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Women Built Emo, Too. Now They’re Changing Its Future.

By the early 2000s, emo wasn’t just being predominantly written, performed, and produced by men—a good chunk of it was actively harmful toward young women. Years later, bands are working to reinstate the equity of the genre’s earlier waves.

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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.

There’s an elephant in the Zoom. He’s sad, he has swooping bangs, he’s screaming infidelities; he is, most assuredly, a he.

Some Ringer staff are gathered to brainstorm content for Emo Week, and at some point, someone is going to have to say it, though we’ve surely all realized it already: We’re only talking about dudes. We’re only talking about white dudes and their dude bands. At this particular moment, we’re discussing the heightened nostalgia that’s bubbled up around Third Wave emo, so really, there only are white dude bands to talk about. As the ever-controversial emo genre erupted from the communal punk scene of Washington, D.C., in the ’80s, sprawled out through the Midwest and exploded in the Long Island suburbs in the ’90s, and finally latched its Vans-clad tentacles onto Carson Daly’s TRL stage in the early-to-mid aughts, the genre slowly shed nearly all vestiges that a woman had ever screamed a sad tune from anywhere but the audience of an emo band’s Warped Tour set. It’s impossible to talk about emo, especially the most mainstream emo, in any meaningful way without wondering: Where the hell were all the women?

But Third Wave emo wasn’t just predominantly written, performed, and produced by men—a good chunk of it was actively harmful toward young women. In her seminal 2003 essay “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” originally published in Punk Planet, and rereleased in The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, Jessica Hopper wrote: “Girls in emo songs today do not have names. [Women] are not identified beyond our absence, our shape is drawn by the pain we’ve caused. Our lives, our day-to-day-to-day does not exist. ... We’re vessels redeemed in the light of boy-love. On a pedestal, on our backs. Muses at best. Invisible at worst. Proof is in the pictures on the covers of records.”

These hollow girls, these poisonous muses, poured out of young men’s embittered mouths and into teenage girls’ ears for a decade of Third Wave. Hugely popular songs like Taking Back Sunday’s “Cute Without the ‘E’” condescend while ever-so-cheekily threatening violence; an entire chunk of Cute Is What We Aim For’s catalog is devoted to putting their nameless girls in precarious positions with other men and then eagerly slut-shaming them for it; Brand New’s “Me vs. Maradona vs. Elvis” is pretty straight-forwardly about date rape; Brand New’s “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad” brims with contempt for a girl who goes to England and exists around men who aren’t the members of Brand New.

Unfortunately, most of these songs—and the many more proto-incel lyrics not listed here—also happen to be undeniable earworms. Their chords are catnip; their snappy sad-boy choruses were shouted at the top of our lungs inside of cars, pushed up against the stage at Warped Tour, and at parties with our arms slung around friends and future exes who we’d be sure to scream about at a later date. What happens when an entire genre-defining generation of young men are rewarded with commercial success for finally expressing their blues, but in a way that systematically sidelines the same scene’s young women—young women for whom being emotional was never a quirky social subversion?

What happens when those songs are really fucking catchy?

The only thing more complicated than defining emo as a genre is being a woman who loved it. Emo was an entry point into a vital alternative subculture for many young women, but once inside, they were rarely treated as anything more than characters or consumers. For that reason, Jessica Hopper tells me that writing “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” was “like a divorce.” It took her 18 months to work through the painful realization that “there was a misogyny baked into so many of the things that I was a part of.” But after encountering a section in Joy Press and Simon Reynolds’s The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ’n’ Roll that explains how we never hear women speak directly in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the parallels couldn’t be ignored.

It was like ringing a bell that could not be un-rung. Like plenty of young people before her, Hopper had come to punk because she “felt alienated by so many things that were classic—classic anything, canonical anything.” Suddenly, she looked around her own Chicago scene, with Kerouac rattling around in her head, and wondered: “Where are the women speaking? Where are the women’s voices? Who gets to speak ... and who do we listen to?” Because there were precious few women in bands but a seemingly endless supply of men to sing about them.

And once Hopper put the pain of this realization to paper, the response was overwhelming: “Women coming up to me crying. … I got, at minimum, three letters a day for 18 months,” Hopper says. Of course, some of those letters were men telling her she was wrong, and explaining emo to her; stunningly, some of them included “uniformly terrible” demo tapes from “men who wanted to be the big exception” by writing their own not-all-men anthems about Hopper’s words. But mostly, messages were from young women whose eyes had suddenly been opened. “It was girls coming to me crying, for so long, saying, ‘This is me. This is why I had to drop out. … I thought I could be part of the scene, I thought I could have a band.’” But Hopper wrote reality into existence for them, just like Press and Reynolds had for her.

Astonishingly, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” was the first personal essay Hopper had ever written. Now it’s taught in college courses, and discovered by a fresh generation of young women each time their own light bulbs go off, whether it be about the emo of the aughts, or anything else that makes us wonder: Where are the women? Where are the women’s voices? “Because it wasn’t so much about emo,” Hopper tells me of the overwhelming response to her essay. “It was just about that dynamic, and this feeling of, ‘This thing is my whole life—and every time I participate in it, someone’s telling me I don’t belong here.’”

But Hopper also points out that it’s important to look back and remember that emo wasn’t always like this; it didn’t start out this way. Before the Get Up Kids got a Red Bull endorsement, before DIY bands started signing to major labels, before emo became codified as songs about unnamed girls stealing the hearts of vulnerable boys to wear as jewelry, there were actual women writing, performing, producing, documenting, and participating in the birth of emo.

While you’ll likely never find two people who agree on the exact same definition of “emo” or the same nexus of bands who inhabit it, it is widely acknowledged that emo emerged from the Washington, D.C., hardcore punk scene and Dischord Records. During the hardcore era, the scene was known for being particularly community-minded, and at least at first, particularly small. Jenny Toomey, a musician and cofounder of the Simple Machines record label, told me that the scene was so small, “We simply didn’t have the numbers to say, ‘This is what punk is, so you’re not welcome.’” She became interested in the scene in the ’80s because she went to high school with Mike Fellows from Rites of Spring, the band that first put the personal in D.C. punk. In humanities class, Toomey sat in front of Natalie Avery, who would go on to be in Fire Party, the first all-woman band of the D.C. hardcore scene, while elsewhere in the District, two other founding members of Fire Party, Amy Pickering and Kate Samworth, were meeting in children’s choir. D.C. was that kind of scene—one built from the ground up by kids.

Two of those kids were Minor Threat bandmates Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, who founded the now-legendary Dischord Records in 1980, for whom Pickering started working because she wanted to help the cause: “I loved having something to do with my days instead of going to the pool, or whatever,” she says. “It was really exciting to have more of a focus when you’re doing music, and you’re folding record sleeves and making the world more interesting.” That singular focus on music and community was something that permeated the D.C. scene. But by the summer of 1985, two pivotal hardcore bands, Minor Threat and Bad Brains, had split up, leaving a hole in the scene that was quickly getting filled with skinhead gangs and kids from the suburbs who wanted to experience a scene they didn’t understand. With all these new groups coming together, “there was a lot of angry moshing and people getting hurt,” Pickering tells me.

“I was just over it,” she says, “and at the same time, we were concerned about apartheid in South Africa.” Pickering wanted to fill the hole left in their hardcore community with something more meaningful than slam-dancing: “I really wanted to encourage people to pay attention—don’t fall prey to the dynamics that are tearing us apart, we’ve got work to do. ... We should be doing whatever we can to support real causes.” With a little help from the Neighborhood Planning Council photocopier and a few friends, Pickering drew up a series of ransom notes that she mailed out to everyone in the Dischord scene “over and over and over again,” with messaging she recalls being pretty close to—but not exactly—fight the power. She called the movement “Revolution Summer.” Pickering isn’t sure where the letters are now, but she knows that they worked. From her persistent campaigning for a shift in the scene, a throng of new bands emerged: Embrace, Dag Nasty, Fire Party, and eventually, Fugazi.

Born of a ransom note campaign for good, Revolution Summer was emotional and hardcore—it was emo-core.

Pickering points out that Embrace was the first band to earn the “emo-core” title from Thrasher (which subsequently earned the ire of Embrace), even if Rites of Spring “probably were the most emo band in D.C.” But both Pickering and Toomey agree that the music did shift: “It was more melodic and more complex than the previous punk rock,” Toomey says. “Rites of Spring in particular embodies that longing and urgency that you feel at that age.” Toomey says that everything she’s done since D.C. has come from the “permissions I was given” from that scene: “You don’t like a structure, you build a better structure; everyone has something to contribute; you don’t have to love it, but you’ve got to be helpful.”

Toomey and Pickering agree that the D.C. punk scene was predominantly men, but the women who were involved were valued members, as foundational to the birth of emo as the birth of emo (again—not what they would call it) was to them. They say that the men around Dischord were helpful and supportive to their bands, as well as to Simple Machines. And Pickering says that she at least partially inspired one Fugazi song because she’d regularly come into the Dischord offices fuming after getting harassed on the street during her commute: “Ian would see me losing my shit, because I couldn’t cope with that.” And so, the opening lines of “Suggestion” go: “Why can’t I walk down a street free of suggestion? / Is my body my only trait in the eyes of men?”

But at some point between the first and third waves of emo, the music moved away from songs like “Suggestion.” It tipped from the political to the personal to the petty; the scene moved from intentional to emotional to exclusionary—a transition that, crucially, did nothing to curb the youth’s thirst for the genre.

This new swath of bands from the nation’s capital started touring out to Chicago and back, spreading the good word (and bad name) of emo all over the Midwest; swapping the macho culture of hardcore out for the vulnerable male awakening of Fugazi and Gray Matter. As a result, the early second wave of emo began emerging out of Kansas, Milwaukee, Madison, and the last possible places one could have imagined as punk rock hubs. But this wasn’t punk, exactly—it was emo. And in the early-to-mid-’90s, Hopper says Second-Wave emo was still “all about musicality with vulnerability baked in.” It was a rejection of what we might now call toxic masculinity, and as emo continued to spread around the country, the bands from local scenes included some women: Arabella Harrison from Jejune, Elizabeth Elmore from Sarge, Kim Coletta from Jawbox.

It also included a woman-identifying-fronted band coming out of Madison, Wisconsin: Rainer Maria. Caithlin De Marrais met her bandmate Kaia Fischer in a poetry class in Madison, where Kaia was already in a band with Rainer Maria’s third member, William Kuehn. De Marrais says that the Midwest scene in the ’90s “was very supportive,” and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that she began to feel “pushback.” Together, Rainer Maria made five albums before splitting up in 2006, and reuniting in 2015.

One of the first things De Marrais tells me when I ask her about the absence of women in Third-Wave emo is, “In any style or genre of music, when there is a group that’s omitted, I think it’s done intentionally.” And yet, we still spend much of our conversation trying to crack what happened to emo in the early 2000s that could have sidelined many of her women peers so quickly. “I’m one of those people,” De Marrais says. “I really want to know ... all the forces that create something.” In her estimation, she sees music journalists as one of the contributing forces to driving women out of the genre as emo became more mainstream. “I look back at Rainer Maria record reviews from [the early 2000s] and I see misogynistic language,” De Marrais says. “Some of it’s coded and some of it’s obvious. And there was a real hatred, I think perpetuated by certain online review sites, towards emo in general—that it was this wimpy thing.”

Rainer Maria did manage to rise up the ranks of the music world, and when they moved to New York, they were booking venues and selling out shows. But De Marrais noticed that New York was different from the local scene they’d come from—in their new home, Rainer Maria were being put on bills with non-emo, woman-fronted bands. “I think we got pushed onto an indie rock bill … because those emo shows were maybe not as friendly a woman’s space onstage.” They were playing with rising bands like Rilo Kiley and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but De Marrais suspects “we got pigeonholed into a different genre.”

De Marrais says musicians can’t always control how they’re classified, but that she thinks of genre “like a convenient marketing term … it isolates people who don’t need to be isolated.” Until bands like Fall Out Boy and Dashboard Confessional started scaling the Billboard charts, no one was exactly clamoring to be called emo, let alone be maligned for the categorization. But if genre was all in the booking and marketing, keeping a woman-fronted band like Rainer Maria within this increasingly codified idea of emo proved more challenging in the early 2000s. (Paramore may have risen out of the Third Wave, but it’s worth noting that even Hayley Williams publicly reckoned with and apologized for the misogyny of perhaps their most renowned song, “Misery Business.”)

The lack of women in emo at the turn of the century suggests that something changed; that the progression from local scenes to mainstream created a fundamentally uninhabitable space for woman-fronted bands. At the same time, there was a glaring disparity in the way that society received the emotions of men versus the emotions of women: where men singing punk rock songs about their heartbreaks is novel and subversive, women singing about their darkest feelings is stereotypical at best, and hysterical at worst. Between the music, the marketing, and the genre-gatekeeping, by 2002 emo was becoming little more than an exclusive boys’ club for boys who insisted they weren’t like other boys.

Women figuring out how to love music that won’t love them back isn’t an issue exclusive to emo—but unlike some other historically misogynistic genres, Third-Wave emo was singularly pointed toward a very young, very vulnerable audience. And for a generation of early-2000s emo fans, walking through what you felt as a kid versus what you know as an adult is a complicated labyrinth. As the music critic Jenn Pelly writes in her 2017 Pitchfork essay “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave,” following the disturbing accounts of women who said they were sexually assaulted by Brand New’s Jesse Lacey: “Participating in the Long Island music scene of the mid-2000s changed my life—because it introduced me to the concept of an underground, to shows in practice spaces and temples and VFW halls, but more to the point because it ultimately repulsed me.”

Pelly found emo as a young teenager “excited about the idea of accessing some sort of culture that wasn’t mainstream,” she says. With the help of her best friend, Lauren—already in possession of a “KissMeImEmo” AIM screen name—she discovered that music was so much bigger than what she had heard on the radio, and that some of the most exciting music was coming out of her native Long Island: Glassjaw, Brand New, and Taking Back Sunday. For three years, Pelly went to as many shows at her local all-ages venue as her parents would allow. But then, when she was 16, that lightbulb started to flicker: Where are the women’s voices? Who gets to speak, and who do we listen to? In her essay, Pelly recalls “the male arrogance, condescension, and entitlement that always seemed to hang in the air at Third-Wave emo shows on Long Island. I experienced this subtly and unsubtly, verbally and physically.”

So Pelly stopped going to emo shows. “It just gave me a very intuitive, feminist consciousness at that time,” Pelly says. “I was like, ‘This is wrong and I’m going to go listen to music by women instead.’” Pelly cut up her emo band T-shirts and made a new one that said “LISTEN TO FIONA APPLE.” She still has it in her closet. Like Amy Pickering’s ransom notes, Pelly’s revolt is the picture of punk rock, while also being quintessentially emo.

Years after leaving the scene, Pelly got emotional when she discovered Hopper’s “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” In her own essay for Pitchfork, published 14 years after Hopper’s, Pelly wrote, “I cried at the reality of being seen in a space where I had believed no one was looking out for women.” And years later, when her own essay went viral, the reader response was just as overwhelming as the response to Hopper’s essay was. “It was reaching such a wide audience and clearly it resonated with so many people,” Pelly says of the time. A quick search of the Pitchfork link on Twitter provides a seemingly endless scroll of how many people related to Pelly’s piece; the kind of catharsis she provided to yet another generation of girls—now women—working through the internalized misogyny of their youth.

These two devastating essays exist like two parts of a puzzle for which every ex-emo fan has a personally shaped piece. Pelly tells me now that, complicated as it was, Third-Wave emo was her “entry point into something,” and she’s been learning about the music that came before it ever since. Bands like Jawbreaker and Embrace “feel like part of my musical DNA or something. Even though it’s not what I was listening to when I was 13, I can sense that it was an influence ... and that means something to me.”

In 2016, Pelly went to see her friend Pier play in a new band. They were opening for a group that she had never gotten into: Rainer Maria. “Rainer Maria flipped me inside out,” Pelly wrote in Pitchfork, nearly a decade after she’d quit her local emo scene. “I was instantly besotted, completely mesmerized. Every atom of this music felt expressive, charged, visceral, searing straight into my heart. ... I had waited my whole life to see a band like this.”

Now that Rainer Maria are back together, retrospective marveling isn’t uncommon. De Marrais said she read a review of one of their reissued albums recently where the author wondered how, as a huge emo fan, they’d never heard of a band fronted by a woman and a trans woman. “And I was like, the answer is right there in the question,” De Marrais says. “How come you didn’t hear about us? Because there was a woman and a trans woman in our band.”

As a musician, De Marrais just wants to represent herself as authentically as possible; to resonate with anyone who might identify with her experience: “Not just with my words, but in the sound of the music, in the timbre of the music, in the chords we choose, and the way we present ourselves and our openness.”

Twenty-six years after Rainer Maria released their first EP, De Marrais tells me that “many of the first Rainer songs were very coded about surviving rape, and the music press never picked up on that.” She’s never said that publicly. Still, De Marrais found Rainer fans on message boards who’d identified with her lyrics all on their own; who resonated with the band’s chords, timbre, and openness just like she hoped they would. De Marrais says that in the 2000s, “I would have never wanted to reveal something like that for the obvious reasons: you fear not being believed, and the things survivors have to go through.” But she feels that this is a safe space to bring it up now, because it doesn’t have to be the sound bite, she doesn’t have to be defined by it. “It’s just something I’m observing that has informed my emo work,” she says of those early Rainer songs. “It’s not just about the breakup and that awful ex of yours, right? There are a lot of different voices that are coming out with different stories.”

De Marrais wonders “if other women-identified artists are also addressing issues like that, because as a musician, and as a creative person, you often use your work to work through things like that.” And here, finally, we can move away from untangling emo’s one-sided, misogynistic history, and into the present of free-wheeling Fifth-Wave emo, a subgenre that’s being safeguarded by Gen Z, who truly do not give a shit about old guards or gates to be kept—they’re all emo. Or at the very least, these new bands have the power to opt into any genre they want, and immediately have their Wikipedia page updated to reflect it.

Enter the revelatory Camp Cope, a trio out of Australia who, after forming the band in 2015, immediately subverted the entire genre as we once knew it in the two greatest ways possible: (1.) they’re an all-woman band, and (2.) they self-identify as “power emo,” a term lovingly made up by lead singer Georgia “Georgia Maq” McDonald. As Georgia Maq tells me, attempts to sideline women bands by painting them as novelty acts are alive and well: “‘Because you’re a woman’ gets used as an excuse for everything like, ‘You only get this because you’re a woman.’ … It’s always because I’m a woman, instead of just being like, well, I’m a musician and I’m good.” To that point, anyone attempting to dull Camp Cope’s accomplishments should do so at their own risk.

Maq says that sometimes she doesn’t have a social filter, and it’s gotten her into trouble before, referencing her “Chicks moment,” wherein she called out the Falls Festival from onstage for Camp Cope being three out of only nine women playing festival. Or at least, that’s the casual way she explains it. What Georgia Maq actually did was change the lyrics to Cope’s 2018 song “The Opener,” an already perfect emo anthem raging against being underestimated in the music industry. She couldn’t help it that a quick lyric swap made it even better when belted from the Falls stage: from “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up the room / It’s another man telling us to book a smaller venue” to “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up a tent / It’s another fucking festival booking only nine women.”

A few months later, Camp Cope reverted back to the original lyric—“It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up the room”—for a sold-out Bowery Ballroom.

Camp Cope is not alone. There are plenty of great Fifth-Wave bands led by women or women-identifying: awakebutstillinbed, Cayetana, Pool Kids, and on and on. They are why, without fail, each of the women I spoke to are hopeful for the future of music. Pelly had just gone to to see Claire Rousay, an ambient artist who “refers to her music as ‘emo ambient.’” De Marrais is thrilled that now when she goes on tour, “there are so many women-identified or non-binary-identifying people” engineering and producing at shows. Hopper is excited for young fans of music who more readily interrogate the history presented to them: “Who are just more willing to dive into some of these winners’ histories going, OK, ‘What really happened?’”

And when you think of this lineage of women in emo—Amy Pickering and Jenny Toomey at the forefront of a scene that ultimately made its way to Chicago, where Jessica Hopper was in the crowd watching out for Jenn Pelly in Long Island, who ended up in Brooklyn discovering Rainer Maria, who’s hopeful that artists like Camp Cope are out there using their art to write the hell out of some power emo—it’s hard for your throat to not get tight, to not have to blink a few times. What can we say? We’re emo too.

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