A structure of feeling

As I have argued, emo was not just about music and fashion: it also had a distinctive ‘structure of feeling’ – a set of emotions and orientations that amounted to a kind of mindset or worldview. These are vague terms, I admit, but they identify something that is arguably characteristic of all youth subcultures. It’s easy to reduce subcultures to a single aspect of this kind – the aggression of the skinheads, the euphoria of the hippies – and to trace this to particular psychological or socio-political causes. However, this doesn’t do justice to the clustering of such emotions, their diversity and their occasional contradictions. Punks, for example, were by turns aggressive and depressed; they could be apathetic, but they could also be politically engaged; they sought attention, but then they couldn’t care less. And when we look at the detail, none of this structure of feeling can be straightforwardly attributed to working-class resistance, or alienation from consumer society, or even plain old teenage rebellion.

These emotional mind-sets are often seen to have chemical origins: the mods are frequently ‘explained’ by their preference for amphetamines, the hippies by marijuana and LSD, ravers by ecstasy. However, this doesn’t always apply. Unlike some other youth cultures, emo did not appear to have its signature drug – not even anti-depressants. Indeed, there was some overlap in this respect between emo and straight edge, a group that strongly rejects all forms of artificial stimulants.

As the term implies, emo appeared to be all about emotion: it wore its heart on its sleeve. And on the face of it, emos were not too happy. The lyrics of emo songs, the interactions online, and interviews of the time, depict a particular emotional universe: a world of despair, bitterness and self-loathing. Emos were defined by their shared willingness to confess their experiences of loss and heartbreak, and of personal inadequacy and alienation: they seemed to be torn apart by difficult, turbulent feelings they could not fully explain. While the subculture itself provided support, and while the music enabled a kind of cathartic release, it was precisely these expressions of emotional vulnerability that attracted ridicule: according to their critics, emo was just a matter of immature self-pity. In the name of a popular emo podcast of the time, emos were just cry-babies.

And yet there are questions about how far this emotionality should be interpreted, or taken at face value. In his book-length study of emo, the music journalist Andy Greenwald persistently links emo to what he clearly regards as essential qualities of teenagerhood:

You are disenfranchised, your parents don’t understand you. You like girls/boys, they don’t like you. You are smart, but not smart enough. You are too fat. You are too thin. You have to get into college but you have to finish your eighteen extracurricular activities first. Your best friend betrays you, your girlfriend/boyfriend cheats on you… People are mean to you. Again and again and again. When you come home from school, you sit in the bathroom and cry for an hour. Every day.

With the door closed, you turn on your stereo. Someone is singing about problems just like yours. They’re not commenting on them, not judging them, just echoing them, making them real, validating them. You sing along and your tears dry up. You switch on your computer. You’re safe in your room. You control everything. You’re alone. But you check your buddy list and know, you’re anything but alone.

The cultural context here is fairly specific (the eighteen extracurricular activities, for example), but the picture is of a universal teenage emotionality. Teenagers, it would seem, are all sensitive, unstable and self-obsessed. Emo is just an expression of what happens to us all in that period of our lives. This is an explanation that fits very easily with popular psychological stereotypes of adolescence, as a period of raging hormones and emotional ‘storm and stress’. It’s hard to ignore the air of condescension in this account, written as it is by a thirty-something rock journalist.

Like many other commentators, Greenwald explicitly regards this overflowing emotionality as somehow ‘real’, at least for those involved: it is the very opposite of the irony he identifies (and clearly values) elsewhere in popular culture. Yet I’m not sure we should take these expressions quite so literally. In the accounts I’ve read, some self-declared emos tend to claim that they were intensely emotional to begin with, and that emo just provided them with a means to express this, and a space to identify with others of their kind (most obviously through social media). Yet there is also a recurring suspicion that others’ expressions of emotional distress might be faked or insincere, or at least something of a self-conscious performance. To be sure, there are occasional outbursts of emotional turbulence on emo social media, but there is also a considerable amount of banal everyday chat, and a lot of humour – including a persistent strand of self-parody. Here again, we need to beware of taking emo at face value.


Interpreting self-harm

One area in which these paradoxes are most apparent is in relation to self-harm. There’s no doubt that self-harm is the explicit focus of at least some emo song lyrics (as in the case of ‘Ohio Is For Lovers’, quoted above); and that emos themselves frequently shared their experiences of self-harm (cutting in particular), for example on social media. And yet much of the commentary about this topic – including among emos themselves – is infused with irony. Jokes like ‘I wish my lawn was emo so it would cut itself’ were commonly circulated. The claim – frequently made in sensational media coverage – that emo glamourised or encouraged self-harm needs to be treated cautiously.

Self-harm is not uncommon among young people. A 2014 study by Robert Young and others suggests that around 18% of all adolescents self-harm; and while as many as 30% report having suicidal thoughts, 4% actually attempt it. Studies also tend to find that teenagers who strongly identify with subcultures (in general) are also more likely to self-harm, as compared with more ‘mainstream’ teens. There are problems with how researchers make these categorizations, but there are even bigger difficulties here to do with cause and effect: are more emotionally unstable teenagers more likely to identify with subcultures in the first place, or does associating with a subculture lead them to become unstable?

Some of the psychological literature seems quite ready to leap to the latter conclusion. For example, a South African study by Zdanow and Wright, published in 2012, depicts the ‘destructive and dangerous conversations between vulnerable teenagers’ taking place on social networking sites, specifically relating to emo. The study argues that self-harming behaviour is normalized, and often idealized or glorified, in such contexts. According to these researchers, teenagers come to these sites in search of a sense of belonging, and in an attempt to overcome their isolation: yet social media works as a form of ‘suicide contagion’ (in other words, encouraging copycat behaviour), that can be a powerful influence on ‘impressionable’ adolescents.

However, other researchers are rather more careful. For example, Graham Martin, an Australian psychologist writing in 2006, argues that belonging to a group like emo might just as easily be seen as an outlet for difficult feelings. Others argue that belonging to online discussion groups on such topics might provide support and acceptance, and thereby reduce the likelihood of self-harm, rather than exacerbate it. There is a similar ambivalence in accounts of self-harming behaviour itself. On the one hand, self-harm might be seen as a means of regulating or reducing negative emotions, or overcoming a feeling of ‘numbness’; although the display of such behaviour (the parading of scars, for example) might equally serve to mark or reinforce group identity – or even function as a form of attention-seeking. It is also important to differentiate here between self-harm and attempted suicide, which might have quite different motivations – although not all researchers do this.

Ultimately, these studies raise more questions than they answer. Aside from the issue of causality, the problem is that many of them seem to take their data at face value. For example, in a study of ‘mental health literacy’ published in 2006, two Australian researchers, Scott and Chur-Hansen, interviewed teenage students about depression and schizophrenia. Unsurprisingly at the time, several of the students chose to talk about emo; and the quotations suggest that they largely denigrated emos as other people who would simply follow the trend and cut themselves. None claimed to be emos themselves. While this may tell us something about the persistence of stereotypes, it tells us very little about the influence of youth culture on mental health.

It may well be that expressions of emotional distress and self-harm are more prevalent among groups like emos. To dismiss this behaviour as a kind of simple-minded attempt to appear cool (a form of ‘contagion’), or as insincere teenage histrionics, would be a mistake. Yet to ignore the elements of irony and self-parody here would be to take it much too literally.


A crisis of masculinity?

Another dimension of this question of ‘feeling’ – and another paradox here – is to do with sexuality. Once again, how we interpret this depends upon where we look.

It cannot be denied that emo music was extraordinarily male-dominated, perhaps to an even greater extent than most other popular music genres. In all my viewing of emo videos, I saw not a single female performer; and my expert informants couldn’t think of any either. Emo lyrics may not be as overtly misogynist as gangsta rap, for example, but many emo songs are about blaming women for the singer’s betrayal and heartbreak, and some are vehicles for fantasies of violent revenge.

And yet emo fashion and style were comparatively androgynous, even by the standards of other youth cultures. Girls and boys wore similar clothing and hairstyles, and boys would sometimes wear make-up. While this wasn’t full-on ‘gender-bending’, there was certainly a degree of gender ambiguity. Furthermore, as we have seen, boys (as well as girls) were encouraged or permitted to be openly emotional, in a way that seems to go against conventional ideas of masculinity. In some contexts, this meant that they ran the risk of being accused of homosexuality: the most frequent abuse of male emos was that they were wimps, sissies, fags or gay. As we shall see, this frequently extended to bullying, and sometimes to overt physical violence.

There were also gay male emos. Writing in 2010, the researcher Brian Peters provides a very upbeat account of emo ‘gay boys’, arguing that they challenged not just heterosexual, hyper-masculine norms but gay norms as well (what he identifies as the virile, muscular ‘Abercrombie and Fitch’ look). Peters argues that emos in general encouraged rejection and abuse from the mainstream, on the grounds that this would offer them greater credibility within their alternative cultural world.

However, much of the academic analysis of this issue is much less sympathetic: many commentators have refuted the idea that emo was any kind of challenge to dominant forms of masculinity, or a symptom of a ‘crisis of masculinity’. Sam de Boise, for example, points to the ‘heteronormative’ and ‘masochistic’ emphasis of emo song lyrics, and argues that they often represent women as vindictive, cruel and manipulative. Women, he argues, are condemned for promiscuity, yet male competition over women is celebrated. Appearing to be more ‘sensitive’ and ‘emotional’ than the average guy doesn’t really challenge male privilege. Likewise, music critic Jessica Hopper argues that emo is ‘a cathedral of man pain’, in which women are merely objects of misery or desire: it is just a ‘passive-aggressive rewrite’ of traditional rock-and-roll misogyny. According to these critics, emo merely appropriated a few ‘feminine’ characteristics in order to reassert male power more effectively.

Similar arguments have been applied once critics look beyond the music itself. Emily Ryalls, for example, argues that emo boys took on some ‘feminine’ characteristics, and even performed ‘homosexual’ acts such as kissing other boys, but this was merely superficial – and mostly served as a means of making themselves more attractive to girls. Self-harm, she argues, was merely a form of exhibitionism, and yet another display of masculine toughness. In a study of young men in South Wales, Michael Ward likewise argues that the outward appearance of ‘alternative’ forms of masculinity among emos was rather belied by their continuing emphasis on traditional forms of machismo and physical prowess. Being on the receiving end of homophobic abuse and harassment merely enabled these boys to present themselves as ‘hero-outsiders’.

This academic trashing of emo pays no attention to female emos, or indeed to female fans of male performers. They seem to be seen implicitly as victims of a kind of false consciousness, buying into a subculture that can only define them as objects of blame and recrimination. Here again, there seems to be an age dimension to these criticisms: these older critics of emo bring to bear the full weight of feminist criticism on a phenomenon that is about younger teenagers. By exposing the ‘true’ reactionary motivations that lie behind emos’ superficial display of changing gender roles, these authors might be accused of merely reasserting their own power. In my view, they fail to do justice to the ambivalence and confusion that lie at the (bleeding) heart of emo: they take it too seriously, and yet somehow not seriously enough.


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