With 'Jersey's Best Dancers,' Lifetime Accidentally Injected Pop Punk and Hardcore into Emo
Right before the band called it quits in 1997, they inadvertently started a sound that continues to this day.
By 1997, the shine of grunge was wearing off and a new crop of bands was taking music in a more emotionally honest direction. Whether or not their members realized it, they were building the foundation for what would come to be labeled as emo. 1997: The Year Emo Broke explores the albums that drove this burgeoning genre that year.
Lifetime ended on an anticlimactic note. Over the course of their seven-year run, the New Jersey hardcore band had released two albums, Background and Hello Bastards, before dropping their parting gift, 1997's Jersey's Best Dancers. As they closed one chapter by walking away, they inadvertently opened another by unleashing the pop punk sound into the emo cosmos, shaping an entire genre for years to come.
Lifetime came from the New Brunswick, New Jersey, punk and hardcore scene that yielded bands like Bouncing Souls and Thursday. The difficult and less-than-legal status of these basement shows made for a tight-knit DIY scene that took its ideals very seriously. And while Lifetime often got lumped in with the scene that raised them, the band broke away from the mold of their hardcore cohort, yet had a hard time finding a large enough audience outside of their scene-specific world to support them.
The band needed financial security to continue, and their level of success simply wasn't enough to plan a future around. But was it lack of support or their inability to disassociate themselves from their hardcore scene ideals that ultimately doomed them? By vocalist Ari Katz's own admission, the things they had to do to make it—playing bigger venues, drawing bigger crowds, touring to please audiences, selling T-shirts—didn't fall in line with their reasons for getting into music in the first place. And growing as a band is difficult for someone who never liked touring to begin with. Like countless artists before and after them, they were uncomfortable with the decisions that came with popularity. For Lifetime, the reward wasn't worth the sacrifice. In Katz's mind, hardcore was a young person's game and no place for a 25-year-old without a backup plan. Rather than continue the uphill battle, they chose to walk away, temporarily making Lifetime a footnote in emo's ascension, while freeing them up to work on individual projects. Guitarist Dan Yemin formed Kid Dynamite, and eventually Paint It Black, making him a cult figure in hardcore to this day, while Katz opened a record store, became a carpenter, and continued working on music at his own pace.
But what made Lifetime stand out from any other hardcore or punk band with melodic hooks and passionate lyrics? To many, Jersey's Best Dancers may sound like nothing more than a pop punk album rooted in hardcore. Songs like "Bringing it Backwards" or "How We Are" certainly follow the melodic hardcore formula, but it's the nuances and moments of ardent vulnerability that differentiate this from other hardcore albums of their time. "Theme for a New Brunswick Basement Show" is perhaps the most glaring example of a song responsible for setting Lifetime apart. On it, Katz tells a story about sitting next to the girl of his dreams at a basement show and wonders if she could take the place of the current object of his heartbreak. The lyrics aren't cryptic or hard to decipher. And it's the wilfully naive and direct delivery that made for a novel approach to punk poetry, one that became a sort of emo curriculum for years to come. The remnants of this school of emo would be glaringly apparent years later in mega-anthems like Panic At The Disco's "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" or Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Going Down." The list is endless. It's impossible to listen to Taking Back Sunday's "Cute Without The E" and not hear their blueprint from start to finish. In fact, it's arguable that there are few, if any, 24-minutes stretches of recorded music more important to shaping an entire industry than the 12 songs on Jersey's Best Dancers.
Pop punk had intersected with emo before, particularly with Jawbreaker, but it was Lifetime who brought crisp guitars and a sugary, unabashedly poppy sound to the fray. By Jersey's Best Dancers, Lifetime bloomed from their hardcore origins, softening their songs with addictive melodies and pleading thematic content.
As Lifetime dwindled down towards the end of 1997, playing their packed farewell show at the Melody Bar in New Brunswick, the opening act, an eager young band from 40 minutes down Route 1 called Saves The Day, watched in admiration. Saves the Day was gearing up to spend their high school winter break recording their debut album, Can't Slow Down, with Steve Evetts, the same producer who had given Jersey's Best Dancers its razor-sharp sound the previous year . It wasn't a coincidence. Frontman Chris Conley was a fan of Lifetime, and once said about them, "Lifetime wrote songs about inner turmoil, while other bands were screaming about who had the best straight edge tattoo." And in a sense, it would be Saves The Day who would keep Lifetime's legacy alive, carrying their torch and introduce their sound to generations to come.
If Ari Katz felt too old for punk, an 18-year-old Conley appeared ripe as the new ambassador for the melodic sounds hardcore bands were refining in the Garden State's scene. Often jokingly referred to as a Lifetime cover album, Can't Slow Down, didn't give Saves The Day overnight recognition, but it set them forward on the path that eventually would bring them success. And as they tinkered and experimented with the sound their forefathers bestowed upon them, Lifetime faded into temporary obscurity.
Something slowly started to brew after Lifetime's demise, though. Interest in the band widened, a trend Katz began to notice when customers in his record store would point out how much of the new music being released sounded like Lifetime. And as the mythos around the band grew, bands like Fall Out Boy, who owed so much to them, gladly began to preach the gospel of Lifetime. So strong was the admiration that when Lifetime reunited in 2006 to release their fourth album, Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz gladly signed them to his label, Decaydance.
To put so much weight on such a short, 20-year-old record might seem silly to some. But as emo developed and grew to be more than just a common set of aesthetics, these defining snapshots served as the building blocks of diverging sounds within the genre. Lifetime's contribution happened to have led to some of the more popular versions of the hotly debated genre. For better or worse, without Lifetime, it's entirely conceivable that emo may have never left the basements, rec centers, and party halls it came from. And generations of aspiring malcontents may have never found their tribe.
Eddie Cepeda is the founder of Mother of Pearl Vinyl and a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.