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Fall Out Boy

How Fall Out Boy turned emo on its heavy-fringed head

10 years since Infinity on High was unleashed on the world, we dissect the success of the sexually-ambiguous, self-deprecating, outward-looking band beyond 2007

I fell in love with Fall Out Boy when I caught “Sugar We’re Goin Down” on TV in mid-2005. Part of the appeal lay in the fact that I didn’t quite understand them at first – once I figured out what the fuck Patrick Stump was warbling (he has admitted to slurring “Sugar We’re Goin Down” to make Pete’s lyrics sound better), I then had to break through layers of metaphor to get to what Pete really wanted to say. I soon bought From Under the Cork Tree and found that, by the end of 2005, everyone had heard of Fall Out Boy – even if only as a punchline to a long-running gag about guyliner. What made them so simultaneously popular and despised was their incidental attachment to emo, a scene that happened to be reaching its peak around the release of their sophomore album. Fall Out Boy were in the right place at the right time to become the poster boys of the scene, but it was also a sphere they openly criticised; initially on Cork Tree, and even more so on Infinity on High, an album that’s now ten years old. Infinity on High is now just about old enough to slam the door, shut itself in its room, and listen to Fall Out Boy.

Fall Out Boy may not have wanted to become the faces of emo, but they did, and they manipulated the zeitgeist for maximum payback. They knew that the scene was fleeting and likely to combust, so they got what they could out of it, criticising it from the inside, and arguably becoming the most mainstream emo band of the mid-2000s. Their music, trajectory, and business model was unlike that of other ‘emo’ bands; in some aspects, they took more inspiration from hip hop artists. They were also very aware of themselves, and where other emo bands looked deeply inward, Fall Out Boy were looking out at the audience. Most of their songs contain lyrics about being in a band, the scene, or singing to heartbroken teens. They were critical of other emo bands’ tendency toward competitive misery, and there are references to this throughout From Under the Cork Tree. Lyrics like “it was never about the songs, it was competition / Make the biggest scene”, from bonus track “Music or the Misery”, moved beyond allusions to state their discontent explicitly.

The lyrics about self harm that were so prevalent in other music of the time only appear in Fall Out Boy songs when criticising emo’s melodrama; the unreleased Hand of God contains just one of many references: “I’m sick of always writing songs for you to slit your wrists to.” However, it would be unfair to pretend that everything Fall Out Boy wrote about self harm was purely for ironic jabs, as Pete Wentz openly confessed to a suicide attempt in 2005. This admission also served to give Fall Out Boy more credibility than those they accused of mining fake misery for hits.

On Infinity On High their discontent came to a head. The album saw Fall Out Boy take inspiration from funk and hip hop, making the most of Patrick’s huge voice, and setting themselves yet further apart in a saturated scene. On their decision to have Jay-Z open the album, Wentz said: “Don't hold your breath waiting for him to break out the eyeliner and scene hair,” adding, “he appreciates the energy some of the bands in our scene bring.” “Thriller”, the song Jay-Z opens and closes, follows in the tradition of Cork Tree and speaks again about crowds, poets, and the internet; it also contains the self-explanatory and almost venomous line “by fall we were a cover story ‘now in stores’ / make us poster boys for your scene.”

Infinity is wholly self-aware and littered with references to the scene, to being a band, to sales. Where the album is bolder and more ambitious than previous efforts, Fall Out Boy still had the same preoccupations that haunted them throughout Cork Tree; nobody knew as well as them that their talents were being sold in a way that they hadn’t predicted, perhaps didn’t even want. However, all of their complaints were distilled in the first single, “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race”. The lyrics are about the cruel and competitive nature of the industry, and the video shows Stump being laughed at by rappers – an incident that he says took place when he met Jay Z and Beyoncé.

“Emo, to many, was a joke – Fall Out Boy knew this, and they resented it. But where other bands were often defensive, Fall Out Boy laughed at themselves before anyone else could”

Emo, to many, was a joke – Fall Out Boy knew this, and they resented it. But where other bands were often defensive, Fall Out Boy laughed at themselves before anyone else could. They did this a little in their lyrics but it was in the videos where they played with self-referential comedy; they featured other emo singers, referenced old songs, and made their past selves the butt of the joke in “A Little Less Sixteen Candles”, The Take Over, The Break’s Over”, and “This Ain’t A Sceneto name a few. 2009’s “What a Catch, Donnie” is one of the purest examples: it’s the band’s only ballad and is pretty sincere, but it features Decaydance alum Gabe Saporta and Travis McCoy (among others) singing back lines from their old songs. The video, their last before a hiatus, shows Stump on a boat singing alone surrounded by relics of old videos: neon lights, antlers, jackets. He saves a sinking ship, filled with people the band have worked with, including Brendon Urie and Spencer Smith. It functions as a tongue-in-cheek farewell to emo.

While they may have resented their part in the genre, Fall Out Boy still took advantage of their position: businessmen first and heartbreakers second. Pete started a clothing line, Clandestine, and was open about his intentions, saying: “look at the state of rock music. Bands can't sell fucking records. The new rock stars are dudes like Jay Z,” adding, “I want Fall Out Boy to be a culture. You’re going to eat, sleep and breathe it.” Wentz also started a record label, Decaydance (now DCD2), an imprint of Fueled By Ramen. Decaydance signed and worked with a number of artists who became part of the scene despite some of their music not necessarily fitting in with traditional parameters of ‘emo’; Cute Is What We Aim For, Cobra Starship, Panic! At the Disco. These bands toured together and collaborated, a business model that echoed hip hop more than emo or rock. Wentz is also frank about his motives for signing these bands, saying: “people are going to be piggybacking bands off of us. Somebody’s going to be pulling those strings, why would it not be me?”

One of the ways Fall Out Boy remained the most relevant emo band of the mid-2000s was through their presumed homoeroticism in a scene where bisexuality was the thing du jour. Frank and Gerard did it. Gerard and Bert did it. They all did it, and the speculation surrounding their sexualities only made them bigger. Pete utilised the 2006 rumour mill, with whispers about his sexuality were circulating even before he kissed Gabe Saporta of Cobra Starship publicly. In the ensuing media storm he gave interviews to LGBT magazines confessing to finding men attractive and saying inflammatory things like: “I haven’t really ever gotten that close, ’cause honestly, I’m not a real big fan of penises,” and, “I’d love to share clothes with a dude and have all those benefits, but I just can’t get past that thing. It’s just weird-lookin’.”

Their lyrics further fanned the flames, like “He tastes like you only sweeter” in “Thnks Fr The Mmrs”, and “Sleeping in and sleeping for the wrong team” in “Sugar We’re Goin Down”. Wentz did go out in public with girls like Lindsay Lohan; but he also kissed his friends, skirted around his sexuality, and wrote convoluted lyrics. The clearest example of this is “G.I.N.A.S.F.S” from Infinity – which stood for Gay is Not a Synonym For Shitty. Near-admissions might have been a ploy for relevancy and attention, but they were refreshing when many bands were trying to assert their masculinity through aggressive and misogynistic lyrics.

“While they may have resented their part in the genre, Fall Out Boy still took advantage of their position: businessmen first and heartbreakers second”

The band’s later musical departures from Cork Tree and Infinity may represent an effort to mine a new scene, though that seems insincere for the boys. Fall Out Boy have been criticised for many reasons: for being fake, emo or not emo enough. What remains true though is that they managed to not only dominate the scene, but ensure they were in every magazine, on mainstream radio, and photographed with mid-2000s socialites. When Pete’s Sidekick was hacked and his nudes were stolen, he weaved a joke about it into a video – they were experts at turning things that haunted them on their heads. Fall Out Boy’s music stands the test of time, enjoying a unique longevity; part of this is down to genuine talent and good business sense, but ultimately it’s because they never had any illusions about exactly what they were. Many other bands in the scene were ultimately crushed under the weight of their own sincerity and self-seriousness, but Fall Out Boy proved that you can’t laugh at someone who’s already laughing at themselves.