Were they goth? Nu-metal? Rock? Maybe a Christian band? Nobody was quite sure what exactly Evanescence, a female-fronted rock band from Little Rock, Arkansas, was doing when they first started climbing the charts. All anybody knew was that it was working. “There were plenty of frustrating years where I felt like the mislabeling and the regurgitation of articles about things like that were just almost too much to overcome,” said Amy Lee, frontwoman of Evanescence, who cofounded the band in 1995. “But you know who you are and all we can do is be who we are and create what we create.”
In 2003, a year when global pop sensations like Britney Spears and Beyoncé both released albums, Evanescence crashed onto the mainstream music scene with the song “Bring Me to Life.” The instantly recognizable, eerie opening piano riff crept onto radio waves across the country and paved the way for their debut album, Fallen, to become one of the best-selling albums of the 21st century, earning a spot not far behind artists like Adele and Lady Gaga, with over 17 million records sold worldwide.
It’s been 20 years since Lee and the band made their debut, but their influence remains. When I speak to Lee, who’s piercing blue eyes still pop against her long black hair as they did on the cover of Fallen, like a goth Priscilla Presley, Grammy nominations have just been announced. The album was so unique with its dark, piano-forward sound that nobody quite knew how to categorize it, though they endlessly tried to. It skyrocketed the band, racking up five Grammy nominations, including best new artist and album of the year. “We were new and I was a 22-year-old, boot-wearing…I don’t know—I just felt like I was being punk’d,” said Lee from her home in Nashville. While the group accepted the award for best new artist that night, rapper 50 Cent, who was also up for the award, walked onto the stage and did a lap around them. “It’s one of those things where it was wild and crazy and I’ll never forget it,” she recalled. “But I was just as surprised as 50 Cent was that we won. I had my shoes off.”
Being misunderstood became something Lee and the band were accustomed to, and defying expectations became their secret weapon. “I think that is the true attitude and spirit of rock,” said Lee. “It’s not about me fitting into a box that you like or me selling you the product that you want to buy. It’s about me doing me without any shame, and I hope you like it. And if not, fuck you.”
The music spoke for itself. During an age of boy bands created by music industry execs, Fallen, 12 tracks about an abusive relationship, cut through the commercial noise and resonated with young people across the world. “Go for unique. If you have unique on your side, hold onto that, lift that up,” said Lee of their success. “I think that turned out to be true. I think just being authentic, being ourselves, making something that we really believed in and loved and not compromising on what that was, under all kinds of pressure, I think that was right.”