My Chemical Romance is touring again, Paramore and Jimmy Eat World are headlining a major festival this fall, and there’s a skinny, tattooed white dude with a guitar dominating the charts. In case you haven’t heard, emo is back, baby! In honor of its return to prominence—plus the 20th anniversary of the first MCR album—The Ringer is following Emo Wendy’s lead and tapping into that nostalgia. Welcome to Emo Week, where we’ll explore the scene’s roots, its evolution to the modern-day Fifth Wave, and some of the ephemera around the genre. Grab your Telecasters and Manic Panic and join us in the Black Parade.
A curious thing happens when you search My Chemical Romance on IsThisBandEmo.com: It says they’re not one. Instead, the listing for the group that defined the three-letter word for a certain segment of listeners bears a cryptic message. “Unlike high school, emo has a history longer than four years,” the website says, adding some simple math alluding to the band’s exorbitant ticket prices.
It may shock anyone who marched in the Black Parade in the mid-2000s, but MCR’s exclusion isn’t an oversight or a mistake. Rather, the man with the keys to IsThisBandEmo.com sees it as a means of educating people about the long history of an oft-maligned genre. “What I try to do with the site is remind people that if you came in through MCR, if you came in through Armor for Sleep or Fall Out Boy, there’s more,” says Tom Mullen, webmaster of Is This Band Emo. “There’s more for you to experience, and let me show you where.”
Mullen, also the host of the Washed Up Emo podcast and editor of two volumes of the Anthology of Emo, takes it a step further: The 2000s stuff that blew up on MTV and on the radio was often to emo what hair metal was to its parent genre. But metal was able to move out of its dolled-up phase. Emo—at least the way it’s covered in the mainstream press—seems frozen in the Manic Panic era. (Consider the abundance of “Emo Is Back” articles that spring up every few years, which tend to focus on the aughts at the exclusion of emo’s hardcore beginnings and ’90s Midwestern spread.) Mullen wants people to know there’s more than that—and that the genre never went away, even if it was a phase for some.
The mission is serious for Mullen, who also cofounded Emo Night NYC in 2011. Is This Band Emo, however, is not always so stringent. Run out of a Brooklyn laundromat by the Orwellian-sounding Emo Council (in reality, just a collection of friends and bands Mullen talks to), IsThisBandEmo.com is packed with in-jokes and references. Type in Weezer and get the Matt Damon–Leslie Jones SNL sketch, type in Cap’n Jazz wrong and get an emo spelling lesson, type in Drake and get some Toronto Raptors shade. Poke around long enough yourself and you’re bound to unearth some Easter eggs. (You can also now type the name of this article’s author and learn where his accent originates from.) “I spent three months putting bands in and cracking jokes,” Mullen says of the process of getting Is This Band Emo set for launch in 2014.
The levity hasn’t stopped some people getting upset, however. Phoebe Bridgers nearly did the site like she did David Crosby, while Mullen says that the creator of a now-defunct online punk community once got upset and started a rival website, also now shuttered. (We won’t divulge that person’s identity, but they do have an entry on Is This Band Emo that pokes fun at the beef.) As Machine Gun Kelly’s recent tirade shows, the line between “emo” and “not emo” can be as thin as some poorly applied eyeliner, but this stuff matters.
I think Machine Gun Kelly found https://t.co/Q6odoZ1xbp— Is This Band Emo? (@isthisbandemo) March 19, 2022
But what makes Mullen and his Council tick? How do they grapple with a band like Jawbreaker—a ’90s post-hardcore group that sometimes gets dubbed emo—or Fall Out Boy, the pop-punk heroes known for their long chart reign and longer song titles? And is there any chance emo escapes its hair-metal moment? The Ringer spoke with Mullen about the website, his history with the genre, and how he feels about the current pop-punk revival that has emo back in the spotlight.
What is your background with emo music?
I grew up in a small town outside of Burlington, Vermont. There’s not much there. There was a venue, 242 Main, which Bernie Sanders’s wife started. I started going to shows. It was hardcore and it was punk bands, metal bands. I was a guitar player and I got into playing music. And what did I see? Boston and New York hardcore bands and bands from Montreal. I didn’t get to go to a big show. I didn’t know what that meant. I saw DIY really early.
And then fast-forward: A friend outside was like, “Hey, if you like hardcore, you should check out this.” And it was post-hardcore. It was like these bands Shift, Quicksand, Man Will Surrender. And then the same person handed me a Get Up Kids record. And I just went, “Oh my God, it’s heartfelt, it’s cool, it’s still got a little edge to it.” And then the rabbit hole started.
Why did you feel a responsibility to become this conduit for emo history?
In 2007, when I started washedupemo.com, I was angry. If you searched Sunny Day Real Estate on the internet, there was nothing. I was starting to write about these bands and I was using a crappy website and I just didn’t know what I was doing. But it’s not about gatekeeping. Just remember that there’s a fuller history than the four years that you might have thought a flat-iron haircut and Hot Topic was the place to hear this music.
Emo is famously a hard-to-define genre. How do you decide what’s proper quote-unquote “emo”?
I have had varying layers of how I feel over the years. Obviously there’s this First Wave: Rites of Spring, Embrace. They didn’t even know what that was. That was just hardcore bands doing something a little bit weirder. When Guy Picciotto was on my podcast, he was like, “I never knew this until years later.” The Second Wave, the ’90s: the Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World, Christie Front Drive. That was a nice time period where it wasn’t popular, but it was getting popular. I like the ride up.
Then obviously the Third Wave, when I first moved to New York City: Dashboard Confessional, Thursday, Fall Out Boy, My Chem, all those things. It just got to this point that if you didn’t have the look for Warped Tour, it just didn’t hit. And I think it hit this wave where you hit the MTV era.
And the Fourth Wave, which is the Emo Revival, blew my mind. In 2009, this guy emails me and says, “There’s bands trying to sound like Mineral.” I was like, “What? Are you joking?” And I started getting these links and people were sharing Everyone Everywhere, Prawn, all these things. I’m like, “Holy shit.” And now there’s a Fifth Wave that’s even weirder and I love it. Home Is Where, Stay Inside, Camp Cope, Pool Kids—all these really cool bands that are just trying something else.
How does IsThisBandEmo.com come about—and is it really that serious?
I had a lot of friends, and I nicknamed them the Emo Council. The logo is a UN logo. I did that in five seconds. I was like, “That’d be hilarious if you think it’s this United Nations of people deciding.” Then I found a friend who could just make the website in a weekend. And he was like, “Let’s just screw around.” I would email the Emo Council. It was bands, writers, friends, people from around the world. There’s a kid from Russia that I always hit up. Then they would vote. Bands started to see it. We crashed the first day it launched in late 2014. It still happens. Phoebe Bridgers found it. People are finding stuff every day.
I look at the traffic to see what people are searching. It’s a great indication of how people are thinking. It helps me realize, “Oh, I missed that band. Oh wow, they toured with that band. Let me go check them out.”
Sometimes I change stuff just to fuck around with people. There was an April Fool’s joke where I changed all of these bands to emo just for the day and then switched it back just to mess around. Like Fall Out Boy and My Chem, just to mess around and to prod them a little bit.
Why prod the Third-Wave fans and bands, like Fall Out Boy?
People and the bands got smarter—I will give props to the Third Wave for that. They jumped on the internet. They knew what to do on Myspace. They were great about mobilizing a community. So hats off to that. It’s just troubling when there are clickbait headlines: I know you’re going to do some amazing stuff for The Ringer. But you’re going to have some puns. And I think those puns are sometimes a detriment to someone realizing how serious it is.
I did the book series, Anthology of Emo. It looks like a textbook. It’s not supposed to look neon or look like it’s supposed to be from Hot Topic. It’s supposed to be serious. I just hope that if you came in that way, you might slowly find some more stuff and realize there’s a bigger time period to this than the four years it was your phase. It’s not a phase. It’s always been around. It will continue to be around.
There’s one line on your Washed Up Emo website bio that sticks out to me, about the mid-’90s/early 2000s emo and post-hardcore scene that was “quickly becoming a mockery in the mid-2000s.”
I forget when I wrote that. That might have been during the angry years. But the genre was a joke at the time. If I brought up those bands, the first response was a chuckle. The earlier bands—Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World—would not get the respect in Pitchfork. There was a tendency to shit on it, whatever era. I felt like, “I can’t get anyone to realize this music is great.” There’s a community, regardless of whether you showed up in the 2000s or if you were into it in the ’90s.
What’s the ultimate goal of all this work—the podcast, the websites, the anthologies?
I hope people check out the bands and go, “I learned about a band because of that.” I hope no one remembers me because that’s not the fucking point. I save a ton of stuff. I have a thing called the Emo Museum. It’s 15 terabytes of all this audio. And people used to send me VHS tapes that I would rip and save. I have all this stuff that I think is important because people don’t save things. Especially the ’90s. That was that era where the flyer got lost or the ticket got lost. Now everybody’s got their phone.
By some of the rulings on IsThisBandEmo.com, it seems like you and the Council may be strict originalists: Third-Wave bands like the Used or MCR, which are typically considered emo, are listed as not emo.
If people are angry and it says no, they’re going to continue to search for more. And then I get more data because they’re searching for more. Then I can tell what they’re listening to. And then I can affect my Spotify playlists, what I post on Instagram. There’s more to it than me just cracking a joke.
To continue with the constitutional law element metaphor, is emo a bit like the Potter Stewart quote on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
There’s a great diagram where you answer questions like, “Do you think you’re emo? No. Are you emo then? Yes,” and “Do you think you’re emo? Yes. Are you emo? No.” There’s a little bit of, “Just do it, man.” People can force it and I support a lot of bands that fly the flag. But go be at the show. Help out, clean up at the end of the night. Get into it a little bit versus showing up for the headliner or showing up for the best song.
I had to be in it to feel it. And I have disagreements. We probably disagree on a bunch of stuff, but there’s this level of, I know that you were there to at least be in it and understand there’s a scene in a community that’s worth supporting and being a part of. And I think that’s missing. Sometimes people forget the community part. It’s not sitting on your computer, on the message boards, or hanging out on absolutepunk.net, talking shit. Go to the show, put on a show yourself, start a band.
How do you determine what level a band needs to be at before they make the database? I presume you can’t put in every band with a three-song EP they made in GarageBand.
There’s some level of, you need to make a 7-inch. To show up at venues—bring your merch, bring your vinyl, have your set list ready, be prepared. I’m not saying those kids aren’t the ones that have one song up on Bandcamp. I email them back and say, “Let me know when you have more stuff. Hit me back.” And do you know how many people that have hit me up later, that have turned into bands that are now X, Y and Z? There’s a lot.
Fans tend to take discussions around subgenres and authenticity seriously within emo. Is there anything unique about this subculture compared with others?
The only thing I can relate it to is hair metal. I love metal. I got into it early on. I love Iron Maiden. I love Death, Strapping Young Lad, At The Gates. It’s just that the hair-metal part is where people took it as this joke. It’s seen as this separate moment, right? The Wingers, the Warrants, the Poisons—it had this cool moment. Then obviously, Nirvana and all those bands blew it up. But metal is still around.
People still love Kiss, but there’s an understanding that there’s this longer history. Emo hasn’t got out of the hair metal being the only thing people think of. Think if every Iron Maiden article started with “Haha, metal.” But if you say metal, you don’t think Warrant first, you might know about that era, but you don’t think about first.
With punk, you think of the Ramones, you think of Blink-182, you think of Green Day. There are these different bands. If I go to Times Square right now and ask someone to list out five emo bands, they’re not saying Sunny Day Real Estate. I’m not saying they have to, but that’s like saying the Ramones to me. They’re that kind of epic fucking moment in time that changed shit.
I know writers like Ian Cohen and Andy Greenwald are in the database and they’ve certainly put in their time. And I know Pitchfork is in there, not necessarily in a complimentary way. What’s the most obscure thing I might find?
Friends. There are band members there. If you search Japan, it was when the U.S. women beat them in the World Cup. So I was like, “Japan’s not an emo band. Nothing gold can stay in Japan.” Because that’s a little New Found Glory reference. And off we go. Bernie Sanders is in there. He’s a funny one. I said, “He’s an emo band and then he is also a hardcore, indie, metal and punk.” So I just gave him everything.
What do you do with a band like Weezer, who made an album many people consider emo in Pinkerton, but then a whole bunch of stuff that definitely isn’t?
It’s more of the community. So if it’s like, “I love Pinkerton. I love the Blue Album. I got to see them a ton in college and watch them.” But they were on alternative radio and that’s the other piece about the emo 2000s era, is that it was on the radio. A lot of people think Lit is an emo band because it was on the radio after My Chemical Romance. You associate them. I think Weezer got stuck in that too. But they’re an alternative band. They came up in that world.
What about the emo rap—the SoundCloud rap trend from a few years back? I punched in a bunch of names like Lil Peep and Juice WRLD and they all came back as not emo.
I appreciated that they liked the era and over the years I’ve softened on that time period because I think it was great that they were talking about those bands. But take the Mineral sample: Lil Peep literally stole a Mineral thing, did not tell the band, and released the song. Like, you tell a friend that you’re not going to show up at the gig. You don’t just not show up. And I felt there was that: Do you get it? Do you get what we’re doing here, man? We’re a community. But I’ve softened over the years on the emo rap thing. I don’t get it, but that’s OK. I’m not supposed to.
But does SoundCloud rap get to one of the tenets of Washed Up Emo, that this genre has no one story or wave?
Absolutely. I posted about three days before My Chemical Romance was going to announce the [reunion]. I go, “Watch out. ‘Emo’s back’ article, the headlines are on their way.” And everyone’s like, “What’s the news? What’s the news?” And I was like, “You guys all know what’s going to happen.” The word emo is not dead. It’s not back. It didn’t go away. Just because My Chem’s not touring doesn’t fucking mean emo’s not around. There are kids in a basement right now, way cooler than you and I, making records and figuring it out and learning and pulling from Foxing, pulling from Get Up Kids, or listening to old-school screamo. But if emo rap helped keep the word in the public eye, great.
Let’s do some lightning rounds on bands and people and things, and you can tell me why they’re emo or they aren’t. Let’s start with something easy: Sunny Day Real Estate. They’re emo, canonically. But they don’t sound like Rites of Spring or the First-Wave stuff.
They are absolutely the most emotional band I’ve seen. There’s no more euphoric band, especially How It Feels to Be Something On, which is one of my top records of all time. So they are absolutely a pinnacle, even though [lead singer Jeremy Enigk] runs away from the word every moment he can and jokes about it with me. But that is a truly emotional band that everyone should experience, regardless of what you like.
Jets to Brazil.
They’re fucking great. Super indie. The Jade Tree connection also hurls them over into the emo world. I was hoping you’d say Jawbreaker, because—
That was actually my next question.
No, they are not emo. When I had my first Emo Night, people were requesting Jawbreaker, and I’m like, “What the fuck is going on? This is a punk band.” It’s a very long joke with a lot of people trying to convince me. I like Jets more. I’m a Jets to Brazil over Jawbreaker person, but I understand that people think they’re emo.
The American Football house.
That is a beautiful moment in time for a meme, right? I got sent that record in ‘99, and I was like, “‘Never Meant’ is a cool song. I’ll play it on my show.” And then years later, when I talked to [Polyvinyl co-owner] Matt Lunsford, he told me about the record flying out of their warehouse years later. And I’m like, that’s that digging. That’s that part that I loved about the revival. Younger People like, “Oh, shit. This was a really great record.” So good music stands the test of time. “Never Meant” is the middle of the ‘90s movement. Like if Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” is the single, this is that B-side.
How about Fall Out Boy?
I think that they, as a band, opened up doors, but also went hard on the nonsensical, the neon, the not-playing-instruments part that was hurtful for the genre. I think they all individually get it. They all get hardcore. They all know punk. It got to be very Top 40 by that moment. And I tapped out for a minute.
Do you think that a lot of the early 2000 bands were more theater-kid energy than punk and hardcore energy?
I did an interview with Buddy [Nielsen] from Senses Fail where he said, “I saw My Chem one day. They were in just regular clothes. And then the next day they’re all in black.” I just think it turned into somewhere where they need to be noticed. And I think they were all trying that and they hit the right chord.
Do people search Drake in the database more or less frequently than I would expect?
I would say less, but because he’s so popular, they do. A lot of the rap stuff is searched, which I love. Actually, I didn’t tell you this earlier, about Is This Band Emo. Because we built it in a weekend, it’s not as fleshed out as I would’ve liked. What I wanted was that if you searched for a band and it said it wasn’t emo, it would recommend one that was. “Hey, Drake [isn’t emo]. Try Mineral.”
The Drake to Mineral pipeline—I don’t know how that’s going to work, but there’s a chance. Speaking of basketball: Is Kevin Durant emo?
I might have put him in here. I do have some basketball stuff in here.
Who’s the most emo basketball player?
Adam Morrison. Absolutely.
I can see that. So I want to end on the current wave of pop-punk in the mainstream, with Olivia Rodrigo and Machine Gun Kelly. How does any emo-adjacent genre becoming popular again fit into this equation?
I’m older now. I’m a little bit more relaxed about it. I was nervous early on when I started seeing Olivia Rodrigo and those types of things being associated with Paramore. I was like, “Oh man. This is going to be weird.” And then it didn’t hit it that way. What I loved is they talked about Paramore. And people did the whole whatever articles or people on Twitter cracked jokes. And then slowly it just turned into, “That’s pop-punk.” It didn’t use the word “emo” as much, and I think that was a little bit of a win, if there ever was one. OK, at least we made it through that without too many of the tropes coming back. Did you look up Olivia Rodrigo on Is This Band Emo?
I have not. I can’t believe I didn’t.
Again, I’ve softened. I’m just trying to bring people in. It says, “If you’re finding punk, welcome aboard.” So this is what my sentiment is: If you found pop-punk from Olivia Rodrigo and you found Paramore and you follow Hayley Williams, she knows what’s up. You’re going to find cool stuff. So welcome aboard, if that’s your way in.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.