|Photo by: Matt Anderson (Illustration)|
Somewhere along music’s evolutionary path, punk found its way into the hands of a mad chemist who replaced its piss and vinegar with black eyeliner and teardrops. There born was the Frankenstein that is emo.
Soon, the fate of that conglomerate monster fell into the wrong hands. He was tarred, feathered and left in his current disheveled, confusing, hatred-and-fear-stirring state. Pitchforks and torches rose behind him, branding “suicide” and screaming “unoriginal” as the monster walked on, shoulders hunched, taking hit after hit that broke him down into small fragments of what he once was.
So polluted by the lacerations left by countless misinterpretations across the creature’s face, he is now shunned, marked and made myth by the outside world. Hated and alone, Emostein watched the world change him, deck him out in tight clothing and dyed hair to laugh in his scarred face. He had gone from the gentle combination of musical styles into a dreaded thing: one that evoked screams of both horror and anger from onlookers. Even the very fuel of his life, a once benign community movement, stopped flowing under the gaze of the ignorance-blinded onlookers.
Perhaps the misinterpretations start at the emo’s musical beginnings. As a genre, it is hard to define. Some, for instance, date emo’s inception to the Washington D.C. scene of the 1980s and consider it long dead. Others like Leslie Simon, co-author of the 2007 book “Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture,” see emo as a style of music and lifestyle, built from the ground-up on sweat, tears and sincerity in the first half-decade of the Millennium, a la bands like Dashboard Confessional.
“The term ‘emo,’ for me, comes from emo music,” says Simon. “I feel like the subculture and the lifestyle has really spawned off of this type of very introspective, personal, emotional music that kind of came out of the post-hardcore, post-punk movement in the late ‘90s, and is primarily categorized by, in layman’s terms, a lot of skinny tattooed guys singing acoustic-based songs about girls who broke their hearts.”
For Simon, the culture that surrounds the music is an extension of the relatable content of the songs. She says, “Maybe you don’t have an artistic release in the way that these bands did, and that’s your conduit. That’s how you’re releasing everything is kind of through the music and all the things that the music represents.”
As a genre defined by emotion, “emo” has been used to describe the sound of bands such as: Sunny Day Real Estate; The Promise Ring; Saves the Day; Jimmy Eat World; Dashboard Confessional; My Chemical Romance; and even Underoath. As that list goes on, it becomes apparent that, in sound, some of those bands have little in common. That both Bright Eyes and The Used have both been called “emo” can be explained only by the relatable content of their songs.
For Mackenzie Polzin, a 16-year-old from New York who openly identifies herself as “emo,” the musical element of the emo lifestyle is something that has been taken so far out-of-context that she doesn’t find the word relevant for description anymore.
“I think it’s a thing of the past,” Polzin said. “I think there is still emo music around, but nobody calls the right music ‘emo,’ if you will. Anything where the people in the band wear black a lot would be considered ‘emo’ now.”
Polzin has her own ideas about what emo means. She uses the acronym E.M.O. (“Emotionally Musically Obsessed”), which breaks down the word and rids it of some of the negativity with which it has become associated.
“Most people think ‘emo’ is this negative thing where you dress in black and you live in this cave and you cut yourself. I don’t think that’s what it began as,” she said. “It has become something totally different.”
As I was on my search for those who identified as with the emo lifestyle, I came across a plethora of that “something totally different.” Many asked me what “emo” meant, even more asked me if they had to harm themselves to be called “emo,” and a startling amount brought up the depression without even knowing “emo” had anything to do with music.
Simon says that the misrepresentation that has lead to confusion comes from the fact that “emo” is what she calls an “outsider term,” that neither musicians who don’t fairly fit into other categories nor fans who listen to them want to own, allowing it to – naturally – fall into the hands of the misinformed.
“I think it’s the people who don’t take the time to research and just see something sensationalized on the news, primarily by people who are twice their age who have no stake in the lifestyle or the subculture,” Simon said. “Instead of taking the time to actually get to know what their subject is, they just sensationalize it, because it’s easier and it makes headlines and it gets people talking and then they move on.”
“They’re on to the next story, but for those living it, they can’t escape the outcome that easily, and the negative portrayals like that stick with the subculture forever, and that’s really unfortunate,” Simon said. “I think that for all these kids, these bands are their lifeblood, and this community is so tight-knit. The scene – for better or for worse – is huge, and very largely misunderstood, and I don’t think it’s because the kids themselves are portraying themselves in a way that is confusing.”
EmoDanger.co.cc, the most extreme anti-emo Web site I have encountered, is a perfect example of someone, through misinformation, causing damage to the meaning of “emo.” Pulling the most extreme examples from the Internet and using wildly sensationalized media examples, EmoDanger presents a very nasty image of what some people have turned “emo” into, primarily focusing on self-injury, depression and suicide.
For Polzin, music and depression are linked, but in a positive, healing way that she wishes more people would understand.
“I had a personal experience where I was in a depression and music helped me get out. A lot of people see the music you listen to while you’re depressed as the reason you’re depressed,” Polzin said. “I think the biggest [misconception] is the whole self-harm part of the emo culture. I think a lot of people do that, and it is a serious problem, but I don’t think that’s what ‘emo’ means.”
Simon, too, sees the unfair link that has been made between music and serious mental health issues.
“I think it’s really a disservice because it trivializes self-injury and self-harm, which is a really serious problem,” Simon said. “There’s something wrong. There’s something going on. You have to be pretty gosh-darned upset to go to that extent with it.”
“I don’t know if parents just don’t want to ask hard questions and maybe realize that there are other things going on in their kids’ lives that they are unaware of,” Simon said. “In parental communities where they think emo is the Big Bad Wolf that’s corrupting their children, I think they would probably be very disappointed to find out that the corruption’s probably closer to home than Warped Tour.”
With all the created ugliness associated with emo, it’s unsurprising that those who dress in a way that some consider emo find themselves at the hands of bullying. For teenagers in Mexico, however, their misinterpreted emo subculture caused more than upturned noses when outbreaks of anti-emo violence began to occur.
In a March 2008 article from TIME titled “Mexico’s Emo-Bashing Problem” that describes anti-emo violence Querétaro, Mexico, writer Loan Grillo says that those who targeted and attacked them “deride the emos for being posers who are overly sentimental and accuse them of robbing from other music genres.”
Though Brenda Guadalupe Tello Mojica, 17, of Mexico’s Distrito Federal did not see the Querétaro violence in person, she did see an emo girl in her own city being beaten by “probably eight or nine guys” only because of her style of dress.
Mojica says that much of the anti-emo sentiment she has seen stems from members of other musical subcultures’ thinking those who wear “pants that are glued to the legs” and “a long fringe that covers half of their faces” participate in the subculture for attention.
“I have a lot of friends who have preference for metal music, and their side of the [story] is that the emo culture existed a lot of time ago, but, in a very sane, no-need-for-attention culture,” she explained. “It had nothing to do with your hair or clothes. Now, they say that there are these kids who just think that being emo is about using a lot of black eyeliner, having these types of hairstyles and suicidal thoughts.”
Other Mexican teenagers I spoke to said that anti-emos literally went out intending to kill those who dressed in a certain style and who listened to certain bands. Some told me they had called it a “cleansing” of Mexico, and – during that time – many stores even banned teens dressed in a way considered emo from entering.
Obviously, it’s a degree of discrimination that isn’t so extreme or visible here in the U.S.
Unsurprisingly, some bands have taken a stance against their music’s association with a word that, for many, has come to mean only negative things. For instance, both members of oft-emo-branded bands My Chemical Romance and Panic! At the Disco have been quoted calling emo “bullshit.”
Simon, despite the outsider pollution, finds emo too moment-in-time-capturing and visually connotative to drop from her vernacular.
“It’s so harmless in one way because it’s really just to provide a context, but a lot of these bands don’t want to be lumped in to the context that it’s describing,” she said. “Are those bands emo? Well, it depends who you’re asking. If they’re not emo, then what are they? Are they just rock bands? I would, maybe, disagree because, I don’t think that your average rock band spawns the kind of fandom or community that bands like Fall Out Boy, AFI or My Chemical Romance do. I feel there has to be something larger to describe the kind of band that they are and the kind of following they inspire, and – for better or for worse – I think that ‘emo’ is the word that describes it.”
So, what becomes of our branded emo monster? Perhaps he will see a day when he is not so dreaded, but – for now – he leaves a portion of himself with angry villagers surrounding him, accusing him of being everything from a thief to a pair of pants.
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