The Hotelier‘s recent third album, Goodness, has received universally positive reviews, though critics often seem to feel they need to apologize for liking it. Many appear uncomfortable using the word “emo” to describe the band, though that’s clearly the music they play. Pitchfork senior editor Jillian Mapes dodged the question expertly: “At this point, however, it might not even be accurate to call them emo, so let’s just have it out now: The Hotelier is a great rock band, however you classify them.” A sudden onset of rhetorical fussiness about genre labels is a common way to give a great band a pass when they play a style of music that’s still widely reviled. Emo hasn’t made a single appearance at the Pitchfork Music Festival till this year—and it’s the Hotelier who ended the drought.
More than three decades after emo emerged from the underground punk scene in Washington, D.C., and roughly 15 years after the genre crossed over to become a pop-culture phenomenon, it still struggles with a bad reputation—for unearned histrionics, for adolescent misogyny, for creative bankruptcy or ineptitude. The Hotelier, a three-piece from Worcester, Massachusetts, are part of a legion of fourth-wave emo acts helping to change the conversation, but the going is slow: in May, in an otherwise thoughtful profile on Philadelphia group Modern Baseball, New York Times reporter Joe Coscarelli called emo “an outmoded style of music.”
Even when emo boomed in the 2000s, elevating the likes of Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy, and My Chemical Romance into the public eye, it couldn’t escape its stigma. Pitchfork’s editorial staffers seemed to see themselves as champions of refined, cerebral indie rock, and emo looked like the opposite number of that kind of music—even before it became the unofficial favorite genre of Warped Tour, which is basically the antimatter Pitchfork festival. When Pitchfork deigned to write about the stuff, its attention was often worse than its neglect. Only the best-known or most conspicuously indie-leaning emo artists got reviewed, and at least 90 percent of those reviews were negative. Brent DiCrescenzo’s 0.7 review of 2000’s Electric Pink EP by foundational second-wave band the Promise Ring (that’s on a ten-point scale) didn’t need to continue past its snarky subheadline: “The Spinal Tap-ian response to this unnecessary EP would simply be ‘electric stink.’ Alas, I must now waste my time and . . . ” In his review of Jimmy Eat World’s breakout 2001 record Bleed American (later retitled Jimmy Eat World), Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber writes, “These songs will never test or judge you,” slapping on a score of 3.5. The Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl Vol. 1 & II, which came out the same year, is one of the few emo records Pitchfork didn’t pan: it got a freakishly high 9.0, but the reviewer attempted to keep his hands clean by pretending that the band had left emo behind.
Pitchfork has softened on emo over the past few years, as fourth-wave artists began their mainstream rise. In 2013 it began covering newer acts regularly if not exhaustively, among them Into It. Over It., the World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Foxing, and Tigers Jaw. Reunited veterans and their reissued records have received attention too—American Football’s self-titled album and the Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good both got the coveted “Best New Reissue” tag. Despite the sometimes glowing praise in Pitchfork’s reviews of younger bands, though, none has broken through to earn “Best New Music.”
The Hotelier have come close—Goodness earned an 8.0, a couple tenths of a point shy of the lowest-scoring BNM releases. The fact that Pitchfork asked them to play its festival is probably more significant. The closest to emo it’s gotten before now has been to book bands tangentially related to the genre. Waxahatchee have played Pitchfork twice, and front woman Katie Crutchfield previously spent four years in P.S. Eliot, a band that shares roots with much of emo’s fourth wave. (Waxahatchee themselves are more indie rock then emo.) Festival veterans Japandroids and Cloud Nothings play rock with the sort of earnest swagger that misleads people into calling them emo, but neither act reflects the language, history, and spirit of the sound the way the Hotelier does. Though it’s taken Pitchfork more than a decade of festivals to invite a single emo band, at least it picked a great one to break the ice. v