Emo is perhaps the most loaded and polarizing word in rock history, and it carries a multitude of contradicting stigmas. Although the instances in which we now hear the word are few and far between, emo still seems solely to represent different things to different people. What does emo even mean anyway? Before we dive in, let’s just get this out of the way: emo does not mean sad or depressed. I know the word has been associated with a stereotype of sensitivity, introversion, and self-harm, and a lot of kids who enjoy emo music may suffer from depression at one point or during the course of their lives, but they are not one in the same. And I do not want anybody conflating them because that is false.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what is emo? When I look at my generation, millennials to gen Z, a lot of us probably describe emo as a fashion statement or a subculture that reached its commercial peak in the mid-00s with the golden years of MySpace—an escape route from reality for an entire generation of IRL-introverts. I know MySpace is mostly considered a laughingstock nowadays when we refer to the stone age of the internet, but it was revolutionary in the context of cultural zeitgeist in a lot of ways. Its music features in particular became a beneficial asset to many a musicians at the time, and it was also largely responsible for taking emo from a music genre to fully fledged counter-culture. The likes of My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Dashboard Confessional, and Panic! At The Disco became the figureheads of the mall emo branch, which was dominated by ripped skinny jeans, guyliners, and tight t-shirts with band names. But these bands were hardly the first to be considered emo.
A general weary-eyed consensus dates the term to 1984 in suburban Washington DC. Originally associated with caustic music and its unconventional song structure (no verse, chorus, verse), emo emerged as a post-hardcore category of rock that was derived from hardcore and noise-rock with more of an emphasis on emotional expression and confessional lyricism. The first band that many people attribute to coining emo is the DC post-hardcore band Rites of Spring. The band was very short-lived, however, their impact left a permanent imprint. To this day, they are still cited as the quintessential proto-emo band. Although emo has only been around for a few decades, it has already undergone a complicated evolution process. And as the genre evolved and got renovated by the indie and punk rock scene, bands started to lyrically and instrumentally transcend the hardcore sound to lean more into the emotional side. This display of suffering and sentimentality later took on a more radio-friendly sound, resonating with teen audiences of the time and spawning many different variations—and also divisions—of the genre as a whole. These were bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, The Get Up Kids, Jawbreaker, and The Promise Ring whose seminal album and song Nothing Feels Good inspired a book of the same name about emo culture by Spin Magazine’s Andy Greenwald.
Part of the problem with labeling and categorizing music is that at a certain point, that categorization leads to gatekeeping. For people who started out as hardcore fans of any musical niche before more people knew about it, it’s easy to feel betrayed and call your favorite band “sell outs” once they go mainstream. For some reason, this seems to mostly plague a lot of bands that draw from rock and post-hardcore. But any sub-genre under the rock umbrella, including emo, has evolved and changed. Hate to break it to you but emo stopped being the antithesis of mainstream a long time ago. Here’s what Andy Greenwald has to say about the topic:
“The word has survived and flourished in three decades, two millenniums and two Bush administrations. It’s been a source of pride, a target of derision, a mark of confusion and a sign of the times. It’s been the next big things twice, the current big thing once and so totally over millions of times. And yet, not only one can agree on what it means, there is not now, nor has there ever been, a single major band that admits to being emo. Not one. That’s pretty impressive. And contentious. And ridiculous. Good thing too—because so is emo.” (Source: Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo)
What I found most displeasing over the years is the way that the emo label has been weaponized, especially when it put a stigma on enjoying certain bands. Whether or not they were actually quote unquote ‘true emo’ or not, that didn’t stop bands like My Chemical Romance from being pegged with that label, and people using the label to disparage them at the same time. If you’re familiar with how contentious the debate is over who gets the ownership of the emo label, I’m sure you’ve heard of the site isthisbandemo.com where all you have to do is type in a band name and the site will tell you whether or not they’re truly emo. I’ve never really cared for this stuff either because it doesn’t really allow the term much flexibility. It just feels like a bunch of black and white answers confining music to rigid roles and categories, and I don’t really see the benefits of it other than help elitist music nerds desperately preach all the time how much more knowledgeable they are than other people.
Emo is an essential element of being a teenager. It isn’t a particular sound or a style but rather a legacy. It’s the desire to make yourself bigger by making yourself part of something bigger. It’s a lighthouse for those who feel like outsiders and an insult tossed out by those who believe themselves to be stronger. So if kids form a subculture where they feel accepted and affirmed, and start calling themselves emo but don’t necessarily know everything about the history or the origins of the word, who cares? It’s just a word. If theatre kids who gravitated towards bands like Fall Out Boy claim the emo label for themselves, I’m not losing sleep over it if nobody agrees on what the word means anyway. And I don’t see the problem with people having their own interpretations of it.