The emo haters
At the same time, this mediated performance took place under an intensive public gaze. Specialist emo sites and forums were mostly open to access, and after the mid-2000s a great deal of material was posted on public platforms like Facebook and YouTube. While the internet might have enabled isolated young people to build connections with each other, it also exposed them to public ridicule and abuse.
Some of this material seems only gently satirical, and even affectionate. There are numerous YouTube videos with titles like ‘Six types of emo kids’, ‘How emo are you really?’ or ‘Real emo vs. fake emo’, as well as more elaborate parodies like Adam and Andrew’s ‘Emo kid song’ (as featured in the Daily Mail), Lars the Emo Kid and the graphic novel series EmoBoy. Kelley and Simon’s ‘guide to emo’ book Everybody Hurts also contains elements of this, although it provides copious amounts of genuine information – lists of emo music venues, retailers, books and movies – tempered by sarcasm. Phenomena like emo clearly represent a market opportunity, even for their critics.
While some of this material dates back to the mid-2000s, some of it is much more recent in origin. Current YouTube celebrities like Johnnie Guilbert, Eugenia Cooney and Hair Jordan purport to provide fashion tips for aspirant emos – ‘Look emo in minutes’, ‘How to get emo hair’ – and have hundreds of thousands of followers. Several of them are managed by a US agency called Talent Shoppe, and clearly have merchandising deals; although behind them are legions of aspiring online celebrities. It’s genuinely hard to tell how much of this material is intended as parody or self-parody, especially given the time that has elapsed since the heyday of emo.
However, some of this online material is more confrontational and disturbing. Youth-oriented wiki sites like Uncyclopaedia and Urban Dictionary contain extensive amounts of invective directed at emos, some of which is blatantly homophobic. While some of the comments are merely sarcastic, others incite violence against emos, or urge emos to kill themselves in various graphically described ways. In one sequence of YouTube videos entitled ‘Emo crybaby whine of surrender’, a 15-year-old girl calling herself Princess Punk responds to numerous ‘emo haters’ who appear to have harassed her in comments on Facebook and YouTube, and directly via prank phone calls. Some of the comments on these and similar posts are vitriolic: emos are condemned as faggots, ugly bitches and spoilt brats, and advised to hang themselves. Others defend emos from the haters – ‘Killing emos is wrong’, ‘Ten things I hate about haters’ – generating more condemnation in return. While there are occasional elements of humour here, much of it is distinctly painful; and it’s clear that this kind of abuse extends offline as well.
In some situations, violence against emos appears to have taken a more organized public form. In Mexico City in 2008, emos were brutally attacked on the streets by groups of older punks and Goths. The attackers were partly motivated by homophobia – emos were criticized for their feminised appearance – but there was also a significant political dimension: emo was condemned as a fake subculture, as a betrayal of the politics of punk, and as middle-class and consumerist. Of course, this kind of confrontation is by no means new – the dimension of class conflict is reminiscent of the violence between hippies and skinheads in the 1970s – but it does clearly indicate that tensions between different youth cultural ‘tribes’ can be more than simply disagreements about hairstyles.
Conclusion: disavowing emo
Ultimately, it is hard to know how seriously we should take emo – or indeed how seriously emos took themselves. Throughout this piece, I have identified many elements of mockery and parody, deriving not only from outside the culture, but from within it as well. Many ‘emos’ were uneasy about identifying themselves as such: far from being a proud assertion of identity, it was a label that was often disavowed and resisted, or at least seen with considerable ambivalence.
There are several reasons for this. Clearly, it was partly a response to the bullying and vilification of the ‘emo-haters’: self-parody or irony might seem to offer a limited form of self-protection from criticism. It was also – as in the uncertainties of some of the online communication – a broader resistance to labelling of any kind. On the one hand, young people (and not only young people) may seek the security of belonging to a group, and yet they do not want to be regarded as mere followers of the crowd, or superficial slaves to fashion. As I have noted, the label ‘emo’ was pejorative from the outset. The ‘emo kid’ was, by definition, inauthentic and immature – merely a pretender, a poser. The label was a kind of stigma, which could only be accepted and used with great ambivalence, especially when communicating with outsiders.
It is hard to say whether emo was any more or less fabricated or authentic than any of the other youth subcultures that preceded it. However, I would argue that it was more intensively mediated, both within the wider culture and among emos themselves. This gave it an air of self-consciousness, or perhaps self-awareness, that made it both easy to identify, yet also very difficult to pin down.