(Because I wanted to blog about things besides anime and manga for once!)
Lots of people have an embarrassing thing they were into when they were teenagers, and one of the big ones for me was emo. I went to a jock school, and I got a lot of crap from the hip-hop and metal-heads about how emo was whiny, annoying sissy music. I had to listen alone, with the door locked, headphones on. And that’s unfair, because I still think emo music is amazing! I’m pretty sure I’m the only person left on earth who cares about this, but I want to sing the praises of this maligned yet highly influential genre of popular music.
The roots of emo go back to the late 80’s hardcore punk scene, but it was obscure even in that niche until the 90’s, when it blended indie, grunge, and pop-punk to make a new kind of sensitive rock music. The essential 90’s emo album is Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate. It had grungy guitars typical of the era, but Jeremy Engik’s haunting voice and tortured lyrics about anxiety, religion, addiction, and (of course) breakups made it a classic. The band fell apart afterwards: the bassist and drummer joined the Foo Fighters (!) and Engik became a born-again Christian (?!). But Diary was highly influential on future emo bands, who polished Sunny Day’s rougher edges and took their sound to new heights.
In the late 90’s, bands like The Get Up Kids and Jimmy Eat World took emo in artsier directions and incorporated piano, strings, and even electronic instruments into their sound. But when Jimmy Eat World got a surprise pop hit with “The Middle”, the floodgates opened. Emo often feeds on the artists’ deepest, darkest emotions, but “The Middle” proved emo could be joyous as well. America needed a pick me up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Jimmy Eat World delivered with an upbeat banger about positivity and being yourself. (Also, I’m sure the underwear-filled music video didn’t hurt!)
Emo in the 2000’s was more commercial, earning jeers of “sellout!” back when that actually mattered. But it was also delightfully theatrical. Musicians started wearing makeup and gothic clothing, making elaborate concept videos, and borrowing from every genre that would fit. My Chemical Romance might be cheesy, but they were an ambitious, innovative band that blended the grandiosity of Queen with dark humor and incredible hooks. “Welcome to the Black Parade” is basically the emo Bohemian Rhapsody, a nearly 6 minute opera that continuously changes tempo and time signatures that build to one of the most epically campy climaxes in all of pop music.
(And this post is way too long as it is, but I wanna shout-out Coheed and Cambria. They were so emo they released an entire series of sci-fi concept albums mostly about breakups. It’s great!)
You might have picked up that all the bands mentioned so far have been white-dude centric (except Coheed, whose frontman is Puerto Rican). That’s a shame, because the few female fronted emo bands we got were fantastic! Paramore was the most commercially successful – hell, they were basically a slightly edgier Avril Lavigne. But vocalist Hayley Williams could belt with the best of them, and her infectious stage presence made all their performances come to life. They eventually adopted a more conventional pop-rock style to critical and commercial acclaim, but my favorite album will always be 2007’s ode to teen angst, Riot!
And yeah, I can’t talk about emo without talking about Fall Out Boy. I hated this band when they came out. I thought they were a watered down facsimile of earlier emo’s artistic heights. But removed from their constant radio play at the time, I think “Dance, Dance” is a phenomenal song! Pete Wentz (the leader of the band, even though he was the bassist) lays down a killer groove, and singer Patrick Stump nearly trips over his own words with infectious energy. Their bitter yet tongue-in-cheek breakup songs are all earworms, and their accessible sound helped keep them relevant well into the 2010’s.
Emo was a seminal part of indie music in the 90’s and pop music in the 2000’s. People make fun of it, and some of the complaints (such as its tendency to romanticize depression or the ridiculous amount of ex-girlfriend put-downs) are legit. But at its best, emo was an outlet and a solace in a world that seemed to be ripping apart at the seams. We had the War in Iraq, a collapsing economy, climate change, and horrible politics – it’s not so different than now! Emo provided a safe outlet for young people to dress androgynously, be honest with their feelings, and let their creative impulses run wild. It was enjoyed by guys and girls equally, and had a huge LGBTQ+ fanbase. For me, it felt like one of the few things that made sense in this big messed-up world.
The fires that emo lit flickered out as the 2000’s gave way to the 2010’s. Obama became President, and I guess everybody was sick of being sad all the time. The indie and pop music of the early 2010’s was way more upbeat, and most of the emo bands from the 2000’s either broke up, changed their sound, or faded into obscurity. Newer emo bands like The Menzingers tried a revival in the early 2010’s, but they were firmly underground and far removed from the “Tim Burton mall punk” aesthetic that defined emo’s glory days. (Still great tunes though!)
But the spirit of emo never really went away. It just transformed into different genres! Rappers Kid Cudi and (UGH) Kanye West dropped emo-inspired albums about depression in the 2010’s, inspiring an emo revival in hip-hop towards the tail end of the decade. Pop singers like Lorde and Halsey spun emo’s gothic vibes into moody synth tracks that topped the charts. But perhaps the most obvious influence of emo happened on the other side of the globe, as musicians from Japan and Korea brought emo to their native cultures and made it something new. Listen to any LiSA song and tell me the girl ain’t rocking a 2006-era emo sound!
Honestly, I’d love to see emo come back today. A lot of today’s music may be influenced by emo, but it doesn’t give me the same visceral thrills as the bands I loved growing up did. Emo music was often angsty and melodramatic, but it was also dynamic, quirky, energetic, and wore its heart on its sleeve. By comparison, the endless drum loops and Auto-Tune of today’s pop music feels, ironically, cold and unemotional! The 2000’s feel like a long time ago, but we’re still struggling with a lot of the same things we did then. So maybe a revival of glorious 90’s/00’s emo cheese is just what we need. If we’re going to be sad and anxious all the time, might as well have fun with it, right?