Rejoice, emo fans: the Hella Mega Tour is bringing Green Day, Fall Out Boy, and Weezer to your town! Rejoice, real emo fans: Dashboard Confessional just announced a twenty–year anniversary tour and a new “best of” compilation! Weep, real–real emo fans: there is still no evidence that Balance and Composure will return to music. At a time when acts like Panic! at the Disco are adored more than mocked and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die is recognized before the whole band name is said, an old argument gets drudged up: what exactly is emo?
The music we now know as “emo” originates in the 1980s East Coast hardcore scene, where the disgruntled members of bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains screamed themselves raw about their hatred of their lives and the state of the world. One day, Minor Threat fan Guy Picciotto decided to form Rites of Spring. The instrumentals were just as aggressive as hardcore, but the lyrics were poetic, romantic, and above all, emotional.
Ian MacKaye, then the frontman of Minor Threat, fully supported this new genre: he helped produce the first and only Rites of Spring album and served as roadie for their tour. They even inspired him to create a similar band of his own, called Embrace. The skate magazine Thrasher dubbed this new genre “emo–core,” which MacKaye called “the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my life” during an Embrace show.
Rites of Spring, Embrace, and other founding emo–core bands mostly disbanded, but the idea of combining the blistering emotion of punk with the overwhelming sadness of indie rock persisted, and was revived in the early 90s by acts like Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate. As the decade went on, the emergent “Midwest emo” became a cousin, of sorts, to grunge: the progenitors and ideas were the same, but the execution exceedingly different.
Around the mid–90s, the first crop of well–known emo bands arose, with acts like Jimmy Eat World, The Get Up Kids, and, yes, Weezer. Writer Andy Greenwald believes this is the era during which many genre stereotypes began to emerge, classifying emo as “boy–driven, glasses–wearing, overly sensitive, overly brainy, chiming–guitar–driven college music.” Its following was passionate but mostly underground, with independent record labels like Drive–Thru and Vagrant Records producing most albums from this era.
It was Jimmy Eat World’s self–financed 2001 album Bleed American that launched emo into the public consciousness. The cover art of trophies against a baby blue background is as recognizable as Green Day’s hand–grenade heart or Janine Lindemulder wearing a nurse’s uniform and pulling on a rubber glove, and it was the undeniably catchy “The Middle” on which the song, album, band, and scene exploded into national attention. This, combined with the rise of MySpace as a music marketing platform, made emo not just cool, but profitable.
As is the case with any scene, from punk to metal to pop, the most famous bands were the most marketable ones. An “emo trinity” formed of My Chemical Romance, Panic! at the Disco, and Fall Out Boy, bands made up of pretty boys dressed in all black and eyeliner who sang songs that infected the collective public eardrum: a single line or distinctive string section would have one humming “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” or “Sugar, We’re Going Down” for the rest of the day.
As the “emo trinity” and similar acts like AFI and Paramore grew in popularity, those artists and their fans faced anger from two fronts. First, those outside of the genre stereotyped the fans as gloomy outsiders going through a phase. Then, from within, mainstream bands were derided for their departure from the glasses and flannel roots of emo, which was still being upheld by underground acts like Polar Bear Club and Saosin. As infighting continued, these two subcategories diverged further until the underground bands broke up and the mainstream ones experimented with new sounds.
On the cusp of the 2020s, emo has never been more popular. The greater Philadelphia area has become a hub for the so–called “emo revival,” with acts like Tigers Jaw and Hop Along appealing to the Midwest emo crowd. Meanwhile, every frat party basement lights up in excitement at “Thnks fr th Mmrs” and “Welcome to the Black Parade,” as former emo kids shout the lyrics in full force rather than shamefully hiding behind red Solo cups. This revival, unfortunately, has brought up the same old debate—what makes Modern Baseball more worthy of the emo name than The All–American Rejects?
Most “emo confusion,” as it is, stems from two sources. First, the parent genre of post–hardcore is loosely defined at best, stretching its claws into bands that would otherwise be considered metalcore (I Prevail, We Came as Romans), prog rock (Circa Survive, Coheed and Cambria), or even pop punk (Senses Fail, Taking Back Sunday). Dedicated post–hardcore fans are more likely to define the genre by what it isn’t than what it is: “metalcore that doesn’t suck,” “hardcore with actual singing,” “emo but angrier and better.”
What unites these fan definitions of post-hardcore is a certain defensiveness, that this vague genre is better than its closely–related, much–maligned brethren, which brings up the second reason no one can much agree on what emo is: it requires association with the stereotypical “emo kid.” The underground fans of Joyce Manor and Pianos Become the Teeth may argue incessantly that Fall Out Boy is pop punk, not emo, but will recant if that means they have to associate with a genre defined by that band they despise.
Like fans of all genres, proponents of emo want nothing more than to be taken seriously and to hear that their taste in music is good. Some fans achieve this by asserting that My Chemical Romance are quality songwriters who were ignored on the basis of their eyeliner, and others put down All Time Low to lift up Armor for Sleep. Ultimately, the discussion is unproductive: emo is at best a loose concept, and its bands can be shunted into pop punk, indie rock, or that amorphous blob of post–hardcore. What matters is the community, and the impact music has on its fans, whether they shout–sing along to “Teenagers” or “Seven Years.”