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The story of emo in 14 songs

From the basements of Washington, D.C. to festival headline slots around the world, this is the story of emo’s rise to prominence through the music that shaped a generation

Let’s be real for a second: Ian MacKaye, Gerard Way and Lil Peep come from musical planets that orbit entirely different galaxies, yet they, like a lot of bands and artists who have nothing else in common, have all been called emo at one point or another. The term is unhelpfully amorphous to say the least, making the telling of its tale anything but a straight-line narrative with a proper beginning, middle or end. Emo is not really a genre in the strictest sense, there isn’t one definitive sound or scene, and pretty much everyone who has ever been involved adopts the first rule of Fight Club whenever it comes up.

If you’re here, though, it’s likely you already know it originated in Washington, D.C. as a sensitive-boy reaction to the tough-guy hardcore dominating the 1980s alternative landscape. That later gave rise to something akin to moody indie-rock with more solipsistic tendencies across the American Midwest, inexplicably developing into pop chart dominating global superstardom for the next wave of hopefuls, influencing the generation that came up behind and stretching the emo lineage into the realms of modern-day mumble rap’ and beyond.

Loved, hated and often just plain misunderstood, emo has been many things, while never really being any single one – even at its commercial peak. No other genre doubles as a pejorative term. No other genre has ever been this consistently uncool yet stuck around for so long.

Here, then, is an introduction to its story, or at least that of those songs which helped move the needle, elevating the term from something used to describe basement-dwelling ex-hardcore punks to one assimilated into pop culture the world over.

Rites Of Spring – Deeper Than Inside (1985)

It’s the sound of noise and feelings – kids pouring all of their hurt, confusion, frustration and anger into music to turn it into something positive. Ultimately, that’s what Rites Of Spring did on Deeper Than Inside, and it’s a fair summation of the whole emo schtick. The band, led by future Fugazi-men Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty were the first (alongside Ian MacKaye’s Embrace) to have the word emo-core attached to their music, which they famously hated. They bear no obvious sonic, aesthetic or spiritual relation to what the term would later represent, but at the root of all these artists’ output is an attempt to make some sense out of a world that rarely does.

Sunny Day Real Estate – In Circles (1994)

One month after Nirvanas Kurt Cobain had tragically passed, Sunny Day Real Estate released their debut album Diary. The band’s aptly-titled introductory salvo couldn’t have been more of a contrast to their superstar fellow Seattleites’ era-defining grunge, offering quiet rage over outright fury, paired with navel-gazing, interior world musings and guitars that needled and stung rather that lashed out. This new, unique and softer sound of Seattle would prove to be a sleeper hit that grew in popularity gradually, spreading across the world in the years that followed, as the internet age helped promote the band in online chat rooms, discussion forums and specialist music communities.

Weezer – Tired Of Sex (1996)

No, of course Weezer aren’t strictly emo, but then again, what band is? On Pinkerton they darkened the edges of the post-grunge fuzzy-pop sound that won fans over on their Blue’ debut two years prior, this time producing a rush of raw, relatable emotion from start to finish. Frontman Rivers Cuomo pulled his heart apart and let it bleed on these songs, and although it was considered a commercial and critical failure at the time, history has been kinder, recognising the album as inadvertently rewriting the emo blueprint and its influence on the next generation of sensitive souls.

The Promise Ring – Is This Thing On? (1997)

As fellow emo alumni Cap’n Jazz wound down in 1995, guitarist Davey von Bohlen joined up with Milwaukee’s The Promise Ring, marking the start of the next phase in the scene’s development, with songs built on hooks and choruses alongside the unpacking of emotion. By the time of their legendary second album, Nothing Feels Good (a title later borrowed by Andy Greenwald for his indispensable 2003 emo tome), The Promise Ring had perfected the art. Like a grown-up, more sophisticated pop-punk, there was a cleaner production and dedication to tuneful melodics, laying the groundwork for the stars to come who’d push those sensibilities further still.

American Football – Never Meant (1999)

Considered by many to be the definitive emo anthem. What that really means is that this is the neatest distillation of what the Midwest-centric second wave of emo sounded like, as guitar patterns weaved and wound around gentle percussion, and melodies and vocals that worked in tandem, as everything breathed and moved with equal sonic footing. So shamelessly copied and commonplace is this style now that looking back it’s almost impossible to appreciate the context into which American Football first created it. But create it they did and all praise heaped upon them is entirely justified.

Jimmy Eat World – The Middle (2001)

And here we have a contender for The Most Emo Song Of All Time. Seriously, pick out any line and you have a ready-made, self-help-style mantra for life (‘Just do your best, do everything you can’, Live right now, just be yourself’), courtesy of Mesa, Arizona’s emos-in-chief. Against a backdrop of nu-metal and a rapidly changing world ushering in an increasingly digital age, they offered something reassuringly heartfelt, making the leap from the kind of dusty basements the formerly disparate emo scenes sprouted from to the bright lights of MTV and magazine covers.

Brand New – Jude Law And A Semester Abroad (2001)

In the wake of sexual misconduct allegations made against frontman Jesse Lacey in 2017, it’s understandable that Brand New are often retrospectively written out of the emo history books. But ignoring their role and importance – once upon a time – is to deny the fact that this is a scene that has sometimes wrestled and failed to deal with its underlying boys club’ issues. Pretending a problem doesn’t exist never solves it, and there’s a whole generation of artists and fans alike for whom this band’s music was once a beacon, even if it now exists in a taboo-like realm of mixed, complicated emotions. Overshadowed by the addendum and necessary disclaimers to their story, the reality is that Brand New opened the gates for many.

Dashboard Confessional – Hands Down (2002)

A world away from screaming into mics at hardcore basement shows, Dashboard Confessional (AKA Chris Carrabba) opted for a different kind of DIY artistry, favouring the acoustic one-man band approach, pulling at the heartstrings with melodic songs detailing the personal and emotional everyday. In contrast to the default sombre tones of his earliest output, this song celebrated the joy of the best day ever” and is a fine example of how emo doesn’t automatically mean maudlin.

Taking Back Sunday – Cute Without The 'E' (Cut From The Team) (2002)

Vicious, spiteful and super-sassy, this is Long Islanders Taking Back Sunday at their most emo and arguably best. It’s all youthful attitude, relationship drama and hair-flicking, guitar-slinging and mic-swinging vigour, before any of those things became so clichéd that nobody would dare go near them. The fact that they’ve always stuck around (with a few line-up changes, admittedly) and evolved their sound and focus has probably worked against them in the long run. Had they gone away for a while and reformed they’d have been 10 times as big with a reputation to match. Easy as it is to forget now, there was a time when they were the hottest property in this new movement of emo hopefuls, and the band most likely to become the poster boys for the whole thing.

My Chemical Romance – I’m Not Okay (I Promise) (2004)

And then, from out of left-field, in stepped this lot. Grabbing the baton from AFI and fellow horror-leaning punks from yesteryear, New Jersey weirdos My Chemical Romance were never supposed to be the icons of the third wave of emo, but that’s what happened when their second album Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge transformed them from promising undercard contenders to heavyweight champions of the scene. Much of that came as a result of the mammoth success of this sugar-rush anthem, which – alongside its unforgettable music video (back when they still had the power to shift the cultural dial) – changed the world for them and their legions of fans. Overnight, suddenly everything felt different.

Fall Out Boy – Sugar, We’re Going Down (2005)

One year later, a gang of former hardcore kids with a singer who liked Elvis Costello and Elton John joined in on the fun. Like My Chem, Fall Out Boy were already bubbling under and well-loved as a promising pop-punk band thanks to their 2003 debut album Take This To Your Grave, but what happened on From Under The Cork Tree two years later would send them into the stratosphere. With its perfectly realised mix of sexually-charged tension, huge hooks and another video neatly showcasing the unique band dynamics at play, they became the frontrunners for emo’s more accessible side, while packing in enough attitude and bite to keep credibility in tact.

Panic! At The Disco – I Write Sins Not Tragedies (2005)

Adding another string to the scene bow, Las Vegas showstoppers Panic! At The Disco introduced flamboyantly baroque, larger-than-life dramatics to the equation, standing out like the sore thumb exceptions to the emo rules they were. Truthfully, the only things emo about Panic! were their peer associations, their eyeliner, floppy fringes and penchant for wordy song titles, but as time would later prove, in frontman Brendon Urie they possessed a star with an imagination, talent and charisma too big to be constrained by any one scene or musical style. As they shimmied in with their top hats, tails, cellos and harpsichords, it was suddenly clear that emo was capable of so much more…

My Chemical Romance – Welcome To The Black Parade (2006)

…Breaking the age-old, unwritten mixtape/playlist rule of never doubling up on artists, this is the very definition of that aforementioned so much more’. Not including Welcome To The Black Parade in the mix just because we’ve already got I’m Not Okay… would be like watching a movie and skipping past a vital plot point. Both songs were seismic, but this one represents the mainstream pinnacle of the whole emo movement’s powers, blasting the New Jersey pioneers to the top of festival bills, into the hearts of millions and even onto the pages of tabloid newspapers confused by the apparent cult of emo’ taking over a generation of impressionable youth. And it all started with that one iconic opening note…

Paramore – That’s What You Get (2007)

The sad, unavoidable fact is that despite equal audience splits, emo has never had enough representation of women in its ranks, but in Hayley Williams, Paramore had one of the scene’s most legendary figures. Out of respect for her wishes to consign the uncomfortable aspects of their other big hit of the era to the past, we’re favouring this one for inclusion, and how much more emo can you get than the refrain, That’s what you get when you let your heart win’? Emo would go onto evolve and exist after this third wave, of course, producing artists as diverse and progressive as Moms Jeans and nothing, nowhere., returning to something of the spirit, if not necessarily the sound of the underground where things started all those years ago. If and when the next wave comes, maybe the world will be ready for another era of emo domination…

Posted on January 27th 2021, 4:53p.m.
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