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When Panic! at the Disco Ditched the Exclamation Point—and Emo

2008’s ‘Pretty. Odd.’ was a shocking sophomore pivot. It was also a sign that the genre’s pop moment was on the way out.

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My Chemical Romance is touring again, Paramore and Jimmy Eat World are headlining a major festival this fall, and there’s a skinny, tattooed white dude with a guitar dominating the charts. In case you haven’t heard, emo is back, baby! In honor of its return to prominence—plus the 20th anniversary of the first MCR album—The Ringer is following Emo Wendy’s lead and tapping into that nostalgia. Welcome to Emo Week, where we’ll explore the scene’s roots, its evolution to the modern-day Fifth Wave, and some of the ephemera around the genre. Grab your Telecasters and Manic Panic and join us in the Black Parade.

“I mean, these labels,” record producer, composer, and arranger Rob Mathes moans. “‘Emo.’ What the fuck? … Who the hell came up with the title ‘emo’?”

The question is rhetorical. (Though the answer is “No one knows—Thrasher magazine, maybe?”) The confusion is heartfelt. The frustration is timeless. Almost 40 years after the nebulous, oft-derided genre’s rise, invoking emo can still piss people off.

There’s an artistic upside to imprecise, persistent musical labels: Pigeonholing performers sometimes inspires their best work. Bob Dylan, dissatisfied with being identified as a folk singer, recorded “Like a Rolling Stone.” Janet Jackson, wriggling out from under the thumb of her father and famous siblings, created Control. Mariah Carey, determined to fuse pop with hip-hop and rap, recruited Puffy and ODB for the “Fantasy” remix. Panic at the Disco—and Mathes, who describes himself as “the fifth member of the band for that record”—made Pretty. Odd. Released in March 2008, Pretty. Odd. was a shocking sophomore pivot and a direct hit on the popular perception that Panic was (whatever this means) an emo band. In its exuberant, tuneful, retro rejection of expectations for Panic and other unwilling, loosely associated standard-bearers of emo, Pretty. Odd. sounded the death knell for a musical moment—a harbinger of the trough that would follow Third-Wave emo’s mid-decade crest.

Emo’s mainstream popularity probably peaked in 2006, and two years later, the backlash was in full flight (and fright). “Come 2008, emo had arguably reached its pop-culture saturation point,” Ringer contributor Rachel Brodsky wrote this week. “Suddenly, ‘emo’ was an embarrassing, faddish concept, with bands opting to be called ‘alternative’ and fans rejecting the label en masse.” Nonfans rejected it too: In May 2008, the Daily Mail published an infamous story that bore the headline, “Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo.” Amid that atmosphere of over-it artists and outside-the-scene moral panic, Panic at the Disco dropped its exclamation point and then dropped Pretty. Odd., a record whose overriding emotion was happiness.

“We really wanted to show in the music that we were happy, compared to the first album, which is more of an emo album,” says former Panic bassist Jon Walker, who joined the band in May 2006, after the release of its first album but before the beginning of its first headlining tour. “Our lives had changed so much, and we wanted that to reflect in the music.”

Pretty. Odd. was a bold and dramatic about-face from the group’s breakout debut, 2005’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, which featured a top-10 hit in “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” and eventually went triple-platinum. Fever’s first half, especially, was a pop-punk sampler with electronic elements, which helped establish the idea that Panic was a carbon copy of Fall Out Boy, whose bassist Pete Wentz had signed Panic as the first addition to Decaydance Records. Pretty. Odd.—whose first song, “We’re So Starving,” ironically proclaimed, “You don’t have to worry ’cause we’re still the same band”—was a longer, more richly instrumented mashup of melody and production that owed a debt to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Kinks, and ELO. Some have (sort of) suggested that Pet Sounds was, in spirit, the first emo album, but nothing about Pretty. Odd. sounded stereotypically emo—at least what real emo consists of—and save for lead singer Brendon Urie’s distinctive vibrato, little linked it to Fever. “What was pushing us to sound different was just trying to be authentic and not replicate what we thought we had to do,” says Walker (who was the only member of the Pretty. Odd. lineup to respond to an interview request).

Taylor Markarian’s 2019 book From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society (which starts with the Mathes-esque question, “What the fuck is emo?”) notes that the so-called “emo trinity” of Panic, Fall Out Boy, and My Chemical Romance was “actually more alternative, pop rock, or indie in terms of sound” than the emo bands before them. The emo appellation was particularly ill-suited to Panic, which wasted no time in joining a long list of bands that have rebelled against it. Asked to explain that enduring, reflexive impulse to shed an emo rep, Judith Fathallah, author of the 2020 book Emo: How Fans Defined a Subculture, says that a “desire to avoid stereotyping/pigeonholing could have been part of it—in addition to the fact that bands quite possibly didn’t know what people meant by the term ‘emo.’”

Almost from the beginning, Panic! at the Disco situated itself outside the vaguely defined emo tradition, with Urie and guitarist-songwriter Ryan Ross sometimes disparaging other emo bands or dismissing the genre as “insulting” or “limiting.” (“I know that Ryan wasn’t thinking they were emo for one fucking second,” Mathes says.) The most sensational line, which was allegedly taken out of context, was Urie’s “Emo is bullshit!” declaration to NME in 2006. His comment continued, “If people want to take it for the literal sense of the word, yes we’re an emotional band, we put a lot of thought into what we do. People always try to stereotype us, but we don’t fit the emo stereotype.”

Pretty. Odd. was at least partly intended to prove that. As the group told BBC Radio 1 after the record’s arrival, “With this new record our main goal was to make people open their eyes and view us as a band and not really as a specific trend.” In something of an upset, the music mostly doesn’t suffer from the strain of establishing a new sound: Pretty. Odd. is more than pretty good, and its spin on ’60s-style pop and psychedelia compares more closely to the classics than could have been expected from a 40-years-on, not-that-emo emo band whose members were just out of their teens. The album didn’t scale the same sales heights as Fever, but a long tail of sales led to a platinum certification in 2019. And although some critics panned it—The New York Times somewhat sympathetically called it “the magnum opus of a talented band charging wholeheartedly down a blind alley”—most appreciated the band’s big swing. The album boasts the highest average critic score and user score in the Panic! at the Disco catalog, according to music review aggregation site Album of the Year. If anything, it’s held in higher regard almost 15 years after its release.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for that album,” says music journalist Rob Sheffield, who reviewed it for Rolling Stone. “It’s so friendly. All the straining for grandeur comes off as boyish and sweet. It’s not the kind of mega-pretentious album that wants to intimidate you or even impress you. These boys just want to entertain.”

Initially, they couldn’t decide on much more than that. After an extended touring cycle, the band turned its attention to a follow-up record. The only idea that was off the table was making more music in the same style. “When it came time to write that second album, there was just an insane amount of pressure on the band,” Walker recalls. “I don’t think anybody ever expected that first album to explode the way it did. So it kind of left us in a spot where I think we all accepted that no matter what we did, it was going to be tough to pull off what happened with the first album.”

Ross, the primary writer of Fever, pitched Panic on a new creative direction. “He had this whole idea to do a concept album—[a] musical, almost—kind of album that didn’t really fit the pop world that we had been in,” Walker says. “That was the moment when I realized that we didn’t really know exactly what was going to happen next.” The prospect of pivoting so hard was daunting, but so was the prospect of repeating themselves. “We were hoping that us taking such a left turn would work in our favor because instead of being compared to the first album, it’d be an obvious departure. It would stand on its own. It’s like, that was that and this is this.”

Ross, Urie, Walker, and drummer Spencer Smith worked on “this”—their vision for an ambitious experiment that came to be called Cricket and Clover—for roughly six months in 2007, some of which they spent cloistered in a rented cabin in the mountains of Nevada. “We had basically an entire album, almost, demoed out and laid out to what we wanted to do,” Walker says. Mathes, who visited Panic at the cabin and heard snippets of the group’s sonic experiments, describes himself as “a bit of a myth buster about Cricket and Clover,” noting that the undertaking was nowhere near finished. Although portions of the project would end up on Pretty. Odd. and other albums, the group decided shortly before it was scheduled to enter the studio to start over almost from scratch.

“It seemed so far out there that it wasn’t really even like a band at that point,” Walker says, adding, “So we scrapped that entire album and basically had three months to write and record a new one.”

Although one might assume that such an audible would only intensify the pressure to deliver a commercially viable successor to their inaugural record, taking a left turn from the first left turn actually felt freeing. “When I joined the band, there [were] already pretty high tensions,” Walker says. “I think we just basically agreed that we were going to try to have as much fun as possible, because why not? We’re young and successful, and we can basically do whatever we want. That’s where Pretty. Odd. was born, just an exercise in, how much fun can we actually have, not overthinking this and just playing music?”

That mindset put Panic in “a place where thoughts can bloom.” The new songs came quickly: Lead single “Nine in the Afternoon,” which Walker had partially written before he joined the band and which would yield a Beatles-esque music video and double-platinum sales, was finished within a week, as were a few other songs. The rest of the 15-track, nearly 50-minute record was written within a month. Songwriting credits were split four ways, even when one member had been the driving force behind a certain song. (“Northern Downpour” was another track that Walker had largely written on his own and then brought to Ross for lyrics assistance.) “We did mostly write all together, even lyrics,” Walker says. “We’d be sitting in a room, throwing out ideas. And even as we were in a studio, changing lyrics at the last minute. It really was a collaborative effort, which I was so excited about.”

In retrospect, perhaps, the group’s evolving sound was semi-foreseeable: Panic had always used strings, horns, and harmonies to polish their Las Vegas glitz, and the vaudeville/cabaret-influenced second half of Fever reflected their stylistic restlessness and shifting musical tastes. (“They didn’t want to sound like Fall Out Boy, so they wanted to do all this Beatles-y shit,” Fever producer Matt Squire recalled in 2015.) The Fever tours featured a circus-centric milieu, period dress, and quotes that painted Panic as a band out of time. “Years back, bands were a lot better,” Ross stated in early 2006, expressing a desire to “wake kids up and get them listening to more sincere music.”

The music the group (particularly Ross and Walker) was steeped in—and to a large extent, consciously channeling—during the writing and recording of Pretty. Odd. included not only the aforementioned late-’60s/early-’70s standouts, but also composers such as Danny Elfman and Bernard Herrmann. “I didn’t get a sense that … they were thinking, ‘Hey, man, let’s do our Sgt. Pepper’s,’ or, ‘Let’s do our Brian Wilson’s Smile,’” says Mathes, who had first worked with the band on their 2006 cover of “This Is Halloween” for a reissue of the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas. “It wasn’t like that. They were just listening to different shit and getting excited about it and just writing.” There’s an innocent, infectious earnestness to the way Panic repackaged its musical discoveries; it’s like listening to the sound of spreading wings. As Walker puts it, “We felt happy. We felt mystical. We felt like we were growing up. We felt like we were still young. We felt lucky. I think all that stuff kind of comes out in the music.”

They were also responding to the tedium of playing to click tracks and backing tracks while touring on the drum-machine-and-synths-infused Fever. “After doing that for two years, it felt a little robotic,” Walker says. “So I think we just had this natural urge to get back to our instruments as much as possible.” As Fathallah observes in her book, Panic’s black-and-white video for “Northern Downpour,” like the similarly stylized videos for My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” and Fall Out Boy’s “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race,” “put a heavy emphasis on performance and playing, careful to construct the bands as instrumentalists first and foremost, in keeping with the valorization of technicality.”

“I can’t prove this makes any sense but I sure hope that it does,” Urie sings on “The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know.” Part of Pretty. Odd.’s appeal is its ostentatiously over-the-top mélange of musical ideas, but at its core, the songwriting is rock solid, especially on “Nine in the Afternoon,” “Northern Downpour,” additional singles “That Green Gentleman (Things Have Changed)” and “Mad as Rabbits,” and “Behind the Sea” and “When the Day Met the Night.” Most of the album’s best songs are frontloaded—though the vocal interplay between Urie and Ross on 13th track “She Had the World” and closer “Mad as Rabbits” is sublime—and not every sonic experiment pays off; also, some of the nonsensical, Lennon-esque lyrics (like “Don’t you know that those watermelon smiles just can’t ripen underwater?”) seem to serve mostly as acid-rock homages and evidence that the writers were doing drugs. (Which they were.) But as a whole, it hangs together, which is partly attributable to self-described “music geek” Mathes, the grown-up in the room and veteran orchestrator who knew when a song called for more cowbell—except instead of cowbell, it was Wurlitzer, flugelhorn, or piccolo trumpet. (Although most of the album was laid down at Nevada’s Studio at the Palms, additional recording, predictably, was done at Abbey Road, where it was also mixed by the same man who mixed the Yellow Submarine DVD—a favorite of the band’s.)

Although the quartet (or quintet, counting Mathes) was pleased with what they’d achieved, the suits had some misgivings. “We were getting a lot of pushback from management and the label regarding just how different it was,” says Walker, who adds that “there was some hesitation and just a lot of fear as to whether or not it was going to work and whether or not the band was going to be a one-hit wonder.” The album opened at no. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, but its sales soon lagged behind Fever’s fast pace. “When the album came out and didn’t do nearly as well as people were expecting, it’s almost like that first week, our momentum was deflated,” Walker says. “The label’s like, ‘I told you so,’ even though it did really well, compared to all the other scene bands. But when you’re compared to the Top 40, it’s a little different.”

Of course, Panic wasn’t the only act in their orbit to take creative risks, following in the footsteps of early-2000s quasi-emo efforts like the Promise Ring’s Wood/Water and the Get Up Kids’ On a Wire. (Writer Ian Cohen compiled a playlist for The Ringer covering these types of swings, affectionately titled “Second-Wave Emo’s Flop Era.”) Sheffield’s RS review remarked, “Like any growing emo band, Panic want to make a Seventies-style art-rock epic,” an allusion to My Chemical Romance’s Queen-esque The Black Parade and the Killers’ Springsteen-esque Sam’s Town—the latter of which was, along with the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, one of the few follow-ups to a blockbuster debut in the history of popular music that can rival Pretty. Odd.’s audacity. Those seminal, course-changing releases, along with Fall Out Boy’s similarly boundary-testing Infinity on High, worked their way into Panic’s record rotation even during the group’s ’60s immersion course. “We were definitely listening to those albums as they were coming out and inspired by the creative leaps,” Walker says.

Looking back, Sheffield says, “Emo bands in that era were so desperate to make old-school pomp-rock statements. … This wasn’t a scene, it was an arms race, so every band felt pressured to up the pretentiousness ante. Pretty. Odd. was part of that, but it also stood out because it had that essential friendliness. It wasn’t desperate-sounding. The songs didn’t ask you to study them for plots or deep inner meanings, because you could tell from the titles there weren’t any. I think that aspect of the album really holds up.”

Walker agrees that the album he helped make still sounds good, if not even better to listeners in 2022 than in 2008. He points out that thanks to the passage of time, “You can listen to it without such a jarring, stark contrast. I think that’s maybe what was hard, is everybody was so used to the [old] sound, so it really was a different band. Every song, all the arrangements, it was quite a departure. I think that time has helped, because people can hear it now. It’s not like they’re as taken aback by how different it is. If anything, the way music has gone, I think people hearing real instrumentation, it’s kind of refreshing.”

“This is the start of something special for us,” Ross said in 2008, but Pretty. Odd. ended up putting a period (so to speak) on that incarnation of Panic. “The band was kind of on the verge of breaking up before I even joined,” Walker says. “I feel like there was just a lot of clashing of personalities and opinions.” Pretty. Odd., and the stripped-down, flower-filled shows that followed its release, offered a temporary reprieve. “I felt like it injected a lot of positivity and happiness into the band that wasn’t there before,” Walker continues. “Even just playing the songs together on stage as a band, there was just a lot more chemistry and energy.” Mathes, who has worked with many musical luminaries, remembers the time he spent producing Pretty. Odd. as “among the greatest months of my life” and “a fucking joy from pretty much the front to the end.”

But the bohemian bonhomie wouldn’t last. “Now they’ve successfully pulled off their Beatles pastiche, where the hell do they go now?” PopMatters wondered. The unexpected answer was, “Their separate ways.” In July 2009, the band abruptly and unceremoniously split in half, partly prompted by a stylistic schism between Walker and Ross’s fondness for Pretty. Odd.’s throwback bona fides and Urie’s preference for a more modern sound. Ross and Walker were out; the exclamation point was back in. Panic’s outgoing guitarist and bassist formed their own unit, the Young Veins, and released one album before that band splintered too, freeing Walker to embark on a productive solo career. Smith stuck with Urie for two more albums before unofficially uncoupling from Panic to deal with substance misuse issues in 2013. (He’s now working at Wentz’s label.) His official departure in 2015 left Urie as the band’s sole remaining original member. Mathes, who produced part of the Young Veins’ lone record, continues to work with Urie, including on Panic’s seventh studio album, Viva Las Vengeance, which will come out next month.

Pretty. Odd. signaled the end of an era for emo as well; as NME asked in its review, “Who would have thought that the War On Emo would eventually be won by Sgt. Pepper?” The bands that broke biggest didn’t disappear: The same magazine noted in 2018 that “the likes of Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, and Paramore have transcended the emo tag, becoming fully fledged, festival-headlining pop acts in the process.” As the Panic song says, “Things have changed for me, and that’s OK.”

Emo nostalgia is thriving, and fourth and fifth waves have followed the third. But Pretty. Odd. and its genre-busting predecessors were wave breakers that morphed a musical movement into something new, delineating an ambiguous border between before and after. “I’m honestly convinced that this entire era was just one big hallucination,” says the top comment on the YouTube video for “Nine in the Afternoon.” The chorus of “We’re So Starving” sums it up: “Oh, how it’s been so long / We’re so sorry we’ve been gone.”

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