Miserable at best: How emo bounced back from the brink

As its heroes My Chemical Romance and Paramore’s Hayley Williams return, James McMahon surveys the unclassifiable subculture’s rocky road to redemption

Hayley Williams’ forthcoming solo album looks set to propel one of emo’s most celebrated artists even further into mainstream consciousness
Hayley Williams’ forthcoming solo album looks set to propel one of emo’s most celebrated artists even further into mainstream consciousness

Presuming plans go ahead as scheduled, the next few months look set to be a hell of a party for emo, the shorthand misnomer for rock music’s most introverted sub-sect. After a seven-year hiatus, poster boys for modern emo, My Chemical Romance, are playing stadium shows again in June. Opening for Green Day on their global tour are scene veterans Fall Out Boy and Weezer. And Hayley Williams’ forthcoming solo album, Petals For Armor, made during her time out from the multi-platinum band Paramore, looks set to propel one of the genre’s most celebrated artists even further into mainstream consciousness.

That said, if plans are scuppered, it’s hard not to think that a summer spoilt – one spent inside – is an extremely emo thing to do.

Even more so than the many youth movements and music genres nobody can quite agree on the criteria for, few if any can agree on what emo actually is. It’s long been deployed as an umbrella term for a plethora of music acts with scarcely anything in common – a shapeshifting subculture, where often the only unifier is an act’s prevalence on bringing sensitivity to the forefront of their songwriting. Aesthetically, it’s varied: some do emo with an askew fringe. Some have tattoos all over their face. Emo unites acts as disparate as Seattle-born heartbreakers Sunny Day Real Estate, mega-selling cabaret-pop act Panic! At The Disco and fallen SoundCloud rapper Lil’ Peep.

Complicating things further, few bands really want to be called emo anyway. Certainly not My Chemical Romance’s singer Gerard Way, who, with the music video for his band’s megahit “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”, set a blueprint for emo’s image of pale face, raven-black hair and perhaps a red tie, for almost 20 years. He told an interviewer in 2007: “I think emo is f***ing garbage, it’s bulls***. I think there’s bands that unfortunately we get lumped in with that are considered emo and by default that starts to make us emo. Put the records next to each other and listen to them and there’s actually no similarities.”

In his defence, just a year after Way said this, the Daily Mail correlated the suicide of 13-year-old Hannah Bond with both the band and the movement (“Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo” roared one headline). Like heavy metal before it, emo was singled out for the destructive behaviour of teenagers who’d found a home in a subculture that offered them community and a vehicle for self-expression. It’s no wonder that Way wanted to remove himself from emo connotations altogether, and he called time on My Chemical Romance in 2013.

And yet even if nobody can quite agree on what emo is or isn’t, most are in agreement as to when the thing came to be.

There are parallels to be found between the summer of 1985 and where western civilization finds itself right now. Then, as now, America was led by a president further to the right of what had come prior. Minorities found themselves hounded and persecuted. Previous big wins for freedom and equality began to be rolled back. Scarcely regulated big business towered over human rights.

At the same time, America’s capital, Washington DC, had carved out a reputation as the fulcrum of hardcore punk, an aggressive, no frills, high-speed mutation of its parent genre. The all-African-American band Bad Brains had lit the spark in 1977 and bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag and DIY labels such as the seminal Dischord Records followed, forging a series of interconnecting highways that meant hardcore could traverse the United States, usually in the back of an old van.

And yet by 1985, those roads were approaching ruin. “Shows were becoming increasingly, moronically violent,“ Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye said at the time. “A lot of people were like: ‘f*** it, I’ll drop out, I don’t want to be a part of this anymore.’” Violence at hardcore shows became a backdrop for episodes of CHiPs and Quincy; M.E. Police raids were an unwanted fixture of hardcore shows. Something had to change.

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up
Beyond the pale: My Chemical Romance rejected the emo tag (Getty)

Amy Pickering had grown up in the DC hardcore scene. She’d worked at Dischord. Legend has it that on day one, she tore down a distasteful poster in Dischord’s office that declared “no skirts allowed”. And yet, dissatisfied by the rot infesting her scene, by 1985 she was slipping into the drop-out crowd described by MacKaye. In a flurry of desperation, Pickering started making cut and paste random notes with the words “Revolution Summer” daubed on them. She began sticking them up around town. Posted them anonymously to other punks. “Revolution Summer” was an idea: a hope that Washington’s hardcore scene might reinvent itself. She provided the match. DC brought the fire.

“The idea caught on and came to life in conversations, group houses, punk shows and protests,” says Washington-based hardcore historian Mark Andersen, author of 2001’s Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. “It was a rebellion against punk-as-usual and business-as-usual. We saw new musical styles, an opposition to ‘slam-dancing’ and skinhead gang violence, and a critique of the sexism of the scene. It embraced confrontational, creative protest, animal rights, vegetarianism and communal living.”

In June that year, local band Rites Of Spring released their eponymous debut album on Dischord. In a unique twist for hardcore, here was a band who sounded as angry with themselves as they did the world. The band would play just 16 shows and release one further EP, 1987’s All Through A Life, but their groundwork is still considered influential. Along with fellow locals Beefeater, the all-women Fire Party – featuring one Amy Pickering – and MacKaye’s own equally short-lived Embrace, Rites Of Spring’s recorded work began to find acclaim for keeping the physicality of hardcore, only directing its gaze inwards as opposed to confrontationally out.

People started to call it “emocore”. Then “emo”. And that was that.

Bands influenced by events in DC that summer began igniting revolutions of their own across the US. In New York were Jawbreaker. In Chicago, Cap’n Jazz. In Arizona, Jimmy Eat World. The Midwest was particularly fertile ground, with Braid, The Promise Ring and the Get Up Kids springing up in quick succession. Many major labels, desperate to find their own Nirvana, the underground band who’d made a huge amount of money in the early Nineties, but unsure of what to do with this confessional, often deeply uncommercial music, found themselves confused and out of pocket during this era. But there were exceptions.

Among the most successful was Jimmy Eat World. They released their fourth album, Bleed American, in July 2001. It did okay. Then seven weeks later, 9/11 happened and the record was rereleased as simply Jimmy Eat World. It went platinum and entered a realm no emo had yet entered. Dashboard Confessional appeared on the cover of Spin magazine and were dubbed “the future of emo”. And then, at the dawn of 2002, the NME put Jimmy Eat World on the cover, with wall-to-wall emo-themed content inside (including an “Are YOU emo?” quiz).

Hungry for success: Jimmy Eat World took emo into the mainstream (Getty)

Then came along My Chemical Romance, Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy, The Used and a host of other kohl-eyed men who understood that, then as now, the fandom of teenage girls could unlock superstardom, and emo really cashed in. It wasn’t popular with everyone. When My Chemical Romance headlined the metal leaning UK festival Download in 2007, they did so in front of a crowd who spent the majority of their set throwing bottles filled with urine at them. A year earlier, Panic! At the Disco had endured the same at Reading. And yet both bands, along with Fall Out Boy, owned the rest of the decade. When My Chemical Romance headlined Reading and Leeds in 2011, they did so to nothing but rapt adoration.

Emo in the noughties mutated in a host of interesting ways – the reggae-influenced pop of Ohio’s Twenty One Pilots (not as terrible as it sounds); the glacial, synth-led emo of Massachusetts’ Pvris; the neon pop punk of Houston’s Waterparks. But it says most about emo’s standing in pop culture that its influence even spread to hip-hop.

The “sad rap” wave that later emerged on Soundcloud towards the middle of the 2010s initially felt energised and exciting. Bones, aka Elmo Kennedy O’Connor – formerly known as Th@ Kid – began fusing old emo, metal and indie rock in 2012. O’Connor’s influence trickled down to emerging American artists like Lil Peep, Ghostemane and Yung Bruh/Lil Tracy. They began rapping over samples of the emo records they’d grown up with, the records they’d clung to through Columbine, 9/11 and the late decade financial crisis that had decimated their family units. They spat bars about heavy opioid use, depression and suicide and uploaded them to the internet at a frequency that betrayed the apathy innate within their music’s worldview.

But by the end, emo rap felt like a mirror being held up to the failings of modern society as its stars turned to dust. In January 2017, the rapper Lil Peep was described as “the future of emo” by Pitchfork. By November he was dead, aged 21, of a Fentanyl overdose.

Emo’s impact on the world has varied in its extremity, but there are few corners of the globe it hasn’t made it to. In LA, revival party Emo Nite was, for a few years, the most fun night out around, with big bands turning up for guest DJ sets and Skrillex and actors Kirsten Dunst and Kristen Stewart sneaking through the back door to get in. Elsewhere, the violence directed towards emos ascended dramatically throughout the last decade. According to reports, in 2012, Shia militias in Iraq – as part of a clampdown on what they deemed “Satanic western influences” – stoned to death “at least 14 teenagers” accused of adopting emo fashions. Figures vary, but some sources state as many as 90 teenagers were killed.

Harm against young people being different wasn’t limited to non-western countries, either. In 2007, 20-year-old Sophie Lancaster, sporting the aesthetic of your atypical modern emo, had been kicked to death by five males in a park in Bacup, Lancashire. Her boyfriend, Robert Maltby, who Sophie was killed protecting, survived after a coma. The tragedy helped bring the emo community together and The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, run by Sophie’s mother Sylvia, can be found campaigning against hate at most major rock festivals today.

But there have also been reckonings that threatened to tear the community apart. In 2013, Ian Watkins of the Welsh band Lostprophets – an emo pop band at one point so popular and so beloved that their lyrics were commissioned to be carved into the paving slabs of Watkins’ hometown – was jailed for a long list of horrific offences including child and animal pornography, and worse. The reverberations from that case shone a light upon inappropriate behaviour within the rest of the scene.

The sense grew that despite emo being emotional, sensitive music, even it wasn’t exempt from some men within it taking advantage of their positions. Long Island’s Brand New, a band who for so long were viewed as the leading lights of modern emo, imploded in 2017 after singer Jesse Lacey was accused of soliciting nude photographs from a minor. Jenn Pelly wrote on US music website Pitchfork of the signs so many had failed to see. She described third-wave emo – “the 2000s mutation of the sound as sold at Hot Topic, as dialogued on Myspace and LiveJournal, and as broadcast on MTV” – as “a notoriously sexist commodity”. Many others fell. It was a brutal, messy, painful, yet necessary culling, mirroring the wider #MeToo movement.

Revolution Autumn doesn’t scan well at all – but there was a similar awakening within what was left of the modern emo scene to what occurred in Washington DC, all those years ago. Now, there are new bands emerging, trying to build something from the ashes.

The buzziest name among them right now are Los Angeles quintet Spanish Love Songs. They owe much to Pennsylvania’s The Menzingers, a classic-if-underappreciated act from emo’s recent past. Both bands tell rich, literate, emotional stories – sometimes autobiographical, sometimes character studies – that chow down on the listeners’ bones. There’s a song on the former’s new album Brave Faces Everyone called “Loser 2” that describes the feeling of standing outside the house you grew up in, and features the lyric, “You know, if we weren’t bailed out every time by our parents, we’d be dead…” It’s not quite as poetic as anything from emo’s Eighties origins, but it’s equally introspective and relevant to the lives of the young people who are drawn to their songs.

To borrow a lyric from Southampton’s Creeper, a band at the poppier and gothier end of emo’s new wave, “Misery never goes out of style…” But there’s more to this fresh blood than just introspection; the acts who are rising speak directly of the complexity of gen z lives. That might be Exeter trio Muncie Girls singing of mental health and the exhaustive wait for treatment (“Picture Of Health”), Blackpool’s Boston Manor and male suicide (“On A High Ledge”) or London’s Wallflower articulating the abyss of impending adulthood (“Magnifier”). These are bands trying to create a music scene within the craters formed by #MeToo and the conversation about toxic masculinity.

“Growing up, I always rejected the idea of what a ‘boy’ should do,” says Boston Manor’s Henry Cox. “I never liked football, I thought fighting was stupid and at age six I spray-painted my bike pink. I’ve always hated the term ‘man up’. I think it is such a damaging thing to say to little boys. A big problem that we have to tackle is men’s inability to seek help; it’s this ‘man up culture’ that is baked into young men from a young age that makes them think – it’s wrong to cry, it’s wrong to share your feelings and being vulnerable is weak.”

Thirty-five years on, emo is still with us, still misunderstood, still bearing its gooey bits, and still trying to be something better. Not that any of the bands involved with it would ever admit as much – but wasn’t that ever so.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in