In early 2008, a 13-year-old girl called Hannah Bond hanged herself in her bedroom in Maidstone in the South-east of England. In its reporting, the Daily Mail ran a story headlined ‘Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo’. It wasn’t the Mail’s first story of this kind: two years earlier, it had provided an ‘Emo cult warning for parents’, detailing some of the tell-tale signs to look out for. According to the Mail, Hannah Bond was a normal, happy teenager until she changed overnight on becoming emo. She had begun self-harming, apparently as part of an ‘emo initiation ceremony’; and had chatted online with friends about ‘the black parade – a place where emos believe they go after they die’. In the wake of the Mail story, a group of fans of the band My Chemical Romance, featured in the article, organized a protest outside the paper’s offices, pointing out several factual errors in its coverage; although the Mail responded by claiming that its account was ‘balanced and restrained’.
The Mail story was perhaps more sensationalist than many others, although examples of this kind of media coverage of emo can be found around the world (I have read accounts from Australia, the USA, Italy, Mexico and Russia). Of course, much of it is exaggerated, confused and inaccurate. The Mail journalists seem unable to identify the elements of parody (and self-parody) that are central to emo. For example, they take literally a YouTube video by what they call the ‘band’ Adam and Andrew, which is in fact a blatantly absurd parody of emo (and one of many). Their determination to present emo as an ‘evil cult’ or a ‘sect’ lead them to misread it in ways that are truly laughable.
On one level, these stories are part of a time-honoured tradition of media misrepresentation. They caricature and stigmatise the subculture, defining it as a threat both to the social and moral order, and to notions of childhood innocence. (It’s also interesting to note here that much of the anxiety focuses on female emos, rather than their male counterparts – despite the rise in suicide among young men during this period.) This kind of coverage is often seen as evidence of ‘moral panic’: it plays to ‘respectable fears’ among polite society, identifies particular ‘folk devils’ for condemnation, and calls for swift responses from the authorities.
Moral panic theory has been much debated among media scholars, and most would agree that the term is often misused and applied much too readily. It’s rare for anxieties about contemporary youth culture to rise to the level of full-blown panic, or to generate official responses, although newspapers like the Daily Mail undoubtedly try their best. In this case, however, it appears that the debate did lead to an institutional response, not in the UK but in Russia. The Guardian newspaper reported that the Russian government was proposing to outlaw emo music and fashion (along with other unrelated trends) as part of its ‘Government Strategy in the Sphere of Spiritual and Ethical Education’: in the wake of the Hannah Bond case, it had branded emo a ‘social danger’ and ‘a threat to national stability’ – and the move generated protests from Russian emos.
In the case of emo, the precise focus of such concern – the actual ‘folk-devil’ – is also hard to pin down. In analyzing coverage of a similar set of stories about emo-related suicides in the Australian press, Michelle Phillipov argues that ‘emo’ was something of a shifting term. While most youth cultures are resistant to being labeled, she argues that this was especially acute in the case of emo – which, as I have noted, was a much more pejorative label than ‘Goth’ or even ‘punk’, for example. Few young people would readily identify themselves as ‘emo’, and many overtly rejected the term. This made it harder for them to challenge the media accounts, although it also made it more difficult for the media to define what emo actually was. As a result, in the stories Phillipov discusses, concerns specifically about emo tended to elide into more generalized anxieties about ‘kids today’, for example in relation to self-harm, bullying, and unsupervised access to the internet.
Like other contemporary youth cultures, emo was an intensively mediated phenomenon; but the implications of this are complex and sometimes paradoxical. Romantic accounts of youth subcultures tend to present them as movements that emerge spontaneously ‘from the streets’, only to be caricatured and stigmatized by the mainstream media. Yet, as the researcher Sara Thornton observed many years ago, the media and other cultural industries are involved in the formation of youth culture from the very start. In her study of ‘club cultures’, for example, she shows how the mainstream media spread ideas about ravers’ music, style and behaviour to a wider audience; while ‘insiders’ used a range of media – including visual and print media – to promote their activities and share information. Even misrepresentations – as in the case of the Hannah Bond story – can help to bind the culture together, as participants collectively define themselves against outsiders who, it seems, do not understand them. On the other hand, once news of the phenomenon enters the mainstream media, ‘alternative’ expert commentators (who may or may not identify with the subculture) may be less likely to speak out about it, for fear of losing their authority. This kind of mediation is not new; but with the rise of social media, it has arguably become much more intensive, and more complicated.
In the Hannah Bond story, and in other similar accounts, the role of social media is often in the foreground. The emergence of emo during the early 2000s coincided with the rise of social media: emo was perhaps the first subculture of the so-called ‘internet generation’. Early platforms like LiveJournal, Friendster and (especially) MySpace were crucial to its global spread. Meanwhile, as we have seen, fears about the harmful influence of emo – and particularly about self-harm – were tied up (and sometimes confused) with emerging anxieties about internet risk. Emo, it seemed, was something teenagers could ‘catch’ without even leaving the house.
Of course, the internet served several commercial functions for emo. It was a marketing tool for record labels and music venues, and for companies selling emo merchandise and clothing. It made it much easier for bands to build a following, and for performers to connect with their fans. These functions were particularly important given the age group: most followers of emo music would have had fewer opportunities for attend live gigs than fans of other music genres.
However, the internet also provided spaces for emos themselves to interact with each other, especially across large distances, in ways that were much more difficult for earlier youth cultures. Here again, there are questions about how we interpret this phenomenon. The rock journalist Andy Greenwald argues that social media gave emos a wider sense of community, enabling them to overcome isolation and to escape from bullying and abuse (as in the quotation above). Personal blogging platforms like LiveJournal offered them a space to invent and express themselves, and to create new identities. Greenwald offers many examples of what seem like intense, poetic confessions of ‘difficult’ emotions – and especially of self-doubt and self-hatred. The emphasis, he argues, is on emotional honesty and sincerity. On this account, the personal blog is a kind of extension of the teenage diary – albeit one that is publically shared: it is an expression of the authentic, inner self – as opposed to the fake self that is seemingly required by the external social world.
At first glance, this seems a long way from the calculated self-presentation (and indeed the competitive self-promotion) that many now associate with platforms like Facebook. Yet some research studies suggest that participants in emo blogging sites and forums were also quite strategic in how they presented themselves. An Italian study of emos using the Netlog platform found that participants were keen to establish their own authority, as being ‘in the know’ and authentic. This was often achieved by disparaging members of other subcultures, or indeed pretenders within emo itself: these other people were stigmatised as merely superficial consumerists or posers. In the process, leaders or ‘web celebrities’ emerged, with the power to police the wider online community.
A very detailed study by two British researchers, Charnoff and Widdicombe, looked at how those seeking to join one such forum (EmoCorner) began by describing themselves. On the one hand, they were keen to establish their credentials by displaying their knowledge of emo-related issues, or their emo characteristics (of appearance, taste or personality) – while simultaneously denying the implication that they were simply followers of fashion. Yet on the other hand, they tended to claim that they had joined the forum because they were ‘bored’, or for relatively mundane reasons such as wanting to ‘make friends’ or ‘hang out’: in doing so, it was as though they wanted to negotiate away any potential criticisms of the emo identity, even in this apparently welcoming (although nevertheless public) context. Typically, there are often tensions between the desire to affiliate or identify with the group and the desire to assert one’s independence and individuality – tensions that cannot easily be resolved.
As this implies, social media is by no means a neutral space for self-expression or self-disclosure, even within what might appear to be a relatively defined subcultural group. Despite the fantasies of the Daily Mail, ‘becoming emo’ wasn’t an easy, overnight transformation. Like other subcultures, emo wasn’t a club with card-carrying members that you could easily join. On the contrary, being emo was primarily a performance, and one that was more intensively mediated than was the case with earlier youth cultures.