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What is Emo Music?

Updated on February 15, 2013

What is emo? Typically, it refers to emo music, but it can also refer to emo style, which is strongly associated with emo music. Emo is a style of rock music that strongly emphasizes expressive, confessional lyrics. Short for “emotional hardcore”, it originated as a subgenre of the 1980’s punk movement.

Origins of Emo

Emo originated from Washington D.C.’s hardcore punk scene in the early 1980’s. Hardcore punk was in a state of decline, violence was increasingly part of the scene. Minor Threat, a hardcore punk band, is often credited with originating the movement by steering the focus of the music to the individual persona.

One of the first emo bands was Rites of Spring, which was directly influenced by Minor Threat. Their musical style was a departure from hardcore punk, incorporating self-searching lyrics, and very melodic guitar. These would become hallmarks of emo music. While the birth of this new trend marked a new period in musical creativity, it had all but died out in Washington D.C. by the mid-1980’s as many of the original emo bands broke up.

Spread of Emo

While the emo movement fizzled out in Washington D.C., its influence reached across the United States. San Francisco band Jawbreaker and Seattle band Sunny Day Realty are most often credited with reviving the emo movement in the 1990’s. Again, these bands incorporated deeply personal lyrics. Emo was on the rise as musical movement in the 1990’s at the same time the grunge scene was beginning to emerge. Similarities can be heard in terms of lyrical content, but emo, with its more epic sound, emerged as a distinct sound from grunge music.

At this time, some of the big names in music, Green Day, The Offspring, and Weezer, began to have mainstream success with their albums. Weezer’s album, Pinkerton, which was released in 1996, cemented their reputation as one of the godfathers of emo. The songs recorded for the Pinkerton album dealt covered personal topics, such as the band’s struggle with its burgeoning popularity and with songwriter Rivers Cuomo’s relationships.

Emo in the 21st. Century

Although bands like Green Day and Weezer made great strides toward bringing emo mainstream popularity, it began to enjoy success in the early 21st century. Emo bands such as Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional were enjoying huge success with chart-topping albums. As the decade progresses, emo will continue to evolve musically.

Emo hairstyle.
Emo hairstyle. | Source

Emo Style

As emo music differentiated from hardcore and other musical genres, its musicians and fans developed a fashion sensibility of its own, also referred to as emo. A cornerstone of emo style is the preference for dark colors, in terms of clothing and hair. Emo kids, as many fans are teenagers, often wear their hair streaked with bright blue, pink, red, and bleached blond.

Emo fans can often be spotted wearing tight t-shirts emblazoned with the name of an emo band. Emo guys and girls often wear their pants and t-shirts tight, rather than baggy. Girls prefer short skirts as an emo wardrobe staple, which they often pair with tall boots. Studded belts and jewelry, as well as piercings are part of the emo look.

There are many stereotypes of emo fans, including that they are overly sensitive, angst-ridden, and depressed. Despite these unpopular images presented in the media, emo will continue to evolve and serve as an outlet for expressing emotions for our youth.


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    • profile image

      Annabelle Tyler 5 years ago

      I'm sorry to hear about your friend. At the end of the article, I touched on some of the negativity associated with the term. Unfortunately, some folks are small-minded enough to make assumptions about people based on the way they look and the music they listen too. I'm not sure there's any better way to describe the musical genre.

    • Damien204 profile image

      Damien 5 years ago

      Ah, I typed another reply to this yesterday, but I guess it didn't send.

      I guess I'm probably a little sensitive to the word, because of how it is currently used as an insult. I only graduated high school this past year. I don't know how old you are, so I'm not going to add you into this, but most adult really ignore bullying. They see it as something that their kid is "too good for." Where, in reality, something as small as the music you like can get you beaten. It was never taken to that extent with me, but one of my friends was continuously hassled. I know you meant it in an unoffensive manner, it was well written and pretty informative. I just like to spread a little awareness of how certain words can affect people.

    • profile image

      Annabelle Tyler 5 years ago

      Thanks, Damien. I appreciate the feedback. It seems like the term that started as a description for a genre of music has come to mean something negative. It's a shame, and I certainly don't mean any disrespect toward anyone.

    • Damien204 profile image

      Damien 5 years ago

      As a teenager who was called emo through his entire high school career, I would like to take the time to tell you that most people take it as offense. The real "emo" kids, won't identify as an emo kid. They stay hidden. We stayed hidden. As a style of music, it's a fine word. But to describe a person, it's not. And the style itself is referred to as "scene" instead of emo.