We Are Not A Cult: Remembering the war on emo

In 2008, the Daily Mail suggested emo music was indoctrinating listeners into a cult obsessed with self-harm and suicide. And it’s a story that’s become even more complicated today…

We Are Not A Cult: Remembering the war on emo
James Hickie
Jenny Matthews / Alamy Stock Photo
Originally published:

On May 16, 2008, the Daily Mail published an article under the inflammatory headline, “Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo.” It focused on the suicide of 13-year-old schoolgirl Hannah Bond, claiming she had taken her own life just three months after becoming “an emo”. “No child is safe,” its opening paragraph repeated.

Mainstream media and bereaved parents alike have a long history of blaming rock music when it comes to the tragic deaths of young fans, of course. In 1984, 19-year-old Ozzy Osbourne fan John McCollum took his own life – his parents alleged that the lyrics to the rock legend’s song, Suicide Solution, were a “proximate cause” of their son’s death. In 1990, Judas Priest were sued by the families of two young men, Raymond Belknap and James Vance, who’d taken part in a suicide pact. The lawsuit claimed that the band’s 1978 album, Stained Class, contained subliminal messages, including the words ‘Do it’ and ‘Let’s be dead’.

While both those cases were eventually dismissed, the coroner in the Hannah Bond case, Roger Sykes, did suggest a connection between her suicide, and a youth movement he described as “very disturbing”, to try to explain why an “outwardly bright, fun-loving, family-obsessed” girl would have ended her own life. It was this information the Daily Mail would use as the basis for, and later defence of, their controversial article. Many, however, balked at the heavy-handed approach and factual inaccuracies in the piece, such as the suggestion that “emos” believed in an afterlife known as The Black Parade, which mistook the concept of My Chemical Romance’s third album for some sort of religious belief.

On May 31, two weeks after the publication of the Mail’s story, more than 300 fans of My Chemical Romance congregated to march on the newspaper’s London offices.

“I was furious with the Daily Mail for falsely reporting that My Chemical Romance promoted suicide and their fans were a cult,” says Caz Hill, one of the organisers of the march, whose own teenage daughters were also fans of the band. “It cashed in on parents’ fears of the emo culture. The Daily Mail took a young girl’s tragic death and outrageously claimed she took her own life after listening to My Chemical Romance, which made her want to ‘join the Black Parade’. How sick and irresponsible can a publication be?”

“Stereotypically, people who read the Daily Mail are of an older, conservative nature, so the idea of groups of people who aren’t carbon copies are a threat,” says Hayley Kennedy, who also joined the march that day. “When I first started going to gigs, I had people warning me that there’d be drugs and violence, and that I should go straight home afterwards because there’d be dangerous people lurking about. That kind of thinking makes it easy for the media to paint everyone who isn’t ‘mainstream’ in a negative light, enforcing beliefs and leading to a circle of distrust.”

“The Daily Mail’s coverage of the ‘emo’ movement has been balanced, restrained and above all, in the public interest,” read the newspaper’s response to the march at the time. “Genuine concerns were raised at the inquest earlier this month on 13-year-old emo follower Hannah Bond, who had been self-harming and then tragically killed herself.”

“The public and media have, at times unhelpfully, demonised alternative subcultures and music as a cause of problems including self-harm,” wrote Dr Peter Taylor, a clinical psychologist at Manchester University, in an article last year headlined, “Risks to victimised youth in alternative cultures exposed.” The piece served as an introduction to a wider report, “This corrosion: a systematic review of the association between alternative subcultures and the risk of self-harm and suicide,” conducted by experts from the universities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds Beckett and Central Lancashire, as well as psychological services organisation, Changing Minds UK. While the study’s findings “indicated that individuals who associated with subcultures were at a greater risk of self-harm and suicide”, it concluded that “more research is required to understand the association between self-harm, suicide and alternative subculture affiliation, and the factors underlying it”.

“Victimisation, stigma and hate crime may explain the greater risk these individuals face,” Dr Taylor explains. “A prime example of that is the aggression faced by Sophie Lancaster in 2007.”

Sophie Lancaster’s death provided a tragic example of what can happen when a subculture – in her case, and that of boyfriend Robert Maltby, ‘goth’ – is demonised. The couple were violently attacked by a gang in a park in their Lancashire hometown, Bacup, on August 11, 2007. Sophie died of her injuries on August 24, while Robert, whom Sophie had shielded from the attackers, survived.

The aftermath of the incident, meanwhile, highlighted just how united the rock community can be in the face of the loss of one of their own. As anyone who reads Kerrang!, or has stood watching their favourite band with their mates at a festival will tell you, it’s about inclusion, not division. For proof, just look back at the pictures of the peaceful but passionate protest of the participants on that My Chemical Romance march; or the incredible range of tributes to Sophie, including the second stage at Bloodstock Open Air festival being named in her honour.

“I believe that subcultures are important to young people,” says Sophie’s mother, Sylvia. She is chief executive of the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, and the recipient of an OBE in recognition of her campaigning to promote a more tolerant society. “These subcultures often provide a rite of passage for young people; as they are growing up they help to alleviate feelings of isolation. They give people a sense of belonging, where they can recognise others who hold the same values and interests as them.”

Manchester University’s Dr Taylor agrees. “Perhaps one of the draws of these subcultures is that if you feel slightly rejected by mainstream society, then it’s a place you can get support and belong,” he says. “No-one is being dragged into these groups. People are making a decision to get into these scenes, which suggests there’s a function there. We could do with more work and more research looking into the experiences of young people in these groups – specifically with regards to mental health.”

Mental health is referenced in the Daily Mail piece about Hannah Bond, but with an almost dismissive, sneering tone (“Many of her friends were actually taking prescription antidepressants”). In both of the above-mentioned lawsuits, involving Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest, it was revealed that the young men involved had been suffering from depression. But the Mail’s mentions of this were largely limited to the lyrical preoccupations of the bands she listened to, rather than trying to understand its role in Hannah’s death. It’s not difficult to imagine that, like many of us, she gravitated towards the bands she did because they understood how she felt.

“It’s easy to place the blame on outside influences rather than admitting there might have been other things going on,” says Hayley Kennedy, now 28, who took part in the My Chemical Romance march in 2008. “Now that I’m older, I can understand a parent wanting to find a reason for such a tragedy, rather than being stuck with the unknown,” she says.

Dr Tayor says: “I’m not an expert on it, but I do get the sense that some media outlets want clear headlines. They don’t want any complexity. They just want to know, ‘The cause is this…’ and things end up oversimplified.”

It was Mental Health Awareness Week earlier this month. It provided an opportunity to reflect on just how prevalent discussions around the topic have become in the past decade. Sometimes, sadly, these conversations are sparked by the loss of someone in the public eye, such as Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell or Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington in 2017. But other times it’s musicians using their platform to share their stories, and tell those fans going through similar struggles that it’s okay for them to say they’re not okay. The media certainly has much to learn about its responsibility in this area, particularly over its obligations to young people, as some of the irresponsible, graphic coverage of the death of Swedish DJ Avicii highlighted last year.

But the complexities don’t end there. In June 2017, 10 years on from Sophie Lancaster’s murder, her boyfriend Robert Maltby spoke to The Guardian. He not only suggested that the media coverage in the aftermath of the crime was a form of victim blaming, but that the focus on him and Sophie being goths ignored deep-running socio-economic issues, including deprivation and disenfranchisement.

“Besides being patronising, the ‘goth’ thing was also an oversimplification of a much broader issue,” suggested Robert. “Life hasn’t progressed in these poor areas. There is still great dissatisfaction around. These areas are still forgotten, and forgotten people will feel like… well, it can breed nihilism. I never tried to demonise the attackers and, in many ways, they were victims.”

This invites a bigger question, and one that’s at the heart of mainstream media moral panics: who benefits from this dissemination of fear? Perhaps it’s a simple case of a blanket distrust of youth culture – we do, after all, live in a post-Brexit vote climate that has highlighted dividing lines between younger and older generations. Is it simply a case of protecting the status quo? Robert Maltby is right – there was such a blinkered focus on why he and Sophie were the victims that no-one thought to ask why teenage boys become violent perpetrators.

Look, too, at the media portrayal of millennials – people who’ve come of age in the 21st century – such as perpetuating the ludicrous myth that they’re unable to afford their own homes because they overspend on avocado on toast, rather than face up to the reality that a generation has been priced out of the housing market.

“The media has a duty to provide impartial and honest reporting rather than rehashing stereotypes,” says Sylvia Lancaster.

But what can we, as rock fans, do? Perhaps it’s best to continue doing what we have always done: listen to the music we love, support one another – and fight to change perceptions and bring about positive change.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this piece, please consult YoungMINDS.org.uk for more information.

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