Emo (pronounced /ˈiːmoʊ/) is a style of rock music typically characterized by melodic musicianship and expressive, often confessional lyrics. It originated in the mid-1980s hardcore punk movement of Washington, D.C., where it was known as "emotional hardcore" or "emocore" and pioneered by bands such as Rites of Spring and Embrace. As the style was echoed by contemporary American punk rock bands, its sound and meaning shifted and changed, blending with pop punk and indie rock and encapsulated in the early 1990s by groups such as Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate. By the mid 1990s numerous emo acts emerged from the Midwestern and Central United States, and several independent record labels began to specialize in the style.
Emo broke into mainstream culture in the early 2000s with the platinum-selling success of Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional and the emergence of the subgenre "screamo". In recent years the term "emo" has been applied by critics and journalists to a variety of artists, including multiplatinum acts and groups with disparate styles and sounds.
In addition to music, "emo" is often used more generally to signify a particular relationship between fans and artists, and to describe related aspects of fashion, culture, and behavior.
|"Remainder" by Rites of SpringThe melodic guitars, varied rhythms, and deeply personal lyrics of Rites of Spring broke from the rigid boundaries of hardcore and helped launch the "emotional hardcore" or "emocore" style.----|
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The Washington, D.C. emo scene lasted only a few years. By 1986 most of the major bands of the movement—including Rites of Spring, Embrace, Gray Matter, and Beefeater—had broken up. Even so, the ideas and aesthetics originating from the scene spread quickly across the country via a network of homemade zines, vinyl records, and hearsay. According to Greenwald, the Washington, D.C. scene laid the groundwork for all subsequent incarnations of emo: What had happened in D.C. in the mid-eighties—the shift from anger to action, from extroverted rage to internal turmoil, from an individualized mass to a mass of individuals—was in many ways a test case for the transformation of the national punk scene over the next two decades. The imagery, the power of the music, the way people responded to it, and the way the bands burned out instead of fading away—all have their origins in those first few performances by Rites of Spring. The roots of emo were laid, however unintentionally, by fifty or so people in the nation's capital. And in some ways, it was never as good and surely never as pure again. Certainly, the Washington scene was the only time "emocore" had any consensus definition as a genre. MacKaye and Piccioto, along with Rites of Spring drummer Brendan Canty, went on to form the highly influential Fugazi who, despite sometimes being connected with the term "emo", are not commonly recognized as an emo band.
Reinvention: early 1990sAs the ideals of the Washington, D.C. emo movement spread across the United States, many bands in numerous local scenes began to emulate the sound as a way to marry the intensity of hardcore with the complex emotions associated with growing older. The style combined the fatalism, theatricality, and outsiderness of The Smiths with the uncompromising and dramatic worldview of hardcore. Although the bands were numerous and the locales varied, the aesthetics of emocore in the late 1980s remained more or less the same: "over-the-top lyrics about feelings wedded to dramatic but decidedly punk music." However, in the early 1990s, several new bands reinvented the emo style and carried its core characteristic, the intimacy between bands and fans, into the new decade. Chief among these were Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate, both of whom fostered cult followings, recontextualized the word "emo", and brought it a step closer to the mainstream. According to Andy Greenwald:
Sunny Day Real Estate was emo's head and Jawbreaker its busted gut—the two overlapped in the heart, then broke up before they made it big. Each had a lasting impact on the world of independent music. The bands shared little else but fans, and yet somehow the combination of the two lays down a fairly effective blueprint for everything that was labeled emo for the next decade. In the wake of the 1991 success of Nirvana's Nevermind, underground music and subcultures in the United States became big business. New distribution networks emerged, touring routes were codified, and regional and independent acts were able to access the national stage. Teenagers across the country declared themselves fans of independent music, and being punk became mainstream. In this new musical climate, the aesthetics of emo expanded into the mainstream and altered the way the music was perceived: "Punk rock no-nos like the cult of personality and artistic abstraction suddenly become de rigueur", says Greenwald. "If one definition of emo has always been music that felt like a secret, Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate were cast in the rolls of the biggest gossips of all, reigning as the largest influences on every emo band that came after them."
Jawbreaker has been referred to as "the Rosetta Stone of contemporary emo". Emerging from the San Francisco punk rock scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, their songwriting combined the heft of hardcore with pop punk sensibilities and the tortured artistry of mid-1980s emocore. Singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach focused his lyrics on topics that were personal, immediate, and lived, often lifting them directly from his journal. Though they were often obscure and cloaked in metaphors, their specificity to Schwarzenbach's own concerns gave the words a bitterness and frustration that made them universal and magnetic to audiences. Schwarzenbach became emo's first idol as listeners related to the singer more than the songs themselves. Jawbreaker's 1994 album 24 Hour Revenge Therapy became their most-loved amongst fans and is a touchstone of mid-1990s emo. The band signed to major label Geffen Records and toured with Nirvana and Green Day, but their 1995 album Dear You sold poorly and they broke up soon after, with Schwarzenbach later forming Jets to Brazil. Their influence lived on, however, through later successful emo and pop punk bands openly indebted to Jawbreaker's sound.
Sunny Day Real Estate formed in Seattle during the height of the early-1990s grunge boom. In contrast to Jawbreaker, its members were accomplished musicians with high-quality gear, lofty musical ambitions, intricate songwriting, and a sweeping, epic sound. Frontman Jeremy Enigk sang desperately, in a falsetto register, about losing himself and subsuming himself in something greater, often using haphazard lyrics and made-up words. The band's debut album Diary (1994) was over-the-top and romantic, and the music video for "Seven" received airplay on MTV. The band's ambitious sound challenged other bands to reach further with their own music in sentiment, instrumentation, and metaphor, and represented a generational shift between grunge and emo. Other emo-leaning punk bands soon followed suit, and the word "emo" began to shift from being vague and undefined to referring to a specific type of emotionally overbearing music that was romantic but distanced from the political nature of punk rock. Sunny Day Real Estate fell apart after Diary, as Enigk became a born-again Christian and launched a solo career while the other members drifted into new projects such as the Foo Fighters. They released three more albums through a series of breakups and occasional reunions, but are remembered primarily for the promise of their debut and the shift it engendered in the tastes of underground rock fans.
Underground popularity: mid 1990s
In the mid-1990s the American punk and indie rock movements, which had been largely underground since the early 1980s, became part of mainstream culture. After Nirvana's success, major record labels capitalized on the popularity of alternative rock and other underground music by signing numerous independent bands and spending large amounts of capital promoting them. In 1994, the same year that Jawbreaker's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary were released, pop punk acts Green Day and The Offspring had mutiplatinum successes with their respective albums Dookie and Smash. In the wake of the underground going mainstream, over the next several years emo as a genre retreated, reformed, and morphed into a national subculture, then eventually something more. Drawing inspiration from bands like Jawbreaker, Drive Like Jehu, and Fugazi, the new sound of emo was a mixture of hardcore's passion and indie rock's intelligence, bearing the anthemic power of punk rock and its do-it-yourself work ethic but with smoother songs, sloppier melodies, and yearning vocals. Many of the new emo bands originated from the Midwestern and Central United States, such as Braid from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Christie Front Drive from Denver, Colorado, Mineral from Austin, Texas, Jimmy Eat World from Mesa, Arizona, The Get Up Kids from Kansas City, Missouri, and The Promise Ring from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. According to Andy Greenwald, "This was the period when emo earned many, if not all, of the stereotypes that have lasted to this day: boy-driven, glasses-wearing, overly sensitive, overly brainy, chiming-guitar-driven college music."
On the east coast, New York City-based Texas Is the Reason bridged the gap between indie rock and emo in their brief three-year lifespan by melding the melodies of Sunny Day Real Estate to churning punk musicianship and singing directly to the listener. In New Jersey, Lifetime gained a reputation as a melodic hardcore act, playing shows in fans' basements. Their 1995 album Hello Bastards on rising independent label Jade Tree Records fused hardcore with emo's tunefulness, turning its back on cynicism and irony in favor of love songs. The album sold tens of thousands of copies and the band inspired a number of later New Jersey and Long Island emo acts such as Brand New, Glassjaw, Midtown, The Movielife, My Chemical Romance, Saves the Day, Senses Fail, Taking Back Sunday, and Thursday.
The Promise Ring were one of the premier bands of the new emo style. Their music took a slower, smoother, pop punk approach to hardcore riffs, blending them with singer Davey von Bohlen's goofy, picturesque lyrics delivered with a froggy croon and pronounced lisp, and they played shows in basements and VFW halls Jade Tree released their debut 30° Everywhere in 1996 and it sold tens of thousands of copies, a blockbuster by independent standards. Greenwald describes the effect of the album as "like being hit in the head with cotton candy." Other bands such as Karate, The Van Pelt, Joan of Arc, and The Shyness Clinic incorporated elements of post-rock and noise rock into the emo sound. The common lyrical thread between these bands was "applying big questions to small scenarios."
A cornerstone of mid-1990s emo was Weezer's 1996 album Pinkerton. Following the success of their mutiplatinum debut, Pinkerton turned from their power pop sound to a much darker, more abrasive character. Frontman Rivers Cuomo's songs were obsessed with messy, manipulative sex and his own insecurities of dealing with celebrity. A critical and commercial failure, it was ranked by Rolling Stone as the second-worst album of the year. Cuomo retreated from the public eye, later referring to the album as "hideous" and "a hugely painful mistake". However, Pinkerton found enduring appeal with teenagers just discovering alternative rock, who were drawn to its confessional lyrics and themes of rejection and came to believe that it was directed at them. Sales grew steadily as word of the album passed between fans, over online messageboards, and via Napster. "Although no one was paying attention", says Greenwald, "perhaps because no one was paying attention—Pinkerton became the most important emo album of the decade." When Weezer returned in 2000, however, they did so with a decidedly pop sound. Cuomo refused to play songs from Pinkerton, dismissing it as "ugly" and "embarrassing". Nevertheless, the album held its appeal and eventually achieved both high sales and critical praise, and is noted for introducing emo to larger and more mainstream audiences.
The emo aesthetic of the mid-1990s was embodied in Mineral, whose albums The Power of Failing (1997) and EndSerenading (1998) encapsulated the emo tropes of somber music accompanied by a shy narrator singing seriously about mundane problems. Greenwald calls their song "If I Could" "the ultimate expression of mid-nineties emo. The song's short synopsis—she is beautiful, I am weak, dumb, and shy; I am alone but am surprisingly poetic when left alone—sums up everything that emo's adherents admired and its detractors detested." Another significant band of the era was Braid, whose 1998 album Frame and Canvas and B-side song "Forever Got Shorter" blurred the lines between band and listener, as the group was a mirror-image of its own audience in passion and sentiment and sang in the voice of their fans.
Though the emo style of the mid-1990s had thousands of young fans, it never broke into the national consciousness. A few bands were offered contracts with major record labels, but most broke up before they could capitalize on the opportunity. Jimmy Eat World signed to Capitol Records in 1995 and built a following among the emo community with their album Static Prevails, but did not break into the mainstream despite their major-label association as their music was mostly lost amongst the popular ska movement of the period. The Promise Ring were the most commercially successful emo band of the time, with sales of their 1997 album Nothing Feels Good topping out in the mid-five figures. Greenwald calls the album "the pinnacle of its generation of emo: a convergence of pop and punk, of resignation and celebration, of the lure of girlfriends and the pull of friends, bandmates, and the road." He refers to mid-1990s emo as "the last subculture made of vinyl and paper instead of plastic and megabytes."
Independent success: late 1990s and early 2000s
Beginning in the late 1990s emo had a surge of popularity in the realm of independent music, as a number of notable acts and record labels experienced successes that would lay the foundation for the style's later mainstream breakthrough. As emo gained a larger fanbase the music business began see its marketing potential, and as big business entered the picture many of the acts previously associated with the term intentionally distanced themselves from it: As the '90s wore to a close, the music that was being labeled emo was making a connection with a larger and larger group of people. the aspects of it that were the most contagious—the sensitivity, hooks, and average-guy appeal—were also the easiest to latch onto, replicate, and mass market. As with any phenomenon—exactly like what happened with Sunny Day [Real Estate]—when business enters into a high-stakes, highly personal sphere, things tend to go awry very quickly [...] As fans threatened to storm the emo bandwagon, the groups couldn't jump off of it fast enough. The popularity and bankability of the word—if not the music—transformed an affiliation with the mid-nineties version of emo into an albatross. In 1997 Deep Elm Records launched a series of compilation albums entitled The Emo Diaries, which continued until 2007 with eleven installments. Featuring mostly unreleased music from unsigned bands, the series included acts such as Jimmy Eat World, Further Seems Forever, Samiam, and The Movielife. The diversity of bands and musical styles made the case for emo as more of a shared aesthetic than a genre, and the series helped to codify the term "emo" and spread it throughout the community of underground music.
Jimmy Eat World's 1999 album Clarity was one of the most significant emo albums of the late 1990s and became a touchstone for later emo bands. Writing in 2003, Andy Greenwald called it "one of the most fiercely beloved rock 'n' roll records of the last decade. It is name-checked by every single contemporary emo band as their favorite album, as a mind-bending milemarker that proved that punk rock could be tuneful, emotional, wide-ranging, and ambitious." However, despite warm critical reception and promotion of the single "Lucky Denver Mint" in the Drew Barrymore comedy film Never Been Kissed, Clarity was commercially unsuccessful in a musical climate dominated by teen pop, and the band left major label Capitol Records the following year. Nevertheless, the album gained steady popularity via word-of-mouth and was treasured by fans, eventually selling over 70,000 copies. Jimmy Eat World self-financed the recording of their next album Bleed American (2001) before signing to Dreamworks Records. The album sold 30,000 copies in its first week and went gold shortly after. In 2002 it went platinum as emo broke into the mainstream.
Drive-Thru Records, founded in 1996, steadily built up a roster of primarily pop punk bands with emo characteristics such as Midtown, The Starting Line, The Movielife, and Something Corporate. Drive-Thru's partnership with major label MCA enabled their brand of emo-inflected pop to reach wider audiences. The label's biggest early success was New Found Glory, whose 2000 eponymous album reached #107 on the Billboard 200 with the single "Hit or Miss" reaching #15 on Modern Rock Tracks. Drive-Thru's unabashedly populist and capitalist approach to music allowed its bands' albums and merchandise to sell heavily through popular outlets such as Hot Topic: In a world where cars are advertised as punk, Green Day members are platinum rock stars, and getting pierced and tatted up is as natural as a sweet-sixteen party, everyone is free to come up with their own definition of punk—and everyone is ready to embrace it. Emo had always connected with young people—it had just never aggressively marketed itself to them.
|"Action & Action" by The Get Up KidsThe Get Up Kids' Something to Write Home About helped Vagrant Records expand into a much larger label and sign numerous other emo acts.----|
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Independent label Vagrant Records was behind several successful emo acts of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Get Up Kids had sold over 15,000 copies of their debut album Four Minute Mile (1997) before signing to Vagrant, who promoted the band aggressively and put them on tours opening for big-name acts like Green Day and Weezer. Their 1999 album Something to Write Home About was an independent success, reaching #31 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers chart. Vagrant signed and released albums by a number of other emo and emo-related acts over the next two years, including The Anniversary, Reggie and the Full Effect, The New Amsterdams, Alkaline Trio, Saves the Day, Dashboard Confessional, Hey Mercedes, and Hot Rod Circuit. Saves the Day had built a large following on the east coast and sold almost 50,000 copies of their second album Through Being Cool (1999) before signing to Vagrant and releasing Stay What You Are (2001), which sold 15,000 copies in its first week, reached #100 on the Billboard 200, and went on to sell over 200,000 copies. In the summer of 2001 Vagrant organized a national tour featuring every band on the label, sponsored by corporations such as Microsoft and Coca-Cola. This populist approach and the use of the internet as a marketing tool helped Vagrant become one of the country's most successful independent labels and also helped to popularize the term "emo". According Greenwald, "More than any other event, it was Vagrant America that defined emo to masses—mainly because it had the gumption to hit the road and bring it to them."
Mainstream popularity: 2000s
Emo broke into the mainstream media in the summer of 2002 with a number of notable events: Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American album went platinum on the strength of "The Middle", which reached #1 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart. Dashboard Confessional reached #22 on the same chart with "Screaming Infidelities" from their Vagrant Records debut The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, which was #5 on Independent Albums, and became the first non-platinum-selling artist to record an episode of MTV Unplugged (the resultant live album itself was a #1 Independent Album in 2003 and quickly went platinum). New Found Glory's album Sticks and Stones debuted at #4 on the Billboard 200. Saves the Day toured with Green Day, Blink-182, and Weezer, playing large arenas such as Madison Square Garden, and by the end of the year had performed on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, appeared on the cover of Alternative Press, and had music videos for "At Your Funeral" and "Freakish" in heavy rotation on MTV2. Articles on Vagrant Records were published in Time and Newsweek, while the word "emo" began appearing on numerous magazine covers and became a catchall term for any music outside of mainstream pop. Andy Greenwald attributes emo's sudden explosion into the mainstream to media outlets looking for the "next big thing" in the wake of the September 11 attacks: The media business, so desperate for its self-obsessed, post-9/11 predictions of a return to austerity and the death of irony to come true, had found its next big thing. But it was barely a "thing," because no one had heard of it, and those who had couldn't define it. Despite the fact that the hedonistic, materialistic hip-hop of Nelly was still dominating the charts, magazine readers in the summer of '02 were informed that the nation was deep in an introverted healing process, and the way it was healing was by wearing thick black glasses and vintage striped shirts. Emo, we were told, would heal us all through fashion. In the wake of this success, many emo bands were signed to major record labels and the style became a marketable product. Dreamworks Records senior A&R representative Luke Wood remarked that "The industry really does look at emo as the new raprock, or the new grunge. I don't think that anyone is listening to the music that's being made—they're thinking of how they're going to take advantage of the sound's popularity at retail." The depoliticized nature of emo, coupled with its catchy music and accessible themes, gave it a broad appeal to young mainstream audiences.
At the same time, a darker, more aggressive offshoot of emo gained popularity. New Jersey–based Thursday signed a multi-million-dollar, multialbum contract with Island Def Jam on the strength of their 2001 album Full Collapse, which reached #178 on the Billboard 200. Their music differed from the prominent emo bands of the time in that it was more politicized and lacked dominant pop hooks and anthems, drawing influence from more maudlin bands such as The Smiths, Joy Division, and The Cure. However, the band's accessibility, openness, basement-show roots, and touring alongside bands like Saves the Day made them part of the emo movement.
Fashion and stereotype
Today emo is commonly tied to both music and fashion as well as the emo subculture. Usually among teens, the term "emo" is stereotyped with wearing skinny jeans, sometimes in bright colors, and tight t-shirts (usually short-sleeved) which often bear the names of emo bands. Studded belts and black wristbands are common accessories in emo fashion. Some males also wear thick, black horn-rimmed glasses.
The emo fashion is also recognized for its hairstyles. Popular looks include long side-swept bangs, sometimes covering one or both eyes. Also popular is hair that is straightened and dyed black. Bright colors, such as blue, pink, red, or bleached blond, are also typical as highlights in emo hairstyles. Short, choppy layers of hair are also common. This fashion has at times been characterized as a fad. In the early 2000s, emo fashion was associated with a clean cut look but as the style spread to younger teenagers, the style has become darker, with long bangs and emphasis on the color black replacing sweater vests.
Emo has been associated with a stereotype that includes being particularly emotional, sensitive, shy, introverted, or angst-ridden. It has also been associated with depression, self-injury, and suicide.
Criticism and controversy
Emo has been criticized for its androcentrism. Andy Greenwald notes that there are very few women in emo bands, and that even those few do not typically have an active voice in the songs' subject matter: "Though emo—and to a certain degree, punk—has always been a typically male province, the monotony of the labels' gender perspective can be overwhelming." The triumph of the "lonely boy's aesthetic" in emo, coupled with the style's popularity, has led to a litany of one-sided songs in which males vent their fury at the women who have wronged them: Some emo bands' lyrics disguise violent anti-women sentiments in a veneer of pop music. However, despite emo's frequent portrayal of women as powerless victims, fans of the style are from both genders, and some acts have even greater popularity with women than with men. One explanation for this is that the unifying appeal of emo, its expression of emotional devastation, can be appreciated equally by both sexes regardless of the songs' specific subjects.
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The genre emo inspired a backlash movement in response to its rapid growth. Warped Tour founder, Kevin Lyman stated that there was a "real backlash" among bands on the tour towards emo groups, but he dismissed the hostility as "juvenile" in nature. However, Time Magazine reported in 2008 that "anti-emo" groups attacked teenagers in Mexico City, Querétaro, and Tijuana. In Russia, a law has been presented at the Duma to regulate emo websites and forbid emo style at schools and government buildings, for fears of emo being a "dangerous teen trend" promoting anti-social behaviour, depression, social withdrawal and even suicide. Several bands considered to be "emo" reject the label for the social stigma and controversy surrounding it.    
Emo music has been blamed for the suicide by hanging of teenager Hannah Bond by both the coroner at the inquest into her death and her mother, Heather Bond, after it was claimed that emo music glamorized suicide and her apparent obsession with My Chemical Romance was said to be linked to her suicide. The inquest heard that she was part of an Internet "emo" cult  and her Bebo page contained an image of an 'emo girl' with bloody wrists. It also heard that she had discussed the "glamour" of hanging online and had explained to her parents that her self harming was an "emo initiation ceremony". Heather Bond criticised emo fashion, saying: "There are 'emo' websites that show pink teddies hanging themselves." After the verdict was reported in NME, fans of emo music contacted the magazine to defend against accusations that it promotes self harm and suicide.
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