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.
On a Friday night in the beginning of July, the Avalon in Hollywood was decorated with a Christmas theme for Emo Nite Los Angeles’s monthly party. Though the summer weather hadn’t turned frightful, a fully decorated tree and bright red stockings mixed with balloons emblazoned with the words “SAD AS FUCK.” Clips from A Christmas Story and Jingle All the Way looped silently on video screens.
Morgan Freed, one of the party’s cofounders, stood on top of the DJ booth, wearing a skimpy Mrs. Claus dress. His look was reminiscent of what Lindsay Lohan jingle bell rocked during the talent show scene in Mean Girls. Freed’s partner, T.J. Petracca, was quarantining in Massachusetts after testing positive for COVID following a gig in Boston. Despite Petracca’s absence, Freed had no problem keeping the crowd riled up. Perched above the stage, he led them in sweaty sing-alongs to hit after hit, emo or otherwise: “Helena” into “My Own Worst Enemy” into “My Friends Over You” into “Dear Maria, Count Me In,” all long before midnight.
Emo Nite Los Angeles doesn’t shy away from the bangers or the crossover songs. Though the genre the party takes its name from has roots that go back to the mid-1980s and a long history of DIY scenes, Emo Nite’s focus is on the aughts. That was the sound’s most commercially bountiful era, when acts like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy were MTV staples and touring titans. Emo Nite L.A. also doesn’t shy away from music that isn’t likely to be categorized as emo, particularly pop-punk. On that night in July, Blink-182 singles were omnipresent, and at one point, after an auxiliary DJ in the lobby’s bar finished playing Sum 41’s “Fat Lip,” I walked into the main room where the guest DJ, Alex Garcia from the band Mayday Parade, was also playing “Fat Lip.”
During Emo Nite, there are no contentious debates about what emo is. Instead, the attitude is that emo might as well be everything. No one pretends they’re too cool to scream out the chorus of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” That night, after the DJs on stage put a pause on the mosh pit, they directed the audience’s attention to one of the Avalon’s opera boxes. From there, Secondhand Serenade’s John Vesely performed a short set of his acoustic heartbreak ballads, culminating in the vulnerable “Fall for You’’ as the crowd sang with him, “Tonight will be the night I faaall for you, ooover again.” That was immediately followed by the DJs dropping a double shot of 3OH!3, the crass party rockers known for telling scene queens, “Shush girl, shut your lips, do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips.”
Even in its earliest days, Emo Nite pulled in guest DJ sets and performances by luminaries like Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus and Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional. Frank Zummo, a journeyman drummer and current member of Sum 41, has DJed and performed at Emo Nites across the country for years, often playing EDM remixes and the mashups he makes. “Seeing where it’s at, seeing where the scene’s at, it makes sense,” he says. “It’s a home for everything. It’s this really cool, misfit fucking party.”
Started in 2014 by Freed, Petracca, and Barbara Szabo (who left the operation last year), Emo Nite Los Angeles has moved from an Eastside bar, the Short Stop, to a nearby club, the Echoplex, to the even bigger Avalon. But it’s also disseminated the brand nationally, setting up delegates at venues around the U.S. under the Emo Nite banner. On Saturday, there will be Emo Nite-affiliated parties in Boise, Cleveland, and San Francisco.
After playing this year’s Coachella Festival and planning a three-day event in New Orleans this fall, Emo Nite may currently have the highest profile, but it’s far from the only party that plays this music. Other touring ventures and regional strongholds are currently feeding the seemingly insatiable desire from audiences to hear this music loud, communally, and in public. Not having one in your hometown lands somewhere between sin and tragedy. To borrow a phrase from one of the T-shirts on sale at the L.A. endeavor’s merch booth, every night is emo night.
Though emo nights may be reaching their apex, they are not a new phenomenon. Most say that Diary in San Francisco, which ran from 2009 to 2012 and briefly returned in 2015, was the first. There, Patric Fallon and Kris Hannum mainly stuck to ’90s-era acts like Mineral and Braid. They also threw in some screamo and punk pop from that time period, and their only strict rules were no Dashboard Confessional and no Bright Eyes. Other early events that followed Diary were similarly guided by fans with ties to emo’s pre-mainstream era.
As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia during the 1990s, John DeSpirito saw the video for Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Seven” on 120 Minutes and it changed his life. “It was just that moment where you hear a certain type of music and you’re like, ‘This is it, this is for me.’” he says. “Then I started exploring other things like that. What I didn’t understand at the time was there weren’t many other things like that yet.” Over time he found bands like Texas Is the Reason and the Get Up Kids that gave him that same feeling.
When he was 23 years old, in 2000, he created a Sunny Day Real Estate fan page called In the Blue and was contacted by guitarist Dan Hoerner about becoming the group’s official webmaster. He then did freelance web work for Eyeball Records, the label that put out the debut full-lengths by My Chemical Romance and Thursday. He got listed in the thank you section in a few albums’ liner notes. “I was deeply ingrained in the scene back then, but just as a guy who does websites and drinks,” DeSpirito says.
As the years went on and the scene changed, DeSpirito found himself getting deeper into other genres, including shoegaze and post-punk. “Now I’m the biggest Peter Gabriel fan in the world,” he admits. Through the aughts, he was still going out a lot around Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. Then one day in 2010, he saw a Facebook post from a guy he knew who goes by DJ Deejay, testing the waters about whether people would be interested in an emo party. At the time, the genre was in a fallow period. DeSpirito sent him an impassioned message, outlining how much he knew about the history of the music and his connections within it. “If you printed it out, it’s probably three pages long,” DeSpirito says now. Deejay brought him in for what eventually became known as MKO Club. (Short for Makeout Club—no affiliation with that Makeoutclub.) Their first event, the following January, happened at a bar on a Tuesday night in the middle of a blizzard. They thought it would be a complete failure, but about 50 brave souls showed up.
DeSpirito realized that the emo he loved wasn’t necessarily what the crowds expected. “I’m not much of a gatekeeper about this stuff, but I was like, ‘I’ll play people real emo’—that’s what I thought they wanted to hear,” he says. “To me that meant 1993 to 2000. The end bookmark for me was nothing past Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American.”
Most of the requests coming into the booth were for the newer, pop-punk-adjacent bands of the more recent past. “I wouldn’t be doing my job as a new DJ if I didn’t make people happy, so I did the homework,” DeSpirito continues. “I added a whole bunch of Saves the Day, New Found Glory, all kinds of stuff to the library. And that’s when things just started taking off.” Soon they were pulling in hundreds of people, moving to bigger venues, DJing between acts at emo shows and hosting afterparties when bands came to town.
In 2013, DeSpirito and DJ Deejay amicably went their own ways. DeSpirito founded a party called Through Being Cool, while Deejay continued on with MKO Club, though he eventually settled on the more straightforward Emo Night Philly. “We all discovered the power of just calling it what it is, no need to be clever,” DeSpirito says. “You don’t have to call a Smiths night This Charming Man or something, just call it Smiths Night. It’s so much more effective marketing. Obviously Emo Nite L.A., they figured that out early on.”
DeSpirito figured out a system for sequencing the four hours of music he had to fill. He’d begin with the emo he came up listening to. That’s when people would be getting their first drinks and when the old heads with more adult responsibilities in the morning were most likely to be around. During the second hour, he’d start to jump ahead in time, throwing in acts like Coheed and Cambria while hopefully turning younger patrons on to deeper cuts. When midnight hit, it was time for the radio bangers. “There’s nothing I played that I disliked. In fact, I got joy out of playing Fall Out Boy long enough that I was like, ‘This is fine, this is good, I like this,’” DeSpirito says. “It went from me showing the patrons what I like to the patrons showing me what they like, which I think is beautiful.”
About 100 miles away, Tom Mullen followed a similar trajectory and settled on a similar approach during the Emo Night NYC parties, which he hosted with his friends Chuck Haile and Brian Pacris at a bar on the Lower East Side. Mullen got introduced to the genre as a teenager, when someone gave him a Get Up Kids tape during an all-ages show at 242 Main, a youth center and venue in Burlington, Vermont. In 2007, when the major label acts were at the height of their popularity, he set up the website Washed Up Emo to pay tribute to those early bands whose history he thought was disappearing from the internet. He started off writing about them and transitioned to interviewing the key figures for a podcast series that now has over 200 episodes.
When Emo Night NYC began in February 2011, originally named Do You Know Who You Are? (after Texas Is the Reason’s sole studio album), Mullen had no idea how long it would last. During the nearly decade-long run of Emo Night NYC, Mullen watched the cultural tides shift as people came expecting to hear different incarnations of how emo has transformed over the years. “Certain eras became out of fashion and in fashion, and we could tell by what people were asking for,” he says. “The [emo] revival had an amazing moment. Modern Baseball and Hotelier came by one night [in 2014] and they were playing weird shit.”
And though its roots were as an emo history lesson and a safe haven for the sound’s veterans, Emo Night NYC did cater to fans of the more populous moment. “The people that were there at 1 a.m. were there for Fall Out Boy, they were there for Armor for Sleep,” Mullen says. “We knew what record to play based on how old they were. It got to be really fun to keep people there.”
Down in Richmond, Virginia, in 2011, Lindsey Scheer and her friends decided that for her 30th birthday they wanted to play emo music off an iPod at the bar where she worked. Beforehand, people told her that sounded like a dumb idea, but everyone who showed up had a blast. Scheer had previously been a tour manager for emo acts, booked shows, and let bands stay at her place when they traveled through. For the first official Emo Night RVA she broke out her Hot Rod Circuit and Jawbreaker vinyl. The bar did $3,000 more in sales than it ever had.
After people showed up in T-shirts for My Chemical Romance and Chiodos, bands she hadn’t planned to play, she switched over to digital at the end of the night. “I just like making people happy and I don’t need to only play what my particular style is,” Scheer says. “Watching everyone sing along and scream and just have so much fun with their friends is why I kept doing it, because it really brings joy to so many people.”
Like everything else in nightlife, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Emo Night NYC and Emo Night RVA. Mullen moved out to Los Angeles. During the depths of quarantine, people approached Scheer about hosting Zoom DJ parties, but she decided against it. “Doing it virtually just felt so wrong,” she says. “It just didn’t feel like it would translate.”
Scheer will finally bring back Emo Night RVA for the first time at the end of July. “The joke is that we keep telling people to get their babysitter booked,” she says. “Childcare is a real thing in the elder emo community,”
DeSpirito left his Through Being Cool party in Philadelphia back in 2019, though it continues on without him. After eight years, not only were he and his wife ready to start a family, but more and more people were starting to request new pop-punk bands that he’d never even heard of. He didn’t feel like he had time to research the music before adding it to his sets. “I got so bummed, having to say so many times, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have that,’” he explains. “I was just like, ‘I’m gonna step aside and let my other DJ do this.’”
As clubs continue to return to a level of normalcy in most of the United States, for some emo parties, the priority has become touring, establishing outposts in new cities, or subsuming existing local emo parties under their own larger umbrella. “Just like the MySpace era—when certain bands figured out MySpace, they kind of got the leg up,” says Mullen. “I give a lot of credit to people that turned something into a business.”
Emo Nite Los Angeles has become an internationally recognized brand—though at times its approach has received pushback, like in 2015 when its founders attempted to copyright the phrase “Emo Night.” Adam Lazarra of the band Taking Back Sunday also took issue with the party’s original name, Taking Back Tuesday, telling Billboard, “It’s flattering, I get it. But also, I don’t want to become a parody of something I take real seriously.” (Emo Nite Los Angeles canceled an interview for this article and declined subsequent invitations to participate.)
Franki Chan, who helped shift L.A. nightlife in the mid-2000s through his early parties with Steve Aoki and his own Check Yo Ponytail events, expects Emo Nite to become an institution, even if the excitement around it fades. He compares what it has accomplished to the Do-Over, Brownies & Lemonade, and A Club Called Rhonda—long-running Los Angeles affairs that focus on completely different types of music but have all developed both loyal local followings and global reach. “To think of Emo Nite as just a party is really not giving them really any credit,” Chan says. “Every time that they do an event, there’s a theme, there’s special activations, there’s photo booths, there’s people in characters, there’s a video component to it, there’s a merch component to it. That branding has been franchised beyond just that singular event into essentially an entire community.”
Currently, the other biggest name in this sphere is Emo Night Brooklyn. It was founded by Alex Badanes and Ethan Maccoby, two childhood friends who grew up together in England with their expatriate families and came to Boston for college. They say that since they were teenagers in the early 2000s, they’ve always partied and pregamed to emo and pop-punk, going from their parents’ basements to their dorm rooms to their first apartments and then to their local bar in Brooklyn, where they hosted their first events open to the public. They soon moved to Brooklyn Bowl, a much larger venue with locations around the country, and landed the same booking agent as bands like New Found Glory and Saves the Day.
When they first started getting gigs outside of New York, they’d both travel for them on weekends so it wouldn’t disrupt their day jobs in music publishing and tech sales. Once they started getting offers to DJ on the same night in different cities, they’d split up to cover them both. Eventually, they were getting so many opportunities that they had to start hiring other DJs to provide the music, often drafting the diehard fans who’d show up every time they played. When Emo Night Brooklyn came to Los Angeles in July, it was held at Emo Nite LA’s old home, the Echoplex.
Their night’s playlists stayed definitively radio friendly. “The people that were pissed that we weren’t playing just true emo, they quickly realized this event’s not for them,” Maccoby says. “They didn’t come anymore, and for us, that was OK, losing those five to 10 percent of people that weren’t gonna be happy unless you played like this specific version of emo. But the people that loved it kept coming back, told their friends and brought more people.”
Asked what differentiates Emo Night Brooklyn from the other emo parties, they mention the reputation of the venues they play, like Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club (which is historically linked to emo’s earliest moments), and how they often try to incorporate people from the scene of whatever city they are in, but they don’t push any point too hard. “Like anything else — whether it’s spin classes, airlines, coconut water, a hard seltzer — there’s gonna be lots of different competitors out there,” Badanes says.
Though Emo Night Brooklyn remains their flagship, Badanes and Maccoby founded the company Burwood Media and have tried to apply their Emo Night template to other genres. Attempts at country and K-pop parties didn’t catch on, but they have found success with Gimme Gimme Disco, which does ’70s and ’80s dance music with a focus on Abba, and Best Night Ever, which mines recent vintage sounds from pop acts like One Direction and Justin Bieber. “Every weekend we’re doing on average around 20 shows in different cities,” Maccoby says. “We have 35 different DJs around the country. We’ve got three booking agents now. We’ve got two full-time employees, which is kind of wild, because Alex and I weren’t even full-time ourselves until a few months ago.”
Based out of the west coast, Marcus Leonardo has established his own niche with his roving party, the Emo Night Tour. The former lead singer of Roses for Ophelia, which played some of the Warped Tour’s smaller stages, not only DJs the nostalgia bombs, he also fronts a cover band that performs at the shows. The Emo Night Tour developed out of Emo Night Sacramento and after packing in local crowds, Leonardo approached his contacts from his band days. “We hit your major markets, your L.A.s and Seattles, but we also love going to Bakersfield or Little Rock,” he says. “Sometimes those are even more fun, because the actual bands will skip those cities on their tours.”
Leonardo says he and the other Emo Night Tour DJs fight over who gets to do the first hour of their shows, but unlike the parties where that time slot was exclusively reserved for oldies, they’ll also use it as the place to mix in new emo-influenced acts like KennyHoopla. Still, he gets complaints questioning the authenticity of the parties. “We have people that will message us sometimes like, ‘My Chemical Romance for real? That’s not even real emo,’” Leonardo says. “I’m like, ‘What do you think you’re coming to?’ I apologize that I cannot play American Football into Pedro the Lion, but I think everyone would actually legitimately be really sad.”
Two decades ago, Sarah Lewitinn (better known as Ultragrrrl) helped get attention for bands like Interpol and the Killers as a DJ and a blogger. While she identifies more with the downtown New York rock scene of that moment, she’s also associated with emo because she briefly managed My Chemical Romance and would sometimes play Taking Back Sunday tracks. Now living in Los Angeles, a promoter she knows recently asked her to DJ a couple times at the party Riot at the Disco. She couldn’t believe how many people were there and how wild they were getting, even though she hardly stuck to playing emo. “I found it to be more broadly based around a decade — Miley Cyrus got as big a reception as My Chem.” Lewitinn says. “They just wanted to hear music where the girls wore ripped T-shirts and the guys wore eyeliner. That really was the only thing I needed to think about.”
The craving for this era reminds her how during the late ’90s and early 2000s, she would obsessively go to any party that mentioned new wave, even if it was more of a catch-all ’80s night. The sounds of 15 to 20 years ago have come back around. “This is the way the cycle works,” she says.
Lewitinn thought that throwback nights dedicated to songs by bands like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs would be more popular, but she realizes maybe there might be too many barriers to entry. It’s expensive to dress like those groups and when they were making a name for themselves, you usually had to be over 21 to go to their concerts. Emo and pop punk acts mostly played all ages or 18+ shows. The circle was always bigger. “It was never cool to like those bands,” Lewitinn says, “so you don’t have to be cool to like them now.”
In recent years, the bands and concert promoters have started capitalizing on the foundation these parties have established. Pre- and post-mainstream emo acts are getting back together or doing more live dates. This past January, the When We Were Young festival in Las Vegas, which features over 60 emo or emo-associated acts, caused an online ruckus when its lineup was announced. After its first October date immediately sold out, two more dates with the identical lineup sold out too.
“A lot of these bands are reunited now, but for a lot of people, [emo nights were] the only way they could experience these bands in a sort of live setting,” DeSpirito says. “By going to these big [emo night] tours, it’s their chance to go and experience the camaraderie of being at one of those shows that maybe they missed out on or that they just miss. We as emo parties were kind of like the nostalgia tour before the nostalgia tour happened.”
Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.