Growing up in rural New York, I saw my hometown on the evening news exactly twice.
Once was when our basketball team won the state tournament for small schools. The other time was when our school district was consumed by a vicious, sectarian, MySpace-based feud between students who dabbled in the emo subculture, and a group of students who opposed the emo subculture: the so-called “Emo Resistance Program.”
For a brief period—after the Emo Resistance Program uploaded a picture of a pistol with the caption “Help Prevent Emos In America” to its MySpace page, and cops got involved, and the nearest city’s NBC affiliate stationed its news van outside the high school—my town was a scene in an evening special report on the dangers of emo.
This was Fall 2006, when emo was collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity. A subgenre of introspective punk rock with origins in the 1980s hardcore scene, emo had erupted from its underground roots. Suddenly mainstream, emo was now a burgeoning market of Top 40 hits, rural teens with floppy black hair, and television specials on dangerous teen trends. The decades-old genre wore itself to exhaustion in months. The bands broke up, the fans moved on.
But ten years after emo wreaked havoc on my hometown, the genre is making a remarkable return. America’s emo kids—those profiled in alarmist news reports—are fine. They’ve grown up, graduated, landed jobs, and are now reviving their favorite teenage phase.
Alex Badanes and Ethan Maccoby, both 26, spent their teen years in the U.K., waiting for American emo bands to visit on tour.
“We kind of grew up going to concerts every weekend,” Badanes told the Daily Beast. “All the American bands would come and we just really got into the emo and pop-punk scene from like 12 years old.”
He and Maccoby are the founders of Emo Night Brooklyn, a wildly successful emo-themed party series launched early last year. This weekend, the pair is taking Emo Night Brooklyn to London, their first international show in an expansion tour that will include shows in Toronto, Las Vegas, and Manhattan.
But Maccoby and Badanesnever expected their emo parties to progress far past their apartments. They started hosting Emo Night as a free party in a Brooklyn bar’s 100-capacity basement. When the basement grew packed out the doors, the bar invited Emo Night to start hosting in their 300-capacity venue upstairs. When nearly 1,000 people showed up to the next Emo Night, Maccoby and Badanes decided it was time to move the party out of the bar. Today the Emo Night Brooklyn is a roving party, moving between big borough venues like Brooklyn Bowl and Bell House.
Until recently, however, Emo Night might have had trouble locating 1,000 self-identifying emos.
The problem with emo, at least from its 1980s origins to its early 2000s explosion, was its name. Emo kids would dress like Hot Topic mannequins, and swear fealty to their favorite emo bands, but never openly describe themselves as “emo”.
The Channel 10 NBC News segment on my school’s 2006 emo controversy is still available on YouTube, uploaded as “Emo rochester”.
“Police are investigating a series of death threats against teenagers in the Gananda Central School District. Those threats are being posted in online chatrooms and targets a group of kids known as emos,” a news anchor reads solemnly in the minute-long clip. “The teenagers making the threats are known as the Emo Resistance Program.”
Channel 10 obtained one interview with an emo student, a highschool boy named Clayton, who wears a black hoodie, flat-ironed black hair, and a lip piercing. He’s new in town, transferring from another school where he was bullied for being emo.
“I moved from my old school mainly because people were calling me emo,” Clayton says.
“Oh really?” an off-camera interviewer asks.
“Yeah, that’s why I’m here. This is my new first year.”
The word “emo,” short for “emocore” or “emotional hardcore”, began as a pejorative, invented by either “a guy named Mike [or] one named Dan” in Washington, D.C.’s 1980s punk movement, early emo follower Jenny Toomey tells music journalist Andy Greenwald in Greenwald’s book “Nothing Feels Good”.
“It didn’t mean anything then and it doesn’t to me now,” Toomey tells Greenwald. “The only people that used it at first were the ones that were jealous over how big and fanatical a scene it was.”
Just as a grunge fans resisted the “grunge” label in the 90s, emo kids might have self-identified as punk, but shied away from their own outsider-imposed title. But like so many unwelcome labels, the term “emo” stuck, in part because no one came up with a better term that so neatly encapsulated the music genre and its distinctively dressed fans.
Perhaps that’s why the movement has lingered so long in America’s cultural consciousness, recently memorialized in a Rolling Stone article “40 Greatest Emo Albums Of All Time,” and in the answer to a 2016 “Jeopardy!” question: “Wearing bangs and black skinny jeans & liking Dashboard Confessional are signs that you’re in this 3-letter subculture.”
The bands of emo’s late-2000s end times are back, too: Fall Out Boy, Good Charlotte, Panic! At The Disco, Underoath, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday, Blink 182, and Saosin are all currently on tour, some together, and many with new music.
Panic! At The Disco’s latest album, released in January 2016, is the band’s first album to reach the top spot on the Billboard 200 list. The band’s emo fans might have had their heyday 10 years ago, but they’re buying even more emo records today than they did as teens.
But the emo revival isn’t just a comeback tour. New bands like Into It. Over It. and The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Di” are bursting onto the scene, drawing influence from the more critically acclaimed, underground emo bands of the 1990s.
Writer Luke O’Neil is part of the team behind Emo Night Boston, a recurring emo party that features new, breakout bands alongside emo classics.
“It’s really all over the map, and a very broad definition of ‘emo,’ from true 90s emo, Braid, Mineral, Promise Ring etc., to the more cliché, often maligned MTV-era stuff, My Chemical Romance etc.,” O’Neil told the Daily Beast. “One thing I’m really excited about is being able to play newer bands that fit the genre broadly, like You Blew It, Knucklepuck, Turnover, Transit, Tigers Jaw etc.”
Many bands might have distanced themselves from the emo name after it became synonymous with Hot Topic-shoppers and Fall Out Boy fans (my 13-year-old self included). But O’Neil says the emo’s influence has quietly been at work during the genre’s 10 years in remission.
“A lot of people joke around about it, like it’s all eyeliner and whitebelts and side-swoop hair, and sure, there’s some of that, and some nostalgia about that among the people who come to ours. But I think that’s sort of reductive,” O’Neil says. “This is a longstanding and evolving genre of music and branches of influences… I don’t think emo ever really went away, clearly there have been so many bands mining it for influence ever since the 90s. It’s had peaks and valleys in terms of popularity, but it’s always been there.”
But the genre’s resurgence among old bands and old fans is more a matter of maturation. Everyone revisits the music of their youth. Grown up, with 10 years between them and their most recent MySpace login, emo fans are finally revisiting the genre.
“Every band is celebrating their 10- or 15-year reunion or album anniversary,” Badanes says. “This is an important time for people in that age group because this is a time—some people call it the quarter-life crisis—where you’re faced with a lot of hard decisions and you want the nostalgia of growing up, this music that played such an important role in your life growing up.”
The oft-mocked genre that spurred at least one small town into an online bullying scandal is on its way to becoming a classic.
“Everything comes back around now,” O’Neil says. “Kids who grew up listening to Brand New and Taking Back Sunday are in their late twenties to early thirties now, which is when the old nostalgia biological clock starts ticking for most of us.”