Back in the distant days of the early 2000s, my two teenage sons both became ‘emos’. They formed guitar bands with their friends, played gigs in dodgy pubs, and recorded EPs. They wore skinny jeans, black T-shirts with obscure band logos, and skater shoes. Both had long hair carefully draped over one eye, although neither went so far as eyeliner or piercings. They collected CDs by bands like Coheed and Cambria, Say Anything and Taking Back Sunday, and spent hours poring over guitar solos. When Nathan, aged 18, separated from his then girlfriend, he recorded an entire CD of songs filled with despair and bitterness, going under the name of ‘The Futile’. Louis, three years younger, struggled a little to keep up, and was probably always more of a ‘pop punk’. At the time, both would probably have balked a little at the label ‘emo’, although they now look back to it with an air of affectionate nostalgia.
Adults of my generation tend to discuss contemporary youth culture in tones of regret: it’s not like it was in my day. When we were young, youth culture was authentic, non-commercial, and rebellious. Today, it’s just superficial and consumerist: it’s not really proper youth culture at all. Yet emo may or may not represent an exception to this. There were undoubtedly several ways of ‘being emo’, but there was nevertheless a defined style, a specific musical genre (or set of genres), and a kind of shared emotional mindset. On the face of it, emo looked like a genuine youth subculture. And yet, like my teenage sons, many ‘emos’ appeared ambivalent about being categorized in this way. The term itself seemed inherently disparaging, although for some it was an identity that seemed to be embraced almost in a spirit of self-parody.
So what was ‘emo’? To what extent can we pin it down, or draw a line around it? Was it a genuine expression of adolescent angst, or a manufactured pose? Did it ever really exist, or was it a myth – an illusory teenage fad that was doomed to live forever in scare quotes? And what might these paradoxes tell us about the continuing evolution of youth subcultures in the twenty-first century?
‘Emo’ is short for ‘emotional’. Many believe the term first arose in the mid-1990s as a way of defining a new musical genre, ‘emotional hardcore’: what was initially termed ‘emo-core’ was eventually shortened further to become ‘emo’. Various waves of emo music can be identified, but the term really took off around the turn of the century, with the release of a series of compilation albums called Emo Diaries on the US label Deep Elm. The heyday of emo was relatively short, for reasons I will try to explain, although elements of it are still continuing. As I write, (arguably) emo bands like You Me At Six and My Chemical Romance have upcoming gigs at a large venue in my neighbourhood; and there is plenty of evidence of ‘emo nostalgia’ on social media platforms.
A dictionary definition of emo would probably start with the music: Wikipedia, for instance, spends several thousand words cataloguing the mutating memberships of various (almost exclusively American) bands. On this account, emo emerged from the meeting between post-punk hardcore (with elements of thrash and grunge) and a softer-edged indie (or alternative) style: it’s Black Flag meets Nirvana meets Morrissey, perhaps. This new style was less aggressive and more melodic than hardcore; but it was also more personal and introspective, and less overtly political. As the name suggests, many emo lyrics are full of teenage vulnerability and longing: they offer intense, poetic expressions of misery, bitterness and nostalgia, alternately sung in a sensitive, almost crooning style, and then screamed over heavy, thrashing guitars.
However, it would be a mistake to see this as simply about the music, or indeed the fans of the music. Like earlier youth cultures, emo also entailed a particular visual appearance, in terms of clothing, hair and make-up. And, as we shall see, both the music and the visual style went along with a particular emotional mindset, and to some extent with a blurring of gender boundaries. The emotional sensitivity of emo led some to argue that it glamourised and encouraged self-harm and even suicide. It is in these areas that we need to assess emo’s claim to be a subculture, rather than simply another musical genre.
The immediate difficulty here, however, is to do with authenticity. How does one write about such a phenomenon without the inverted commas – and without enraging those who see themselves as guardians of the truth of youth culture? Wikipedia, like many other sources, tells an ‘origin story’, whereby the true essence of the culture was somehow inevitably corrupted by the forces of corporate capitalism. This is a familiar mythological narrative in accounts of youth culture; although in this case there are many who argue that the very category itself – ‘emo’ – was somehow instantly inauthentic from the start. Emotional hardcore, we are told, grew up from the grassroots, the underground, outside the evil commercial mainstream: it was truly independent of the capitalist music industry. Emo, by contrast, was the sellout version: the ‘emo kids’ – both the bands and their fans – were the followers, the wannabees, the insincere high-school kids who were buying into the real thing.
The media are seen to play a significant but ambivalent role here. As we shall see, mainstream news media tend to misrepresent such phenomena, and generate bouts of moral panic about them; while social media provide a forum both for members of the subculture itself and for those who abuse and attack them. However, ‘niche’ media, especially the music press, and the self-declared experts who work for them, also play a key role.
Mitch Daschuk provides a detailed account of how music journalists both provoked the emergence of emo as a distinctive phenomenon – not least by labelling it – and yet also attempted to question its legitimacy. He argues that these commentators (most of whom were significantly older than the performers and the young fans they were writing about) sought to maintain their own power and authority by constantly drawing and redrawing the line between the ‘underground’ and the ‘mainstream’, or the authentic and the inauthentic. As the commentary proliferated, these distinctions became more nuanced and more complicated: it was important to distinguish, not just between emo and not-emo, or between ‘independent’ emo and ‘mainstream’ emo, but between several varieties of each of them. According to Daschuk, many of these commentators were identified with the older hardcore punk scene, and were keen to prevent younger ‘pretenders’ – those whom they termed the ‘emo kids’ – getting in on the act. ‘Emo’ was a pejorative term from the outset, and its followers were implicitly condemned as mere subcultural tourists.
From this perspective, mainstream success and popularity are somehow inherently incompatible with authenticity. Emo represents the domestication or suburbanization of punk – and the neutralizing of its political threat. Emo, the critics argue, was much more consumerist and conformist than the styles that preceded it; and it was certainly more white, and more middle-class. They point with disgust to the rapid appearance of emo within the mainstream media – features about ‘how to be emo’ or ‘guides to emo’ in Seventeen or Entertainment Weekly, or on network television – and the merchandising of emo in mall chains like Hot Topic and Blue Banana. When the bland teen-pop icon Justin Bieber began to take on elements of the emo style, it was merely the logical consequence of this betrayal by packaging. And when ‘emos’ began to appear in British soap operas like Coronation Street and Hollyoaks, the game was well and truly over.
Yet this story of ‘sellout’ is one that belies the inevitably commercial and mediated nature of all youth cultures. Even the Sex Pistols, the heroes of punk, were signed to major labels, and managed by an individual with much more than an eye on the main commercial chance. While they might proclaim a ‘DIY’ (do it yourself) ethic, the musicians and their fans in such alternative scenes are bound to develop their own economy, from music venues and publications, through to the enormous proliferation of merchandising (clothing, imagery and accessories), now massively aided by the internet. There are always key intermediaries and entrepreneurs working from the ‘inside’ – most notably record labels – that seek to play these markets, however much they may be criticized by the holders of the true faith. (In the case of emo, Vagrant Records’ founder Rich Egan seems to occupy the demonic impresario role once assumed by Malcolm McLaren in the age of punk.)
Likewise, even alternative styles are crucially dependent upon mainstream media, both to ensure public visibility and to provide the establishment condemnation that is essential to their credibility (again, the Sex Pistols’ pivotal appearance on the BBC’s Nationwide is a case in point). As Daschuk observes, these critical commentators themselves are often dependent on the commercial scene that they deride – for example, featuring emo performers on the covers of their apparently alternative publications in order to ensure that they are commercially viable.
Of course, there is bound to be a historical trajectory here. It takes time for the mainstream media to catch on to emerging trends – and as we shall see, they frequently get them wrong, and panic as they do so. As soon as the style comes onto the mainstream radar, it begins to lose its authenticity in the eyes of those commentators whose authority depends upon them remaining in the minority, ahead of the game. Part of the problem here is to do with age. Those who seek to preserve the authenticity of the subculture are often older than those who subsequently try to gain access to it. Emo was very definitely a younger scene than hardcore and some of the other styles that preceded it: many of the bands themselves were made up of teenagers (or at least those in their early twenties), and most of the fans were schoolchildren. For many older critics and commentators – especially music journalists – this presented a golden opportunity for sarcastic condemnation of those who might find it harder to speak back.
In search of emo
All this makes a phenomenon like emo very hard to identify and pin down. This is especially difficult given what seems like an ever-increasing pace of change. The Guardian music journalist Alexis Petridis argues that, in the age of the internet, the life-cycle of youth cultures – the formation, dissolution and reformation of subcultural styles – is now operating in a much more accelerated way. As he notes, this seems to generate a kind of instant knowing irony, and even self-parody:
In search of latterday youth subcultures, I’m pointed in various directions by various people, but I invariably can’t work out whether what I’m looking at is meant to be serious or a joke: never really a problem in the days when members of different youth cults were prepared to thump each other. There’s plenty of stuff that seems weird and striking and creative out there, but there’s something oddly self-conscious and non-committal about it: perhaps that’s the result of living in a world dominated by social media, where you’re under constant surveillance by your peers.
Petridis’s comments here are very pertinent to emo in particular. In fact, as we shall see, members of other subcultural groups were quite frequently prepared to ‘thump’ emos (physically or verbally). The role of social media is also perhaps more complex than he suggests – and this is another topic that I shall consider in due course. But the sense that emo was simultaneously ‘self-conscious and non-committal’ – that it was both serious and somewhat of a joke – coincides with my own experience of looking back and trying to understand what it was all about.