Four years ago in Austin, Texas, at a teenage punk show featuring the all-girl band, Cat Scratch, none of the members looked old enough to drive. A girl in the audience, maybe 13 or 14, wore choppy hair, black-framed nerd glasses and a patch on her fatigue jacket that read “Cheer up emo kid.”
For the thirty-something music geeks attending that show, the patch was as adorable as it was perplexing. Not in the way this girl’s fashion choice and subculture might be for her parents. Instead, music geeks who experienced emo in its first incarnation waaaaay back in the ’80s, the confusion was this: How does a little kid know about emo, and when exactly did emo become an insult?
Four years later, the term emo, and emo-labeled bands such as Jimmy Eat World and Fall Out Boy are far from obscure music scenes and in the pages of Teen People magazine. And adults — parents and/or music geeks alike — are more confused than ever. Is emo a type of music — and if so, what makes the screaming guitars and gut-wrenching lyrics different from punk? Is emo fashion — and if so, what makes the dyed-black hair, multiple piercing and makeup different from goth? And what the heck does emo mean, anyway?
The answer is this: Emo means different things to different people. Short for “emotive” or “emotional” (depending on whom you ask), emo being amorphous enrages those loyal to their version. But in the ever-mutating virus we know as American pop culture, them’s the facts. And here’s why.
Emo as music
Long before alleged-emo group Fall Out Boy hit the MTV airwaves (or its members were even born), two bands rose from the mid-80s Washington D.C. punk scene. Led by former members of renowned hardcore bands, Embrace and Rites of Spring left behind the macho buzzsaw guitars and mosh pits to pursue something more complex.
The bands got their inspiration from Husker Du’s LP, “Zen Arcade,” which showed punks everywhere that caustic guitars and literate, angst-ridden lyrics equaled catharsis (and not sissy music). The version played by Embrace and Rites of Spring caught on, and D.C.’s “Revolution Summer” (1985) began.
How “emo” got its name is fuzzy. One account has an Embrace audience member shouting “emocore” as an insult. Said shouter felt betrayed by frontman Ian MacKaye for disbanding political hardcore band Minor Threat for more introspective music. (Kind of like that “Judas” shout when Bob Dylan went electric.) Some contend MacKaye said it first (self mockingly) in a magazine. Others attribute Rites of Spring.
Whoever said “emo” first, neither band lasted very long. In 1987, MacKaye (also founder of indie label Dischord) and Rites frontman Guy Picciotto formed Fugazi. (Stay with me, I promise it doesn’t get complicated.) As meticulous to the art-over-commerce ideal as it was with its cerebral-yet-visceral sound, Fugazi inspired emo’s second wave.
Enter the mid-90s and Sunny Day Real Estate, a Fugazi-inspired Seattle band that mixed searing guitar work and complex orchestrations with hometown grunge. It’s around this time that emo started collecting multiple definitions — thank-you Internet. Web-savvy music geeks got the word out, and the genre became two: emocore and indie emo.
Originally associated with dense, caustic music and nontraditional song structure (no verse, chorus, verse), emocore stuck with its original definition while indie emo was defined by a more accessible pop sound as heard from bands such as Weezer, Jimmy Eat World, Promise Ring and The Get Up Kids. With accessibility came radio and MTV airplay. Now Emo belonged to the world.
Emo as fashion statement
For major labels, emo became the grunge of the new millennium. Bands inspired by Fugazi’s art-over-commerce spirit either split up or changed direction. Not that it mattered. Emo morphed into anything mopey and marketable. Dashboard Confessional emerged as the emo poster band, despite its more typically-pop songs with themes such of “boy-loses-girl” and “I’m sad.”
These days, “I’m sad” is the most common definition associated with emo. It’s a lighthouse for kids who feel like outsiders, and an insult tossed out by those who believe themselves stronger. Meanwhile, new terms, such as “screamo” and “nu-metal” are coined by keepers-of-the-flame, who love emo in all its Summer Revolution glory (but don’t want to look like sissies).
As with any subculture, there’s a uniform. Search “emo” in eBay’s clothing category for a few hundred examples. Usually, you’ll get a lot of ‘50s-era Frank Sinatra shirts, along with other thrift-store remnants associated with a plethora of music subcultures (indie, mod, goth, punk, rockabilly, etc.). Pants are tight and hair is often dyed and shaggy — two more styles that travel easily between cliques.
In a fashion sense, the new emo is the perfect outlet for fickle teens trying on personalities. Sick of Fall Out Boy? Change a few accessories, add some more eyeliner, and presto! You’re a goth revivalist. As for the angry music geeks out there fuming over the dilution of a once valid genre label, you’ve got a couple of choices. Shout it like an insult like the Judas character at an Embrace show. Or, like emo cofounder Ian MacKaye, call yourself emo with a knowing wink …and go write some bad poetry.
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints