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.
Taking Back Sunday, “You’re So Last Summer”
Taking Back Sunday made some of emo’s most popular anthems, had enough in-band feuds to rival Fleetwood Mac (there’s a dedicated Wikipedia page tracking all the bands’ current and former members), and got into an eventual spat with the Emo Nite creators (whose emo-themed weekly party was previously titled Taking Back Tuesday). But at the band’s peak, their music videos were the best in the genre. From the Fight Club–themed “Cute Without the E,” to the wind-tunnel theatrics of “MakeDamnSure,” the level of production, showmanship, and sense of humor made their visuals stand out.
My favorite is “You’re So Last Summer,” which is about the most damn fun anyone’s had making a music video that contains lyrics like:
You could slit my throat
And with my one last gasping breath
I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt
The star of the show, of course, is the extended cameo from Flavor Flav (somehow, this was prior to Flavor of Love). His infectious energy, ostentatious outfit, and surprisingly convincing lip-syncing remains the peak of emo taking itself not so seriously. Though there’s some questionable cringiness in the form of dice-rolling, gold-teeth wearing, and early-aughts hip-hop appropriation, the whole thing is so damn silly that it remains a refreshing and memorable take on the emo music video. —Cory McConnell
Say Anything, “Alive With the Glory of Love”
My first week of college, I was introduced to an emo band called Say Anything by a girl in my dorm who always wore Chuck Taylors and a white-studded belt. (We’ve been married almost nine years now.) Say Anything’s big single at the time was a rip-roaring number called “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too,” whose music video—an all-time great in its own right—featured Henry Winkler lip-synching the chorus: “I called her on the phone and she touched herself.”
The band’s second album, …Is a Real Boy, is an emo classic and a monument to the towering sophomoric genius of frontman and songwriter Max Bemis. Listening to the album all the way through for the first time, I was caught off guard by “Alive With the Glory Of Love,” a song with a jaunty ska beat about teenaged love and sex—wait, did he just say “our city … falls to the Axis?”
When I called dibs on “Alive With the Glory of Love” for this post, no fewer than three co-workers DM’d me with essentially the same story: that they were humming along to a song about young love in hard times for a verse and a half before realizing that the hard times in question were the Holocaust.
The video is about as literal an interpretation of the lyrics as you can get without being a total downer: two kids break out of a summer camp, chased by counselors in brown shirts. I don’t know what other emo band could have threaded this particular needle, combining sadness and fear with hope and joy the way “Alive With the Glory of Love” does. And then the band went right back to making goofy music about phone sex. —Michael Baumann
Saves the Day, “At Your Funeral”
There’s a decent chance you haven’t seen the music video for Saves the Day’s “At Your Funeral” since 2001 or 2002, when it used to air roughly every hour or so on MTV2. In the pre-YouTube early-aughts, MTV2 was a goldmine of music videos that had no place on regular MTV’s Total Request Live. Having already declared themselves to be Through Being Cool, Saves the Day tossed their confrontationally earnest vocalist in an empty room and let him slowly meander up to the camera. The unapologetically saccharine vocals and sparse, melancholic notes drew you in before the song exploded and the room started to spin. The rest of the video is spent swiftly parading through the various milestones of an entire life. What could possibly be more emo than experiencing all the emotions of a lifetime in just two and a half minutes? At the time of this video’s release, the room felt like it was spinning pretty fast. As we watch it 20 years later, each of us two decades older, the room spins faster than ever. —Matt James
Paramore, “The Only Exception”
“The Only Exception” is Paramore’s tender power ballad, their “Crazy for You,” their “Yellow,” their “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” their “Let It Be.” It is broad and cheesy and colossally stirring by design, and the simple fact of the matter is that when Hayley Williams starts running chronologically backward through the rooms of her life—the hypothetical wedding, the speed-dating, the rock-star-outfit closet, the childhood bedroom, the sad father’s living room—to reunite with the lover she’d planned to leave, I start tearing up. I do not normally cry during pop-punk videos, no matter how blatantly they reach for mega-sentimentality, but I make exceptions. —Rob Harvilla
My Chemical Romance, “Helena”
It had to be here, didn’t it? This video features ballroom choreography at a goddamn funeral—that’s the confidence of a band entering the peak of its powers, like My Chemical Romance was in the mid-2000s. They hadn’t reached a Black Parade level of ubiquity quite yet, but they were making noise with Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, and “Helena” was an excellent sample of what was to come. There are so many tremendous elements to this video: Gerard Way conducting the lively dance routine in between pained, exasperated wailing; the assembly of mourners rising in unison as the infectious chorus unfolds; Helena doing her little tiptoe down the nave before gasping her last breath of air; the thrusts of the rain-soaked umbrellas as the band’s pallbearers trod toward the hearse. Only could My Chemical Romance—and emo as a whole—turn such a miserable occasion into a rousing display of excitement. —Aric Jenkins
Jimmy Eat World, “The Middle”
Even in a genre defined by its earnestness, Jimmy Eat World’s smash hit could’ve been too sincere for some emo fans. But the song’s sweet sentiment is far more infectious than cloying, to the point where hearing Jim Adkins sing something as cliché as “just do your best / do everything you can” can make you unironically go, damn, I never thought about it like that. “The Middle” is especially touching in the context of Jimmy Eat World’s trying times prior to their breakthrough, and of course, in its great music video. The story follows a shy young man who happens to be the only fully clothed person at a house party filled with underwear-clad attendees. Despite receiving some dirty looks, the protagonist resists going along with the crowd, preferring to stand in the pool in jeans rather than reveal his Calvin Kleins. He almost gives in until his eyes meet with a girl reluctantly stripping down just as he is, in a strange but heartwarming meet-cute. The video embodies so many themes at the heart of the emo ethos: challenging the norm, feeling outcast, and finding solace in others who feel the same way. It all just takes some time. —Julianna Ress
Sunny Day Real Estate, “Seven”
The best Seattle band of the ’90s this side of Nirvana? Possibly. The best music video since “Take On Me” to awkwardly fuse animation and live action? Absolutely. The first single off of Sunny Day Real Estate’s era-defining Diary is remarkable for how different it felt despite not really being all that different from the grunge and alternative fare MTV was serving up at the time. That’s a credit to lead singer Jeremy Enigk—it’s been said that SDRE sounds like U2 if you swap Bono out for your heartbroken little brother—but also the visuals. At a time when bands were getting famous for looking like they didn’t give a shit, these guys gave the appearance of really caring. Years later, drummer William Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel would join Foo Fighters and become video music staples. But no Foo song likely had an impact like this one. If every kid who bought the Velvet Underground’s first record started a band, then everyone who heard “Seven” tried to turn their diary pages into anthems. —Justin Sayles
The Get Up Kids, “Action & Action”
This music video is pretty bad, but it’s a perfect representation of how I remember emo: a genre that, prior to MCR’s theatrics and Patrick Stump’s hat collection, was all low-fi power-punk-pop anthems of angst and heartbreak. And no band nailed that early-era formula better than the Get Up Kids, who had just enough crunchy distortion and synthesizer parts to sell hook-driven songs to a “punk” audience. This track is a standout from the band’s second album, Something to Write Home About, one of the best top-to-bottom emo records ever made. Unfortunately, they’d soon rebuke the emo label, pivoting to a quieter, more introspective sound by their next album (the deeply underrated On a Wire) and missing out on the genre’s mainstream boom. “Action & Action” is one of the few videos from their heyday that’s accessible online, and maybe the only one the band ever shot during that time, but it deserves a spot on this list to memorialize the Get Up Kids’ contributions, both to the genre and to the formative years of aggro teens of the early aughts. —Justin Verrier
Avril Lavigne, “Complicated”
Like Avril Lavigne, “Complicated” isn’t really emo, but the music video is full of emo iconography. Take the skateboard she rolls in on, the preferred transportation device of bored, unsupervised kids, trying to rebel in the placid terrain of mid-aughts suburbia.
“Dude,” Lavigne says, “you wanna crash the mall?” The effortless comfort in her question, the elongated “niiiiiice” in the response, the way the men—her bandmates—followed behind her, was intoxicating. She was not just one of the guys but the ring leader, an early prototype of the Cool Girl. It took the 10-year-old me all of eight seconds to see this 17-year-old frontwoman and think, “That’s who I want to be.”
I wanted the cargo pants, skater shoes, neck tie over her skin-tight tank-top, her somehow toned but tiny arms, the wristbands wrapped around them. When I soft-launched this style on Halloween, no one caught on that the Punjabi girl with brown skin and brown eyes was trying to emulate Avril. Most of my classmates asked why I didn’t dress up. Talk about trying to be cool and looking like a fool.
I felt her anger though, related to her tirade against expectations of hyper-femininity where less—weight, words, feelings, whatever—was always more. I knew how it felt to watch a friend be cool in private while shrinking and distorting themselves in public. Yelling the lyrics of “Complicated” helped launch my fandom for bands like Fall Out Boy, Dashboard Confessional, and Taking Back Sunday. Avril wasn’t quite emo, but she was a gateway. —Seerat Sohi
Attack Attack!, “Stick Stickly”
Emo kids didn’t have moves. They didn’t skank like ska fans, mosh like hardcore fans, or headbang like metal kids. Going to an emo show (let’s say, purely hypothetically, mewithYou and the Dear Hunter at Mr. Smalls in Pittsburgh) you’d mostly see a bunch of somber teens having capital-m Moments to themselves, singing with their eyes closed. Though emo bands’ stage antics included the microphone-swinging acrobatics of Taking Back Sunday and plenty of around-the-world guitar fails to go around, for much of emo’s heyday it was tough to point to a specific set of physical movements that emo fans could embrace as their own. That changed with crabcore.
The term started out as a joke (and mostly remains one), coined by internet viewers of Attack Attack!’s video for “Stick Stickly,” referencing the side-to-side, low-slung, horizontal movements of the bands’ guitarists and bassist. Since then, it’s become one of the most iconic music videos of the era because of that oddly hypnotizing gyration. Crabcore gave the genre a movement—hilarious in its sincerity, sincere in its absurdity. Hitting the crabcore amongst friends was a dispensation from the pervasive self-serious trappings of the genre. It says to those around you, “I’m one of you. I’m the joke, but I’m also in on the joke.” Emo became harder to make fun of once it was willing to make fun of itself. More importantly, emo kids finally had a move. —McConnell
The Used, “Buried Myself Alive”
Look, maybe the Used aren’t emo. Perhaps they’re screamo or simply alt-rock. There are definitely some songs by the Used that sound more like post-hardcore. However you choose to classify the Used, they’re at least on the fringes of emo. But this video is unimpeachably emo. The song is named “Buried Myself Alive” and vocalist Bert McCracken is singing about crying while trying to escape from a coffin. Meanwhile, the other band members each navigate a different, very literal form of being completely trapped (as, of course, we all were in high school). Thankfully, when it seems that all hope is lost (spoiler alert) our protagonists escape! I should also mention that this song still absolutely rips. The drums and riffs hit hard. The ennui hits softly. And as it always does, McCracken’s voice constantly teeters back and forth between singing and screaming like some radioactive superpower that can’t fully be contained. —James
American Football, “Never Meant”
Nostalgia is baked into the best emo songs. Some are named after old movies, some sample old film dialogue, some turn years-old heartbreaks into cinematic events. The platonic ideal of an emo song—especially the Second-Wave stuff—also flat-out sounded nostalgic, even at the time of their release. The riffs on “Oh Messy Life” or “Parking Lot” evoke a certain melancholy, lulling you into a state of emotional vulnerability just to knock you out with a two-ton chorus.
The video for American Football’s “Never Meant”—the best emo song of 1999 and possibly the best song ever in the genre —may be the purest distillation of emo nostalgia ever committed to tape. That’s because unlike most other emo songs and their accompanying visuals, this one has the benefit of being built on a decade and a half of history. The “Never Meant” video was released in 2014 to help support Mike Kinsella and Co.’s reunion. It features two college-aged characters involved in a short-lived romance, but it pulls in real-life lore. Crucially, it also features the iconic house plastered on the cover of the band’s first record. With the benefit of hindsight, it plays like a cautionary tale—a reminder that no matter how bad you want to, you can’t go home again. But that doesn’t mean you’ll stop trying. —Justin Sayles