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.
It started, like many things in the history of independent music, with Ian MacKaye. “I must say, ‘emocore’ must be the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life,” he said, during a concert sometime around 1986, providing what was likely the first public comment about the brewing scene he was largely responsible for creating.
Most origin stories of entire genres you’d expect to be tall tales—no more credible than the idea of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball. But this Genesis chapter of emo is shockingly, miraculously credible, since it was captured on film. MacKaye, then roughly 24 years old, was playing a set at Washington, D.C.’s Nightclub 9:30 with Embrace, one of several post–Minor Threat bands he was in before forming Fugazi soon after. While cameras were rolling, he mentioned that a recent issue of Thrasher had labeled him and his contemporaries “emocore”—short for “emotional hardcore.” “As if hardcore wasn’t emotional to begin with,” he says, in between sips of something nonalcoholic. “Anyway, it’s caca. I hate to say it but you can only hold your silence for so long with some of this stupidest shit.”
And so, the emo club was born—and born right along with it: the anguish of those who were decreed, of no personal volition, to be members. First-wave emo bands were vocal—and sometimes pretty nasty—about their displeasure with the term but, if anything, the ire only grew during the second and third waves, reaching a fever pitch in 2007, when Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance called emo as a whole “fucking garbage.” One way to look at it is, until Obama’s second term, the best metric for figuring out if a band qualified as emo was to see if they had ever denied being emo in the first place. (Sorry, Ian MacKaye, but that means you, too.)
Way made his infamous comment to The Maine Campus newspaper, naturally, and when Rolling Stone picked it up as a news story, their title referred to it as “[Tapping] Another Nail Into [the] ‘Emo’ Coffin,” clearly delighting over the idea that the overly commodified, Hot Topic–ified genre surely wasn’t going to wriggle itself out of this jam. Ah, well, nevertheless: Emo’s fourth wave was already gestating in suburbs around the country before the digital ink was dry. Driven by a millennial demographic that was at first overtaken by the undeniable hooks of TRL bands like Fall Out Boy, the revival artists eventually found their way back to the initial outsider ethos of the genre, armed with easily accessible digital archives that prove there was a time when it wasn’t at all embarrassing to be called emo, even if most of the bands at the time seemed to think so.
One of the most notable distinctions between the emo revival artists and their predecessors is an increased affection—or at the very least a decreased protestation—of being emo. In 2014, Brendan Lukens of Modern Baseball’s stance for his group was that they “really like to just play it safe and say simply indie or rock,” but that they “appreciate” being categorized as an emo band, among other genres. Fast forward a few years to 2019, and Phoebe Bridgers would be sitting next to Conor Oberst in a Pitchfork interview and saying that being emo was “underrated and misunderstood.” (Worth noting: Bright Eyes frontman Oberst once said, “I didn’t ever feel like it applied or was true so I didn’t pay much attention to it.”) For many, it appears that it’s finally cool to not just like emo music, but affirm being emo without any inhibition as well; in 2022, emo is less a genre than a state of mind. For probably just as many, though, it’s still a term they would avoid owning up to, even if they like screaming along to “I Know the End,” too.
In the 2019 book From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society, Taylor Markarian considers why it is that “emo” as a term has caused—and continues to cause, to a degree—such an unwelcome reception, both to outsiders and insiders: “Humans have maintained pretty poor relationships with their emotions for as long as they’ve had them,” she writes. “Every day we are puzzled, even baffled, by them. It’s hard for many people to look their emotions square in the eyes.” Is it any wonder in a country as emotionally stunted as the United States that this would be an issue? The surprise, really, is that we’ve reached some level of emo pride whatsoever.
It’s not difficult to understand how the conversation has and hasn’t changed since MacKaye first weighed in 36 years ago, and that’s because almost every emo band seems to have been asked directly about it … a lot. The history of using the term “emo”—of what it means musically, culturally, personally—is meticulously documented in some of the messier corners of the internet, wherever old band interviews have survived. To save you the trouble of digging through it all yourself, below is a comprehensively incomprehensive sampling of emo artists’ thoughts on being called emo.
Rites of Spring
Don’t mention it to him, but Guy Picciotto and his group Rites of Spring basically started emo. This was a few years before he joined Fugazi, when the only logical placement for his music was within the larger D.C. punk scene, but there was something about it—the octave-based chords, the brutally wounded lyrics—that warranted a new classification. Picciotto rejected the emocore label altogether: “I’ve never recognized ‘emo’ as a genre of music,” he said in a 2003 interview with Mark Prindle. “I know there is this generic commonplace that every band that gets labeled with that term hates it. They feel scandalized by it. But honestly, I just thought that all the bands I played in were punk rock bands. … When I was young, I was always over the top because I was so fucked up. Not ‘fucked up’ as in ‘wasted’ but more mentally ‘fucked up.’ And I was really jacked up. So it came out of that.”
Jawbox is one of those early-’90s fringe cases of maybe-emo-maybe-not whose status becomes slightly more clear when you look at what singer/guitarist J. Robbins did later on as a producer, working with decidedly emo bands like Braid and the Promise Ring. (This, reportedly, would lead Ian MacKaye to jokingly call him “the King of Emo.”) “I’m a few years older than all of the guys in bands like Braid and the Promise Ring,” Robbins said in a 1999 interview in Guitar World. “But I know that something we have in common is that our first exposure to hardcore punk really shook us all and galvanized us and made us want to go out and do something. I feel like it’s more of a sense of purpose and being inspired by the ‘80s post-hardcore scene. All of the bands that I know that we’re calling emo take that as a jumping-off point. Philosophically, they share a work ethic and a sense of the band and music as this engine that propelled them to experience.”
“If you use that word to describe Moss Icon or Rites of Spring, I’m OK with Indian Summer being called an emo band,” Adam Nanaa said to writer Ken Shipley in 2019, ahead of the reissue of his group’s entire run—all two years of it—by Numero Group. Twenty-five years after their breakup, Adam and his brother Seth were easier on emo than some of the godfathers of the genre, to a degree. “I don’t particularly think we have anything in common with anything that happened after us,” he went on. “We weren’t out to get that moniker, we were just doing what we were doing. So whatever name they come up with, that’s someone else’s business.” The way Seth put it, “We would never have used that word, unless it was derogatory.”
Anyone who thinks Weezer isn’t emo clearly hasn’t heard “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams” lately, but somehow the band tends to avoid the tag. That’s probably because Rivers Cuomo’s M.O. is to cunningly answer any question about emo with some form of “I don’t know her.” “I don’t hang out with teenagers,” he said in a 2002 interview with Spin. “I don’t really know what [emo] means. I don’t have a feel for what’s going on.”
Sunny Day Real Estate
“Well, we’re a rock band basically,” Sunny Day Real Estate drummer William Goldsmith said in a 1998 interview with MTV. “I don’t disrespect anyone for using the term emocore, or rock, or anything, but back in the day, emocore was just about the worst dis that you could throw on a band,” guitarist Dan Hoerner added. Eighteen years (and yet another breakup) later, at least frontman Jeremy Enigk had come to terms with it: “The jury—they voted, man,” he told the A.V. Club. “And we can’t get away from it. Rolling Stone recently did a ‘Top Emo Albums’ of all time list, and then South Park did an episode with us in it, and it’s like … OK. Yep. We may as well embrace it.”
The Get Up Kids
Some of the most controversial comments ever made on the subject of emo came from Jim Suptic, guitarist of the Get Up Kids: “If this is the world we helped create, then I apologize,” he told Drowned In Sound in 2009, referring to a recent festival he played heavy on third-wave emo bands like Fall Out Boy and Taking Back Sunday. “If a band gets huge and they say we inspired them, great. The problem is most of them aren’t very good. What does that say about us? I don’t know. Maybe we sucked. We at least can play our instruments.” Ten years later, he and bandmate Matt Pryor had mellowed—but only somewhat. “I don’t know, man,” Pryor muttered to Kerrang in 2019. “Some fucking corny ass bands get really popular!”
Texas Is The Reason
“If you had asked me in 1987 whether or not I considered myself ‘emo,’ I would have told you to fuck off,” Texas Is The Reason’s Norman Brannon wrote in an essay for Talkhouse in 2019. “The derision with which the word was used—the implication of its very tonality—suggested that ‘emo’ had also become an updated shorthand for ‘faggot.’ You’d often hear people say things like, ‘What are you, fucking emo?’” Brannon, who came out as gay after the band’s initial run, noted that he felt the association with the word initially left him “vulnerable to a type of exposure that quite realistically threatened” his safety. “I had no way of knowing this word would go on to ensure and even enrich my future. I had no way of knowing that I might somehow be attached to this word forever.”
Jimmy Eat World
Emo can be understood as a fashion aesthetic as much as a sound, but Jimmy Eat World have never looked the part. At a glance, the quartet more resembles real estate agents than a major-label rock band, which has probably helped their longevity to a degree: “I’m sure Capitol [Records] would love it if we came out and called ourselves an emo band and then they could totally trumpet that,” singer/guitarist Jim Adkins told Guitar World in 1999. “But I’d like to be a career musician, so I don’t want to do that.” Adkins has said that he doesn’t consider Clarity and Bleed American, his band’s quintessential albums, to be emo, and in recent years the group still bristles somewhat at it. “When you’re a band you should be careful about associating yourself with any kind of thing like that,” drummer Zach Lind said in 2011. “It kind of means everything and nothing at the same time.”
My Chemical Romance
When Gerard Way made his infamous “emo is fucking garbage” comments in 2007, he elaborated that he felt “lumped in” with what was considered emo at the time: “Put the records next to each other and listen to them and there’s actually no similarities,” he said, convincing approximately no one. Even recently, guitarist Frank Iero still sounds heated on the subject: “I think it has been so bastardized and diluted that I don’t even know what it means anymore,” he said on the Zach Sang Show in 2019. “I think that it started out as short for emotional. When you use it now to just describe a shitty haircut, like, that sucks.”
Fall Out Boy
If there was one band in particular that Way was likely referring to when he ripped into his perceived contemporaries, it was Fall Out Boy—or at least, that’s the way it was largely interpreted at the time. Regardless, bassist Pete Wentz never appeared to be one to let the subject get to him. “I get what people are saying with the eyeliner and the girl pants and this and that,” he told Rolling Stone around the same time in 2007. “Hopefully, [emo] is more than just a t-shirt slogan. Hopefully, some of us bands are able to grow and become bigger than emo.” He also mentioned the idea of his band playing with the word “emo” on a huge banner on stage: “If you’re emo, you might as well be in on the joke.”
Panic! At the Disco
Brendon Urie and Ryan Ross talked so much shit on emo during Panic! At the Disco’s early years it would be difficult to list it all in one place. (A thorough breakdown can be found on Tumblr, if you have an hour or two to kill.) “Emo is bullshit!” Urie most succinctly told NME in 2006. “The stereotype is guys that are weak and have failing relationships [and] write about how sad they are. If you listen to our songs, not one of them has that tone.” In a harrowing MTV story titled, “Panic! At The Disco Don’t Want Fans Fixating On Their Boyish Good Looks,” Ross shared his thoughts on being labeled emo: “It’s a bummer to realize we’re in Teen Beat magazine and read some shitty article they’ve written about us being an emo-punk band. I’ve seen those kids at the shows, I can hear them, and I can certainly tell the difference between one of our fans and a Fall Out Boy fan who’s just there because they heard we were hot.” By the time the group put out their second album Pretty. Odd. in 2008, they had largely left behind anything resembling an emo sound.
“Oh, man, we were so concerned—especially me—with not being whatever the scene deemed as poser or whatever,” Hayley Williams of Paramore recently told Rolling Stone. “Especially as a young girl, the pressure was really on to not be lame. … Definitely more than once said we were not emo in interviews.” Williams was discussing her new BBC Sounds podcast/radio show called Everything Is Emo, which functions as a personal analysis of the genre and an attempt to zero in on what the word means in 2022: “I’ve watched it evolve throughout the years … One minute emo sounds like pop punk and then the next minute emo sounds like Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst doing a project together. Where we’ve gotten to now, people are much more open to a lot of different versions of the word and I think that’s cool.”
These days you’d be hard-pressed to find a young band forcefully pushing back on being called emo, but in 2016, at least, the Hotelier still had some bite when it came to the subject: “Us making records has been about showing that this style of music isn’t awful because there’s something inherent about how the instruments are played or how the melodies are done that make it specifically awful,” drummer Sam Frederick told Stereogum. “I think that a lot of people who make that style of music got lazy. Mostly because they were given tons of money to make subpar albums.” Bassist/vocalist Christian Holden added: “I feel that what talking about the emo revival always does is it finds a way to make us separate from other indie rock that’s happening when I don’t think that’s purposeful or needed, except that some people think that it’s not as cool or something.”
“I would listen to underground bands and shit, but I wouldn’t call [my music] the new emo necessarily,” Lil Peep told Pitchfork just as he was blowing up in 2017, and less than a year before his death. “It’s just another wave of it, it’s a subgenre. I don’t think it replaces it or is even mimicking it. It’s a whole new thing, and it’s good for the emo genre as a whole and all the fans and all the people who ever liked it, because it’s going to keep it relevant. It’s just adapting to the new sounds that people want to listen to when they hop in the car and shit. We’re just giving it that emo spin.”
When asked if he considered emo to be a positive or a negative label, Juice WRLD, not yet 20 years old, told Hypebeast in 2018, “Both, I feel like sometimes music has to be a little dark because the world is not really a light place. It’s not really a happy place, not to sound too pessimistic. Sometimes being optimistic ain’t it.”
While they were writing “Drivers License” together, Olivia Rodrigo and Dan Nigro were trying to find the right mood for the bridge. Nigro, who was in the ’00s emo band As Tall as Lions, was the one in the room to suggest that they dial back the drama a tad: “The first bridge for ‘Drivers License’ was so emo,” he said in a Rolling Stone video interview, sitting next to Rodrigo. “I’m very emo,” Olivia Rodrigo replied. “Dan was in an emo band, and he still tells me I’m emo—that’s how you know you’re really emo.”
Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, GQ, and elsewhere.