|Stylistic origins:||hardcore punk, indie rock|
|Cultural origins:||mid 1980s Washington, DC|
|Typical instruments:||Guitar - Bass - Drums - Synthesizer|
|Mainstream popularity:||Sporadically through the 1980s and '90s, growing in the early 2000s|
|Emocore - Hardcore emo - Emo violence - Screamo - Emotional metalcore|
|Timeline of alternative rock|
Emo is a subgenre of hardcore punk music. Since its inception, emo has come to describe several independent variations, linked loosely but with common ancestry. As such, use of the term (and which musicians should be so classified) has been the subject of much debate.
In its original incarnation, the term emo was used to describe the music of the mid-1980s Washington, DC scene and its associated bands. In later years, the term emocore, short for "emotional hardcore", was also used to describe the DC scene and some of the regional scenes that spawned from it. The term emo was derived from the fact that, on occasion, members of a band would become spontaneously and literally emotional during performances. The most recognizable names of the period included Rites of Spring, Embrace, One Last Wish, Beefeater, Gray Matter, Fire Party, and, slightly later, Moss Icon. The first wave of emo began to fade after the breakups of most of the involved bands in the early 1990s.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the term emo began to reflect the indie scene that followed the influences of Fugazi, which itself was an offshoot of the first wave of emo. Bands including Sunny Day Real Estate and Texas Is the Reason put forth a more indie rock style of emo, more melodic and less chaotic in nature than its predecessor. The so-called "indie emo" scene survived until the late 1990s, as many of the bands either disbanded or shifted to mainstream styles.
As the remaining indie emo bands entered the mainstream, newer bands began to emulate the more mainstream style, creating a style of music that has now earned the moniker emo within popular culture. Whereas, even in the past, the term emo was used to identify a wide variety of bands, the breadth of bands listed under today's emo is even more vast, leaving the term "emo" as more of a loose identifier than as a specific genre of music.
The first wave (1985–1994)
In 1985 in Washington, D.C., Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, veterans of the DC hardcore music scene, decided to shift away from what they saw as the constraints of the basic style of hardcore and the escalating violence within the scene. They took their music in a more personal direction with a far greater sense of experimentation, bringing forth MacKaye's Embrace and Picciotto's Rites of Spring. The style of music developed by Embrace and Rites of Spring soon became its own sound. (Hüsker Dü's 1984 album Zen Arcade is often cited as a major influence for the new sound.) As a result of the renewed spirit of experimentation and musical innovation that developed the new scene, the summer of 1985 soon came to be known in the scene as "Revolution Summer".
Within a short time, the D.C. emo sound began to influence other bands such as Moss Icon, Nation of Ulysses, Dag Nasty, Shudder To Think, Fire Party, Marginal Man, and Gray Matter, many of which were released on MacKaye's Dischord Records. The original wave of DC emo finally ended in late 1994 with the collapse of Hoover.
Where the term emo actually originated is uncertain, but members of Rites of Spring mentioned in a 1985 interview in Flipside Magazine that some of their fans had started using the term to describe their music. By the early 90s, it was not uncommon for the early DC scene to be referred to as emo-core, though it's unclear when the term shifted.
As the D.C. scene expanded, other scenes began to develop with a similar sound and DIY ethic. In San Diego in the early 1990s, Gravity Records released a number of records in the hardcore emo style. Bands of the period included Heroin, Indian Summer, Angel Hair, Antioch Arrow, Universal Order of Armageddon, Swing Kids, and Mohinder. Also in California, Ebullition Records released records by bands of the same vein, such as Still Life and Portraits of Past, as well as more traditional hardcore punk bands, all having various social and political themes in common.
At the same time, in the New York/New Jersey area, bands such as Native Nod, Merel, 1.6 Band, Policy of 3, Rye Coalition and Rorschach were feeling the same impulse. Many of these bands were involved with the ABC No Rio club scene in New York, itself a response to the violence and stagnation in the scene and with the bands that played at CBGBs, the only other small venue for hardcore in New York at the time. Much of this wave of emo, particularly the San Diego scene, began to shift towards a more chaotic and aggressive form of emo, nicknamed screamo.
By and large, the more hardcore style of emo began to fade as many of the early era groups disbanded. However, aspects of the sound remained in bands such as Four Hundred Years, Yaphet Kotto and Pennsylvania punk rockers Plow United. Also, a handful of modern bands continue to reflect emo's hardcore origins, including Circle Takes the Square, Hot Cross, City of Caterpillar, Funeral Diner, and A Day in Black and White.
Back in D.C., following the disbanding of both Rites of Spring and Embrace, MacKaye and Picciotto decided to join forces in a new band, called Fugazi. While Fugazi itself was not categorized as emo, the music it created would soon influence the second major wave of emo.
Early emo's influence
In California, particularly in the Bay Area, bands like Jawbreaker and Samiam began to mix the DC influence with pop punk to come up with their own take on the classic DC emo sound. On Jawbreaker's album Bivouac, singer Blake Schwarzenbach evolved from the traditional hardcore vocal sound into a more melodic crooning, which displayed a more emotional feeling of loss than the desperation and frantic nature of MacKaye's voice. Other bands soon reflected the same sense of rough melody, including Still Life and Long Island's Garden Variety. The style continued to evolve into the 2000s through bands like Avail and Hot Water Music.
Also in the early 90s, bands like Lifetime reacted in their own way to the demise of youth crew styled straight-edge hardcore and desired to seek out a new direction. While their music was often classified as emo, it was also considered to be melodic hardcore. In response to the more metal direction their hardcore peers were taking, Lifetime initially decided to slow down and soften their music, adding more personal lyrics. The band later added a blend of speed, aggression, and melody that defined their sound. Lifetime's sound, lyrics, and style were a virtual blueprint for later bands, including Saves The Day and The Movielife.
Similarly, bands such as Converge, heavily influential on modern metalcore, drew inspiration from East Coast emo bands and added a sense of catharsis and atypically introspective lyrics.
The second wave (1994–2000)
As Fugazi and the Dischord Records scene became more and more popular in the indie underground of the early 1990s, new bands began to spring up. Combining Fugazi with the post-punk influences of Mission of Burma and Hüsker Dü, a new genre of emo emerged.
Perhaps the key moment was the release of the album Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate in 1994. Given Sub Pop's then-recent success with Nirvana and Soundgarden, the label was able to bring much wider attention to the release than the typical indie release, including major advertisements in Rolling Stone. The heavier label support allowed the band to secure performances on TV shows, including The Jon Stewart Show. As a result, the album received widespread national attention.
As more and more people learned about the band, particularly via the fledgling World Wide Web, the band was given the tag emo. Even where Fugazi had not been considered emo, the new generation of fans shifted the tag from the earlier hardcore style to this more indie rock style of emo. It wasn't uncommon for Sunny Day and its peers to be labelled with the full "emo-core". However, when pressed to explain "emo", many fans split the genre into two brands: the "hardcore emo" practiced in the early days and the newer "indie emo".
In the years that followed, several major regions of "indie emo" emerged. The most significant appeared in the Midwest in the mid-90s. Many of the bands were influenced by the same sources, but with an even more tempered sound. This brand of emo was often referred to as "Midwestern emo" given the geographic location of the bands, with several of the best-known bands hailing from the areas around Chicago, Kansas City, and Milwaukee. The initial bands in this category included Boy's Life and Cap'n Jazz. In ensuing years, bands such as The Promise Ring, Braid, Elliott, and The Get Up Kids emerged from the same scene and gained national attention.
The area around Phoenix, Arizona became another major scene for emo. Inspired by Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate, former punk rockers Jimmy Eat World began stirring in emo influences into their music, eventually releasing the album Static Prevails in 1996. The album was arguably the first emo record released by a major label, as the band had signed with Capitol Records in 1995.
Other bands that followed the "indie emo" model included Colorado's Christie Front Drive, New York's Texas Is the Reason and Rainer Maria, California's Knapsack and Sense Field, Austin's Mineral, and Boston's Piebald and Jejune.
Strangely, as "indie emo" became more widespread, a number of acts who otherwise would not have been considered part of the "indie emo" scene had their albums referred to as emo because of their similarity to the sound. The hallmark example was Weezer's 1996 album Pinkerton, which, in later years, was considered one of the defining "emo" records of the 90s.
As the wide range of emo bands began to attract notoriety on a national scale, a number of indie labels attempted to document the scene. Many emo bands of the late 90s signed to indie labels including Jade Tree Records, Saddle Creek, and Big Wheel Recreation. California's Crank Records released what many considered the defining compilation of 90s emo in 1997, titled (Don't Forget to) Breathe, which featured tracks by The Promise Ring, Christie Front Drive, Mineral, Knapsack, and Arizona's Seven Storey Mountain. In 1998, Deep Elm Records released the first installment in a series of compilations called Emo Diaries, featuring tracks from Jimmy Eat World, Samiam, and Jejune. In 1999, famed 70s compilation label K-tel even released an emo compilation titled Nowcore: The Punk Rock Evolution, which, regardless of its source, was surprisingly comprehensive. (Nowcore included tracks by Texas Is the Reason, Mineral, The Promise Ring, Knapsack, Braid, At the Drive-In, and Jawbox, among others.)
With the late-90s emo scene being more national than regional, major labels began to turn their attention toward signing emo bands with the hopes of capitalizing on the genre's popularity. Many bands resisted the lure, citing their loyalty to the independent mentality of the scene. Several bands cited what they saw as mistreatment of bands such as Jawbox and Jawbreaker while they were signed to majors as a reason to stay away. The conflict felt within many of the courted emo bands resulted in their break-ups, including Texas Is the Reason and Mineral.
By the end of the decade, the word emo cropped up in mainstream circles. In the summer of 1998, Teen People magazine ran an article declaring "emo" the newest "hip" style of music, with The Promise Ring a band worth watching. The independent nature of the emo scene recoiled at mainstream attention, and many emo bands shifted their sound in an attempt to isolate themselves from the genre. In the years that followed, Sunny Day Real Estate opted to shift to a more prog-rock direction, Jejune aimed for happy pop-rock, and The Get Up Kids and The Promise Ring released lite-rock albums.
While "indie emo" almost completely ceased to exist by the end of the decade, many bands still subscribe to the Fugazi / Hüsker Dü model, including Thursday, The Juliana Theory, and Sparta.
The third wave (2000–Present)
At the end of the 1990s, the underground emo scene had almost entirely disappeared. However, the term emo was still being bandied about in mainstream media, almost always attached to the few remaining 90s emo acts, including Jimmy Eat World.
However, towards the end of the 1990s, Jimmy Eat World had begun to shift in a more mainstream direction. Where Jimmy Eat World had played emocore-style music early in their career, by the time of the release of their 2001 album Bleed American, the band had almost completely removed its emo influences. As the public had become aware of the word emo and knew that Jimmy Eat World was associated with it, the band continued to be referred to as an "emo" band. Newer bands that sounded like Jimmy Eat World (and, in some cases, like the more melodic emo bands of the late 90s) were soon included in the genre.
2003 saw the success of Chris Carrabba, the former singer of Further Seems Forever, and his project Dashboard Confessional. Carrabba's music featured lyrics founded in deep diary-like outpourings of emotion. Where earlier emo had featured lyrics of a more dark and painful direction, Carrabba's featured a greater focus on love won and lost and the inability to cope. While certainly emotional, the new "emo" had a far greater appeal amongst teenagers experiencing love for the first time, who found insight and solace in Carrabba's words and music.
With Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World's success, major labels began seeking out similar sounding bands. Just as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the other Seattle scene bands of the early 1990s were unwillingly lumped into the genre "grunge", some record labels wanted to be able to market a new sound under the word emo. Which sound that was didn't particularly matter.
At the same time, use of the term "emo" expanded beyond simply the musical genre, which added to the confusion surrounding the term. The word "emo" became associated with feelings of unashamed emotion. Common fashion styles and attitudes that were becoming idiomatic of fans of similar "emo" bands also began to be referred to as "emo". (For further discussion, see Emo (slang).) As a result, bands that were loosely associated with "emo" trends or simply demonstrated emotion began to be referred to as emo.
In an even more expanded way than in the 90s, emo has come to encompass an extremely wide variety of bands, many of whom have very little in common. The term has become so wide-ranging that it has become nearly impossible to describe what exactly qualifies as "emo".
Correctly or not, emo has often been used to describe such bands as AFI, Alexisonfire, A Static Lullaby, Brand New, Coheed and Cambria, Fall Out Boy, Finch, From Autumn To Ashes, From First To Last, Funeral for a Friend, Hawthorne Heights, Matchbook Romance, My Chemical Romance, Silverstein, Something Corporate, The Starting Line, Taking Back Sunday, The Used, Thrice, and Thursday. Fans of several of these bands have recoiled at the use of the "emo" tag, and have gone to great lengths to explain why they don't qualify as "emo". (The revulsion of some bands from the term emo is not unlike the retreat from the genre by the bands in the indie emo scene near the end of the 90s.)
In some cases, "new emo" bands are simply trying to pursue their own version of the "emo" that came before on their own terms. However, the backlash stemming from the success of a few seemingly "less emo" (and more popular in the mainstream) bands, including Dashboard Confessional and The Used, has brought an increasingly substantial pool of detractors.
As a result of the continuing shift of "emo" over the years, a serious schism has emerged between those who ascribe to particular eras of "emo". Those who were closely attached to the hardcore origins recoil when another type of music is called "emo". Many involved in the independent nature of both 80s and 90s emo are upset at the perceived hijacking of the word emo to sell a new generation of major label music. Regardless, popular culture appears to have embraced the terms of "emo" far beyond its original intentions, out of the control of the independent-minded.
In a strange twist, screamo, a sub-genre of the new emo, has found greater popularity in recent years through bands such as Thrice and Glassjaw. (As a reference, see Jim DeRogatis' November 2002 article about Screamo.) The term screamo, however, was used to describe an entirely different genre in the early 1990s, and the new screamo bands more resemble the emo of the early 1990s. Complicating matters further is that several small scenes devoted to original screamo still exist in the underground. However, the new use of "screamo" demonstrates how the shift in terms connected to "emo" has made the varying genres difficult to categorize.
Even still, the difficulty in defining "emo" as a genre may have started at the very beginning. In a 2003 interview by Mark Prindle, Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and Rites of Spring was asked how he felt about "being the creator of the emo genre". He responded: "I don't recognize that attribution. I've never recognized 'emo' as a genre of music. I always thought it was the most retarded term ever. I know there is this generic commonplace that every band that gets labeled with that term hates it. They feel scandalized by it. But honestly, I just thought that all the bands I played in were punk rock bands. The reason I think it's so stupid is that - what, like the Bad Brains weren't emotional? What - they were robots or something? It just doesn't make any sense to me."
As the chorus of detractors increased, emo became more and more a target of derision. As certain fashion trends and attitudes began to be associated with "emo", stereotypes emerged that created a specific target for criticism.
In the early years of the "third wave", the derision was relatively light-hearted and self-effacing. In September of 2002, web developer Jason Oda put forth Emogame. The game poked fun at numerous emo stereotypes and musicians, but in a manner that could be appreciated by fans and detractors alike.
In ensuing years, the derision increased dramatically. Male fans of emo found themselves hit with homosexual slurs, largely a reflection of the style of dress popular within the "emo scene" and the displays of emotion common in the scene. Complaints pointed to the histrionic manner in which the emotions were often expressed, not necessarily to the emotions themselves.
In October of 2003, Punk Planet contributor Jessica Hopper levelled the charge that the "third wave" era of emo was sexist. In her opinion, it was all too common for emo bands to write songs from a male perspective that castigated women for causing emotional damage. The collective result was that women were being demonized, and in a wholly generic manner, given that the songs didn't appear to be about a particular female. The problem was enhanced by the seeming lack of balance in emo, given the apparent absence of females participating in emo music. Hopper believed that the sexism was unique to the new version of emo, as "indie emo" era bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate seemed to provide depth to the female characters portrayed in their songs.
Collective reaction to Hopper's article was mixed, and many dismissed the charge outright, noting that rock music as a genre had a long history of issues with sexism; the problem wasn't unique to emo music or directly related. By comparison to a genre like 1980s hair metal, in which popular songs (such as Warrant's "Cherry Pie") often objectified women, the perceived sexism in emo was more of an intellectual argument than something that could be specifically cited in the music.
Critics of modern emo also point to the increasingly generic nature of the music. As popular bands have attempted to flee the "emo" tag, the remaining bands appear to fit the genre solely because of their similarity to other so-called "emo" bands. Critics note a slow homogenization of the genre, with newer bands adhering to a stereotypical style rather than redefining it, not unlike the waning years of grunge music in the 1990s.
At the same time, the persistent criticism and negative stereotypes have led to an increasing perception of modern emo as the new "guilty pleasure". Despite the criticism, the modern version of emo has maintained mainstream popularity. However, given the disfavor of the term "emo", the question of whether new bands will openly associate with "emo" leaves the future unclear.
- DeRogatis, Jim. Screamo. Guitar World. URL accessed on August 24, 2005.
- Heller, Greg. Bands Seek Emotional Rescue: Young postpunk stars sick of 'Emo-core' label. San Francisco Chronicle. URL accessed on September 10, 2000.
- Radin, Andy. What the heck *is* emo, anyway?. URL accessed on July 17, 2005.
- Andersen, Mark (2001). Dance Of Days, Two Decades of Punk In The Nations Capitol. Soft Skull Press. ISBN 1-887-128-49-2.
- Greenwald, Andy (2003). Nothing Feels Good. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0-31-230863-9.
- Hopper, Jessica (October 2003). "Emo: Where the Girls Aren't". Punk Planet.
- Prindle, Mark. Guy Picciotto Interview. URL accessed on April 19, 2006.
- Emo-ology – an attempt to create an Emo discography.
- Viva La Vinyl! – a site with a strong Emo community.
- A!E.com's Emo Guide
- Fourfa.com – a site about (mostly older) diy/underground emo.
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