“Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo” screamed the Daily Mail. Shifting their attention from their usual targets of immigrants and the unemployed, the publication were gearing up to create their newest moral panic. As any A-Level Sociology student will be able to tell you, moral panics is a term made famous by Stanley Cohen in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics. A moral panic is an expression of disapproval, condemnation or criticism towards those that act deviantly towards the norms. The original subcultures that were affected by the media’s alienation were the mods and rockers. Over 40 years later the Daily Mail had sharpened their tongues and set their eyes on a new target and with one front page story, the newest youth subculture was thrust to the forefront. Loud and late as ever, emo was really born in the 90s before dying and out being reborn in the early 2000s like a heavy eyeliner wearing clad in black phoenix.
Since becoming the scourge of the press in 2008, the “cult of emo” has had no competition. Yes, the Daily Mail and friends have targeted a number of different groups but none could be really categorised as a group specifically for the youth. Anything close has been just a trend that lasted a year at most and got nowhere near the level that emo did. If you’re reading this you were perhaps classed as or classed yourself an emo. Give yourself a minute and think about what first attracted you to the label. More than likely it was due to being a fan of a particular band – music is the usual catalyst to the creation of a subculture.
What may surprise you is that the sounds of emo graced the airwaves a lot earlier than you might have expected. It has its origins in the mid-1980s when bands like Gray Matter, Beefeater and Rites of Spring were touring up and down America in a beat up van with melodic guitars and impassioned lyrics. Although some similarities can be heard, it was until 10 years later, in the genres second wave, did we hear early characteristics of the music played out of a tinny Sony Ericson phone speaker appear. As former Grantland writer Andy Greenwald writes in his book ‘Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo’, it was during this time that the stereotypes linked to the subculture appeared in the music such as wearing glasses for fashion reason, being overly brainy and overly sensitive. Although bands around this time had a strong following in their era, none had yet broken through into the national consciousness.
Enter Jimmy Eat World. Although many emo bands had been offered contracts by major labels none had capitalised. In 1995 Jimmy Eats World signed to Capitol Records and released ‘Static Prevails’ the following year. Although they now had major label backing, they were yet to break outside the confines of their niche. Building on the established fan base they released ‘Clarity’ in 1999. Although on its release the album received a tepid response by music critics, it’s aged gracefully, even being referred to as the “Led Zeppelin IV of emo” and being the catalyst for bands I’ll mention a little later. Due to the album flopping commercially the band were dropped from Capitol and so had to self-fund the recording of their next album ‘Bleed American’ (later renamed Jimmy Eat World after 9/11) which was released on DreamWorks in 2001. With ‘Bleed American’ going platinum and the lead single ‘The Middle’ reaching No.1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, Jimmy Eat World had created a mainstream buzz around the genre and brought the subculture to the attention of the masses – a mere seven years before the previously mentioned Daily Mail article.
A year after the release of ‘Bleed American’, a small band from New Jersey released their first album ‘I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love’ on independent label Eyeball Records. After going on tour as a supporting act for Avenged Sevenfold they began work on their second album ‘Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge’, which when released in 2004 went Platinum in just under a year and with that My Chemical Romance had arrived. In 2005 they co-headlined Warped Tour with fellow emo favourites Fall Out Boy and in 2006 they released their magnum opus ‘Welcome To The Black Parade’. With Gerard Way leading the charge the emo movement had their poster boy. He had boy band good looks, a voice that had just the right amount of whine and sung lyrics that could easily be appropriated into an MSN Messenger status and so became a hero to many. This adulation came with some disadvantages as when a fan of MCR unfortunately committed suicide it was him and his music notably the song ‘Welcome To The Black Parade’ that was named as the cause and became somewhat of a scapegoat by the Daily Mail. Fans of the group manned a protest in response to what they perceived to be a mistreatment by the newspaper and this highlighted a chasm between the subculture and the outer world. Speaking with friends who at the time defined them as emo, they just saw themselves as fans of the music and not how they were depicted, young vampire wannabes with a grisly obsession of death and self-harm.
As well as music they were also attracted by the fashion element. If you were a boy your hair was cut into a side fringe and left long enough to affect your peripheral vision and dyed black or a number of bright colours. Also make-up was no longer reserved for extenuating female features thanks to Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz and Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie highlighting the merits of wearing thick eyeliner. When it came to clothing, jeans were favoured at their tightest as were band tees. For their feet there were only three brands allowed; Doc Martens, Vans and Converse. The last two where usually adorned with the ink for a sharpie or tip-ex to highlight the wearer’s individuality.
It is perhaps the popularity of the fashion that slowly brought emo to its knees. With shops like Topman and H&M taking note of the popularity of skinny jeans, black hoodies and band t-shirts they moved themselves into the market. No longer did they have to scour internet stores for their latest piece, as it was available in their nearest high street. Although it was now a lot easier for them to get their desired look it also invited those on the peripheries to join the subculture. Although it’d flirted with the mainstream with everyone having the opportunity to adopt the aesthetic the individualistic aspect had diminished, meaning it was harder to find fellow emos and not just those jumping on the newest trend. Being swallowed by the mainstream signals the death of any subculture as they drop the sub, just becoming the culture. With the culture now being mainstream, those that were the stars of the soundtracks moved away from the original sound. My Chemical Romance released ‘Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys’ a record that was a total juxtaposition to their total sound on their previous work. Regularly derided for focusing on the depression they were now showcasing a funner side, and the critics loved it. Good Charlotte’s Joel and Benji Madden, a band that had once ridiculed the obsession of celebrity, both married A-Listers and became coaches on The Voice Australia. Fall Out Boy attempted to follow up their earlier success with Folie a Deux, but with commercial, critical and fan attention showing a great decline, it was clear the emo bubble had burst.
With every new indie band wearing skinny jeans and Vans, it’s clear that the emo subculture left a lasting impression on many. It’s likely we’ll see a revival of the subculture again as trends are cyclical but it’s unlikely the next wave will ever reach the height of this one. Although this trend is now consigned to the history books, those that were involved will always have the memories. Thanks For The Memories.
Words by Daniel Eggleston