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Midwest Emo

By Johnna Sisneros

I have been involved in the Lincoln Arts scene for about 6 years. I was just a culture reporter for the Daily Nebraskan at first, but over time I found myself falling in love with this community. The Lincoln music and arts scene is raw, like a diamond in the rough, it’s also pretty underground, if you don’t know about it, it doesn’t exist and only a few people who are inundated in the culture know about it. It’s flawed, just like every community but there’s a strength in the community, perhaps a yearning or an homage to the blood sweat, and tears that it takes to create art. Whatever it is, the people here have something to say and what we have to say reminds me a lot of the first wave of Midwest Emo to hit the mainstream.

Every ex and current alt-kid seemed to be vindicated and touched by this unconventional and intense subgenre of music. Radical sound distortions and fervent lyrics screamed through a microphone into the hearts of everyone west of the Appalachian Mountains. Forged in the suburbs of the Great Lakes and the Steel Belt, midwest emo was a war cry for people whose grandparents drank the Kool-Aid of the American dream. People who manufactured automobiles and machinery in factories through blue-collar grit and a dream that if they just worked hard enough they would one day reap the fruits of their labor.

We all took a high school history class, and if anyone has ever been to Detroit or Cleveland you know how well that all worked out. midwest emo spoke to the angst of working-class people who have been fucked by the system for the last four generations.

As much as I love Midwest emo, I am noticing a genesis of sorts. There’s a new genre evolving in the prairie towns of the western expanse of grassland, sand hills, and wide open sky. This genesis isn’t just specific to Omaha and Lincoln but across state lines, Kansas, Wyoming, and South Dakota, there seems to be a story being unfolded and told on the fringes of the midwest, a story of anger, resistance, and solidarity. Like a thunderstorm rolling across the golden hills of the west, there is an innovative and deep genre in its fetal stages of development that we should start paying attention to. I’m calling this genre, prairie grunge, and in the next 15 years, I’m confident that it’ll catch onto the mainstream just as Midwest emo did in the 90s and 2000s.

Prairie grunge has its foundations rooted in a sort of agrarian punk rock with similar riffs and reverb to the aforementioned Midwest emo. However, the big difference between Prairie grunge and Midwest emo is that prairie grunge boasts a flair of indie folk and a refinery of production and synth that almost features a shoegaze languidness that gives the genre its quintessential tone.

A perfect example of this new genre would be in self-proclaimed landlocked surf rock band The Cavves. Hailing from Wichita, Kansas, “The Cavves' features a bouncy sort of rhythm with deep guitar tones and a smooth indie feel. I first fell in love with the Kansas band back in 2019 when they played a show at The Bay. I swear I had a transcendental experience when they played “Holy Water,” which was the second to last track from their sophomore album “Venture Out.” the lyrics were painfully honest with a pithy kick and a radically vulnerable confrontation of themes such as religiosity and mental illness.

Formed in 2016, The Cavves have a bouncy tone at face value, but a strong undercurrent of longing for something more. There's an almost grungy bite to their music with striking lyrics that cut to the bone of an emotion.

Something about prairie grunge is it isn’t tied to a specific sound necessarily. Some bands I would consider the pinnacle of this new genre. Some bands that I would say fit into the prairie grunge zeitgeist such as the local DIY alt band, Social Cinema might not consider themselves a grunge band at all, others might only consider themselves a punk grunge act, such as the Lincolnite garage punk powerhouses The Credentials. While both bands have very different sounds, there is a longingness and an indie undercurrent that may be due to both bands' DIY roots. Regardless of what it is specifically, it’s important to recognize that prairie grunge doesn’t exclusively relate to one specific sound, but instead, it is a longing sort of ambiance. A sort of pondering about what could be, even as we waste away in the pesticide-soaked soil and opioid-ravaged towns of this fringy region.

While I have mostly noticed this new sound in the DIY spaces of Lincoln and Omaha there are also bands that have broken out of the DIY bubble and gone more mainstream that feature a similar prairie grunge sound.

Ethel Cain is a great example of both the prairie grunge sound and the fact that one does not have to be from the Kansas-Nebraska area to create the sound. In fact, Cain is from Florida and many of her songs and narratives feature aspects of small towns in the south that also sound strikingly similar to many of the rural communities we know in Nebraska.

Regardless of region, small-town culture stays pretty consistent. Whether it be the federal neglect that rural America has experienced the death of industry and homegrown agriculture, or simply the spirit of the blue-collar working class, the narrative of the small town is something that anyone from a rural agrarian state can identify with, and understand flaws and all.

For me, prairie grunge is the haunting spirit of the west that lies in the tall grasslands of Tornado Alley. It is the story of poor folks who know the unforgivable nature of the west. Our great great great grandparents moved here under the guise of manifest destiny and westward expansion, and the consequences of that lie are what sits in the hearts of every small town adjacent westerner who knows that there is just something off about this region.

We share the same values as much of the Midwest: work ethic, an emphasis on family, corn hole, and binge drinking, just to name a few. And yet, there is a subtle difference between us, the gateway of the west, and the angst of the “true” Midwest. We’re a bit more rough around the edges, we know what the Farmers’ Almanac is and we know how cruel barometric pressure can truly be. Many of us detasseled growing up, or rock picked or been walked. We know the taste of a farm-raised steak and the smell of a west wind that blows the smell of manure over to our Riverland college towns on the easternmost stretches of the cornhusker state.

I could go into the historical reasons for the subtle differences between us and the rest of the Midwest, but honestly, that point is moot. In many ways we are the same, our ancestors bought into the great American lie of imperialism and we are paying the price for their ineptitude. We just did it under some different circumstances and much later than the industrial Midwest.

Contrary to popular belief, art is intrinsically political and the types of art that come out of different regions tell different stories about their place of origin. Midwest emo told the story of many but that story hasn’t been told everywhere. Prairie grunge is our story. It is the story of dust bowls and landlocked rumination on what it would be like to see the ocean and the opportunity that comes with it.

It is our lament for the crimes our ancestors committed and the suffering that is still going on in our prairie towns. But despite all of that, there is still a strength within us. It lives within our underground art communities and every note is belted into a microphone in an O-street bar. We are witnessing our own stories being told in this new genre and I for one could not be more excited to see where that story goes.


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