So last night a discussion was sparked over the term 'emo', and how to properly define the music that falls into this category. The conversation didn't really lead anywhere so it left me with an idea to do some research on when and where the term originated, what bands consider themselves emo and why, and anything else I come across that is associated with this word.
First was a google image search to determine how the world's biggest search engine feels about this topic. This was the first image that came up.
Next I turned to urban dictionary to find out some of the most popular definitions. This is the first one:
[emo] Genre of softcore punk music that integrates unenthusiastic melodramatic 17 year olds who dont smile, high pitched overwrought lyrics and inaudible guitar rifts with tight wool sweaters, tighter jeans, itchy scarfs (even in the summer), ripped chucks with favorite bands signature, black square rimmed glasses, and ebony greasy unwashed hair that is required to cover at least 3/5 ths of the face at an angle.
Amazingly this definition seems to describe the picture perfectly (see: no smiles, 17-year-olds, ebony greasy unwashed hair required to cover 3/5 of the face at an angle). I swear this was completely coincidental. On to the next definition, which was edited for length.
[emo] An entire subculture of people (usually angsty teens) with a fake personality. The concept of emo is actually a vicious cycle that never ends, to the utter failing of humanity, and it goes something like this:
1. Girls say they like "sensitive guys" (lie)
2. Guy finds out, so he listens to faggy emo music and dresses like a dork so chicks will see that he is sensitive and not afraid to express himself (lie). He dyes his hair black, wraps himself in a stupid looking scarf, develops an eating disorder, and rants about how "nobody understands".
3. Now an emo guy, he meets emo chick and they start dating, talking about how their well-off suburban lifestyles are terrible and depressing (lie)
4. Emo guy is just too much of a pussy. His penis is too small, he's too depressed to bathe, and has more mood swings than emo chick, and he doesn't even have a menstrual cycle. Emo chick dumps him, saying "It's not you, it's me." (lie) as she drives off with Wayne, the school jock and captain of the football team.
5. Emo guy goes home and cries, proceeds to write a weak song and strum a single string on his acoustic guitar. Another emo chick sees how he is so in touch with his feelings, and the cycle continues.
This is a little harsh, but the most striking thing about this definition is the lack of any real reference to music. There are a few mentions of acoustic guitars and "faggy emo music," but overall this is more about a type of person, or a complete concept, rather than a genre of music. I'm more confused than when I started. How 'bout a history lesson?
The general consensus is that emo music emerged from the punk/hardcore/grunge rock scene of the early 90's. Bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana were providing listeners songs laden with anger, frustration, hopes, and fears. As the grunge scene faded out, Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, and Texas Is The Reason gained popularity, and it was around that time people began referring to their music as emo. The key difference in sound was a shift from angst ridden lyrics to more heartfelt songs.
From the mid 90's, the sound continued to evolve, but the type of music recognized as emo today is a far cry from what SDRE first put out. Which makes you wonder what the process is for determining if a band can be labeled as emo. I don't know of any band that has defined themselves as emo and it seems as though they are slapped with the label by people who have nothing better to do than attempt to lump their music together in a category that can't possibly encompass all its facets.
There appears to be a dichotomy of sorts, between musicians and critics.
Guitarist Thomas Lloyd of Northvia wrote an article entitled, The Origin of Emo, which details the history of emo. Lloyd confirms the clash between musicians and the labelers.
"No true musician wants to be labeled or put in a box and that is why few bands want the "emo" stereotype. The fact is that the underground/indie scene evolves with itself, even within different genres, labels, and subcultures."
Bands don't want to be defined, but we keep inventing new genres like hardcore, post-hardcore, punk, pop punk, emo-core and so on. For further evidence of this dichotomy, take a look at this excerpt from an interview
with Long Since Forgotten frontman Josh Coy in 2004.
A lot of people call your band emo; do you consider yourself an emo band? What do you think of the emo hardcore scene of nowadays?
I consider Long Since Forgotten just a rock band. I am sure there are lots of young musicians out there who sit down and think to themselves "I am going to write an 'emo' song today" and draw inspiration from their musical heroes. When we were young and just starting to write songs together, I just wanted to write songs that sounded like U2, The Foo Fighters or Smashing Pumpkins. To be honest I can't really recall when or why we started to be labelled as "emo" but I guess if it helps someone identify somehow then there's no harm in it. The first bands I heard that were called emo were bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Roadside Monument. I don't think we sound much like those bands although they are a couple of my favorites. We just like to play rock and roll.
I had a similar conversation in 2005 with Jamison Covington, the lead singer of duo JamisonParker, after a show in Philadelphia. I asked what category he would put their music in. The word emo never even came up, and I know many people would put them there. Basically, Jamison Covington's response was that they try to make music that inspires people and in the end it's just rock and roll.
Overall, it seems as though emo has really evolved to describe a group of people, rather than a type of music. People have strayed far from the roots of emo and artists don't even want to be associated with it anymore. I'm not sure why we need all these sub genres of rock & roll anyway. It's music, and at its very core music is meant to unite people, not create violence
or a world where people are at odds because they prefer acoustic guitar over electric.