It’s Emo Week at Dirt. Here’s Gaby Del Valle on growing up emo in the Florida suburbs.
This was the highlight of my summer: my friend Rachel and I en route to Warped Tour, a nascent tradition in the making. (Other traditions: making up fake lyrics to Escape the Fate songs; only listening to Dashboard Confessional once the school year ended.) My dad is driving—her dad drove last year—and it’s raining so hard we can barely see the road. It’s 2010 or 2011, somewhere in the middle of high school. My dad loses control of the car and I think, this is it, this is how we die and I’ve still never seen Fall Out Boy, but then we stop hydroplaning and everything is fine. The rain stops shortly afterwards. It’s one of those summer storms that feels apocalyptic for 20 minutes before disappearing altogether, making you feel stupid for packing an umbrella. We cruise down the highway that connects our swampy suburb to the rest of Tampa, then cross the bridge over the bay and into St. Pete.
It’s a beautiful drive; it’s always a beautiful day. St. Pete Warped Tour was at Vinoy Park, a dozen green acres right on the water. When it got too hot, we’d sit on the grass and catatonically stare at the boats. We always got too hot. It was ninety-something degrees and humid as hell, and we never had enough money for water. Each year my dad would send me off with a crisp $100 bill and I’d spend each cent at various merch tables. Hydration was a secondary concern.
We didn’t think much about our physical health then. Rachel and I were experts at kicking and elbowing our way to the front of every crowd. If we couldn’t get close enough, we’d find the tallest men in our vicinity and I’d bat my eyelashes at them and ask if they could please hoist us on their shoulders so we could get some air, or if they’d hoist us on their shoulders and toss us into the crowd so we could be manhandled by hundreds of strangers. (My dad forbade me from crowdsurfing my freshman year after he caught me doing it at an All Time Low concert; the illicitness made it all the more exhilarating. We only stopped after Rachel got dropped and fucked up her shoulder so badly she ruined her high school golf career.) That was the real thrill, at least for me. We were there for the music but also for the freedom, and also to flirt with boys.
Here’s what I thought would happen: I’d go to the Chiodos merch tent and the guy working would compliment my studded belt and then we’d fall in love. Or the bassist from my favorite band would see me moodily staring into the distance and think, wow, I bet that 15-year-old is really mature. Normal stuff.
Thankfully, none of that ever happened. If and when my pop-punk crushes glanced my way, they didn’t see an emo ingenue but rather a skinny girl-child in too-short shorts, liquid eyeliner melting off her face, sweaty side-parted hair plastered to her forehead. That’s not to say the men—because these were grown men, not boys—of the scene weren’t preying on girls fresh out of middle school. It’s just that I wasn’t one of them, though not for lack of trying.
All the songs were the same. Either they were about missing your girlfriend so much while you’re on tour that you want to kill yourself, or about how your bitch ex-girlfriend cheated on you while you were on tour and now you want to kill both her and yourself, or about how you never feel at home because you’re always on the road, and not even fucking an endless parade of nameless groupies makes you feel alive anymore.
Every girl was either a lying slut or a beautiful angel for whom you would kill and/or die depending on what was necessary. Take the lyrics to Mayday Parade’s “When I Get Home You’re So Dead”: consider this as a gift as you taste him on your lips / and he’s making you scream with his hands on your hips / hope he’s leaving you empty, baby / this is just a fix for such a simple little whore. Now compare those to“Skyway Avenue” by the Bradenton-based band We the Kings: if you jump I will jump too / we will fall together from the building’s ledge / never looking back at what we’ve done / we’ll say it was love. The song is about the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, yet another Tampa landmark. More than 300 people have died by suicide there. The first time I drove over it, I couldn’t get the song out of my head.
The angst is what united us, the teenage girls and slightly older men. Suburban Florida is a breeding ground for malaise. The heat is oppressive and everyone is bored. Our only after-school activities were smoking weed behind the public library, sneaking into abandoned houses that had previously belonged to the unwitting victims of the housing crash, and constructing elaborate bonfires in Rachel’s backyard. Everyone’s undiagnosed anxiety disorders and chemical imbalances felt particularly acute against a manicured backdrop, all neat Easter egg-hued houses separated by boxy strip malls. It felt perverse to hate our lives when we were so close to the Happiest Place on Earth. It also made us think we were smarter than everyone else: we knew a secret truth our peers didn’t, and that truth was that everything sucked.
This was at the tail end of the Myspace years, but the lessons I had internalized from that era were still imprinted in my psyche. A few years earlier I spent all my free time on Myspace, idolizing girls like Kiki Kannibal whose moms let them bleach their hair and dye horizontal stripes into their teased bangs. Girls who dated older guys they met on Myspace—not old old, just like, 17 or 18. That, I thought, was the height of maturity. Kiki, like me, was from Florida. She seemed to have everything I wanted: an eyeliner-wearing boyfriend, understanding parents, dyed hair. Never mind that her boyfriend was a serial predator and her parents had to move halfway across the state because she reportedly got inundated with death threats after breaking up with him.
The scene, whatever that meant, was supposed to be counterculture. But really it was just reproducing the same culture that already existed, albeit with a different look. There was no real difference between the shitty men we idolized and shitty men elsewhere who didn’t wear skinny jeans and eyeliner. As smart as we thought we were, we didn’t know that yet. — By Gaby Del Valle