What is Emo?

Emo is a post-punk rock music genre that appears to fall somewhere between Goth and Grunge. Although there is some debate about this, the term is thought to be short for “emotive punk,” a successor to straight-edge punk rock that emerged in the late 1980s. Other sources claim it’s an acronym for “emocore,” a highly emotional subgenre of softcore punk that emerged in the Washington, DC area in the mid-1980s. Emo music is clearly derived from anarchic punk, but it is frequently referred to as the polar opposite of Seattle’s grunge sound.

It’s probably best to start at the beginning if you want to understand emo. Hardcore punk was the first, an anarchic and energizing style of music that offered a counterpoint to disco and heavily produced pop music in the early 1980s. However, the mid-1980s, many hardcore punk bands had disbanded or changed musical directions. Local hardcore or alternative bands were left with a huge void to fill. Some bands developed an edgier style that included philosophical or angst-ridden lyrics sung in a more emotional style than straight punk rock, while still playing the same three power chords as original punk. Emotional punk was born out of this.

While emo made its way west from Washington, DC, other Seattle bands were essentially exploring the same musical territory. Around the same time that grunge rock bands took over the Seattle music scene, these bands became popular in the San Francisco Bay area. While grunge rock musicians and fans were known for their scruffy, unwashed appearances, emo musicians and fans were known for wearing heavy eye makeup, dying their hair jet black, and adopting a more metrosexual appearance. In record stores and music industry publications, the genres eventually became uncomfortably linked.

While grunge had a brief but memorable run on the pop charts, emo bands made a concerted effort to remain uncommercial. The emo music scene is known for its aversion to all things commercial. The albums are frequently recorded on low-cost vinyl LPs with vintage or used recording gear. Emo musicians prefer tube-based amplifiers and low-cost guitars to solid-state amps and over-the-top modern electric guitars. Extended jam sessions have been known to end with real emotional outbursts onstage, such as sobbing or primal screaming. Fans of the genre admire the bands’ emotional performances for their honesty and rawness.

There have been a few commercially successful emo bands, such as Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy, and Dashboard Confessional, but many fans regard these acts as corporate versions of the emo music scene. Many of the most influential bands never left their small towns, and the average band’s lifespan is rarely more than two or three years. Even though many bands add a few guitar arpeggios and sensitive lyrics to the straightforward, high-speed chord crunches of the original punk genre, the emo musical scene sees itself as a rightful heir to the hardcore punk legacy.