Emo Music: An Era of Poetic Desperation and Romantic Bitterness

Elly Zulaikha
May 27, 2020
4 minutes

If you're one of those teens growing up in the early 2000s with pent-up, raging teenage hormones while sporting an all-black outfit complete with black eyeliner, then you're most likely one of them who lived, breathed and ate emo songs. Quarantine is making us all feel things, so this is the perfect time to revisit some nostalgic memories and delve into the emo era in music. 

How it began

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Previously, it has been thought that emo music is a genre that's difficult to put a finger on. There have been at least three generations of emo throughout the decades, and at least some of the "senior" emo had a love-hate relationship with identifying as emo as opposed to their juniors who started full-fledged embracing emo from the inside out. 

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However, emo music can be traced back to a group called Rites of Spring. Hailing from Washington D.C, they were seen as godfathers of emo through their personal lyricism, which was a stark contrast against the 1980s hardcore-punk scene.

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Later on, another similar-themed band called Embrace came out in 1985. Even back then, these groups despised being associated with the label "emo', as it was seen as insulting and nonsensical.  But with little protest, the theme endured for another decade or two.

The 90s and 00s

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It wasn't until the late 1990s that emo music became a genre of its own. Thanks to bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Piebald, Cap'n Jazz and The Promise Ring, emo music spread out from their West Coast origin and had a strong grip in the Midwest region of America. 

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Entering the early 2000s, although most people call these bands as "pop-punk" or "punk", emo eventually settled into the mainstream thanks to the first band called Jimmy Eat World through their "Bleed American" album. 

During the mid-2000s, bands like Brand New, All Time Low, and Yellowcard became the familiar faces of emo. Then as emo progressed toward the end of the decade, emo-inspired, pop-punk bands like Paramore and Panic! at the Disco began taking over the alt music scene, hence slowly ending the emo reign. 

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More than a phase

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If you happen to come across a picture of yourself sporting that famous hairstyle 'swept to the front' and jet black eyeliner, you'll probably remember briefly of your emo phase (and cringe!!). And despite your parents persistently telling you to grow out of “it”, you just can’t and then, you rebel more.

Emo was the kind of music that captured the many hearts and minds of teenagers, coupled with raging puberty phase, became infatuated with emo's melancholy and woeful sound. 

Whether you regret you past decisions of being an emo kid or your revel in the fact you were so in-tune with your feelings and black eyeliner was definitely the way to go - there’s a science behind our chosen music choices. This happens to be the development stage in us, where we formulate our own tastes in music. Chances are the current music that you're listening to now is influenced by that phase in your teenage years, whether you're conscious about it or not. Think of it this way; identifying with emo music is like a big badge of identity, one where almost all teenagers yearn to find meaning and a sense of identity in themselves. And now, looking back, it’s sort of a bittersweet memory that only you have and can reminisce on. 

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Perhaps there's even a greater reason as to why emo appealed to a massive sea of teens worldwide; the sense of community it brings for them. Through the emotions in the lyrics, from sad, to angry to unrequited love, it gave teenagers solace when such genre was frowned upon, as perceived by the outsiders (mainly older generations), and generally had a bad rep. 

The 21st Century

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Generally speaking, the fourth wave (first wave in the 1980s, second wave in the 1990s and the third wave in early 2000s) has turned the ‘emo’ term into two clear definitions on its own. The ‘emo revival’ draws inspiration to their second wave predecessor as seen in bands like The Hotelier, La Dispute, Foxing, and Modern Baseball, whereas each band brought about their take back to the emo indie-rock of the 1990s. Sort of like an intricate system of crossovers in their genre. 

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However, for the newer generation of emo fans, they’re likely to grow accustomed to now-progressive bands that for some, consist more of a female front and all-female emo bands or even those who don't conform with gender labels; all with relatable and non-misogynistic lyrics. Bands like Kississippi, Tiger’s Jaw, Pity Sex, and We Are The In Crowd (to name a few) helped making this once all-white male music, accessible and more relatable than ever before. 

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But hey, we can all agree the emo era is a masterpiece on its own. Plus, what we learn from the last four decades is that it will keep reinventing itself and that it’s going to stick around for awhile longer now, or perhaps for good. Nevertheless, emo music, at its core will always be a place for people to make music and share their genuine feelings with the world.