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Emo History & Origin

I¡¦ll summarize emo history in a nutshell first. At first it grew from punk music in the 80¡¦s. Then during the 90¡¦s, large record labels made it into a more mainstream music. That¡¦s when emo started to become a fashion trend. From the 2000¡¦s forward, it was a full blow trend in music and fashion, but of course, the style was changed to fit mainstream audiences. This was also around the time when emo became associated with negative labels such as whiners and wrist cutters.

Below, I¡¦ve organized emo into eras. In each era, there was important changes in the music that affected the emo subculture or emo scene. For each era, we¡¦ll divide things up into ¡§The Music¡¨ and ¡§The Scene¡¨ so you can see how the music affected the scene in each time frame. This will give you a comprehensive emo history.

80¡¦s to early 90¡¦s

At first emo was more about the music. All people who dressed up emo at this time were very hardcore about the music.

The Music

Emo started as a movement in Washington DC. as an offshoot of the hardcore/punk scene. Music around this time was very community oriented and politically charged, but pioneers including Ian Mckaye began to turn the music towards a more personal introspective direction. Other bands like Rites of Spring in 1984 began to form and would go even further with introspection about a whole range of emotions such as romance, nostalgia, and desperation. In the 90¡¦s, Sunny Day Real Estate, which started in Seattle of 92¡¦ became very influential in terms of the emo movement. They started a loyal following with fans. Bands such as Drive Like Jehu, Saetia, and the Swing Kids from southern California developed their own, more belligerent  and chaotic version of emo, known as "screamo."

The Scene

The kids at this time were closely tied to punk. These few existing "original" emos dressed like nerds with sweater vests and dress pants.

90¡¦s to mid 90¡¦s

Around the early 90¡¦s, the record labels were just beginning to see a glimpse of the possible success with emo music. With the gaining popularity of the music by large record companies, the fashion began to catch on as a trend.

The Music

 ¡§In early 1992 Nirvana hit the top of the chart¡Kwithin a year the band had sold 10 million copies of their debut¡K¡¨ Nirvana gave record labels and garage bands everywhere a dream that they could find or become the next big thing. ¡§Everywhere music critics spoke of the search for the ¡¥next Nirvana.¡¦ After Nirvana left Sub Pop, they continued to look for new ground breaking talent. They discovered a Seattle band Sunny Day Real Estate and released their first full-length album in 1994. It was with this album ¡§that emo began making waves outside the hardcore community¡¨

The Scene

As the popularity of the music grew, so did the number of kids dressing up as emo. Emo kids around this time wore tight shirts and old, cut-up jeans. They had messenger bags and carry around a notebook to write poetry. They had black rimmed glasses and were "over-emotional" but NOT whiny. They began to explore the turmoil and heartbreak of relationships. They enjoyed the arts and read in-depth books. They have many opinions and often talk about them. They usually hung out in coffee shops and listened to sophisticated or acoustic music. The scene was not yet really influenced by corporations as of yet.

Mid 90¡¦s to early 00¡¦s

The Music

Around the late 90¡¦s, big record companies wanted to profit off of emo bands. But the bands often broke up before they got anywhere mainstream. Finally, in 1997, emo compilations of unsigned bands were released by a record company. Included were such acts as Jimmy Eats The World, which later went on to sign with Dreamworks Records to be one of the first emo bands to go mainstream and even go platinum. Eventually many more bands would follow suit and make emo music a profitable business for record companies. Bands like Save The Day were even performing with Blink 182.

Screamo made a comeback around this time also. It was mainly used by younger fans who weren't around when the screaming vocal thing was new and unique. Many of the newer bands actually combine the dynamic screamo sound with the softer post emo indie rock style and add further elements to the mix. These could include Thursday, Underoath, and Silverstein.

The Scene

By this time, as the music became more mainstream, the clothes started to become more mainstream as well. Jet black hair, often worn over in front of the eyes, and eye liner are not uncommon. Converse All Stars are a favorite as well as pants that are either awkwardly tight or life threateningly loose. As the stereotype indicates, any Hot Topic clothes are a possibility. Multiple piercings are a given and ear "gauges" are very popular and for the older crowd, plenty of body art (tattooing) is also common. Studded belts usually round out the look for guys and girls alike.

Many people so admired the emo subculture¡¦s fashion that they began to imitate the way they dressed. The fashion was now becoming a full fledged trend. Those who emphasized primarily on emo fashion became known as ¡§scene¡¨. These scene kids often added more flamboyant styles to the emo fashion and added more variety. Screamo was the music of choice for the new subculture called scene. Around this time, everyone starting thinking that scene kids were emo even though they were just imitating the looks. Many people began associating the term emo with the looks.

00¡¦s to present

The Music

As soon as the success came, the emo sound was beginning to change.  A bunch of mainstream bands picked up the look from the bands from the earlier emo groups. As for the music, they may or may not have loosely based their music off of the earlier bands. Some bands such as My Chemical Romance completely deny any relations to emo. Either way, these bands emulated the softer indie emo/emotional pop punk sound rather than the earlier more dynamic emo. This style of music is what emo is best known for in today's society, leaving many young listeners unaware of the hardcore roots of emo. Examples include Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, Death Cab For Cutie, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Panic! At the Disco, Hawthorne Heights, etc...

The Scene

Who knew if these new bands were really emo, and who could figure which kid was more scene and which one was more emo. Definitions began to vary and as more and more people thought scene kids and these new bands were emo, they began to change the definition of what it meant to be emo.

It was around this time that emo kids started getting a bad reputation for whining, being depressive, and cutting their own wrists. One possibility is that some ¡§emo¡¨ kids started complaining and talking about their problems on blogs online. Here is one person¡¦s experience of seeing this during around 2005.

¡§About around the mid-2000's... They have blogs and they whine about everything. They dye their hair with cheap black hair dye. Their hair is messy, greasy, and has side-swept bangs. Their clothes are much like the previous version, only they have a larger emphasis on band tee's and they have started wearing skinny jeans. They love Chuck's and Van's. They listen to pop-punk music and adore Hot Topic. Self-harm is a pretty recent addition to "emo".

There is no doubt that kids like this also built a reputation for emo as they attended school. As for the wrist cutting, this probably had some basis in truth because there are many kids attracted to the more angry and bitter side of emo music. Because wrist cutting is so dramatic and crazy sounding, this probably got blown out of proportion and everyone started thinking emos are often wrist cutters.

More recently emos were seen on South Park and mocked as complainers who always got confused with the Goths. Almost everyone has a bad impression of emos these days. But one must remember the good side of emo as well. It helped kids throughout the ages get in touch with their emotions. It set off all sorts of interesting and beautiful fashion trends. And, of course, it has given us much great music to enjoy.

It is a shame that so much negativity is surrounding emo, because there is so much variety that has grown from its origin. The future of the term emo is uncertain, but one thing is for sure. As it impacted everything from new music to fashion to culture, we will continue to be impacted by its influence and its spirit.
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