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Such Great Heights: How Hot Topic Defined a Generation of Emo Kids

As bands like Paramore, Taking Back Sunday, and My Chemical Romance took over in the 2000s, there was only one store in the mall where their fans felt at home

Kyle Stecker

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.


At the corner of Hollywood and Highland, a Hot Topic is tucked away on the second floor of the Ovation Hollywood shopping center. You wouldn’t even realize it was there if you didn’t know exactly where to look. But once you ascend a few escalators and wind your way around some ongoing construction, there it is: The alternative music and culture retail outlet that once hosted in-store visits from pop-punk and emo icons like Paramore and that now boasts an elaborate display pyramid of Funko Pop dolls, anime-themed swim trunks, Obi-Wan Kenobi tokens, and various Squishmallows collectibles. The store’s sign is white, hard-edged, and simple. It used to be blood red and written in heavy metal font.

Hot Topic in 2022 seems to cover every possible interest related to gaming and pop culture.There’s still plenty of music merch for sale as well, though the selection is different now, too: Instead of the once-famous “band tee wall,” the store’s perimeter is blocked out with cubic shelves containing music tees of every popular genre, from Top 40 to death metal. Blink-182, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Slipknot, and Cannibal Corpse take up decent real estate, but so do the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Selena, Machine Gun Kelly, Lana Del Rey, Wu-Tang Clan, and Snoop Dogg. Likewise, blasting from the speakers is a decade-spanning mishmash of popular music: Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” segues into Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” which transitions to Evanescence’s ’00s goth-metal classic “Bring Me to Life,” which morphs into the All-American Rejects’ “Dirty Little Secret.”

You can still visit the store today and walk out with elements of the “Hot Topic uniform”—a dark, dramatic personal aesthetic that became popularized during emo’s third wave in the 2000s. But it’s clear that in the years since side swept bangs and studded belts, the retailer has become all things for all fans—an ethos that may appear to be a far cry from Hot Topic’s roots, but is ultimately how it secured its survival when the rise of e-commerce closed the doors of so many storefronts.

By the early aughts, Hot Topic had already been supplying suburban alternative music fans with band tees, edgy accessories, and a curated supply of punk/metal/rave CDs for years, dependably evolving its merchandise around whatever subgenre was playing on MTV or headlining Warped Tour. In the early 2000s, nu-metal fashion (chains, wide-leg UFO pants, spikes, and studs) receded and gave way to the glam-goth aesthetic popularized by third-wave emo acts like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, whose frontman, Gerard Way, famously worked at his local Hot Topic in New Jersey.

These emo kids were aesthetically louder than their predecessors, preferring to express themselves and their tastes with dark, distressed skinny jeans, Converse sneakers, an emo band tee, and big hair with shocks of neon color spliced throughout. Other “uniform” pieces for sale could include tartan miniskirts, fingerless gloves, hair bows, striped scarves, fishnets, black hoodies, buttons, and perhaps some skull imagery. If you lived hours away from the city, chances are your local Hot Topic carried any and all of these things.

For suburban or rural-based emo fans in the ’90s or 2000s, the local Hot Topic was the only place they could go—outside of a concert—to find the music they liked, buy merch to match their music tastes, and convene with like-minded fans. Think of Hot Topic like the anti-Abercrombie: Instead of pushing an aspirational—and blatantly exclusionary—lifestyle, Hot Topic went out of its way to be inclusive and welcoming, no matter your tastes. The same alternative kids who were being shunned by A&F were being welcomed by Hot Topic. “They were the first store that had anything to do with what I still considered, and probably was still considered, an underground scene,” says Dashboard Confessional lead singer Chris Carrabba. “It was on the leading edge of popularizing the scene in a way that was very American mall.”

Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Emo Nite Los Angeles cofounder Morgan Freed was one of the many who found his community among other music fans at Hot Topic. “I was playing in bands in high school, and I remember I went to the Hot Topic. The cashier recognized me from my band, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Freed says. “Because that person working there was in the same scene as me. I felt welcomed. It felt familiar.”

Meanwhile, Emo Nite cofounder T.J. Petracca started shopping at his local Hot Topic in 2004, which, for him, was the summer between middle school and high school. “Back then, you really had to pick your label. You had to pick what type of person you were—you were either an Abercrombie person or you were a PacSun person or you were a Hot Topic person,” he says. “I remember I literally made a conscious decision: ‘I’m going to come back [to school] as a new person. I’m going to be an emo kid. And I went to Hot Topic and got a bunch of band T-shirts and track jackets and hoodies. And I got my girl pants at Hollister because [Hot Topic] did not sell skinny jeans for guys at the time. I went to high school fully fitted out as an emo kid.”

Petracca and Freed both eventually landed in Los Angeles and founded Emo Nite alongside Barbara Szabo in 2014. But not all Hot Topic shoppers relocated to big cities—some, like Sammit Zanelotti, Brittney Moran, and Autumn Moe, still live in the suburbs and connect with other former emo kids via the internet. Zanelotti and Moran, who grew up together in Maryland (Zanelotti has since relocated to North Carolina), launched the Elder Emo Hours podcast this past year. Soon, via TikTok, they “met” a Pennsylvania-based listener, Moe, and invited her to help host.

All three hosts can recall in detail what their “Hot Topic uniforms” were when bands like My Chemical Romance, Further Seems Forever, Brand New, and Taking Back Sunday ruled the charts. “Back then we called them ‘bondage pants’ or ‘tripp pants,’” Moran says, adding, “I had band tees out the wazoo, platform Mary Janes, fishnet stockings, and arm warmers.”

“I had a pair of black-and-red Chuck Taylors,” says Zanelotti, who graduated from high school in 2009 and grew up in Waldorf, Maryland. “I wore them with fishnets or skinny jeans or tripp pants. I also had the sweatband bracelets that had band names on them, the clip-in hair colors. I got the black-rimmed glasses. I had the rubber-band bracelets, six or seven on one arm, the oversized hoodie, the tie, the band shirts. I was kind of like your emo-meets–Avril Lavigne but very confused between all of them. If it looked cute, and I could pull it off, I was gonna do it. Regardless of if it matched.

“Back then, the only thing we had that was music-related was FYE or Sam Goody,” Zanelotti continues. “But Hot Topic was the only store that had an expressive, dark aesthetic … I always wanted to stick out, to be the kid that identified with the music that I listened to. I remember the first thing I ever bought from Hot Topic was one of those little purses that you could never fit anything in. It looked like a skirt. It was black and hot pink and it had a skull on the corner. That purse was my entire aesthetic, the skull with a bow on it. That’s what I wanted my whole identity to be.”

Despite its dark exterior, Hot Topic’s original ethos was, above all else, to seem approachable. Founded by Los Angeles retail veteran Orv Madden, who’d previously been a high-level executive at The Children’s Place, the first two Hot Topic locations opened in Montclair and Westminster, California, in late 1989. Hoping to emulate the punk, goth, and fetish fashion storefronts lining Melrose Avenue in the ‘80s and ‘90s such as Lip Service and Kill City, Madden’s original objective with Hot Topic was to “bring Melrose to the mall.” To realize this vision, Madden had help from Hot Topic’s first-ever buyer, Cindy Levitt, who rose through the ranks and eventually became senior vice president of licensing before leaving in 2018.

“I had lived in London in 1979 and fell in love with the whole punk and alternative scene,” Levitt says. “I came back to Southern California and was like, ‘there’s nothing like this here.’” When building out the first Hot Topic stores, Levitt made sure to stock her section with “leather wristbands with spikes and crucifixes and lots of skulls.” While the majority of the first Hot Topics were filled with more mainstream accessories, Levitt’s section became a major selling point for customers, simply because no one had ever seen these alternative items in any mall before. “Our first store manager said, ‘People are asking if we carry band tees,’” Levitt recalls. “You couldn’t find a band tee at a Walmart or anywhere; it was only at concerts or head shops. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna figure out how to buy band tees.’ The first T-shirts I bought were Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Depeche Mode, and Metallica. And that kept blowing up.”

Levitt and Madden began opening more store locations in California, and soon expanded to the rest of the country. But not every mall owner was so open-minded about bringing in retail hocking alternative paraphernalia. “Malls didn’t want us. A lot of rumors were happening about what was going on in our stores: bloodletting, body piercing. … There were stories about store managers [getting hit by] Bibles thrown in the stores,” Levitt continues. “And we had to go meet with the mall developers to calm them down. Satan bothered everybody, especially in the Midwest. So Hot Topic was able to grow because we didn’t carry any of that—upside-down crosses, foul language, anything overtly satanic. Album covers were fine. But we were in the mall, so we had to follow mall rules.

“We made sure that we were so friendly to everybody,” Levitt says. “That’s the thing, you go into Hot Topic, you probably know everyone is friendly. That was one of our guidelines: Be friendly to everybody. This is the home for misfits and weirdos and everybody, but it’s a home for the parents, it’s a home for anyone that comes in. This is the sanctuary for everybody. Everybody’s welcome.”

Hot Topic’s inclusive ideology is not only what got the brand into malls around America—it’s what made so many teenagers and 20-somethings want to work there. “I felt like I was working at Empire Records,” says Zeena Koda, a former music publicist who managed multiple Hot Topic locations from 2000 to 2006. “It became a place for alt kids—people who were interested in music—to go and work and meet other people who were interested in the same shit.”

“It was a motley crew of lovable weirdos,” says Marie Lodi, a freelance beauty and fashion writer and editor who worked at the store’s Ventura location in 1999. “Except [it was] more diverse in terms of styles and interests. Everyone there was into music, whether it was going to Warped Tour or playing in a local punk band, or part of the rave scene or goth. Or a mix, like me. I think I was listening to Saves the Day and Alkaline Trio as much as I was listening to Atari Teenage Riot and my happy hardcore tapes.”

In addition to cultivating a welcoming atmosphere where employees could dress as they pleased with all manner of body art and gauged earlobes on display, Hot Topic encouraged retail associates to tell the higher-ups what they thought was cool, what they thought the store should be selling, and numerous store employees were eventually hired at the corporate office in California’s City of Industry. One of those employees was former music buyer Jay Adelberg, who started out on the floor in 1997 and worked at HQ through 2013. Because Adelberg had been a well-known show booker in his home state of Connecticut, it felt like a natural fit that he’d be recommending which CDs to stock at Hot Topic. “It was an open-door policy—you did not need to go through your boss,” Adelberg says. “You were free to get on the computer and see who the music buyer was, email them, and say, ‘Hey, I saw this band last night, and they’re really great. I think they should be on your radar.’ Because I was booking shows, and because I was on the East Coast, I was really at the forefront of a lot of those East Coast bands as they were really first coming up. I was the first person to tell anyone at headquarters about Thursday and Boy Sets Fire and Saves the Day and Brand New, because I was booking all of those bands. I was the East Coast guy booking shows and sending emails every week going, ‘Hey, guys, I just booked this band called Brand New. They’re totally unknown. They might be worth keeping your eyes on.’”

When Adelberg started working at Hot Topic in the late ’90s, he was pleasantly surprised by how much the store diverged from your average mall brand. “At the time, Hot Topic was a company that very much prided itself on being on the cutting edge,” Adelberg adds. “What is the newest, freshest, coolest thing? I mean, that was the birth of the Warped Tour during that time. Alternative culture was suddenly becoming a viable economic model. … All of a sudden, all of that stuff was really big and selling lots of records and selling lots of T-shirts.”

Hot Topic even had a set of “Management Principles” that they shared among the corporate employees, which Adelberg still has in a note on his phone. As opposed to the highly problematic and racist 47-page rulebook that Abercrombie & Fitch infamously distributed to their corporate staff—as uncovered in a damning Netflix documentary in April of this year—Hot Topic had only five bits of advice:

  1. Lead by example.
  2. Treat others with respect.
  3. Take it upon yourself to better the situation.
  4. Focus on the behavior or situation, not the person.
  5. Maintain open and honest two-way conversation.

Instead of a trickle-down culture, where corporate tells sales floor workers what to sell, Hot Topic had more of a “trickle up” approach to the music and merchandise they stocked, paying attention to what customers requested. Store employees were treated more as a street team, entrusted with telling higher-ups what alternative kids wanted to buy—music-related or not. This also extended to pop culture: Levitt recalls how, even as far back as 1999, customers were asking for Homey D. Clown from In Living Color, Twin Peaks, and SpongeBob T-shirts. “We had heard that colleges were playing drinking games [themed around] Squidward or Patrick or SpongeBob,” Levitt says. “Everybody wanted SpongeBob shirts for these parties. So we went to Nickelodeon. They were like, ‘What? You want SpongeBob?’ And so they let us break the product, and it blew up. Then the world changed. Everybody wanted us to carry their product. It was really a tipping point of something that did not look like it belonged in a Hot Topic. And that was because customers were requesting it, so we just went and found it.”

Mike Escott, who is the manager of merchandising for the music marketing company Bravado and worked at a series of Hot Topic stores from 2000 to 2007, remembers very well how Hot Topic “mirrored whatever the trends were.” He says: “You always wonder, is life imitating art, or is art imitating life? Hot Topic really had the finger on the pulse of what was going on with fans of bands. It wasn’t like Hot Topic had their own agenda of ‘I’m going to push this band.’ Doing [in-store] promos with Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, My Chem, and Rise Against—I don’t think bands like that would be where they were if they didn’t have the support of Hot Topic. But it wasn’t so much one agenda pushing the other—it was an echo of what was hot and what the fans wanted.”

As second-wave emo (Sunny Day Real Estate, American Football) gave way to third-wave emo (Hawthorne Heights, Fall Out Boy, My Chem), the “emo kid” aesthetic underwent a tectonic shift. Instead of understated grandpa cardigans purchased from Goodwill, emo fans were dressing louder, darker, and spikier. The driver of this aesthetic sea change was almost entirely thanks to the rise of My Chemical Romance, who wore dramatic, glam costumes, making them appear like members of a vampiric marching band. “The thing about My Chem that makes them unique from basically any other emo band was that they had way more influence in the fashion world,” Adelberg says. “They were goth-influenced and a bit on the dark side of things that really pioneered what transformed into the emo look as we all knew it. … Before that, emo was girls in cardigans with maroon glasses and saddle shoes, boys in sweaters with terrible muted colors like mustard yellow and olive green … and in Spock haircuts. And that kind of stuff was not as marketable to the Hot Topic crowd.”

In addition to influencing Hot Topic’s clothes and accessories, ’00s emo bands would frequently stop by for fan meet-and-greets. Adelberg remembers how “Hayley Williams was always really cool” but Panic! at the Disco apparently were not. But while popular ’00s emo and punk acts loved making their merch more widely available to fans, they also were conflicted about what working with a corporation would do to their reputations. After all, the concept of your favorite underground band “selling out” was still considered the ultimate sin around this time. Carrabba admits his own mixed emotions around selling Dashboard Confessional shirts at Hot Topic in the aughts: “It was strange to me on a few levels. Part of the scene ethos at the time—it wasn’t anti-capitalism because there were many small businesses that kept the whole scene running. But there was a feeling that things had to be befitting of the ethos that was shared within the scene. And until that moment, I wouldn’t have considered anything at the mall. [Selling merch] was relegated to the domain of the indie record store. Or being at shows where you could get merch, or somebody would have a pool table covered with records they were selling. That was considered distribution.

“So I found it a little odd when Hot Topic reached out to me about buying our shirts in bulk,” Carrabba continues. “I will admit to never quite committing to it in a way that, if I’m honest, I sort of wish I had. Because it really did feel fun. Every now and again to walk into a mall and see one of your T-shirts. It was undeniably fun to walk into a mall and see a wall that was dedicated to your friends’ bands. Bands that weren’t necessarily on the radio or MTV yet.”

Working as a stock boy at Sears in the 1990s, Carrabba recalls feeling unable to identify with any of the other retail outlets his peers would frequent, Abercrombie included. “It was just a place I went to work,” he says, adding that if he had been able to visit a Hot Topic, such a space might have provided a refuge for him. “Or maybe I would have hated it,” he laughs. After Dashboard took off, however, Carrabba would find himself visiting Hot Topics around the country while on tour. He’d gaze at the famous T-shirt wall and marvel at the selection featuring his friends’ bands. “I still can’t get over it. I still can’t get over the fact that my friends have had these careers.”

Carrabba wasn’t the only musician conflicted about what Hot Topic stood for. Gabe Saporta, best known for fronting ’00s bands Midtown and Cobra Starship, got a job at his local outlet in New Jersey but was fired after expressing his anti-corporate views. “I was very, like, ‘fuck-the-system punk rock’ when I was a kid,” Saporta says. “I worked there for maybe a week or something. And I would talk to the manager and kind of express my internal conflict about working [at Hot Topic]. … I felt Hot Topic was like a corporation. I wasn’t specifically trying [to be against] Hot Topic, just corporations in general that put mom-and-pops out of business. The next thing I knew, she was like, ‘Yeah, you’re fired.’”

However, Saporta soon formed Midtown with drummer Rob Hitt, and eventually Hot Topic reached out wanting to sell their band’s T-shirts, which, like most of their peers, they obliged. But Saporta remains a skeptic. “I definitely still have ‘fuck the system’ in my soul,” he says. “I generally tend to think that big corporations, when they’re too centralized, have a tendency toward a lot of the things that happen when power becomes centralized. The interest of the big corporation is to get bigger, and independent people get hurt along the way.”

Come 2008, emo had arguably reached its pop-culture saturation point. Suddenly, “emo” was an embarrassing, faddish concept, with bands opting to be called “alternative” and fans rejecting the label en masse. (Even Say Anything winkingly named their 2007 album In Defense of the Genre.) Fad or not, you couldn’t deny that the tide was turning. 2008 was the year that Gossip Girl took over the CW, and lots of emo-clad fans had switched over to the (now “indie-sleaze”) American Apparel aesthetic. MTV’s Total Request Live had been canceled. Hawthorne Heights gave way to Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend.

Things weren’t going so well for Hot Topic corporate, either. When the great recession hit in 2008—at the same time that consumers’ shopping and music-listening habits were changing—the store was forced to reinvent its business model, licensing a wider array of pop-culture franchises and even buying Top 40 music merchandise. “My dream job turned into a real nightmare,” Adelberg remembers. “In a panic move, they ended up hiring two very corporate people to come into headquarters. One, [Amy Kocourek], took over merchandising and another, [John Kirkpatrick], took over the music department. It was inexplicable to me, some of the things that started to happen.”

No doubt both Kirkpatrick and Kocourek had experience; from 2004 to 2007, Kirkpatrick had been the SVP of music and creative affairs at Paramount Pictures, and today he’s the SVP of brand marketing at Epic Records. Kocourek, meanwhile, had come over from American Eagle, where she’d been the vice president/GM of merchandising for women’s and accessories from 2007 to 2009. But the culture at Hot Topic had, until that point, been all about hiring from the ground floor. To now be taking orders from corporate types like Kirkpatrick and Kocourek could not have been easy. (Kocourek declined to comment for this piece.)

One jarring shift: Kirkpatrick started suggesting bands to Adelberg that just didn’t make any sense. “He comes to me and says, ‘So, hey, there’s a new Nickelback record.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a hard pass on that one.’” But Aelberg’s input no longer seemed to matter; his new boss decided they were going to stock the new Nickelback record. “‘I’m telling you right now that I don’t think that that is a good idea at all,’’’ Adelberg continues. “And he said, ‘Why? It’s a rock band.’”

Adelberg tried to impress upon his new boss the curatorial nuance involved in selecting albums to stock in Hot Topic. “I said, here’s the deal: Whatever decisions we make as a company, at the end of the day, before you pull the trigger, the last question you need to ask yourself is, ‘Is this cool?’ And Nickelback are literally the punch line to a joke about uncool. If we say yes to this today, it’s a slippery slope. … Within six months, I was buying Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.”

But Kirkpatrick didn’t view Hot Topic’s music evolution as being a battle of cool vs. uncool. His job, as he describes it, was to test new markets that reflected the changing music ecosystem. “I was brought in at a time when Hot Topic had had six straight negative [comparable sales] years in a row,” he says. “The premise from then-CEO Betsy McLaughlin was to bring someone in to really help evolve music—to really reflect the culture around music [with] other components, whether it be film, TV, or pop culture as a whole.

“There was never a conversation to change to pop music,” Kirkpatrick continues. “Bieber was brought into the store, but it was brought into the store specifically from customer requests. It was extraordinarily successful in the store. Other artists that we might have experimented with would have varying degrees of success. But we never continued to lean into something that wasn’t actually showing success in the actual store itself.”

Specifically, Kirkpatrick says he has no recollection of suggesting Nickelback be sold in Hot Topic. “Nickelback in particular was not a band that I would have thought at that time was leading a cultural edge on anything,” he says. “Maybe there was Nickelback in the stores at that point in time, but it wouldn’t have been my lead.”

In all, the panic pivot lasted for about three years. “I watched a lot of really great people leave the company, people who were super passionate,” Adelberg says, noting how the brand’s longtime CEO, Betsy McLaughlin, was forced out in 2011. “It was a really dark time. … There was a lot of pressure to say yes to bad ideas. Because it was that, or look for a new job.”

From Adelberg’s perspective, the backlash was tremendous. By that point, he’d become an admin on the brand’s Facebook page, and under the moniker “Hot Topic Guy,” he would sign on and try to engage with the shoppers. “I would put up a post that said, ‘Hey, guys, Hot Topic Guy here. What do you want to talk about?’ I got an earful about a lot of the things people perceived to be wrong with the company,” he says. “People would say, ‘You sold out …’ Fans didn’t like seeing Justin Bieber T-shirts in the store. It wasn’t really capturing a significant amount of new business.

“In one regard, they’re not wrong,” Adelberg reasons. “We did say, ‘Hey, these are the things we stand for, and these are the things we’re against.’ The truth is, it’s easy to stick by principles when times are good. And now all of a sudden, there’s a blurring of that. The minute times got tough, Hot Topic was willing to throw the principals right out the window.”

After a lot of trial and error, Hot Topic stabilized and found a way back—at least monetarily. “They figured out that the key to staying afloat was not broadening of the music assortment, but rather the broadening of the licensing assortment,” Adelberg says. “That’s when the company really leaned into stuff that was hot at the time. Doctor Who, Funko Pops, Harry Potter, Marvel. Dial back the music part a little bit and really go into fantasy and sci-fi properties that are mainstream [but also] edgy and fun. In my opinion, that’s what saved them from going off the deep end.”

The magic key is still fandom—but instead of investing in niche music trends, Hot Topic has leaned into geek fandom, which, ironically, is mainstream now. In 2015, Hot Topic launched BoxLunch, a gift and novelty retail store, and in 2017, it acquired Her Universe, a women’s geek apparel and accessory company.

Hot Topic may never sell physical albums again, but I was pleasantly surprised at the wide selection of band tees for sale at the Hollywood and Highland location. I hadn’t been to a Hot Topic since 2017, when I’d stopped in the Glendale Galleria location and walked out with an Alien-themed T-shirt: on sale, two for $15. Five years ago, Hot Topic seemed to be barely selling music merch; now the ratio has evened out. On its website, an algorithm lists some T-shirts I might like: Paramore is next to Death Cab for Cutie, which is next to Green Day, Blink-182, Fleetwood Mac, My Chemical Romance (naturally), and a Hellfire Club shirt from Stranger Things.

Emo might be popular again, thanks to the 20-year nostalgia cycle (My Chemical Romance announced their reunion in 2019 and will kick off a U.S. tour in August). But today’s emo is not the same as it was two decades ago, when it was already on its third wave. Emo in 2022 involves a flurry of micro-genres—emo rap, the math-rock-influenced Midwest emo, emo pop, screamo, emocore. Meanwhile, Gen Z shoppers are not bound to one “scene” the way that millennials were, and Hot Topic’s merchandise reflects that. (Hot Topic declined to participate in this article.) “We all used to label ourselves and put ourselves into sub-categories, like the jocks, a.k.a. the Abercrombie people; the goth or the emo person; or the person that was super into hip-hop,” says Petracca, the Emo Nite cofounder. “Now, everybody likes everything. It’s OK to like everything, and you don’t have to define yourself by the music you listen to. You can love emo and pop punk. And you can love rap. You don’t have to put your whole personality behind that.”

“Generations and cultures change,” adds Freed, the other Emo Nite cofounder. “I think Gen Z is much more accepting. They’ve got the internet … Everything is online. [I grew up when] kids still didn’t have cellphones, and so your viewpoints were pretty much of everybody that was around you, and your friends in your friend group. Now, you get to look at the viewpoints of everybody around the world as soon as you wake up. You get to discover things much quicker. I think that that really helped mold this sense of togetherness.”

Sammit Zanelotti, one of the Elder Emo Hours cohosts, also notes how perspectives have shifted around what it means to be emo at all. “When I was in high school, I was also an emo kid and a theater kid. I’m also very stout as a person. I got bullied a lot for being that person because I was weird. I was into all these weird things that people didn’t understand. I stopped wearing the styles because I didn’t want to be bullied anymore. Now, with the way social media is, and a lot of the bands we grew up with are coming back—like My Chemical Romance, Scary Kids Scaring Kids, and Simple Plan—it’s bringing a new perspective to the emo scene. The way that our generation is right now, we’re the parent emos that are like, ‘Hey, it’s OK to be yourself. We went through that so you don’t have to.’”

Now living in Houston, Adelberg will occasionally find himself in a mall, which will inevitably house a Hot Topic. But the former music buyer isn’t upset at the brand’s evolution from “Bring Melrose to the Mall” to pop-culture collectibles. “I have been able to keep tabs on quite a few folks over there,” Adelberg says. “The licensing guy put up an Insta Story where he was clearly in a limo going to the AEW Dynamite pay-per-view [event] last night, and I was like, ‘That’s awesome. He’s clearly getting the VIP treatment, and they’re clearly selling that stuff. Good for them. I wish nothing but success for all those folks.”

An earlier version of this piece misspelled tripp pants.

Rachel Brodsky is a music and pop culture writer, critic, and reporter living in Los Angeles.

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