A wise man once said, “I think emo’s a pile of shit.” Interestingly, this quote does not originate from any brash music critic or from the arguably self-righteous vocalist from the Killers, Brandon Flowers, but from My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way. This is worth pointing out because throughout MCR’s career, they have regularly been labeled as an emo band themselves (despite continuous protests from the band members). But what is emo? What does that mean? And why is there so much negative stigma attached to this one classification?
Technically speaking, the beginnings of emo as a music scene started in the late 80s and early 90s. The genre’s sound could be likened to post-punk and hardcore music with more of a focus on melody and deeply personal lyrics. A simple description would be that emo was made from hardcore punks who started using their diaries as lyrical inspiration. I don’t say this to put down the genre; in fact, it’s not such a bad idea (on paper). Focusing on the emotive and personal aspects of life is crucial to music in any genre, especially in punk music, which could be seen as lacking in some of these qualities.
I first heard the term “emo” in the early 2000s around the time when I started high school. Music started to become a major part of my life, and I had begun to take an interest in a number of current rock groups. At the time, if someone ever asked me what my favorite band was, I knew the answer right away and wouldn’t give it a second thought.Weezer. As a result, people began to assume that my tastes veered towards emo music, yet I hadn’t ever been familiar with this term. It was later explained to me that emo was an easy way of saying “emotional rock music.” And I accepted this explanation without protest since I couldn’t pinpoint any music I listened to as being unemotional. Needless to say, my acceptance of the term was short-lived.
As I think back on this and consider how the emo scene has evolved, that seems to be one main fault with the word “emo” itself. Nobody knows what the hell it means anymore.
Even groups that have been placed within this classification don’t seem to understand its meaning. For instance, most people will know the story behind Pinkerton, the follow-up album to Weezer’s 1994 self-titled debut album. The record was panned by audiences and critics because of its cathartic and confessional nature only to later gain an enormous cult following, to be re-examined by some critics, and to be reveled as the band’s crowning achievement. The album has become a kind of sacred relic in the legend of “emo.” The band’s songwriter Rivers Cuomo even became somewhat of an (short-lived) icon for the genre. Proving how deeply devoted Cuomo was to the movement, he once stated in an interview “I don’t really know what emo means. But apparently I had something to do with it.” How modest.
Emo has mostly ceased to exist as a music scene and has primarily become a desperate and easy way to dismiss anything that doesn’t jive with someone’s tastes. Through this lens, anything with a focus on emotional qualities is automatically termed as being “emo” and is quickly tossed to the side. Why you ask? Because obviously “emo” is now synonymous with being effeminate, cowardly, and uncool in any conceivable sense.
So, let’s seriously consider this for a moment. Anything remotely emotional is, in effect, now emo; therefore, it is unavoidably lame and terrible. Okay, now I get it. When John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” they weren’t writing timeless pop music; those dudes were just total emo losers. And if we want to go back earlier, Elvis was obviously a huge emo too. Really. I mean, singing a song like “Heartbreak Hotel”? And while wearing mascara? Who was he kidding? Let’s not forget about Hank Williams. He was clearly an emo. Yes, an emo cowboy. How else could he explain writing songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”? Whiner.
In all seriousness, any form of art anyone is going to involve some form of emotional content. It’s clear that such an emotional connection is an integral aspect of art itself. What is the point of self-expression if there is no freedom for the self to be expressed?
As I said before, the term “emo” has transformed from being a genre in music to basically existing as an easy insult. But how did that change occur? Yet another facet to the weird world of emo is that it also exists to denote a sort of social “clique.” I put “clique” in quotes because although people may believe that there are emo kids around everywhere, I have personally never met anyone who would adopt that distinction willingly. But from what I hear, they most certainly exist.
So if you encounter a dude sporting long hair (probably swooped over one eye), a tight band shirt, skinny jeans, and a studded belt, well there you go, you’ve got an emo. (Punks are totally different. They shave their heads and wear torn up denim jackets with patches over their tight band shirts. See? Obviously different.)
Presumably, part of the stigma originates from cases in which these kids have done harm to themselves or have occasionally acted on suicidal tendencies. A group of these cases were lumped together and ultimately some of the blame was cast on the E-word. Now, I can’t say that I know anything about any of these cases, and I would never do anything to embarrass these people or belittle their hardships. With that being said, I should point out that it seems unlikely to me that a teenager could be driven to such lengths just because they listen to Hawthorne Heights and dress a certain way.
As I assume that a substantial amount of these incidents have occurred with high school-aged kids, I would think that the issues they encountered probably had much more to do with the difficulties everyone has to go through at that age. Obviously, some have it worse than others. Perhaps there was trouble at home for these people, or preexisting conditions of some sort. I couldn’t fathom the reasons. No one but those specific people or those around them could really say for sure. But I might be so bold as to say that it didn’t have anything to do with emo. To place the blame for this sensitive issue on such a trivial aspect of one’s life is dim-witted at best.
That still leaves us with the initial question: What is emo really? Well, I don’t know. For that matter, you don’t know either. Even the bands don’t know. But, I do know for a fact that I can say what it is not. It’s not any identifiable music style, state of mind, or social subculture. There is only one definition in existence that has ever seemed relevant and identifiable with the term:
1. (noun) A pile of shit