Reading emo

Over the past twenty years, academics have tied themselves in knots attempting to find effective ways of understanding the changes in contemporary youth cultures. This isn’t the place to go into details, but the fundamental debate is to do with the concept of ‘subculture’ itself. Even if the youth cultures of the 1960s and 1970s (mods, rockers, hippies, skinheads, punks…) could usefully be seen as subcultures, how far does the idea still apply? Are youth cultures today still as clearly defined – and indeed as subversive – as those of earlier decades appeared to be? Do they still express or seek to resist forms of subordination – especially in terms of social class? Some have argued that we need to talk in terms of ‘post-subcultures’, ‘tribes’ or ‘scenes’ – ideas that all attempt to encapsulate the more hybrid, diverse and flexible nature of contemporary youth cultures.

These ideas might be relevant to apply, for example, to phenomena like the rave and clubbing scenes of the 1990s and beyond. However, other contemporary groups – such as Goths – seem to display many of the characteristics of ‘classic’ 1970s subcultures: they are quite clearly defined, for example through the distinctive visual appearance of their members, and through shared cultural tastes (not only in music, but also in visual arts and literature). They also share what I have been vaguely calling a ‘mindset’ – a set of philosophical, emotional and psychological dispositions that might more grandly be called a ‘worldview’ or a ‘structure of feeling’. Adherents tend to have a strong and stable commitment to such groups, and to remain with them over the longer term.

The question is whether – despite Alexis Petridis’s comments above – emo can be seen as a subculture in this sense. To some extent, I think it can. The classic academic analyses of youth subcultures tend to look for ‘homologies’, or similarities across a range of elements such as music, style and fashion, as well as this broader worldview. Although it is diverse and hard to pin down, emo can certainly be typified in these ways.

In terms of music, emo emerged at the crossover between a range of styles and genres – most obviously classic punk, hardcore, grunge, heavy metal, nu metal and indie, although it also has elements of new wave and (in some cases) even prog rock. It builds on strong elements of its most obvious forebear, hardcore: distorted guitars, 8/4 or 16/4 time signatures, fairly simplistic major chord progressions (I, IV, V) and shouted or screamed vocals. At gigs, this style would mostly be accompanied by displays of anarchic slam dancing, mock fighting and crowd surfing in the mosh pit close to the stage. However, emo bands typically combined this with aspects of indie rock and more mainstream pop: slower, more melodic elements, a greater vocal range and a quieter, more sensitive singing style, and more complex chords (minor, altered and diminished). These two styles would frequently alternate in sections of a song, in the style known (ironically) as ‘screamo’. As I have noted, lyrics were typically introverted and melancholic, focusing on feelings of hurt, insecurity and self-pity, and on unrequited love much more than on politics or social issues.

Emo fashion is perhaps even easier to identify – or at least to sum up in a set of stereotypical characteristics. The range of images I have used to illustrate this piece give some visual indication of this – although having harvested them (somewhat arbitrarily) online, it’s hard to vouch for their authenticity. Some appear to be from fashion industry sources, which would suggest that they are idealized rather than representative of everyday life; although even what appear to be amateur selfies should be read with caution.

Here again, the style overlaps with several others – most obviously Goth, although there are also elements of the more ‘adorned’ styles of punk and new wave, as well as the anti-fashion of grunge and the causal style associated with skateboarding, BMX and extreme sports. Both males and females were likely to wear skinny, low-rise black jeans, dark t-shirts or hoodies with band logos and designs, canvas trainers or skater shoes (or sometimes heavy boots), and thick belts adorned with large buckles and keychains. The hairstyle was perhaps even more distinctive: mostly dyed jet black, occasionally with streaks of other colours, hair was worn straight and draped over one eye. Appearance was also modified with tattoos and body piercings (especially double lip piercing, and sometimes in the tongue or the back of the neck); and young men as well as women could wear eye-liner. The idealized emo body type was thin rather than muscular, and the skin should ideally be pale and emaciated (emos were almost invariably white Caucasian).

Of course, these taxonomies sound a little like ‘how to be emo’ guides, of the kind one might find in mainstream teen magazines – or indeed the ‘is my child an emo?’ articles written for worried parents. In fact, there is even a book-length version of this, Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture, which goes into much greater detail. The authors, ‘alternative’ music journalists Leslie Simon and Trevor Kelley, provide extensive lists of emo taste, style and etiquette, albeit with a considerable degree of sarcasm. This kind of guidance is symptomatic of the self-consciousness and self-parody of emo, noted above. The problem, however, is that it exists primarily for the benefit of outsiders, or wannabees: for those who are living the life, it seems at best superfluous, and at worst stereotypical and patronising.

Like other musical genres, emo was diverse and hybrid; and emo fashion was not a uniform. Both evolved over time. Nevertheless, it was a distinctive style, which was disseminated globally, not least through social media platforms such as Live Journal and My Space (as we shall see). Surveying the limited academic and popular literature, there is evidence that emo was a recognizable youth style not only in the US and Western Europe, but in locations as diverse as South Africa, Latin America, the Soviet Union and rural Australia.


Screening emo

One accessible means of exploring how these different musical and visual elements fit together is by studying music videos. Of course, music videos are not documentaries: they are essentially marketing tools designed to sell products (whether in the form of music or other merchandise, or tickets to live events). Nevertheless, in this section, I’ll give a brief commentary on some representative popular videos, grouped under four sub-categories: many of these have tens of millions of views and extensive pages of comments on You Tube (where they can all be found).

Pop punk was perhaps a precursor of emo, rather than emo proper. Yet pop punk videos do convey some of the more fun-loving, enthusiastic and ironic elements that surface from time to time in emo proper. Videos often feature performances in incongruous settings: ‘You’re Not Alone’ by Home Grown shows the band performing in a busy diner, while ‘Fat Lip’ by Sum 41 features them rapping in a Korean convenience store, along with wild outdoor dance sequences. ‘My Friends Over You’ by New Found Glory is almost a (self-)parody of a music video performance, complete with comic elements (sexy women wearing cut-off t-shirts labelled ‘typical video girls’) and special effects (exaggeratedly large heads and speeded-up leg movements). As the band members ‘perform’, they play video games, eat pizza and have tattoos applied, and the video culminates with the audience beating cardboard cut-outs of the band. The music is dominated by rough-edged guitars, but (as with the Sex Pistols and other allegedly anarchic punk bands) much of it is crisply performed, conventionally structured pop, with anthem-like choruses and melodic hooks.

More mainstream emo videos tend to be more serious in their approach. Dashboard Confessional’s ‘Screaming Infidelities’ is about betrayal and heartbreak, following the story of a doomed love affair from the first kiss to the suggestion of a suicide attempt. ‘Beauty In The Breakdown’ by the Scene Aesthetic depicts another ill-fated couple as they reluctantly part (seemingly forever, but for reasons unclear) at an airport; while a similar scenario is played out in ‘A Movie Script Ending’ by Death Cab for Cutie. All three feature acoustic guitars and frail, somewhat choked vocals: the overall musical style seems closer to a romantic pop boy-band than to the ragged fury of hardcore. The performers (and especially the female love-objects) in these videos also appear fairly conventional and clean-cut, despite the occasional discreet piercing.

By contrast, the narrative of Hawthorne Heights’ ‘Ohio Is For Lovers’ is rather more oblique, although there is also a strong sense of nostalgia for a lost childhood love here. In this case, the quiet sensitive sections alternate with thrash and screaming (or whining) vocals, which explicitly refer to self-harm (‘cut my wrists and black my eyes/because you kill me/my final breath is gone’), as the band performs in a dusty underground room. Meanwhile, ‘I’m Not Okay’ by My Chemical Romance seems to parody this sense of isolation and alienation, telling an ironic ‘revenge of the nerds’ story set in an elite private high school.

These elements of irony and (deliberate or accidental) self-parody are even more evident in what might be called camp emo. Here, the influence of early 1980s new wave styles – especially the new romantics – is surprisingly evident. ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’ by Panic at the Disco stages an elaborate scenario in which a troupe of circus clowns disrupts a bizarre wedding, in a manner that recalls Adam Ant. Meanwhile, ‘The Curse of Curves’ by Cute Is What We Aim For resembles nothing more than a Duran Duran video: the band, with emo haircuts but attired in 1980s suits, sit eating dinner at an upmarket restaurant as they exchange meaningfully sexy glances with their Vogue-model guests. Like a great many of these videos, the narrative seems to be driven by a kind of adolescent male wish-fulfillment that is very hard to take seriously.

Finally, there are more intellectual emo videos, which tend to be more ambitious and more ‘adult’, both musically and in their visual scenarios. Coheed and Cambria’s ‘A Favour House Atlantic’ contains typically ornate prog guitar, albeit set against a familiar narrative of overweight rock geeks being pursued by (or pursuing) Vogue-model women, and one scene that appears to depict oral sex with a transvestite. ‘Alive with the Glory of Love’ by Say Anything tells a story of two children escaping from what appears to be a kind of prison camp, evading their guards and making their way to a band performance in the forest. The lyric is about ‘love against the odds’, but the narrative is somewhat more political. In both cases, the band members are older than the majority of emo performers (and their fans), and dress in a much more nondescript grungey way. Finally, ‘Juneau’ by the British band Funeral for a Friend shows the band performing in a house, intercut with disturbing and unexplained scenes of destruction occurring in the other rooms – an elderly couple dancing and pillow-fighting, a man collapsing in a shower, a cheerleader headbanging, a businessman smashing up furniture. While the band itself undoubtedly displays the requisite emo appearance, and the music alternates between thrash and calm in the ‘screamo’ style, the video is more avant-garde in its approach.

This brief description suggests some of the diversity of emo, both musically and in terms of visual and narrative style. Indeed, in some ways it reinforces the difficulty of defining the musical genre, let alone establishing its credentials as a ‘subculture’. Yet one of the most striking things about accessing these videos is the enormous number of views they have generated (‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’ had no fewer than 183 million hits at the time of writing), and the extensive comments that accompany them. Most viewers seem have little hesitation in categorizing these videos as ‘emo’, and many of them express a great nostalgia for emo as a lost period of their early teens. The time has gone so fast, they say, I wish we could be back at school. Their ‘My Space’ days are gone, but wouldn’t it be great if emo could come back? As we have seen, nostalgia for childhood – or at least for a time of innocence – is itself a common theme in several of these songs and videos. But in the users’ comments there is often a mixture of affection and irony – both of which can be seen as elements of the emo ‘mindset’, the repertoire of feelings that it embodies.


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