Emo: The Rise and Rise Of A Subculture

From hardcore punk sprang emotional rock's tear-spilling realness with eyeliner, black hair and baggy jeans. Listen to the playlist barely containing the woes of Death Cab For Cutie, Brand New and many more.

Jul 1st 2021 by Moodagent

My Chemical Romance (Photo: Hulton Archive)

Long before emojis

Whilst the 90s and 00s are where emo thrived, it was in the practically web-less 80s era that the genre germinated. Emo rock stemmed from hardcore punk and morphed into something a bit like prog rock, a bit like indie… but more emo. Artists had found a new way to express themselves after the razzle-dazzle and nonchalant synth ballads of the turbulent 80s: through reliving what sounds like the first chords anyone learns of guitar and piano and pairing them with their diary entries from blue and bleak Monday mornings and tragic Friday nights. If emo was an emoji, which one would it be?

If You Leave

Artists that would go on to form massive bands like Fugazi drifted out of their emo-core West Coast and Midwest burrows by the early 90s, and Jimmy Eat World, Weezer, Sunny Day Real Estate, American Football and Nada Surf followed suit. These acts (predominantly, if not all, fronted by sad men) began striking an intimacy with fans that hadn’t happened for a while. It was more gentle than what had come before, but sentimental in a different way to the 80s soft rock and synth ballads. Grunge was pretty emo in a way, but more self-obsessed and furious than the self-possession of emo’s relentless absorption.

Dashboard Confessional

Any emo won’t be ashamed of confessing they moped the streets/cried nightly to hits like Dashboard Confessional’s ‘Vindicated’, Fall Out Boy’s ‘Sugar We’re Goin Down’, My Chemical Romance’s ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)', Brand New’s ’The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows’ and many more. The more confessional and self-pitying, the better the emo rock of the early 00s. Along with the skyrocketing record sales and festival ticket sales for emo headliners, the music industry saw a real boom and merchandise helped shape the subculture that was forming. Hoodies, iron-on badges and iconizing tattoos (both fake and real) had never been so huge.


Further underground, Orchid and Jerome's Dream were screaming their hearts out for fans who’d had enough of emo’s clean vocal delivery. Them and bands like Thursday are sometimes said to have been amongst the screamo originators, stripped back to its more hardcore punk roots. Japanese band envy is a great one to discover: try creating moodagents from your top listens.

I Will Follow You Into the Dark

Move over My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy. Bands like Death Cab For Cutie continued emo’s path in a more sincere fashion; less about the subculture’s cliches and more about soundtracking US teen drama love storylines on shows like The OC and in the Twilight movies.

Testosterone Boys and Harlequin Girls

And speaking of movies, emo found itself more and more screen time. Panic! at the Disco’s song titles 'Lying is the Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off’ and ‘But It’s Better If You Do’’ are a tongue-in-cheek ode to cinema, in particular to a line spoken by Natalie Portman’s devastating character in the (extremely emo) 2004 melodrama Closer.

Gen Soundcloud’s Sad Boys

Yung Lean, Juice WRLD, and The Kid Laroi dominate the emo scene today: many call them the sadboys. Hip-hop always posed an influence in the 00s (you could even say stuff like ‘Stan’ by Eminem was emo, plus the work of German rapstar Casper), and emo rap/trap took over emo rock by the 10s. Tragic, star-crossed artists like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep have huge emo fan bases but were – sadly – lost too soon.

Words by Alexandra Pereira

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