How Emo Went From A Punchline to Critical Acclaim

For a long time, emo was regarded as a laughable genre beloved by "silly" teenage girls - then, the critics started to wake up.

emo bands underrated to acclaimed photo

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In 2005, Pitchfork bestowed Panic! At The Disco’s kaleidoscopic A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out with a historically bad rating of 1.5.

At the time time, a new-age moral panic had begun to sweep suburbia, as parents grew fearful of their children falling under the influence of My Chemical Romance’s macabre sensibilities. Emo and pop-punk were everywhere: Australian Idol contestants were covering Green Day, and Pete Wentz was sharing teen magazine covers with Zac Efron.

Identifying as “emo” in the mid to late ’00s was, in the eyes of most gatekeepers and tastemakers, profoundly uncool. By this point, indie rock was oozing with leather-jacket wearing hipster sass, as New York garage revivalists and dance-punks seated themselves comfortably at the popular kids’ table.

While Jack White was adored for his genius, a teenage Brendon Urie was getting clobbered with water bottles during festival sets. Despite its immense commercial success and popularity — or perhaps, because of it — anyone who dared touch eyeliner was an easy target.

Emo is an enigmatic culture: fans of the genre have yet to come to a final decision on what it actually means. Regardless, there’s no denying its omnipresent influence over pop culture and music today. In the last few years, bands and fans have worn the badge with honour throughout revivals, reformations, and the explosion of a new batch of emo acts. So what changed?

The Summer Ended

Much like how grunge went from Mudhoney and Melvins to Bush and Staind in the blink of an eye, emo’s perceived clout shifted as the genre and culture surrounding it developed.

A term originally coined to describe late ’80s “first wave” bands like Rites Of Spring, who developed from within the hardcore scene, the genre was marked musically by frightening dissonance, harsh recordings and at times, math-like, technical playing. Evolving in the mid-90s to a more indie-focused and, at times, jazz-infused sound with acts like American Football, Texas Is The Reason and Mineral, it was an underground culture founded on a DIY ethos, loved by those who fully immersed themselves in the scene.

After the pop-punk explosion of the late ’90s, the most divisive wave of emo — and what we know as the “scene” today — was born. Bands signed to Drive Thru Records or Fueled By Ramen, who played Warped Tour, embraced MTV stardom and wore their hooks on their sleeves as proudly as they did their black wristbands.

Acts like My Chemical Romance, The Used, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday, Fall Out Boy were the fresh faces of emo. Melodramatic in both look and lyrical content, they created a new phenomenon among noughties youth. On the surface, the mall rat pied-pipers were a far cry from the midwest house shows that birthed the genre’s founding bands — it was like Gen Y’s very own version of hair metal (sub-in skinny jeans for spandex).

Monolithic corporate institutions like MTV, Monster Energy, Hot Topic and Vans were synonymous with the era — it’s wholly understandable why a First Wave Emo lifer may have found it tacky.

By 2009, emo had fallen off from the mainstream, echoing the universal shift in the music industry from rock to rap — Fall Out Boy announced their hiatus, Warped Tour began to favour cookie cutter metalcore bands over emo acts, and suddenly, it all seemed very quiet.

The Emo Revival

“But I feel to call it an ‘emo revival’ is kind of lame. They’re all like, ‘Yo, check out these really cool bands…that you should feel guilty for listening to!’ Are you kidding me? It’s almost like this weird backhanded compliment.” said Evan Weiss of Into It. Over It. in a 2013 Noisey article.

While figures like Weiss were aware of the underground bubbling, the kind of emo he was referring to sounded a lot different to the emo the mainstream had become accustomed to. Into It. Over It, are a hallmark of the “revival” or “fourth wave” era — a folk and jazz-influenced math-rock outfit that deals in the catchiness of pop-punk. It’s warm, heartfelt, and intimate in a manner emo music excels at capturing.

In many ways, Weiss was right in saying that tastemakers stopped paying attention to emo — and he wasn’t the only one who agreed.

It’s understandable as to why an indie rock critic may love the orchestral musicality of a band like The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, but also despised Senses Fail a few years before. But the culture, community, and sentiment of the two bands aren’t too disparate — the intention of both is to connect with fans, to foster a sense of belonging and ultimately seek catharsis.

So just like that, emo acts like The Hotelier, Joyce Manor and Modern Baseball were now cool, critical darlings. The memory of Cobra Starship’s ‘Good Girls Go Bad‘ video had faded enough for tastemakers to reconsider the culture.

The unfortunate reality of being loved by teenage girls means you will almost certainly not be taken seriously by music’s older, sexist gatekeepers.

Any album released on Run For Cover Records during this time is an indicator of the shift in sound emo took. Bands were now taking their pop-punky cues from acts like the Promise Ring over New Found Glory, marrying their indie rock influences into something more relatable.

Modern Baseball’s cult-favourite 2012 effort Sports offered a unique, folky, whip-smart perspective on early adulthood. Joyce Manor’s 2014 Never Hungover Again took power-pop and punk to new levels of whimsical.

These bands were simply playing homage to the music they loved and it just so happened to be emo — they weren’t attempting to play into any caricatures of the genre.

From MySpace To Soft Grunge

The aesthetic evoked by the new crop of revival bands was marked by Autumn leaves, flannel, thick rimmed glasses, and Fender Telecasters — a cooler, Instagram-ready image.

The growing popularity of Tumblr around this time encouraged this image. Blogs consisting of Tigers Jaw lyric edits on a washed out forest image, and bedrooms shining with fairy lights over a Citizen Youth banner, were widely popular. The face of emo had begun to change again.

My Chemical Romance, Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy’s fanbase at their peak was characterised by the image of passionate fan girls whose lives were dependent on the actions of their heroes. These bands happily embraced their audiences, and encouraged them. Of course, the unfortunate reality of being loved by teenage girls means you will almost certainly not be taken seriously by music’s older, sexist gatekeepers. Eventually, critics would catch up, and realise teenage girls had actually been shaping the music industry since the days of The Beatles.

But that realisation was still a way off when Modern Baseball and The Front Bottoms came along. Their lyrics, written from the perspective of young, male college students, attracted that same audience — and they became synonymous with the underground, male-heavy and meme-y community of r/Mu and Patrician Music Chartposting, who revered these acts with the same level of appreciation as experimental electronic and underground hip-hop.

The lyrics to Modern Baseball’s seminal emo-revival track ‘Tears Over Beers’ are a good indicator as to the subtle nice-guy-syndrome-esque sexism present within the genre: “That girl who’s next to me, she’s friendly and thoughtful and quite awfully pretty/ But all she has to say is a meathead-themed monologue on why Brad ran away.”

Believers Never Die

My Chemical Romance announced their return to the scene late last year. To say pandemonium was incited was a complete understatement. They’re currently slated to play three sold out shows at the UK’s historical Milton Keynes Stadium — clocking in roughly 90,000 tickets purchased.

In 2013, Fall Out Boy announced their comeback, and have since adopted a new generation of fans who actually seem to prefer their new material. They’ve since headlined the Reading Festival, amassed Platinum certification on two post-hiatus LPs, and a Grammy nod for their 2018 effort MANIA. The old heads may not get it, but there’s clearly a generation of kids out there who are digging it.

Whilst a fair share of “emo reformations” have been purely a nostalgia-fest (ahem, From First The Last) for the most part the revival in interest around these artists has genuinely opened them up to new audiences. Reforming in 2014, American Football released a track featuring Paramore’s Hayley Williams last year. A reunited Jawbreaker headlined Riot Fest alongside Queens of the Stone Age in 2018.

It’s clear that there’s more than just nostalgia at play here. The hype surrounding these reformations is a testament to the sheer impact of the bands, culture, songwriting and individual figures in and among emo culture who had a hand in shaping the identity of all who joined in.

Where We Want To Be

In 2020, we’ve entered a phase of emo respect. As what we know as the emo revival came to a close in 2016, emo as a whole is recognised as an essential element of music culture.

Pop stars like Post Malone, Billie Eilish and Halsey find any excuse to name drop their admiration for the likes of Green Day, A Day To Remember and The Story So Far with each breath. Even indie artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski aren’t afraid to share their previous fandom as an integral element during their musical development.

With Pitchfork positively re-reviewing classics from Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance and more, it’s clear it’s not just rose-coloured glasses that have propelled emo to the heights of mainstream consciousness again — it’s just that people have finally woken up.

Bianca Davino is a writer and critic based in Sydney. Follow her on Twitter.

All this week, Music Junkee is tumbling down memory lane and exploring everything to do with the emo. Get stuck in here.