When My World Was Sunny Day Real Estate

I first learned about Sunny Day Real Estate at a lunch table during my sophomore year of high school. We were talking about … some kind of music, I guess. I suspect it had something to do with the Sub Pop label, which I had recently discovered was more than just grunge. Or, it might have been about Smashing Pumpkins, or Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, which had just been released. I know I had recently started a job at Best Buy, and I know this because I can remember stocking Vitalogy — its gatefold, non-jewel-cased packaging was a pain in the ass to fit on the front end-caps. I still listened to August and Everything After a lot. I had not yet made the mistake of thinking I could pull off being “punk.”

July 2022: When My World Was Sunny Day Real Estate

  • “A.M. 180” — PUP
  • “For the Singer of R.E.M.” — fIREHOSE
  • “For Want Of” — Rites of Spring
  • “Fire Drills” — Dessa
  • “Vibe” — Zhané
  • “One Night Left” — Dan the Automator
  • “The Ghost In You” — The Psychadelic Furs
  • “She Came to Leave” — Duncan Barlow
  • ”47” — Sunny Day Real Estate
  • “LOVE&JETT” — Guitar Wolf
  • “It Says No Homers (We’re Allowed to Have One)” — Jun Buxton
  • “Maybe I’m In Love With You” — Winston Surfshirt (w/ Talib Kweli)
  • “Hard Hitters” — Dilated Peoples (w/ Black Thought)
  • “If’s Hear When We Get Back It’s Ours” — Texas Is the Reason
  • “The Logical Song” — Sexton Blake
  • “That’s Physics, Baby” — Pool Kids
  • “Daydreamin’” — Lupe Fiasco (w/ Jill Scott)
  • “Vincent O’Brien” — M. Ward

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

None of this matters, honestly. What matters is that someone at the table pulled out their CD of Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary — with its painting of anti-suburban Playmobil characters — and I was immediately in love.

This was the fall of 1994. I didn’t yet realize that my entire scope of what music is was about to explode — and then quickly contract, like a black hole.

In life, there are tipping points toward obsession. You don’t wake up one morning deciding you’re going to fall head first into a fandom — it happens slowly and then all at once. You slowly build up a tolerance, and then a trigger is pulled. It might be the first time you see an episode of a really good anime, or the day you start feeling the results of a new kind of exercise. It might be a song that made an entire genre come alive.

For me, it was Diary. From that day on, even though I had no idea what it meant — and still don’t — I was an emo kid.

It’s Emo Week at The Ringer, and it’s weird for me to read the articles. First, it’s because Emo Week is both a celebration and a retrospective. This feels contrary to the entire genre: emo has never been defined by anything more than feelings. It’s a genre that has been shunned by every great band that ever came out of it. There’s no way to talk about it without feeling like you really shouldn’t be talking about it — you don’t celebrate being an emo fan — you admit being an emo fan, behind closed doors, in a way that looks for absolution and acceptance.

Second, it’s because I now realize how little of the history of emo I really experienced. It’s because my entire world was this one genre for about six years, and to me that six years is the entire genre.

In order to understand that thought, let me put my “Dad teaches his kids about music” glasses on and explain emo’s history in five “waves.”

  • First-wave emo was simply “punk with personal lyrics and maybe a noodly guitar.” Everyone mentions Rites of Spring and Embrace, but also, somehow, early Jawbreaker and Fugazi get lumped in here.
  • Second-wave emo — the wave that grew out of the inspiration of Sunny Day Real Estate — saw the guitar noodles get more complex and the personal lyrics get a bit whinier. This was the mid–90s to early–2000s. This was my emo.
  • Third-wave emo was My Chemical Romance and all the bands that sound just like them.
  • Fourth- and fifth-wave emo have spent the last 20 years reacting and correcting against My Chemical Romance and all the bands that sound just like them.

This is tongue-in-cheek, sure — and, honestly, it’s all semantics. None of it matters. What matters is that the real reason that emo bands never want to be called emo is that there’s a very specific kind of connotation that comes with the genre and, more specifically, its fans — an intensity and hero worship that hits a bit differently. When your band sings “Goddammit, I’m not talking about my heart, like it’s a tinfoil valentine,” the fans are bound to begin placing their own hearts within the confines of the song.

In other words — Sunny Day Real Estate introduced me to emo. Emo introduced me to parasocial relationships. I found an early identity in not only listening and embracing the broken heart aesthetic of that entire second wave of emo, but being the guy who was into that world, and thinking that the world was small enough that I was also a part of it myself.

And so, for a long time, emo lived and died within the scope that I recognized — from 1994 to 2000. As far as I could tell, Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary was my mission statement — my album to promote. It was written to be broadcast to millions, but it was created for me and for me alone. To be fiercely loyal toward. To defend. When I branched out into the rest of the world of second-wave midwestern-style emo — Braid, The Get Up Kids, Rainer Maria, Christie Front Drive, The Promise Ring, Mineral, Jimmy Eat World — I embraced them in the same way. I defended them. They were my thing and I would forever love them until the end of time.

In my mind, every band was perfect and universal. I knew that bands like Braid weren’t multi-million unit pushers. I knew that bands like The Get Up Kids weren’t Saturday Night Live musical acts. But I also knew that they were popular within the genre, which at that point meant they were popular everywhere.

This is the ambiguity of fandom: you never really know how society as a whole feels about the things you love, because you are clouded by your own judgment. You root for them. You celebrate their successes. But they’re yours — even the failures are successes. It’s why, despite The Pomp Room hosting sold-out all-ages shows from Marilyn Manson and Hum and Fugazi, my recollection places a not-quite-sold-out Texas Is the Reason show as the most important show ever to grace that venue.

I was right in front. I can only assume the rest of the world was behind me.

Rob Harvilla, host of 60 Songs That Explain the 90s, talked about this during an episode this month. Not from this week’s episode on Sunny Day Real Estate’s “In Circles,” but in an earlier episode, on Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.”

Speaking about the release of the first singles from The Downward Spiral, Harvilla brings into focus the exact feeling of obsession that comes from finding a perfect album — in finding a fandom and scene upon which you perfectly fit. Harvilla says:

This is how The Downward Spiral was introduced to the world — or, more to the point, because I’m the only person who heard or understood or was understood by this album — this is how The Downward Spiral was introduced to me. I’m sorry, did I say Nine Inch Nails sold 3.7 million copies of this record in the United States? I misspoke — Nine Inch Nails sold one copy of this record, to me, and I played it 3.7 million times.

Typically, an episode of this show, whatever the song is, I re-listen to the album that song is on anywhere between five and six hundred times — to reacquaint myself with it; to refresh my memory. […] I don’t have to do that for The Downward Spiral. This is music that I no longer need to play out loud to hear. I am listening to The Downward Spiral right this second. I will never again in my life not be listening to The Downward Spiral. I can recite this record for you the same way I can recite my social security number.

I was there, with Sunny Day Real Estate, with that entire scene. We all end up with things like this in our life — we live with art as our own much more than we appreciate it as a collective. Music and fandom live within the world we create for them. We feed them and obsess about them on our own time, regardless of outside influence. For some, it’s an era of new discovery — it’s the excitement of finding a clan, of finding something that clicks. For some, it’s a reinforcement of the things we love. For some, it’s disappointment and acceptance — seeing the best days behind, holding tight until something else can fill that hole.

From the outside, for me, my emo years felt like such a phase. Yet, as I find my kids stumbling across the same paths of discovery — finding their own Diary, you could say — I remember how formative it all was. I still love these bands. I still want to tell everyone about them. I still want strangers to sit down with Four Minute Mile and relive those moments of clumsy longing. My chest is still a cage for their letters, every one of them.

When the winds shifted, and the genre moved toward new waves, I thought I’d grown out of it. On the contrary — I held tight to what I’d experienced. It was the genre that grew beyond me. Art is always subject to consumption, but that doesn’t mean consumers drive the bus — it’s up to us to follow along or stay off.

I stayed off. For a bit. I’m rediscovering a ton this week, and it feels as exciting as it did back in 1994, in that lunch room. Second-wave emo Corey grew into something different — third-wave professional, fourth-wave parent — but, unlike with the genre itself, there’s no need to react and correct. Not worrying about what I missed. Welcoming it all back with open arms.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 30th, 2022