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Emo Hyperreality: a review of Shot Topic & Graffiti Pasta

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A tension exists within my mind. It’s a low static, a quiet rumbling that starts in the back of my head. It buzzes as I dart past Teslas making illegal right turns, it chimes in while scrolling through endless horrors while sitting outside on break at work. It really loves to pipe up when I enter a new business.

There’s something particularly surreal about walking into any business that opened past March of 2020. Places that look like bootleg Apple Stores, clean white surfaces, ample square footage so each table can exist in complete abstraction, with grand digital screens glimmering in 4K telling you it’s gonna be $7 for that cortado. The audacity to start a business venture during a time of intense Everything (uncertainty, precarity, insecurity, death, sorrow, death, fear, death, etc) is to some extent admirable, but also results in places that feel more intensely Of a Time, instantly dated as a “pandemic” thing, a striking reminder that, yeah, things are kinda fucking strange now.

When there’s seemingly no stable ground, you latch onto what’s near you, or what you may remember from the past, a germinal urge to create familiarity. It’s why we really want dogs to talk, why we see faces in manhole covers. From this urge two DFW businesses have sprung forth: Shot Topic, a bar in Dallas, and Graffiti Pasta, a restaurant in Denton. In order to explain (and ideally resolve) this tension, this constant headache, it has become necessary to unpack these ambitious ventures, examine the touchstones to which they reference, and discern the true instability of this moment in arts & culture (with the help of a dead French guy).

But first, we must define some terms.

Unfortunately, we’re about to begin a pedantic argument related to “Punk” subgenres, and thus a level of clarification can really help keep things in order. So, let us view the following table.

The most important thing to keep in mind when discussing Emo online is that genre is rough classification at best. Nobody likes a prescriptivist, and everyone hates a pedant. Many of these “Waves” have ample crossover, and many bands straddle these eras gracefully. Consider that Jimmy Eat World started in 1994, and grew from playing shows at Rubber Gloves to releasing a platinum record in 2001, touring stadiums with Taking Back Sunday and Green Day in the mid 2000s.

Would they be a 2nd or 3rd wave band? Well, Clarity is a delightfully twinkly & melodic late 90’s Emo album that would have fit perfectly alongside Orange Rhyming Dictionary on Jade Tree, were it not catastrophically released by Capitol. But only two years later they’d return to their more pop punk-y roots and lean hard into a sound that would prove formative to many 3rd wave bands. Who’s to say?

This blurring of genre convention & common sound is axiomatic to the nature of Emo, a genre title largely seen as a pejorative term for the first years of its existence. Jawbreaker (a pop punk band, fight me) is as formative to Emo as American Football, despite the two sharing almost nothing in common (other than a record distributor).

Let’s properly draw our focus to today’s subject: 3rd Wave Emo. It’s easy to say that 3rd Wave was a callous, calculated move to capitalize on the Current Trend. Grunge begat Nu Metal begat Emo in the cultural spotlight. Major labels moved in to swoop up the most accessible & marketable, molding them into an MTV-approved image, a symbol representing a cultural product to be bought and sold, paid for with the currency of attention.

I think that’s a little harsh, and dismisses a pretty natural trend in the genre. The largely accessible sound of pop punk played a role in the melange of Emo, and sonic polish always gets applied as budgets grow. It’s hard not to hear Dear You’s influence within My Chemical Romance’s palm muting. As 3rd Wave really began to form, the lines between the two genres began to wholly blur, resulting in “Emo” and “Pop Punk” being used interchangeably to describe bands with a certain visual aesthetic (call a metalcore band “pop punk” around your bearded friend that really likes IPAs and Off With Their Heads if you’d like to learn much, much more about this).

Aesthetically, 3rd Wave threw San Diego Spock-haired strangers playing spastic screamo and proper goth accessorization into a blender. White belts, elaborate pants, ridiculous fucking hair, it’s a proper teenage moment. You’ll never get it unless you’re a part of it, and that’s the whole point. I blame Myspace, though it’s quaint to look back on the comparatively simple level of social media-based acceleration in the 2000s. Still, it’s just as valid a form of theatrics as Guy Picciotto hamming it up in Rites of Spring during the politically charged “Revolution Summer”, despite 3rd Wave’s mainstream success being near contingent on abiding by the cultural-political void known as the George W. Bush administration (Picciotto’s noted thoughts on Emo have some similarly prime W-era stink on them anyway). It’s this apolitical, aesthetically-charged pop punk-heavy concept of Emo that our next subject used as a cornerstone to build an empire. (I swear this is about local businesses, bear with me, we’ll get there.)

Emo Nite

Emo Nite is the logical output of a Nostalgia Cycle being applied to 3rd Wave Emo. Emo Nite began in 2014 as an LA club night, essentially a slightly focused “2000s Night” recurring DJ gig. This is nothing outlandish, but much is revealed through examining how Emo Nite presents itself not as an Event, but as a Brand. On their About page they give a nodding glance to two decades of the genre in roughly ten words before moving to a purely 3rd Wave focus. Thanks to the blurred lens of nostalgia (a requirement for any good Theme Night), wide swaths of popular culture from the era are swept into the fold. But don’t be misled, nobody’s coming to Emo Nite to hear Jimmy Eat World’s split with Jejune. They’re here for fuckin’ Sweetness, and it’s gonna be followed by Blink-182, and a bunch of other things that were largely considered purely Pop Punk in their time, and that’s totally fine.

It is within this hazy focus where my chief complaint with Emo Nite lies. They state in the aforementioned About that Emo was perceived as a “joke” when they began, a bygone relic of years past (realistically about four years, tops). The project began as two friends simply cherishing “music they really liked” from their youth, and grew into an attempt to fuse their shared nostalgia trip with the means to create a new, optimistic, forward-looking Culture. It’s somewhere after the fourth MBA buzzword, rolling past many a “community”, “experience”, and “collaboration” on the way, that you realize this is just two dudes from an LA creative agency making a new type of startup, again. You’ve seen this episode. It’s a VC-friendly DJ night. There are branches in 30 different locations. It has “authenticity” insofar as it has an enforceable trademark, owned by the (ironically) alternatively spelled Emo Night LLC. And even that isn’t exactly an original idea.

This highly manufactured sense of authenticity is fully in line with the tenets of 3rd Wave Emo, the genre that existed hand in hand with mall titans such as Hot Topic. Sure, Hot Topic would eventually shift to hocking bootleg meme shirts & Funko Pops after the widespread decline of 3rd Wave (and the concurrent, aesthetically-related trend of Myspace Metalcore). But Hot Topic was never implied to be an Industry Disruptor. Emo Nite states they’re not a band, they aren’t DJs, they just throw parties for the music they love. I think they’re absolutely right. They don’t exist to create, or inherently to showcase. They exist to refer, perpetually in a superposition above their nostalgic memory of 3rd Wave, itself a fairly distanced, loosely referential permutation of the greater genre.

This sort of genre-flattening perspective is far from uncommon, as seen in Ska, where a similar American cultural awareness emerged from a heavily West Coast Pop Punk-influenced 3rd Wave. And much like Ska, focusing solely on that 3rd Wave both overlooks a rich history of music that came before it (far more so in Ska than Emo, given the roots of the former grow alongside American Rock and Roll), but also dismisses any recent contributions to the genre! With respect to Emo Nite specifically, December 2014 is a strange time to proclaim emo being a “joke”, given Emo Revival was having a Moment of cultural popularity at that very time. We’re talking two months after Foxing jumped from Count Your Lucky Stars! to Triple Crown (a WMG subsidiary), a year and a half after I saw Summer Vacation cover Joyce Manor in the basement of an American Legion hall in Los Angeles (the very epicenter of Emo Nite), well into the swing of annual 23 band SXSW Emo “fests” thrown in any public park/parking lot/co-op you could find.

Emo was still a thing, you just had to go to shows. But that’s not the point of Emo Nite. To actually engage with genre, always an active, constant subcultural conversation, well, that’s tricky. It’s easier to just wax nostalgic behind some Pioneer USB decks as you let your playlist roll. Focus on the guests, who can you get, how big can you make the feature, ask the only question of any current cultural significance: how will this go viral? By focusing on reflexive navel gazing, trying to create community through moments of shared prior context, you end up building upon a floating foundation. You Constructed A Machine That Works When The Party Goes Off, And It Only Exists For The Party To Go Off (dibs on that song title). A snake with modest gauges and a comfy WFH job, eating its own asshole, forever. And I cannot emphasize this enough, that is a totally fine thing in my opinion. It’s fun to have fun with your friends. I’ll take what I can get. But, in order to explain this further, let’s take a look at the following two tables.

it’s a rough simplification don’t sue me in nerd court

An alarming amount of the works of Jean Baudrillard instantly bring Emo to mind. Trust me, I hate myself for typing that, too. When his lens of simulacra is zoomed in from Society to Subgenre, Emo Nite’s position becomes clear. It exists firmly in Emo Hyperreality, in perpetual reference to 3rd Wave Emo, itself a broad, commodified reproduction of an image established in the 90s, with roots in the mid to late 80’s DC hardcore scene. A look to your left from that point into the pit of greater Punk Subgenre quickly shows how it’s truly Superficial Genre Turtles All The Way Down.

By the point of reaching Emo Nite, there’s no longer any ties to a remotely “punk” scene. As Baudrillard said, “When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning”. Looking at the core tenets of Emo Nite as not only a concept but a Brand, you find musical nostalgia coming into full Late Capitalist bloom. In a PR-exercise Forbes 6-way interview regarding Emo Nite (a work of journalism brave enough to ask the question “who better to write my article than 6 people asked a few basic questions?”), Ryan Scott Graham puts it pretty succinctly: “If you’re anything like me, I run on nostalgia, for better or for worse, and Emo Nite sells it. There are plenty of people out there looking to buy something like that.” (emphasis mine). Come, cough up $16 (plus a $6.82 Customer Fee), plus $10 for parking (a charitable price), then another $20 for two Miller Lites, and $40 for a T-Shirt that says “SAD AS FUCK”, and truly join your Community of fellow folks in a large room filled by a Spotify playlist.

The real tragedy is found within the moments when Emo Nite transcends these self-imposed nostalgic limitations. There’s ample value in re-examining a song in a different context, and when an Emo Nite guest performance braves that risk (for instance, this string quartet version of All-American Rejects’s “Swing Swing”), the results are actually pretty great. The combination of an enthusiastic audience, a performer with ample years under their belt, and a new twist on an old favorite usually results in gold. And it is worth mentioning that Emo Nite does occasionally feature new artists, for instance UnityTX’s performance at Emo Nite Dallas. Sadly, these fleeting moments are not the “new path for the future” that Emo Nite tends to create. That future by and large looks like Machine Gun Kelly forgetting the lyrics to What’s My Age again with Travis Barker, or the dude from Papa Roach (??) sorta singing Last Resort at Coachella. It just…kinda sucks! The goal is not to advance music or Art itself, but the image, the sign, the symbol of Emo as a Look. Returning again to Baudrillard, this Look “no longer subscribes to a logic of distinction and it is no longer a play of difference; it plays at difference without believing in it. It is indifference. Being oneself becomes an ephemeral performance, with no lasting effects, a disenchanted mannerism in a world without manners”. So, now let us finally ask: what happens when this new, indifferent Look becomes a greater cultural touchpoint?

Shot Topic

Shot Topic is a bar located at 108 S Crowdus St. in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, TX. This alone is nothing unusual. According to Corey Good, avid Deep Ellum entrepreneur & trading card collector, Shot Topic began with the name. In an interview with the Dallas Observer, Good recounted jumping at the idea once “Shot Topic” was proposed by one of his three partners in the venture. He felt a deep affinity to the iconography of 2000s-era Hot Topic due to growing up “as an emo as a kid”, even playing Warped Tour at once point (lauded, On Brand ethos through the lens of nostalgia, even though Warped Tour was really just an elaborate excuse for Brands to bake 16 year olds in the sun). Thus it’s from this name, this point of cheeky reference to the once iconic store, that Shot Topic derives its aesthetic. Sure, the bar may not have that iconic brick facade, but they nailed the font, and masterfully recreated the shirt wall. Really makes for quite the first impression once you get past the door guy.

Look a little closer, and the distance between the reality of Hot Topic and what is reflected on Crowdus starts to unfurl. The lyric wall, where anyone can express symbols of angst to which they personally connect, is erased weekly, permanently ephemeral. The wall of guitar cabinets in the entrance seems impressive, but when you step up to the ring light for your easily Instagrammable moment, you notice the 4×12 cabinets (built to emulate Marshall 1960As but branded with a really sharp Shot Topic logo) are roughly 5/8s scale, smaller than any 4 speaker cabinet found in reality. Peer within the shirt wall that nails that In Store aesthetic and you slowly notice it’s filled with Shot Topic re-interpretations of classic Band Shirt Iconography. There’s the Misfits bootleg, the American Idiot bootleg, and in a fitting tribute to the manufactured origins of Punk, a Nevermind the Bollocks bootleg stands out, a shining yellow star amongst the black fabric sea.

Shot Topic represents Hot Topic viewed through Emo Nite’s hazy nostalgic lens, untethered simulacra hastily redirected to sell The Used & All-American Rejects-themed specialty shots. Central Track’s writeup even concludes on this same exact point: they turned Emo Nite into a bar. When I visited to buy my friend Matt (a fine purveyor of classic Kansas City screamo in his own right) a shot, there were even two DJs in the booth (located beneath the “IT WAS NEVER A PHASE!!” mural) playing the exact 3rd Wave Emo we’ve previously discussed, exactly the type of music you’d expect to hear at a bar called fucking Shot Topic. On. The. Nose. Probably a sweet gig, providing the soundtrack to someone’s 5 minute nostalgic pit stop where they grab an $8 shot of tequila & take a ton of selfies (I sure as hell did) before joining friends elsewhere.

Hot Topic was a place to buy merch from bands you found on Myspace, a place to buy that CD you’d hide under your bed from your mom, it’s where you’d acquire black nail polish, Tripp pants and buttons that told you how unique you were, it was the steady IV drip of Tim Burton and Invader Zim, an outlet for commodified subversion easily found within any given suburban hellhole. To return to Baudrillard, the referential world of Shot Topic “wants to be childish in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that true childishness is everywhere — that it is that of the adults themselves who come here to act the child in order to foster illusions as to their real childishness”. Shot Topic sells hyperreality & booze to drown out the memory of your mom finding that Job For A Cowboy CD and throwing it away, while the painting of Bobby Hill with face tats and a Power Trip hoodie stares at you with his distant-yet-knowing eyes. He’s been through that same argument. Parents just don’t get it. I bet alt-Bobby would have some pretty epic Spotify playlists he’d share. I bet he’s big on TikTok, too.

Graffiti Pasta

When I interviewed Al Rios for an article regarding the August 2021 closure of J&J’s Pizza, he brought up something that keeps ringing in my head: “If you have a stage built into your restaurant, it means that you are trying to manufacture some kind of authenticity that a place like J&J’s just has naturally”. Arguments on the nature of authenticity aside, context is always important to any work of Art. So what happens when the restaurant becomes the stage for performance?

Graffiti Pasta is an Italian restaurant located at 118 W. Oak St in Denton, TX. This is not unprecedented. Almost a month after J&J’s announced their closure, the Denton Record Chronicle reported a new business would take over the lease. The theme was there, billing itself as a Punk Pasta Bar, but unlike Shot Topic, this one did not start with the original name as a guiding light. Graffiti Pasta was settled upon after initially leading with the name MiXfiTs, and the greater community thanks them for lessening the wear on our Shift keys. The initial vision of “fast-casual Italian” eventually settled into a regular table service restaurant featuring a bar, though the Chinese takeout-style containers did remain.

I visited Graffiti Pasta on opening week and was met with a somewhat limited menu that did not feature drinks (totally understandable), but they have since fleshed things out to a fuller vision, offering personal pizzas, build-your-own pasta, and an extensive drink menu featuring Graffiti Cocktails, Tony’s Negroni’s and Adult Grade Juice (wine). My subcultural tension headache fired up with glee as I ordered the Banksy’s Baked Ziti. As it arrived, I noticed that these are the same tables from J&J’s, now spray painted. This is the same bench that was here before, now spray painted. Every wall, the hallway to the bathroom, covered in graffiti from different artists with different styles, arranged in a semi-chaotic manner that seems to largely reveal the intentional nature of its application. There’s no cohesion, yet nothing spills over, nothing seems to interrupt or jump out, everything shoved close enough together to fit without challenge while still leaving freshly painted negative space. There’s ample graffiti to be found in Graffiti Pasta, sure. Though there’s much to be said about the intersection of graffiti and Brands, there’s a very unique irony found when a $14 dollar dish named after the patron saint of commodified street art hits a neatly spray painted table you remember from your past. My metaphorical Black Walnut Manhattan (recommended by the bartender, very good btw) runneth over with symbolism.

Graffiti is an entire culture within itself, and it’s not one I can necessarily speak to with proper fluency, but I don’t think it’s necessarily cynical to say that the Graffiti here seems to be a branding exercise, tying in neatly with the Repo Man-beer-level Punk aesthetic. The ornate bar is surrounded by flat screen televisions that played music videos from the exact same 2000s-era of music we’ve discussed at length, leaning more towards the Pop Punk/Alternative side of things during my visit. The need for a visual component to the musical aspect of this restaurant’s aesthetic reminds me of a sports bar, perpetually assaulted by the business’s cultural raison d’etre in 4K. Strangely, I find myself wishing for a Spotify playlist.

Setting aside the $11 terpene-infused Dank Negronis and overlooking the lightly downsized Tony Soprano on the wall, there is one thing that keeps me from being as critical of Graffiti Pasta’s reflection of “Punk Rock”: the Old Dirty Basement. Retaining the same name as before, Graffiti Pasta has chosen to reopen the DIY venue aspect of J&J’s largely untouched. Sure, the Madonna of Schlitz is missing, but hey, the PA is on stands now! It’s still just a basement! Rejoice! You can book a show there! They even maintain a calendar of events on their website, which is woefully uncommon in the more DIY side of live music. All of this is a wholly good thing in my book. And, in an ultimate twist of irony, there’s a recurring 90’s Night on Thursdays that has the decency to admit What It Is. Nostalgia sold straight & honest, no appeals to greater Culture or Community, featuring DJ Party McFly. Fuck yeah, dude.

Examining this bisected divide of focus, a restaurant that deeply, desperately wants to sell you a narrow, expensive refraction of the culture that exists beneath its floors, results in the best example of this tension in my mind. Baudrillard, discussing the Centre Pompidou, saw the masses flock to that cultural center “not because they salivate for that culture which they have been denied for centuries, but because they have for the first time the opportunity to massively participate in this great mourning of a culture that, in the end, they have always detested”. A feeling of semi-permanence, simultaneous life and death, perpetual ebullient mourning thrives in Graffiti Pasta, accurately reflected within the restaurant’s aesthetic use of graffiti. Broken Windows Theory is bunk and exists to further criminalize already marginalized communities, but it has resulted in the institutional response of graffiti abatement: the easiest way to prevent graffiti is to take it down as soon as you see it. It’s never that simple, duh, but institutional mindsets tend to create reflections in our society. A tag appears and is covered up, only to go up again. The venue opens, closes, opens, closes, opens on into infinity, shedding and gaining context each time. An old man yells at a cloud at sunset, only to watch the sunrise the next day. To argue what counts as DIY, what merits artistic respect, whether this restaurant honors its precursors, what Is Punk is semantic pedantry disguised as insight. Punk is to Graffiti Pasta as Emo is to Shot Topic: a marketing tool. It’s just harder to confront when the hermit crab selling you nostalgia is wearing the very shell of your nostalgic past.

This tedious exercise of genre, placing Art and Thought into a series of Tables, the obsessive quest to discern the real, ultimately misses the greater picture, and this is why I must lean so heavily on Baudrillard to describe this feeling slowly eating away at my brain. It is easy to get bogged down separating wheat from chaff, figuring out what is Real Emo vs Fake Emo, engaging in what seems like a fixation on genre “purity” (a word that should make any reasonable person shudder). But as Baudrillard said in an interview regarding The Matrix’s interpretation of his works, “it is precisely that we can no longer employ categories of the real in order to discuss the characteristics of the virtual”. Focusing in on what is truly Emo, keyboard-warrioring Authentic Real Culture that we can Personally Approve Of, overlooks that all of this water springs forth from the same font.

3rd Wave begat Emo Nite just as 3rd Wave begat Emo Revival. All interpretations and perspectives are equally The Culture of Emo, regardless of whether they’re slung in sweaty basements, Facebook groups, web 1.0 forums or on Twitter. Look past Emo Nite’s corporate fixation on perfectly smooth, apolitical, aesthetically dark yet toxically positive culture, and you realize again that they’ve never lied to you. They’re not bands. They’re not DJs. They aren’t Creatives. This isn’t Art. It’s a club promoter. It’s a bar. It’s a restaurant. These are just businesses.

The show has one band play one song. The store in the mall sells shots. You can buy $7 bread at the DIY venue. Bitcoin mining facilities partner with city natural gas plants so the municipal electric system can pay off debt from a fatal winter storm, each aspect offering a mere layer of abstraction from the true value of the state-controlled currency (namely oil and the death of innocent people) that crypto proponents profess to oppose. The newest batch of Republicans are just more honest about their collective, insatiable urge for Christofascism. This is our hyperreality, we all live right here, on the Google Map we created. What is to be done?

In the terms of Emo Hyperreality, we must realize that we don’t have to participate in these things. There’s a lot of Society we cannot merely avoid, but here’s a totally easy layup moment where we can. There are current Emo bands playing shows all of the time in pretty much any city in the Continental US of A. The scene never really stopped. The current generation of 5th wave bands are doing very exciting things with the genre, and tons of Emo Revival (or tangentially related to Emo Revival) bands are still kicking (we’re even entering the reunion tour stage of early nostalgia there!). Shoot, you could start a band! It’s really easy. Or, here’s a wild idea: maybe put together an Emo Night with your friends? You could DJ, and take requests, maybe raise some money for a good cause. That’s what folks in my town do, it’s fun. And y’know, I don’t give a shit if you go to some bar, or eat at a restaurant. That’s not the point here, you do you, go have fun. Just keep in mind, we don’t need to accept their ultimate premise of impacting Culture and creating Community. You don’t need someone to create your community, you can just do that yourself.

Oh, and it turns out I just had a sinus infection.

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Baudrillard, Jean. Screened Out. London, Verso, 2002.

Donovan Ford
Donovan Ford

viscerally boring he/him

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