tamer, less ambitious performers. "Rock is a manufactured thing today, and the fans know it. That's what they grew up with."
Connecting this vocal style to prefab pop is somewhat harsh -- most of these bands write their own songs, play their own instruments, and sprang up organically -- but looking at the fan base, Levitin sees a link, too. "The whole idea is to make music that would be nonthreatening to 14-year-old girls," he says. "You see this all the way back to teen idols like Davy Jones, Bobby Sherman, and Leif Garrett, as well as New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys. All these guys don't sound like they're going to drag you by the hair into some seedy motel room and have their way with you."
But Bemis suggests there's a generational divide at work here, and that those who only hear emo voice as hypersensitive and meek are likely on the wrong side of it. "A lot of people that come from the old school don't get it," he says. "They're so used to metal bands or early hardcore -- this is a reaction to that. You don't have to be some kind of bro to get threatening. Kids with high, girly voices can sing just as passionately with anger."
A few nights before All Time Low's Charlotte show, Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba is playing solo in Atlanta. At 32, Carrabba is a relative emo senior citizen. About 30 minutes into the set, he steps to the mic between songs and looks out at the crowd.
"Ian MacKaye is still alive, despite the Internet rumors today," he says. MacKaye, of course, was the singer/guitarist of Embrace and Fugazi, and the voice of Minor Threat. But the mention of his name tonight is met with several seconds of silence, followed by a lone voice that calls out: "Who's Ian MacKaye?"
" 'Who's Ian MacKaye?' " Carrabba says incredulously. "You've got to know why you like what you like," he continues, shaking his head. "Never mind. I'll blog about it."
The absence of historical perspective is hardly unique to Dashboard fans. Every generation inevitably complains that the kids today just don't understand what good music is, don't respect their trailblazing elders, blah blah blah. But O'Heir maintains that in emo, this ignorance is a real factor in what he sees as the genre's key weakness. "I just worked with a young band, and their music history starts with the Chili Peppers," he says. "They will not go back and listen to a great singer, like a Bowie, because it sounds old and weird to them."
John Janick, founder of Fueled by Ramen, the label that's home to Fall Out Boy, Cobra Starship, and Cute Is What We Aim For, admits that many of these new vocalists do seem to be shaped more directly by their peers. "The guys in all of our bands grew up in this style of music, going to shows all the time," he says. "So they've got to be influenced."
In this way, emo voice's popularity has become exponentially self-perpetuating. Lou Giordano, a 50-year-old indie-rock fixture whose emo production credits (Plain White T's, Taking Back Sunday, Sunny Day Real Estate) top a long career working on records by Mission of Burma, Hüsker Dü, and the Lemonheads, notes that "until a few people broke the ice, people with higher voices and a nasally, reedy sound might not have even had the courage to get up and sing." He attributes emo voice's current prominence to the simple fact that "it's easier to sing up high. You can put your full volume into it really easily. People have trouble singing in the low register because they're not trained singers."
Giordano has also noticed a uniformity in the way this new crop of singers is being produced. "There are definitely some unspoken rules about how to present the vocals," he says. "The breathing is in there, and the vocals are very dry, with not a lot of effects, reverb, or delay." Like Gaskarth, he also notes that the vocals are very "compressed," which essentially means the natural peaks and valleys in the volume of a singer's performance are squished together to make it sound more consistent. Dan Levitin says that the thin vocals on some of these records often seem to be the result of engineers taking some of the bottom end out of the voices to keep them from getting buried behind the guitars and snare drum.
O'Heir believes there's something more insidious at work. "Fewer and fewer bands are making records in studios today because record companies don't have any money to pay professionals to make records," he says. "So you're not using great microphones that give the vocals warmth, presence, and depth. You're using the microphones you can afford at Guitar Center to plug into your FireWire device. All the indie labels have stopped using studios and producers. They're like, 'Here's a couple thousand bucks. Buy yourself a laptop and make your record.' "
Despite the industry's financial woes, easy access to cheap technology means more bands are able to record, and online resources like MySpace and PureVolume have made it easier for them to get heard. "Sometimes, you have groups getting signed before the singer has a chance to tour and develop his voice," says Craig Aaronson, senior vice president of A&R at Warner Bros. "I think people just sing what they know."
As the Starting Line's Vasoli puts it, "Bands like Hawthorne Heights are singing real high and real safely, and then other bands see how successful that band is and hop on the train."
All the while, the industry continues to do what it always does -- chase after whatever's selling. "A couple years ago, when the music was taking off, you could see major labels scrambling to sign anything with a high voice," says Vasoli. As part of a deal between their label, Drive-Thru, and MCA/Geffen, the Starting Line's first two albums were released by the major. "They were all about signing the next New Found Glory or blink-182."
Richard Reines, cofounder of Drive-Thru, says that at the time MCA/Geffen's thinking was myopic. "We signed Something Corporate, a piano-rock band, and Geffen was trying to make them into a junior blink." Reines says he's disgusted by the industry's follow-the- leader mentality and that, in the past few years, he has severed ties with MCA/Geffen and steered Drive-Thru away from not only this singing style but emo and pop punk in general.
"Look at Boys Like Girls," Reines says. "[Martin Johnson] has that voice, he has the image, and it gets big. It's Jessica Simpson for the alternative scene."
Back at Amos' Southend, All Time Low are backstage a few minutes prior to their set. As blink-182's "What's My Age Again?" blares from the PA, the crowd out front begins singing along, and Gaskarth shakes his head: "Maybe we should just go out and play blink songs."
But when they kick off with "Dear Maria, Count Me In," those assembled sing it right back to them. As Gaskarth struggles to reach the high notes, anyone looking to dismiss emo voice as the sound of teen idols will have plenty of ammunition: Of the 800 or so fans in the cavernous club, probably three-quarters are girls between the ages of 13 and 20.
But such a dismissal misses the point. This vocal style isn't any less authentic simply because it's beloved of girls. For those frustrated that every other rock singer these days sounds like Tom DeLonge or Jim Adkins, it's important to remember that compelling vocalists aren't usually born, they're made. "The singers that will shine are the ones that will grow beyond this pocket," Gaskarth said earlier. "Like Fall Out Boy -- Patrick started out very much in the niche. Now he's done something completely different.
"We're in that pocket now," he continues. "We're a pop-punk band; we're not trying to be anything else. But we're on our first album and there's time for us to grow."
To the audience, though, Gaskarth's vocal limitations don't sound like limitations at all. As Tom DeLonge puts it: "Do you want to listen to some 37-year-old guy who sings perfect opera, or do you want a guy who sounds like he's literally hanging out with you and your friends, singing about shit that you would do?"
For tonight, anyway, the answer to that question is abundantly clear.