Do call it a comeback: in October, My Chemical Romance announced their return. Cue mass hysteria as the godfathers of emo sold out the MK Dons Stadium in Milton Keynes. Two more dates at the 30,500-capacity venue were added quicksmart then, in February, MCR announced a US tour, six years after splitting. This time 18 dates across the country sold out instantly, prompting added shows and $1,000 tout tickets.
And the fervour kept on rippling out. At time of writing the MCR comeback tour stretched from Australia in March, via New Zealand, Japan and Europe before hitting the US in September and October.
More interestingly, the return of emo isn’t just a musical nostalgia trip – another one – even as a similar, albeit lower-level hysteria greeted the recent news that Bright Eyes were also reforming after a nine-year hiatus. The buzz around the MCR reunion was only the sonic manifestation of a culture-quake that’s been rumbling for a while now, and in multiple directions.
Teenagers and Gen Z largely dominate the conversation of what it means to be emo in 2020: E‑Boys and E‑Girls on TikTok echo the aesthetics of Myspace scene queens. MCR frontman Gerard Way’s comic book The Umbrella Academy and its Netflix adaptation were big hits. Checkered Vans, emo’s footwear of choice, are available in every Urban Outfitters, along with jean chains. Complex, heavy eye makeup that references that of the mid-’00s has made a comeback, as seen on beauty vlogs and Euphoria.
Billie Eilish, whose vibe is reminiscent of an early-aughts Avril Lavigne (one of the 18-year-old’s heroines), recently graced the cover of Vogue with green and black hair and supersized, strappy pants. Asked this month if he and Eilish were part of an “emo revival”, Yorkshire’s 22-year-old pop-punk-goth dynamo Yungblud replied: “I love emo. I think modern music is emo. It’s the new rock to me.”
All of which confirms one thing: emo is back, but as part of a wider, and more empowered, cultural phenom.
Still, to talk about its comeback is to attempt to assert what “emo” even means. Simply, reductively, of course, it’s short for “emotional” or “emotive”. But beyond that?
Born out of the hardcore punk movement in Washington DC, it has had three distinct waves – four, if you count this one. Loosely, the first happened in the ’80s and was defined by albums like Rites Of Spring’s eponymous debut in 1985. The ’90s second wave was embodied by Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary (1994) and Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity (1999).
These albums had a massive influence on the third, most mainstream and controversial wave in the mid-00s, which was more closely related to pop punk than hardcore and typified by albums like Motion City Soundtrack’s Commit This to Memory (2005), Taking Back Sunday’s Louder Now (2006) and Panic! At The Disco’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out (2005).
Still, there is little that conclusively connects all of the hundreds of emo artists over the last 35 years. One thing they often do share, however, is the lyrical content. Think: melodramatic introspection.
But, for most, emo was always more recognisable as a subculture within a wider cultural umbrella. Gender neutral aesthetics – eye make-up, skinny jeans – largely defined the third wave. Bands that the wider music community might associate with emo, like Panic! At the Disco and Paramore, sound nothing like each other (especially now that Brendon Urie is Taylor Swift’s best mate), but they were both labelled emo partly due to how they looked.
In 2020, such visual tropes are much more widespread, as much non-gender as they are non-genre. Indeed, musically, some pin the turning point from nostalgic revival to full-blown comeback to the emo rap of artists like Lil Uzi Vert and Juice WRLD.
Lil Peep, who took elements and samples of ’00s pop-punk and emo and rapped intense lyrics about addictions and heartbreak, arguably pushed the movement to the mainstream before his untimely death, aged 21, in 2017. In his rise and tragic fall he irrefutably embodied the trenchant emotion of the emo ethos.
Geoff Rickly, frontman with iconic post-hardcore band Thursday, believes the success of the likes of Lil Peep forced people to rethink the genre.
“Emo rap has had a huge influence on how people think about emo,” says the New Jersey musician. “The fact that it’s not just a white boys’ club anymore makes it more interesting and more sustainable. Emo wanted to be the new thing, to break new ground. Now that the perspective is widening, maybe it can succeed.”
Equally, the development of emo rap was accelerated by the streaming-era breakdown in genre and boundaries between subcultures. We no longer need to be part of any particular tribe to pick and choose elements of it.
“The word ‘emo’ has been infused into so many facets of life and culture in the past couple of years,” says Babs Szabo, co-founder of club night Emo Nite LA. She cites The Chainsmokers and Drake as examples of emo’s wider influence on lyrics, and points to the audience at their Los Angeles events as evidence of dissolving boundaries.
“We started to realise that the influence of emo and pop punk music spread to so many subcultures. One month I would see Kristen Stewart dancing in the crowd with her friends and the next month Demi Lovato was singing [Paramore’s] Misery Business on stage, a capella.”
This renewed cultural currency shouldn’t blind us to the contempt with which emo was often viewed. Even bands who are now considered monumental to the third wave didn’t want to be a part of it: Panic! At the Disco called emo “bullshit”, Way called it a “pile of shit”, and Fall Out Boy wrote entire songs criticising the scene.
On the inside, fans weren’t finding it much easier. When it forced its way into mainstream view in the mid-’00s, emo was both mocked and feared, especially in the UK. Tabloids tried to whip the country into a moral panic after a My Chemical Romance fan killed themselves, calling the subculture a “suicide cult” of which MCR were the “foremost” practitioners. The backlash prompted emos to protest and forced the band to release a statement confirming that, no, really, they did not promote suicide. Internationally, Russia even considered making the subculture illegal. Emos were mocked, bullied, taunted, and often the subject of more serious attacks.
Some of that hate and mockery came from undeniably bigoted standpoints. Long before we were having nuanced conversations around sexuality, gender or the complexities of identity, emo was known for its flirtation with fluidity. Artists and fans often wore gender neutral clothes, made out with people of the same gender and played with femininity.
A long-running joke about guyliner was present in a lot of coverage of emo, and the perceived softness of emo played into much of its unpopularity. The Emo Song, a mean-spirited, joke parody of the genre released in 2006, epitomises much of the homophobia and transphobia that surrounded emo, boasting cruel lyrics like, “emo is one step below transvestite”.
Thankfully, within and outwith emo, we’ve all come a long way since then. As a young man playing with gender, Will Gould of Creeper recalls how he felt supported by the emo movement.
“Being disconnected with a lot of the masculinity displayed around me,” reflects the Southampton band’s lead singer, “and then having something that appealed to the feminine side, that made it OK to dress how you wanted and encouraged that – that meant a lot.”
Gould believes that artists like Gerard Way normalised men wearing make-up, but that its feminine aesthetic is a large part of what made it unpopular with other rock artists and fans.
“I remember thinking: what is it about this band that you hate so much? I could only really put it down to them wearing make-up and being camp.” For sure: as recently as the mid-’00s, your identity was fair game for bullying, and anyone who displayed any sign of playing with theirs was sneered at.
Now, perhaps, the openness with which we talk about gender identity and sexual fluidity has played a role in us being more open to emo. The mental health conversation, which was so central to emo, has evolved, too. Emo was the first genre that, often controversially, discussed depression, self harm and other issues. Even if it did so to a point of melodrama, that still made room for a more meaningful conversation.
Emo Nite LA’s Babs agrees.
“Growing up, being emo meant you were weak in a way, like you were stewing in your emotions and feelings too much. Nowadays, it’s much more commonplace to openly discuss mental health and sadness, which I think directly affects the way people consume emo music.”
Gould echoes that viewpoint. “What emo did was let a whole generation of kids feel strange and different and isolated together,” he notes. “There are tropes of it that I’m not so keen on. But I think what it did do was encourage people to talk about mental health at a time when we weren’t.”
And that introspection, those issues of personal politics, were only part of emo’s lyrical engagement. It wrestled with issues that extended outside of the self, too. My Chemical Romance formed after Way had an intense emotional response to the Twin Tower attacks. Jimmy Eat World tackled the Bush administration on Futures. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst often wrote critically about American politics.
Indeed, the fact that emo faded during the Obama years is perhaps no coincidence. When My Chemical Romance broke up, Way said that he believed they weren’t “needed” any more. When asked in 2019 whether, with Trump in power, he thought there was, once more, a need for MCR, the frontman acknowledged that was something he thought about “when the world started to get super fucked up”.
Come the super fucked-up world, come the bands… With this era of political unrest, confusion and directionlessness doubling down on that of the mid-’00s, a soundtrack of rebellion is more relevant than ever. For a new generation struggling to see a future, maybe we need a scene that tends towards community.
With time, political change and cultural shifts, emo’s perceived negative connotations have lost their power. In fact, more than that: they’ve been turned on their head and turned into life-affirming positives for a new, arguably more challenging era.
“Critics get it now,” thinks Geoff Rickly. “It’s influenced everything, and people understand not only its cultural impact but what it was going for in the first place.
“It was such a sincere movement of feelings that it was almost absurd – which made it funny. It’s [still] sincere and vulnerable, but now we can all laugh at it and ourselves.”
But to rehash a phrase, that joke simply isn’t funny anymore. Emo is back, a form of music, style and sexual expression whose time has come again. What does it sound like now? It sounds like freedom.