My first emo band, like many 2000s kids, was My Chemical Romance. In 2005, my mother was a huge fan of the new release that would eventually become a poster child of the genre: “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.” Although not as popular as their follow-up, “Welcome to the Black Parade,” the aggressive-yet-poppy sound of “Three Cheers” created the blueprint for emo. At least, that’s what we 2000s kids would have you think.
Emo has a much longer history than Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz first stepping out in eyeliner. The term “emo” is actually short for “emotional hardcore,” and it stemmed from the hardcore punk movement of the ’80s. Rites of Spring is often cited as the creators of the genre, mixing the harsh tones of hardcore with introspective, melodic vocals. However, lead singer Guy Picciotto (also of punk band Fugazi) said in a 2003 interview with music reviewer Mark Prindle: “I’ve never recognized ‘emo’ as a genre of music.”
Although emo is now a well-known and somewhat popular genre, the roots of emo still lie on the outside, never getting the spotlight they deserve. Emo is a subculture of outsiders, rooted in difference, but it relegates its own predecessors to be outsiders of their own.
There are artists in every genre that push the boundaries and exist on the outside, but many other genres acknowledge their roots. If you’re a metal fan, you’ve almost certainly heard Black Sabbath. If you’re a pop or pop-rock fan, you can trace your music back to The Beatles. Emo fans seem to lack this connection. This could be because the genre evolved so quickly into a sound that isn’t typified by its origins, which are a perfect storm of dissonance, unexpected tonal shifts and a characteristic playfulness with time.
This evolution truly kicked off in the ’90s as bands split into two spheres of sound. Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate would tone down the chaos of Rites of Spring and emphasize the inner voice with more relaxed, yet complex, songs. Meanwhile, bands like Saetia and Orchid were embracing the “hardcore” in emotional hardcore with extreme vocal techniques and frequent time signature and key changes.
When Thursday exploded into the scene with their 1999 debut “Waiting,” the hardcore and indie sounds synthesized with influences from metal, jazz and electronic music. Many now-popular emo bands cite Thursday as one of their greatest influences, with singer Geoff Rickly even producing My Chemical Romance’s debut album I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love. The success of their chart-topping sophomore album “Full Collapse” brought them into the spotlight and led to a transition into the mid-2000s brand of emo that would create a cultural phenomenon.
Amid the buzz of finally achieving commercial success, many bands were left behind. The advent of radio-friendly emo killed any chances of early bands gaining the popularity they deserved. The limelight belonged to Taking Back Sunday, Panic! At the Disco and Paramore, who still reign supreme in the genre’s ranks. While their ingenuity shouldn’t be discounted, the credit is theirs only for bringing the genre into the mainstream. Still there, playing basement shows and recording one-off EPs, was a circle of bands continually breaking the boundaries of vocal expression and mixing contrasting musical styles.
One of popular emo’s poster children, Fall Out Boy, now has more than 18 million listeners on Spotify. My Chemical Romance has 12 million monthly listeners. Mineral, despite their contributions to the foundation that My Chemical Romance would build upon, has a measly 45,146 monthly listeners. Of course, there are many reasons why certain bands shoot up in popularity while others remain closer to their DIY roots. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that these bands could slowly be lost to time.
In September, my boyfriend and I saw Thursday open for Taking Back Sunday in Pontiac. Halfway through Taking Back Sunday’s set, I already knew that Thursday had put on a better show, and I couldn’t help but feel slighted. This innovative, eccentric band that inspired countless acts in their own genre had time to play only ten songs, and barely anyone sang or moshed along. The problem clearly wasn’t that people weren’t enjoying it — heads all around me were bobbing — rather, it was that they didn’t know the music.
Earlier this year, my boyfriend introduced me to late ’90s and early 2000s emo bands that shaped the genre, from the Get Up Kids, to The Saddest Landscape, to Pg. 99. Listening to the range of these early bands reminded me that genres don’t spring into existence from anywhere. Uniqueness doesn’t stem from “Songs Every Former Emo Kid Remembers” listicles. Hidden on the edges, between “too hard” and “too soft,” tiptoeing the line separating “hardcore” and “emotional,” lies a wealth of music that resists categorization. Perhaps this is what Guy Picciotto meant: Emo is not a genre, it’s a melding of decades of vastly different musical influences into a singular sonic experience.
Emo grew from a necessity for self-expression that was impossible to meet within the confines of other genres in the ’80s. At its core, the genre calls to outsiders and asks them to be whoever they need to be. Early emo drifts from whispers to screams, 80 beats per minute to 180, as easily as we all drift through moments of joy and sadness in our lives. The hits that brought the genre into the mainstream are iconic and powerful, but on the outside of the outsiders is a collection of sounds unlike anything else, a passion that cannot be lost to time.
Daily Arts Writer Harper Klotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.