Joel Dungworth tells all on the origins of emo music.

If you stopped someone in the street and asked them to describe ‘emo’, they are probably going to imagine Gerard Way dressed in a bad Halloween costume screaming about vampires and wanting to join some kind of gothic version of your 6th form band. Other options include teenagers smeared in black eyeliner and strapped into unnecessarily tight skinny jeans, or gaggles of school kids all with perfectly suspended bangs hanging over a smoky eye. The associations of ‘emo’ are firmly rooted in the subculture that emerged in the mid-2000s; as all good subcultures do, it had its own, very recognisable, soundtrack, with the likes of My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boyand Paramore blasting out of the iPods of angsty adolescents across the world.

Much of this music is fantastic: powerful, emotive, heart-on-sleeve songs drawing in an almost cult following, which is still very much alive today (MCR’s announcement of a comeback performance received nearly 200,000 likes on Twitter). But ‘emo’ music did not suddenly materialise when Gerard Way screamed ‘IM NOT O-FUCKING-K’ into a microphone. The genre has a rich history. Artists throughout the 1990s wrote and produced intimate, personal pieces of music which shaped and moulded the style which would appeal to so many Doc Martens-wearing Year 10s. 


Emo’s urtext is hard to place; but, it is often said to be the 1985 album Rites of Spring – by the band of the same name. Along with Embrace (1987) – funnily enough, by Embrace – this music contributed to the post-hardcore sound dubbed ‘emocore’. This label, however, was rejected by the artists at the time and used with an accompanying sneer by critics. These albums are well worth a listen, though, and form the starting place of my early ‘emo’ recommendations.

The rough screeched vocals of songs like ‘For Want of’ and ‘Give Me Back’ are a staple of the genre; their chugging guitars and crashing riffs anticipate a sound which would linger for another 20 years. The lyrics resurrect the artists’ painful memories and facilitate an outpouring of internal anxieties; they are fiercely personal, yet the appeal of these songs lies in their acuteness. They scream the feelings that tear us apart – exemplifying the emotional ferocity music can assume. 

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When the early 90s saw the emergence of grunge, it highlighted the potential for subcultures fuelled by misanthropy or anguish to hold our attention. The likes of Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker and Weezer developed a sound heavy in guitar and confessional, pained lyrics which played off the grunge and ‘emocore’ sensibilities, whilst carrying a tenderness and free-form structure to their songs which ran throughout the genre in the 90s. I would suggest ‘In Circles’ by Sunny Day Real Estate, ‘Fireman’ by Jawbreaker and ‘In The Garage’ by Weezer as three songs to get to grips with this style of emo. In fact, this may be a better place to start than the stuff from the 80s. If you know some classic pop-punk tunes then you will be able to hear some of their tropes in this music too. Subsequent bands like Saves The Day, Piebald and Jimmy Eat World form a kind of intermediary between the two, removing a bit of the screaming but keeping the introspection. I would recommend a listen to Clarity – the sophomore album from Jimmy Eat World; here, the band are also drawing on a slightly different ‘emo’ sound, that which developed in the American Midwest. 

Self-declared emo lord Matty Healy (of The 1975) has spoken about how his love for country music stems from his interpretation of it as a form of ‘emo’ expression (just one with more banjos). He is onto something here. It is worth thinking of this style if you delve into the realm of Midwestern emo. Artists like Mineral, The Promise Ring, Rainer Maria, Cap’n Jazz and American Football make music which sounds a little bit like people screaming in a garage – it is raw, unfiltered, passionate, and strangely mesmerizing. The song structures wander freely about, and the lyrics take on a poetic melancholy to rival The Smiths.

There is a homemade intimacy, like the echoing production of Joy Division or the cassettes of underground favourite Daniel Johnston. The instrumentals form their own warbling melodies, whilst the singers cry out their deepest inhibitions – odes to the cathartic power of music. They undermine sterile cultures of emotional repression and allow internal anxieties a central place in artistic expression. It should be added that a content warning is relevant to many of the songs I am discussing here – they cover topics such as depression, emotional isolation and social alienation, but it is also this confessional bravery and sensitivity which gives ‘emo’ music its magnetism. 

Mineral’s ‘If I Could’ perfectly captures the sense of self-doubt which can so often prevent us from fulfilling our romantic dreams; Rainer Maria’s ‘Summer and Longer’ looks back at a loss of youth and the struggle to help a friend with accumulated yearning; Cap’n Jazz’s ‘Oh Messy Life’ offers an existential outburst on what defines us as human beings. These songs can easily be dismissed and mocked, but if you really listen to the poetic desperation of ‘emo’, it carries intensity not found in many other styles of music. There is a playlist below – queue these songs, immerse yourself in their uninhibited grit, and you might just develop a newfound respect for early ‘emo’ music which is perhaps missing from perceptions based on Patrick Stump’s sideburns and Pete Wentz’s fringe. 

Listen to the accompanying playlist on Spotify @cherwellmusic.

Image credit: Cancha General via Creative Commons.