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"-core" Is the Suffix of Our Time

The word form that named dozens of artistic genres has deep Washington roots.
Emocore pioneers Rites of Spring at DC’s Food for Thought in 1985. Photograph by Bert Queiroz

It was about 30 years ago that “hardcore”—then a warning about a category of punk or pornography—began to split apart, and its ending, “-core,” became a way to assign authenticity to a host of new musical genres from rock to dance music to hip-hop. But as we discovered grindcore, thrashcore, skacore, breakcore, raggacore, crunkcore, and so on, “-core” lost its hardness—and, in its ubiquity, became a pop-culture wink.

Washington was a crucial stop on the “-core” journey. When punk first thrived here in the late 1970s, musicians like Ian MacKaye, of the bands Minor Threat and Fugazi, and his fellow Glover Park punk Henry Rollins used “hardcore” to set it apart from mainstream punk, which had gone commercial. If you were hardcore (or even harDCore), says Mark Andersen, coauthor of Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, you were “deeply committed,” to “rage-filled music” and an anti-corporate ethos.

Soon after that came DC’s own “emocore.” During the so-called Revolution Summer of 1985, local bands such as Rites of Spring sought a more vulnerable alternative to hardcore. “Lyrically, it was really introspective and poetic at times,” says Scott Crawford, director of Salad Days, a new documentary on DC’s hardcore scene.

Brian Baker of Minor Threat is often credited with dubbing the new sound “emocore” in 1985; soon thereafter, MacKaye called it “the stupidest thing I ever heard.” Nonetheless, emocore spread worldwide as a descriptor of a style of dress and even behavior. Baker’s original acerbity has been retained—as when Crawford’s kids caution him, “Dad, don’t get all emo.”

It’s the undercutting tone of “emocore” that has come forward to our moment. “Sadcore”—describing the plangent sounds of Joy Division, the film genre mumblecore, and the musical varieties Nintendocore and piratecore—affectionately tweaks its over-serious practitioners. “Normcore” and “slobcore” apply, respectively, to an art-school fashion twist on L.L. Bean jeans and to not showering.

The commercialism despised by DC’s hardcore scene has caught up to “-core,” particularly its use by inventors of expensive fitness classes. Anne Mahlum, owner of Washington’s own Solidcore, says: “ ‘Core,’ to me, means the center and the essence of something or someone.” When she devised the name, Mahlum adds, she was unaware of the word’s harDCore history.

This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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