In high school, I spent one weekend in Chicago so I could go see a grindcore concert. My dad had planned to join me but inevitably decided that his yacht rock sensibilities didn’t quite line up with grindcore’s unrelenting desire to invoke auditory highs and lows by way of power tool texturing and lyrical obscenities. My older brother became came instead, and although he is by far the family member most outspoken against my music taste, I could ignore his persistent questioning looks in exchange for access to free beer.
We made our way to the venue, an unassuming bar whose building was canvassed by the L Train tracks. The main section matched my expectation for a Chicago dive bar; Bears paraphernalia lined the walls, painted pipes jutted out from the ceiling and flannel-clad patrons stared up at a few busted-up flat screens depicting the Bulls getting absolutely trounced.
Clearly, this wasn’t the concert. For that we had to walk to the end of the main room, where a single inconspicuous door poorly muffled the shattering bass on the other side. Upon entering, I was met with a wave of black. The actual demography of the concert was quite diverse, a pleasant discovery given how insular grindcore and adjacent genres can be. But the fashion was uniform. Any clothing was black. Any makeup was black. Even despite basic probability suggesting otherwise, most of the hair was black too.
When I looked down at myself, I was shocked: black pants, black long sleeve shirt and the blackest pair of shoes I owned (a busted pair of Nike Free Runs). I didn’t remember choosing this outfit, yet there I was, completely blending in with the crowd. My brother stuck out like a sore thumb beside me in his bright orange puffy vest.
I was left with several questions: What is it about genre that allows it to create and disseminate its own style? Can style predicate genre? What sort of individual power does the artist have in propagating their own style to the masses?
Looking at emo music, one of the more notorious convergences of genre and fashion, complications already arise. A point of confusion is that there is a key distinction between emo as a genre and emo as a subculture. As a genre, emo goes as far back as the mid-’80s, where Rites of Spring took the gritty sensibility of hardcore to a more emotional place. By the ’90s and early ’00s, the abrasiveness in the emo genre mellowed while the melodrama ramped up. Bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring became prominent innovators in this turn toward the melodic, and vocalists Jeremy Enigk and Davey von Bohlen’s equally raspy and whiny intonation captured the hearts of lonely emotional teens everywhere.
At this point, while rapidly growing in popularity, emo was still technically within the underground. Where the genre went from here is where many older fans contend it became less about the music and more about the style and culture. Think: Jimmy Eat World and My Chemical Romance, skinny jeans and chain wallets. The confusion between goth and emo was never greater than at this point in the 2000s, when black eyeliner and gaunt complexions dominated the fanbase. This confusion is slightly more passable if one is only considering the design side of things. However, in terms of musical style, there’s a pretty stark contrast. Goth music focuses on darkness as a primary theme, with its roots in post punk. Bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division and The Cure are considered the progenitors of goth rock. Meanwhile, emo is much more interested in the expression of pent up emotion, which inevitably produces a more fast paced and bright sound than goth.
What’s fascinating is that emo fashion looked entirely different in its origins. Back in the days of old (’90s), looking into a crowd at a Jawbreaker concert revealed not a sea of Gerard Ways but a sea of Buddy Hollys. Paula Rath was one of the first to coin this fashion sense, calling it geek chic. It was all about appearing unassuming: thick-rimmed glasses, tucked in button-down shirts, standard jeans and Converse sneakers. The reality was that, for the first two decades of its existence, emo was a bunch of outsiders trying to express their loneliness to the world.
What changed by the mid-to-late ’00s was that being an outsider became popular in its own right. More importantly, that type of garishness became profitable. Major record labels got involved. MTV started promoting the genre like crazy, with Unplugged performances. Billboard charts started filling up. To the horror of older fans, emo had become a fad.
Then it disappeared entirely. Suddenly, dressing like a second-rate Edward Scissorhands and playing the opening to “The Black Parade” whenever a piano was present was no longer treated like a joke everybody was in on. The genre’s popularity rose too close to the sun, and many of its staunchest supporters had already left the scene. Much worse, emo was now “cringe.” You could argue that as the music became increasingly ancillary to the culture, the culture became less and less stable. A building without foundation is rarely self-sustaining. As a result, classic emo hasn’t been able to recover.
That being said, fashion in music has come to be defined by the individual. Today’s artists find themselves with larger online platforms where they can make purely image-based statements outside of their music. Until Kanye West’s most recent instance of espousing hate speech, his clothing brand was one of the most successful ever started by a musical artist (although it is still debatable whether that success translates to objective style).
If there’s one artist who has captured their fanbase with their style, it’s Harry Styles. I can’t in good conscience argue that Styles is one of the first male artists to embrace gender-fluid fashion — he’s not — nor will I argue he is the first prominent one, but it’s undeniable that he has been massively influential in pushing that boundary and normalizing it for the public. At the very least, Styles’s fashion choices are having an effect on his audience, particularly his young fans, droves of whom are showing up to his shows representing gender-nonconforming identities. Even for his cisgender fans, there seems to be a heightened enthusiasm to participate in this play with fashion. I witnessed a prime example a few weeks ago while staying at a family friend’s place in Chicago. All of the kids in the family were going to see Styles perform at the United Center. When the group walked downstairs dressed for the show, the son — who’s 24 years old — appeared fully decked out in an ankle-length skirt (an impressive find given his 6’5” height), sequin, skintight shirt and several boas draped around his neck. This was a person who, regardless of weather, could always be counted on to wear a sweatshirt and basketball shorts.
Of course, the fact that cisgender fans are embracing this nonbinary fashion sensibility has brought up the question of whether Styles is actually co-opting queer identity. He has stated that this ambiguity is not purely for show, but it does raise the question of whether it’s possible for style to be separated from brand. It seems obvious that the clothing we wear should be allowed to represent our identities. The opposite — that our identities are designed around the brands we wear — seems a more dubious claim. In the case of Styles, it’s hard not to sympathize with Billy Porter’s perspective. Unlike Styles, Porter had to fight for years to be accepted for sporting a more androgynous style, which makes the seemingly instantaneous celebration of Styles’s fashion choice feel relatively unearned.
I can’t help but think back to that grindcore concert and understand the family friend’s position. It’s not as if I clearly identified with the swath of 30-plus chainsmokers just off their day jobs. Yet there I was, fully entrenched in the same regalia, buying into cultural imagery. Genre fashion and artist fashion is capable of spreading to the masses for a reason, and it stems from the product they put out. We like certain music because it resonates, validates and puts us in a space we wish to occupy. Going back to emo, it doesn’t matter if it inevitably is performative. Ask anybody into Taking Back Sunday or Dashboard Confessional in the ’00s and they will tell you they relate to that sense of social incompatibility. Music provides the space for exploration, and this exploration clearly transfers over to its fashion as well.
Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at email@example.com.