What Is Emo Music?

You probably have heard emo music. Probably someone emotional recommended you check emo out. Possibly they were crying, wearing a tight sweater or quoting impossibly saccharine lyrics from songs about crushed hearts using celestial imagery. Needless to say, emo, or emocore as it sometimes is known, is one of indie rock’s most misunderstood genres. Did you know emo’s roots lie in hardcore music? Did you know that emo originally had nothing to do with diary-like confessions? Oh, young grasshopper. Read on. And understand what all the fuss (and eyeliner) is really about.

The Birth of Emo: Emo was born in the late 1980s as an outgrowth of the hardcore punk movement in Washington, D.C. The term “emo” itself was derived from the descriptor “emotional hardcore.” Early emo bands — like Rites of Spring, Embrace and Rain — took the intense punk-based sounds of Minor Threat and added a visceral, emotional element. Amid racing punk drum beats and heavily distorted guitars, vocals grew melodic, lyrics became self-questioning and the dynamics veered between loud/soft extremes. At the climax of a song, it was not unusual for a singer to emit a scream, growl or moan.
Emo Catches On: Many of these D.C. hardcore bands turned toward emo in response to the over-masculinization of hardcore music. Eventually, emo allowed some bands to be wildly experimental in their song writing and intricate, sometimes even delicate, guitar-work became a part of the emo sound. As the movement spread outside D.C., many hardcore and punk scenes adopted the aesthetic and emotional focus of emo. In San Diego, bands like Drive Like Jehu, Heroin and the Swing Kids developed their own, more aggressive strain of emo, dubbed “screamo.” However all emo had one thing in common: a guttural, driven approach to self-expression.
Emo Weds Indie & Pop Punk: By the early ’90s, a new crop of melodic punk bands like Jawbreaker and Samiam began to incorporate the heaviness of emo into their pop punk sound. In addition, indie bands, like Sunny Day Real Estate and Jimmy Eat World, starting adding the introspective lyrical focus and trademark high/low dynamic structure to their heterogeneous indie music. In the Midwest, a group of emo-influenced bands began to abandon much of the atonality of hardcore emo, while still clinging to the intensity, the emotional rawness and the genre’s serious bent. These bands included Cap’n Jazz, The Promise Ring, Braid and The Get Up Kids.
Emo Loses Ground: By the late ’90s, mainstream media began to tout emo, but the vital years of the movement had passed. Many emo bands continued playing, but abandoned emo’s trademark sound. Jimmy Eat World, The Get Up Kids and The Promise Ring all got attention from the press, but produced music less like emo and more like pop punk, soft rock and indie pop, respectively. Regardless of their stylistic metamorphoses, however, the label “emo” was stuck on each band. As new groups sounding like these groups were born, they too became labeled emo — regardless of the fact that their music was far removed from the origins of the term.
Emo Survives, Regardless: These days, the term emo is used to describe any band playing guitar-based music that is emotional either in approach, lyrical focus or affect. 2003 brought the diary-like hit Dashboard Confessional and since then, indie-rock cross-overs Bright Eyes and Death Cab For Cutie have become successful pop acts while maintaining — if erroneously — the label emo. In addition, more emotional pop punk bands like Brand New, Fall Out Boy, Taking Back Sunday and Thursday are all ascribed the label regardless of whether they claim it for themselves. Today, “emo” can describe almost anything emotional. Even this profile. Sniffle.
Notable Classic Emo Albums:

  • Embrace S/t 
  • Sunny Day Real Estate Diary 
  • Jimmy Eat World Clarity 
  • The Get Up Kids Four Minute Mile 
Notable New Emo Albums:

  • Bright Eyes I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning 
  • Death Cab For Cutie The Photo Album 
  • Taking Back Sunday Tell All Your Friends 

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