What’s Screamo? How the Same Term Can Mean Different Things

Tanner (far left) and Kyle (far right) with Nick and Joe of Knuckle Puck. Taken July 1, 2018.

Kyle Ashley is a junior from Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Majoring in Religious Studies, his main interests include loitering in libraries, copious amounts of coffee, and
keeping it emo in 2019.

“Knuckle Puck is awesome, but they can be a little screamo,” my stepbrother Tanner states, responding to my recommendation for which band he should play next.

“Ya… I guess.” I respond. We were fresh off attending the “Last cross-country Warped Tour” (Vans Warped Tour, for those who may not know, is a punk-centric music festival) and had a wealth of bands we wanted to push on others. Knuckle Puck, a band out of Chicago, was amongst our favorites.

But here’s the thing, Knuckle Puck isn’t screamo in the slightest, not to my ear at least. To me (And yes, I’ll be linking all these bands. Did you miss the part where I said I push my music on people?) screamo describes bands like Thursday, Silverstein, and Orchid, not Knuckle Puck. You could describe Knuckle Puck as emo perhaps­—they’re certainly influenced by emo bands at the very least—but to be a screamo band you need to be punk, emo, and have screams (the term screamo is a portmanteau of “scream” and “emo” after all). I just don’t hear those screams, personally. By my ear, Knuckle Puck is a hardcore tinged pop-punk band, one in the same vein as a New Found Glory or The Story So Far. I didn’t say any of this aloud, of course. Nobody likes that dude. However, the difference in how Tanner and I categorize Knuckle Puck did pique my interest. After all, we heard the same band, on the same day, at the same venue, in the same unbearable heat. Shouldn’t we agree on what Knuckle Puck is?  However, this conclusion omits an important variable, or perhaps an important collection of variables–the observers themselves.

In hermeneutics, the study of interpretive processes, we often find that an observer’s interpretation is dependent on their histories, their ideologies, etc. We see this process in action with the proverbial phrase, “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?” It’s assumed that the glass remains the same for both descriptions, what changes is the observer. I believe this process also explains why Tanner and I have this apparent disconnect when categorizing Knuckle Puck’s music. While we may have been watching the same performance, Tanner and I have two entirely different conceptions of what the subgenre of screamo is; these conceptions being formed by our different musical backgrounds. I consider myself to be a punk: I participate in online punk communities, go to tiny punk shows, and have an evergrowing vinyl collection that spans multiple punk subgenres. On the other hand, while Tanner does enjoy some punk music, I don’t think he considers himself a “punk” like I do. His musical tastes are far broader, spanning across a multitude of genres, such as country, rap, classic rock, and indie.

So, who is correct? While I, as a punk, may favor a certain understanding, as a scholar I’m led to conclude differently. Neither categorization is correct, nor are they incorrect. Instead what happens to be presented are two distinct classifications, operating in parallel, that are using the same signifier. Entirely different methods of categorization are being represented by the same word. While the punk in me may be interested in distinguishing the different punk subgenres from one another, the general music fan in Tanner is perhaps more concerned with the accessibility of the vocal techniques. And as someone who isn’t exposed to the more extreme shades of rock music often, the abrasive vocal style of Knuckle Puck’s lead singers Joe and Nick gets thrown in that category of screamo, while I describe it as “aggressive singing.”

However, I don’t want to suggest that one method of categorization is superior to another, or makes you a “better” fan. Instead, by breaking down the discrepancy between Tanner and I, what I hope is made evident is that even in instances where the terminology appears shared and fixed, how we organize the data presented to us can change as a result of both different contextual understandings brought to said data, as well as different objectives we have in categorizing our data.

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