When an invitation showed up in my inbox to go to Las Vegas and expenses be damned — all I had to do was show up and be emo and then write about it — I took the ticket.

I resolved to be the black-clothed, tatted up Hunter S. Thompson for the long weekend. (I am, after all, the author of A History of Emo Music, so it would be a dereliction of duty if I didn’t.) I’d be attending Emo Nite LA’s Vegas Vacation, a three-day party where a mass of millennials with dyed hair and incurable heartbreak would gather to get shitfaced to DJ sets and celebrate the virtues of being outcasts.

Emo Nite LA was founded by Morgan Freed and T.J. Petracca, but the Vegas event was put together by Pollen, a tech company that curates packaged travel and music experiences for the sole purpose of showing people a good time. That noble mission has led them to partner with the likes of Live Nation, Lollapalooza, and Electric Zoo, constructing itineraries built around major artists such as Justin Bieber and deadmau5. To be sure, they know what they’re doing, as there was no moment in time during the multi-day Emo Nite experience that saw me without a drink in my hand, standing 10 feet away from a platter of killer nachos.

Still, a very obvious problem gnawed at my conscience the entire time: Emo is most certainly not Las Vegas. Authentic emo music is brazen, sure, but it is not ostentatious. It is decidedly not Fall Out Boy and Blink-182 hits punctuated by blow horns and glow sticks. And no matter how she may dress, emo is not one of the weekend’s main headliners, Avril Lavigne. (Travis Barker was supposed to be there, too, but he was off somewhere proposing to Kourtney Kardashian.) Those things are pop-punk, which is all well and good, but why masquerade as emo?

This place is full of paradoxes, I thought as I sipped what was probably my 10th drink of the first evening. I wondered if anyone else in attendance felt the same way. Luckily, vocalist Kellin Quinn of Sleeping With Sirens was wrestling with the same issue.

“Can you be pop-punk and emo at the same time?” he asked the crowd as he took the mic at the Virgin Hotels Theater. “Can you play happy songs and sing about sad shit?”

The word “emo” has always been controversial, so much so that I dedicate an entire chapter of my book to its untangling. I’m reminded of Matt Pryor’s (The Get Up Kids) assessment: “It’s an evolution of language, but it is very much a case of outsiders.”

I recall a line from Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits.” He was referring to journalists when he wrote this, but I think it applies here just as well.

Is that really all it takes to be emo? To be pushed aside by mainstream society? For the sake of having a good time, I decided to accept this as true. There was a screen behind the band that said, “Hell is Las Vegas.” I supposed that logic would suffice.

The next day at a pirate-themed pool party at Daylight Beach at Mandalay Bay, I saw a fan wearing a T-shirt that said, “Happiness is an emotion.” Maybe he’s onto something. Then a dark, chiseled man carrying a woman dressed head to toe as a mermaid, tail and all, walked by. Then again, maybe not. [Editor’s note: Mayday Parade are also an emotion, evidently.]

Derek Sanders of Mayday Parade, one of the bands closest to actual emo present that weekend, started spinning his own DJ set, so I headed past the mermaid, toward the outdoor stage. He gleefully played Taking Back Sunday’s emo anthem “Cute Without The ‘E’” and The Starting Line’s “Best Of Me.” Brief succor in the desert.

The third and final night would end with a 2AM set by Machine Gun Kelly, but before that was a PBR-sponsored, space-themed Emo Nite wedding. The bride and groom had apparently met through Emo Nite LA shows and decided to seal the deal the same way, with the event’s tombstone mascot officiating the service. People in Buzz Lightyear costumes and antenna headbands ran around in the background. I don’t know how many times the thought, “What is happening and why am I here?” crossed my mind, but in a weird way, it was touching.

Story of the Year played an acoustic set after the ceremony, their beloved “Until The Day I Die” providing a lifeline to the genre we were there to venerate.

Despite all the costumes, alt-pop tunes, and one very disconcerting “sharp hazardous waste” box in a VIP bathroom, there was one intensely meaningful piece of reality that grounded Vegas Vacation: This was a place for people who had felt rejected by mainstream culture to be accepted.

“Emo,” a word often equated with being a loner, was actually a social catalyst. These 20- and 30-somethings who felt like misfits growing up were finally getting the chance to feel accepted and cool. Emo Nite LA and Pollen dubbed it “a miracle in the desert,” and for this reason, they were right.

See photos from the weekend at Emo Nite Vegas Vacation below!

Emo Nite Vegas Vacation 2021 by Pollen Presents is in the books and work on a 2022 installment is already underway. Stay up to date on next year’s event here and, to learn more about Pollen Presents, visit their website.

Emo Nite Vegas Vacation 2021 — Photos

Photos of the three-day Emo Nite Vegas Vacation festival.

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