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A fan crowd-surfs at Emo Nite L.A.
A fan crowd-surfs at Emo Nite L.A. (Gil Riego)

"Can't Slow Down," the 1998 debut by the New Jersey band Saves the Day and the all-time favorite album of Hampden resident Jason Medina, opens with lyrics quintessential to its genre.

"And it's not fair, why do I have to be so? / Oh I feel everything much more / much more than you ever will," sings Chris Conley in a pinched, teenage delivery over chunky distorted guitars.

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It's one of the many aging documents of emo — the popular, divisive and more sensitive strain of punk and hardcore that sprouted in the 1980s, developed its sound in the 1990s and reached a commercial peak in the 2000s. It is slower and more melodic than the genres that fathered it, and its heyday paralleled and bolstered the pop-punk successes of Green Day, Blink 182 and Fall Out Boy.

Emo was also the first music Medina discovered as a middle school student in Glen Burnie, and it's still what he mainly listens to now.

"The Earth Pushed Back," the 2013 debut album by the Baltimore emo quartet Have Mercy, captured a young band flirting with pop potential.

"It still helps me every day," Medina, a 27-year-old graphic designer for OrderUp, said on the phone last week. "It's great music if you're not feeling OK. If you're feeling sad, you can just listen to it and it'll pick you up."

Medina knows he's far from the only fan of emo, which explains why he and his friend Andrew Johnson (guitarist of the Baltimore emo band Have Mercy) organized the first Emo Nite Bawltimore, set for Friday at the Ottobar. Medina and Johnson will DJ, as will Have Mercy's singer Brian Swindle.

The original event, Emo Nite L.A., began in December 2014, when three friends — Barbara Szabo, T.J. Petracca and Morgan Freed — threw a party at an Echo Park dive bar, set to an all-emo soundtrack. To their surprise, nearly 500 people showed. And soon enough, the genre's A-listers — like Mark Hoppus of Blink 182, My Chemical Romance's Mikey Way and Jack Barakat of Towson's All Time Low — were playing DJ sets as the party grew into a brand.

For Medina, who attended his first Emo Nite in Dallas in March, the goal is simple: bring fans together through a shared love of music, and potentially foster a community. Soon after, he reached out to the Emo Nite founders to bring the party to Baltimore.

"It's a lot of people reminiscing about old music that they loved. It's a huge party," Medina said of what he saw in Texas. "No one's really sad or anything like people would think an Emo Nite would be."

The irony is that while the lyrics of emo often deal with isolation, heartbreak and general wistfulness, Emo Nite is filled with full-throated group singalongs and beer-fueled fun.

Freed said he's still surprised the party he threw with his friends has turned into a national network of events and supporters, but it speaks to how much this music still resonates.

"It's grown more than we ever planned," Freed said on the phone from Los Angeles. "We want it to live in a lot of different places, but we didn't plan for it. I think how big it got speaks to how much this music is needed, and how much it has helped everybody."

Its reach has extended from San Francisco to Brooklyn, N.Y., with stops in Omaha, Seattle, Nashville and others in between.

Since its beginning, emo has incited debate over what it is and what it is not. Even the genre's most popular bands, present and past, have squirmed over how comfortable they are embracing the label.

The uneasiness comes from the stereotypes the mostly monochromatic genre have largely earned. There are exceptions, but emo has rightfully been described as mostly white males singing one-sided tales of failed relationships, loneliness and being done wrong. While critics have warmed to the sound over the years, plenty of others have written it off as rock's privileged, whiny cousin.

"Emo has gotten that bad rep, and a lot of people are aware of that. Even people who like the music are aware that people say when they're sad, they're 'emo,'" Medina said.

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Medina rejects the generalization, and said Emo Nite will nod to the genre's reputation — they did spell it "Bawltimore" after all — while still respecting it.

"This is very much who we are. The music we listen to definitely shaped us into who we are today," Medina said. "That's why we still love it. We just want to go back and not make fun of it, but respect it and enjoy a night of listening to it with everyone else who loves it."

There was a noticeable contrast Tuesday night between Brand New and Modest Mouse at the bands’ joint tour-stop at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.

He's been working on his DJ set, earmarking songs he can't forget, like Blink 182's "Dammit" and Saves the Day's "All-Star Me." Expect an earlier wave of emo from Johnson's set, including American Football and Sunny Day Real Estate.

While the setlists are still being finalized, Medina is already planning the next party. The immediate response when they announced Friday's event ("Within a couple of days, we had over 1,000 people interested" on Facebook, he said) has given Johnson and him the confidence to make Emo Nite Bawltimore a regular event. They hope to announce details for the next one soon.

And for anyone unfamiliar with emo who may get dragged to the Ottobar on Friday with friends, uncertain of what to expect, Medina offered advice — spoken like a true emo enthusiast.

"Just be ready to listen to some of your new favorite bands," he said.

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