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Theoretically Speaking: S6:E3 – What Makes Emo,  Emo ? 

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A certain conversation has been recurring in my house for over twenty years.

The lovely Ms. Virgindog will hear a song and ask, “Is this Emo?”

I’ll stop, listen to it and most likely shrug. “I don’t know,” I’ll say, “I can’t make out the lyrics.”

Then she’ll say, “I still don’t know what Emo is.” And I’ll shrug again.

A lot of people share our confusion.

Even Emo fans can disagree on what it is, and which bands are Emo and which aren’t.

Fortunately, there’s a handy website called Is This Band Emo? You can type in any band’s name and it will tell you if it considers that band to be Emo or not.

But if you try to get cute, they’ll also shrug:

We can trace the history of what some people call Emo, but many of the musicians involved disavowed – and really hated the label. Others welcomed it.

“Emo” is short for “Emocore,” which in turn is short for “Emotional Hardcore.”

Emo came from Hardcore Punk, and specifically from the Hardcore scene in Washington DC.

Though Hardcore itself started in Los Angeles with bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and The Minutemen, Washington DC was full of early adopters.

Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Government Issue, and others helped define Hardcore as harder, faster, and more political than the early Punk bands. 

We’ll focus on DC for now because the first two bands to be called Emo, Rites Of Spring and Embrace, were from there.

On their one and only album, released in 1985, Rites Of Spring took Hardcore, made it a little more musically intricate, and sang about personal relationships rather than about politics. It’s this last bit that makes them the first Emo band, though the “Emocore” label came later.

Parenthetically, some people say that Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys is the first Emo album. With songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and “I Know There’s An Answer,” Pet Sounds is as introspective as anything in the Rock canon.

But Emo? Without jangly or distorted guitars, and without the influence of Punk – which hadn’t been invented yet, I don’t think it fits the bill.

So the self-titled Rites Of Spring album is considered Emo’s first. Rites Of Spring and Embrace, however, didn’t like being called Emo.

Ian MacKaye of Embrace called the name the stupidest thing he ever heard and said, “As if Hardcore wasn’t emotional to begin with.”

It’s not that Emo is emotional. Most music is emotional.

It’s that Emo is vulnerable about emotions.

In what might seem like a contradiction, an individual revealing the deeply personal builds community. If listeners recognize a singer’s personal emotions as feelings they’ve had, too, especially if those feelings aren’t usually discussed in public, they’ll be drawn together around the singer.

Emo fans are in search of being understood. They’ll identify their shared feelings and develop a sense of belonging. For some people, it’s the first time they’ve had that.

It’s intimacy in a group setting. With loud guitars.

Guy Picciotto had been a fan of the DC Hardcore bands, especially Minor Threat.

He became the singer and guitarist in Rites Of Spring. MacKaye, who had been Minor Threat’s singer, became a fan of Rites Of Spring. After both Rites Of Spring and Embrace broke up, the mutual admirers Picciotto and MacKaye formed the Post-Hardcore band Fugazi.

What is Post-Hardcore and how is it different from Emo? It’s a very fine distinction. They both evolved from Hardcore, both are melodic with raw instrumentation, and both are emotionally expressive and introspective. 

I’d say that Emo was a part of Post-Hardcore, limited to personal, self-searching subject matter and Punk-based instruments.

It might use a jangly guitar sound rather than blown-speaker distortion, but the arrangements are geared towards emotional release. There are a lot of dynamic build ups.

Bands like Rites of Spring, Embrace, and Fugazi incorporated elements of Punk with inward-looking, emotionally charged lyrics. Whether Picciotto or MacKaye like it or not, their bands are the foundation for Emo.

By the mid-90s, Emo had spread outward from DC.

Bands like American Football, Mineral, and The Promise Ring slowed the tempo and emphasized intricate arrangements, odd time signatures, expressive but untrained vocals, and confessional lyrics.

This became known as Midwest Emo because most of these bands were from the Midwest, though Mineral was from Texas, and Texas Is The Reason was from New York City.

All of this was going on in the underground as Grunge was becoming mainstream.

It could be argued that the Grunge bands were Emo because they had the Punk ideals and were lyrically personal, emotional, and vulnerable, but the sound is different.

They both come from Punk, but Grunge includes a lot of Heavy Metal and Classic Rock. Emo has more Indie and Alternative. 

Beyond the sound, both Grunge and Emo embrace people who don’t feel like they belong anywhere else.

After the 80s, with Reagan-era yuppies and hair band decadence, a lot of people felt left out.

Grunge’s popularity got mainstream listeners curious about what else was happening in the underground. Emo was unintentionally ready for wider popularity. Bands like Weezer are, at the very least, Emo-adjacent with their melodic, ironic tunes and sensitive, nerdy, heroic loser vibes. Their first album went platinum twice over,

NME said they “pretty much invented Emo’s melodic wing.” That’s incorrect, because Emo always had melody, but Weezer did bring Emo into wider popularity.

Their second album, Pinkerton, was considered a failure. It didn’t sell well, and some critical reviews were harsh. Singer/songwriter Rivers Cuomo was thoroughly embarrassed that he had revealed too much of himself in the lyrics, and in a way that listeners didn’t understand.

The lyrics he wrote thereafter were much less personal, but it’s exactly that openness that ever so slowly earned Pinkerton respect as a major influence on Emo bands to come.

Many now consider it to be Weezer’s best record.

While Midwest Emo lost a little of its Hardcore sound, getting more melodic and adding more dynamics, it kept Punk’s DIY aesthetic, with bands starting their own labels and booking their own tours. Authenticity and humility mattered.

Among the first of these Midwest Emo bands was Cap’n Jazz from Chicago. Their only album has a title that is 28 words long, so it’s more commonly known as Shmap’n Shmazz. They didn’t set out to be Emo — singer Tim Kinsella called it “weirdo punk” — but all the pieces of Midwest Emo are there. It’s fast but not too fast, it’s catchy, and its vocals are passionate if somewhat amateurish. Its Punk roots showed.

Cap’n Jazz went on tour shortly after the album’s release but a few days into it, the band’s drug use caught up with them.

Bassist Victor Villarreal overdosed on ritalin. He survived but the band didn’t.

They broke up, canceled the rest of the tour, and returned home. Shmap’n Shmazz went out of print but is now seen as one of the foundational records of Emo, particularly Midwest Emo.

Tim Kinsella’s brother Mike played drums in Cap’n Jazz but switched to guitar and started a new band called American Football.

They recorded an EP in 1998 and an album in 1999, both called American Football, and broke up the following year. After reforming in 2014, they recorded two more albums, each called American Football.

But it’s the first album that earns them a high position in the Emo world. It abandoned Hardcore’s adrenaline fueled tempos and brought in Math Rock timings. Many of their songs are slow and dreamy but the odd time signatures make them a little off-kilter. Kinsella’s twinkly guitar sound would influence a lot of Emo bands.

At the same time, meaning through the 90s, a subgenre called Screamo formed. Its distinguishing characteristic, as the name implies, is screamed vocals. The music is also more aggressive to match those vocals, bringing back the Hardcore sound that Emo started with but Screamo is even more dissonant.

Bands like Pg. 99, Hawthorne Heights, and City Of Caterpillar had very loyal but small followings.

Other Emo groups had Pop Punk sensibilities, and these are the ones that major labels signed starting around the turn of the century as Grunge and Nü-Metal faded out. Fall Out Boy, AFI, and Panic! At The Disco all had hits.

Jimmy Eat World hit #1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart with both “The Middle” and “Pain.” 

In 2006, My Chemical Romance released The Black Parade:

A Rock Opera that’s closer to the Classic Rock of Queen or the Pop Punk of Green Day than it is to the Hardcore of Rites Of Spring.

It went three times platinum and, despite being far from Emo’s roots, it may be the genre’s crowning achievement. 

This is when, farthest from its Hardcore origins, Emo was at its most popular.

It became a commercial enterprise, selling a lot of music, merchandise, skinny jeans, eyeliner, and hair dye. Emo had a new look, part punk, part goth, and part Spencer’s Gifts. Popular, yes, but also the butt of jokes

No one likes to be the butt of jokes. So in the 2010s, some of the more successful Emo bands basically abandoned Emo.

  • Fall Out Boy went pure Pop Punk.
  • Panic! At The Disco went Synthpop.
  • Paramore went New Wave.
  • My Chemical Romance broke up.

Even so, Emo still had its fans, and the resurgence of interest in Emo music is sometimes referred to as the “Emo Revival” or “Post-Emo.”

We always appreciate the innate curiosity and measured reporting from Contributing Author <b><a href="https://www.tnocs.com/user/virgindog/?profiletab=posts" <b><u>Bill "Virgindog" Bois.</u></B></a> Join him as he explores a musical world of  thw world of Bonus point for "The Darlings" reference

Bands like Modern Baseball, The Hotelier, and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die kept the passion and vulnerability of early and Midwest Emo going. There are also nostalgia festivals, with Emo acts from the past sharing the stage for a day.

This interest in turn led to Pop Punk getting back into the mainstream.

Machine Gun Kelly, Demi Lavato, and Olivia Rodrigo all have the Emo Revival to thank. So do new underground Emo bands, like Pool Kids, Hot Mulligan, Spanish Love Song, Ben Quad, Future Teens, Farseek, and Oso Oso.

There are tons of subgenres including Emo Rap, with popular artists like Lil Peep, Juice Wrld, and XXXTentacion.

While Emo experienced commercial success and mainstream recognition in the 2000s, it also faced criticism and backlash, with some associating the genre with stereotypes of teenage angst and melodrama. However, Emo continues to evolve and inspire new generations of musicians and fans who connect with its emotional sincerity and cathartic energy.

Earlier, I called The Black Parade Emo’s crowning achievement, but I missed my own point.

Emo isn’t just about the music. It’s a platform for musicians to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings in a raw and honest way, and that resonates with listeners who identify with their emotional sincerity.

It fosters a sense of emotional connection and authenticity between artists and fans. Addressing heartbreak, ennui, questions of identity, and existential angst, Emo’s crowning achievement may be its ability to create a space for individuals to embrace their emotions, find solace in shared experiences, and build meaningful connections with others, both within and outside of the music scene.

And if that’s not a crowning achievement, I don’t know what is.

Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist

For Want Of
Rites Of Spring
1985

Dance Of Days
Embrace

1987

Turnover
Fugazi

1990

Seven
Sunny Day Real Estate
1993

Oh Messy Life
Cap’n Jazz
1995

The Good Life
Weezer

1996

Never Meant
American Football
1999

The Middle
Jimmy Eat World
2001

You’re So Last Summer
Taking Back Sunday
2003

Ohio Is For Lovers
Hawthorne Heights
2004

Sugar, We’re Going Down
Fall Out Boy
2005

Welcome To The Black Parade
My Chemical Romance
2006

Orange Julius
Joyce Manor
2011

Moonlight
XXXTentacion
2018

Basking In The Glow
Oso Oso
2019

Salt
Farseek

2024

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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Phylum of Alexandria
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March 22, 2024 7:21 am

A nicely succinct breakdown of a very thorny topic.

A few years ago, I was chatting about music with a friend at work. I forget the exact details, but it culminated with her being surprised that I insisted that a band was emo rather than goth. “Aren’t they the same thing?”

To me, that was like asking if oil and vinegar were the same thing. Of course not!

I quickly summarized their respective musical lineages to distinguish them. And I made an analogy that I think helped to reinforce the difference (“You’ve got two teenagers, both depressed. One of them captures every bit of their feelings in their diary. The other writes a poem about being a sexy vampire.”)

But upon further reflection, following their evolution into later years that I had never really cared about, it was obvious that the two had eventually fused. My Chemical Romance was probably the clearest example of such fusion (but even Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins were blurring the lines earlier on).

So nowadays, goth and emo are often used interchangeably in casual conversations among the kiddies. My friend had been right; I was just being a purist.

Another band I think of as important for what emo would eventually become in the 90s is Descendents. They gave us tight, melodic punk featuring acerbic songs by a vulnerable nerdy loser (plus some silly stuff). And Husker Du as well.

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 22, 2024 11:54 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Descendents is one of my core bands — defining influence on my life. But they’re just Punk in my reckoning.

(Maybe because Emo sounds like a slander, I’m hesitant to apply it to bands I like unless they are very clearly Emo, like Sunny Day Real Estate and Modern Baseball.)

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 22, 2024 12:18 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

They were some prime Premo!

thegue
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thegue
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March 22, 2024 12:54 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Speaking of Modern Baseball, this song is still in heavy rotation on my playlists:

https://youtu.be/MbrUzJlTffs?si=SbewAQx2BA-g7pTj

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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March 22, 2024 10:57 am

Before reading this comment I was thinking to myself “what’s the difference between emo and goth?”

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 22, 2024 11:46 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Another quick and nerdy way to frame the original difference is in terms of possible pre-punk godfathers:

Goth: Jim Morrison, Scott Walker, David Bowie, Nico

Emo: Solo John Lennon, Neil Young, and…??? (Emo’s harder to do, but maybe you get the gist)

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 22, 2024 8:57 am

Also, I feel compelled to drop a track by the innovators of crunkcore, Brokencyde:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AV8N44HzfBQ

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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March 22, 2024 10:58 am

Where does Evanescence and their crazy-popular 2003 album Fallen fit into this discussion? (I honestly don’t know)

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 22, 2024 11:51 am

Sunny Day Real Estate!!! Modern Baseball!!! (Early) Paramore!!! Fugazi!!!

I really don’t get the emo thing — but there are a few bands here I can fully get behind.

I’ve been a Fugazi fan for a very long time, but they were always just Hardcore in my mind. Even their vulnerability is tough as nails.

Pauly Steyreen
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Pauly Steyreen
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March 22, 2024 12:32 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Sounds like a Cabbage Patch doll variant. I’m sure Fugazi would approve…

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 22, 2024 12:16 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Ian and Guy agreed with you!

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 22, 2024 12:38 pm

I stopped off at Is This Band Emo? as soon as I got to the link. To my surprise My Chemical Romance are deemed not to be Emo so I was glad when you brought them up and I hadn’t just imagined they were the crowning glory of it. It did return an explanation as to why MCR arent emo but it was too cryptic for me. Any ideas what this means?

Unlike high school, emo has a history longer than four years. $149.50 x 6300 = $941,850

It also says Fall Out Boy aren’t Emo, they were Emo pop. Now just pop.

I’m not big on Emo but those are the two bands I most appreciate. MCR pulled off some achievement in getting a #1 single with Welcome To The Black Parade. I thought Emo was a 00s thing so this has been an eye opener as to how it all came about.

thegue
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thegue
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March 22, 2024 12:58 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Yes, and they were trying to determine what MCR actually made in an evening (about 1/3 of gross revenue) during a “cash-grab” reunion.

True emo kids HATE success, even of their own.

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 22, 2024 1:13 pm
Reply to  thegue

Thanks for making sense of that. How dare MCR appeal to a mass audience and monetize it! Still, it gives the true Emo kids something else to moan about. They should know though that success and money doesn’t automatically bring happiness.

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 22, 2024 5:42 pm

Counterpoint: I got to see Fugazi live in 1997 for $6!

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 22, 2024 12:44 pm

Is Emo, emo?

Or just a weirdo?

He was a regular on British TV in the late 80s. Says something about my formative years that on seeing the subject matter this week my mind still instantly goes to Emo Phillips.

https://youtu.be/p3HUoAvzWk4?feature=shared

thegue
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thegue
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March 22, 2024 12:52 pm

THIS IS WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!!!

I’ll admit – I was late to the emo party, but after dipping my toes in the Madchester/Grunge/Britpop/Nu Metal waters, in the early 00s I fell head first into emo.

Since I was late to the party, I hardly heard Jimmy Eat World as emo: they were too pop-ish for me (though they had a few songs I liked).

“Ohio is for Lovers” is one of those songs I wish I had the ability to sing onstage. Definitely top 100 of all-time for me.

Other songs/bands of this genre I’d highly recommend:

Armor For Sleep: their concept album What to do When You Are Dead might be what emo concept albums dream of. The protagonist killed himself, found the afterlife unsatisfying, so he tried to warn his ex-girlfriend not to do the same.

Alkaline Trio: so many great songs, but “This Could Be Love” is my favorite.

Placebo: not generally considered emo, but I dare anyone to listen to the distorted lyrics of “Brick Shithouse” and tell me it isn’t emo.

(If I were to become a music video director, I have an AMAZING idea for “Brick Shithouse”)

Taking Back Sunday: great singles.

Thursday: “Understanding in a Car Crash” – more singers dying in car crashes (see: Armor For Sleep).

Time to venture into early emo thru V-Dog’s playlist. Thanks!!!

https://youtu.be/JorxYJSOdSI?si=JmwapjtS4G3bcJVB

cappiethedog
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March 24, 2024 11:27 pm

Great article, Mr. Bois.

Cursive is a band I love. Tim Kasher is the frontman. They’re from Omaha. I had zero idea they were considered emo until I checked Wikipedia.

Living on reggae island, I thought it was a simple matter of geography as to why I had nobody to talk to about music. My old avatar; we’re not boomers, but you’re looking at two-thirds of a Beatles cover band. In the early-nineties, I’d regularly accuse them of purposely trying to depress me. But being on Stereogum for about five years now, I’ve come to realize that my favorite musical artists are nationally unpopular. I don’t think Cursive’s name ever came up.

I remember the emo band coverage in CMJ retail. But for whatever reason, I never got into the genre. But now, now, that the indie rock I grew up with has become passe, I love it. It’s weird. I discovered Joyce Manor, literally, a day before the mothership ran an article about them.

Favorite new old band I overlooked, even though I was super-alive and cognizant?

Jimmy Eat World.

Oh, yeah. Another all-time fav?

The amazingly unpopular Eisley.

They’re not emo. But Sherri Dupree is married to Say Anything frontman Max Bemis. Nobody talks about Eisley either.

Low4
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Low4
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March 25, 2024 11:06 am

So, what’s emo?

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 25, 2024 3:33 pm

Maybe for this week:

What makes Eno, Eno?

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