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Emo: Rock’s Last Subculture?

As My Chemical Romance reunite for a UK stadium tour, Shaun Ponsonby argues that the band and their emo contemporaries spearheaded the last subculture of the rock era.

By Shaun Ponsonby
Mon 23 May, 2022

The subculture has been a stalwart of rock & roll since the very beginning.

The history of 20th century rock is littered with them; the Teddy Boys, the mods, the hippies, the punks, the new romantics, the goths, the ravers. People from the weird fringes of acceptability joining together, celebrating themselves and their values through music that the average ITV viewer – let’s call them Kayleigh and Wayne – would never be able to understand. We had them in abundance, and in retrospect they become one of the core symbols of their respective era.

Not every scene necessarily counts as a subculture. Was Britpop a subculture, or just a bunch of popular bands? I’d argue the latter – outside of just being British, there didn’t seem to be any kind of unified purpose or uniform other than the general fashions of the day. Ditto to the indie landfill bands who clogged up the national arteries ten years later.

No, they were far too mainstream and accepted. A true subculture is a celebration of outsiderism.

Think of the film version of Quadrophenia, when mod Jimmy tells rocker Kevin “I don’t want to be like everyone else, that’s why I’m a mod.” It’s a uniquely teenaged mindset. The irony is lost on him; he doesn’t want to be like everyone else, yet he is indistinguishable from all his mod friends. As much as we may wish to reject the world around us, the one dictated by grown-ups who stifle us, there is still a need for belonging. We need to be surrounded by shared experiences and values.

Preferably, a subculture must also ignite a moral panic, with the conservative press passing judgement on something they don’t understand to enrage Kayleigh and Wayne, for whom genuine self-expression must be completely subdued. The scene itself must be as misunderstood as those who populate it.

This was true of all those listed above; mods and rockers fighting on the beaches of Brighton, the illegal raves, the hippies protesting Vietnam. They are derided in the media and by parents, until eulogised in nostalgic TV documentaries 20 years later. Such is the circle of life.

Since the turn of the Millennium, however, the truly controversial rock subcultures were all but extinct. We’d seen it all too many times before. In a world where Mick Jagger is a pensioner, where our parents did more sex, drugs and rock & roll than we could ever hope for, how can we rebel?

But there was one final rock-based subculture that took over the world; emo.

Panic

The origins of emo go back to the mid-80s as an alternative to Washington’s hardcore scene, marrying the thrash of hardcore with more melodic guitars, varied rhythms, and more poetic lyrics. Most of the bands in this early incarnation were short lived, but the aesthetic spread thanks to a zine culture that surrounded the scene.

The gestation period for its popularity was unusually long, especially when compared to other scenes. 90s albums considered benchmarks for the genre, such as Weezer’s Pinkerton or Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity would crash and burn on release. It wasn’t until 2002 – almost 20 years after those initial Washington bands – that emo would reach the mainstream.

I wasn’t an emo kid. But I went to some of the shows, and was there in the middle of it all. My memories of emo’s place in the rock pantheon of the mid-2000’s are mainly of derision. There were jokes and taunts directed at those who possessed the emo look; the skinny jeans, black eyeliner, tight band t-shirts, studded belt, and flat, straight, jet-black hair with long bangs.

The uniform of a subculture is sometimes more powerful than the music itself. Not everyone can write Misery Business, but everyone can dress like Hayley Williams. This takes the message they wish to communicate everywhere they go. Maybe there is a socio-political message attached, such as the gender fluidity of emo, but it is just as much a rejection of the generalsised norms. In short, “I’m not like you.”

How are Queen still the biggest band in the world?

Much like the subcultures that came before it, once the emos took over every town centre in the country on a Saturday afternoon, conservative media went into full moral panic mode. In 2008, the Daily Mail famously labelled My Chemical Romance a “suicide cult band” after Hannah Bond, a 13 year old fan of the band, tragically took her own life.

It is absolutely boneheaded to suggest that a performer – any performer – would want their paying audience to die. Some of emo’s more angst-ridden lyrical characteristics naturally made it an easy target and give publications like the Mail an out to shun their own social responsibilities and the culture of hate they peddle, much like blaming the Columbine massacre on video games or the infamous Judas Priest backwards messaging trial.

As obvious as it should be, the collective bonding between the band and audience who explore these themes tend to be a comfort for those attracted to it. Society hasn’t made them feel welcome – least of all the Daily fucking Mail – but they have found a welcoming place in this audience, and they’re expressing the emotions you dissuade them from expressing anywhere else.

Furthermore, despite emo’s stereotype of self-loathing, there was far more humour in much of the music than the casual listener would pick up on, much like the wry observations of The Smiths before it. Much more than, say, the abject misery of Adele‘s songwriting – and I’m yet to see her blamed for the suicide of any of her fans.

The backlash was real, even among other rock fans.

In 2007, My Chemical Romance were one of the biggest rock bands in the world, even scoring a number one single with Welcome To The Black Parade (a very un-number one sounding record). Yet they were pelted with bottles throughout their headline set at that year’s Download festival – with people apparently preferring to waste their time throwing things at emo’s biggest band than see Korn or Suicidal Tendencies playing simultaneously on one of the other stages. Both MCR and Panic! At The Disco were also bottled at the previous year’s Reading Festival, with Panic’s Brendon Urie briefly knocked out by a bottle that hit him in the head. Ironically, both bands would return to Reading as very well received headliners.

A band getting bottled is one thing, but things took a much darker turn internationally.

Mexico especially experienced enough anti-emo violence to gain international headlines with mass beatings in city squares by kids screaming “kill the emos” while filming the battered victims on their flip phones. Time Magazine reported at the time; “Bloody victims lay sobbing on the concrete waiting for ambulances while the mob ran through the nearby streets laughing and cheering.”

This wasn’t mods vs rockers – two rival gangs warring it out. According to The Guardian, this was 800-strong mobs of “pop-listeners, skaters, punks, rockabillies, goths, metalheads and basically anyone who’s not emo putting aside their differences to go beat up kids with big hair and eyeliner.” It was ganging up on the fey kids.

I don’t recall anything physical quite to that level in the UK – although there was the tragic murder of Sophie Lancaster; a goth, but still a member of a similar subculture and Lord knows Kayleigh and Wayne certainly wouldn’t  know the difference. And there was certainly a lot of violent language.

With emo, I can’t shake the feeling that much of this was rooted in toxic masculinity and homophobia. Though most emo singers appear to have been straight men, many did at least seem far more fluid in sexuality and not bound by traditional gender roles. This naturally attracted far more female and LGBTQ+ fans; the make-up, sensitivity, theatricality and outsiderism felt safe to be around. Gerard Way of MCR has been frank about his feelings of gender fluidity, and Fall Out Boy’s 2007 album Infinity On High featured a song called G.I.N.A.S.F.S. – an acronym for Gay Is Not a Synonym For Shitty, deriding the casual homophobia in the popular vernacular.

Topher Gen at Gay Star News has written about how emo helped him to come to terms with his own identity, writing that the bands had fuelled his desire to be himself; “The members’ androgynous style, tight clothes and shameless make-up wearing pushed me to do the same. I soon became the most combative guy at any party I could attend. If these guys could do it, then so would I.”

Even now, watching footage from My Chemical Romance‘s reunion tour – the singing from the crowd is largely a high pitched, clearly female sound. When the big burly metalheads were bottling them at Download, they were hitting the girls at the front – a symbolic image if there ever was one.

It may not have been the first rock subculture to embrace these attitudes, but it may have been the last. Any subculture we’ve seen since hasn’t been centred on a guitar.

There are numerous reasons for this. The increasing redundancy of pure rock music as a cultural force is one. But we’re also less tribal now and rule-based love for music is derided as nothing short of pathetic.

Traditionally, we react against our parents. This is how a musical movement is established. It belongs to us, and the less you understand about it, the better. But how is that possible in a landscape with no rules? If we can listen to whatever we want, whenever we want, without having to part with £15 in HMV on Saturday afternoon, then what’s the use in tribalism?

This was already starting to change before streaming. Emos vs The World is the only music battle I remember from my teenage years. In retrospect, My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco getting bottled at Reading and Download feels like the last attack of the dinosaurs.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the other rock bands of the era haven’t exactly made a dent in the popular consciousness, and weren’t all that influential. Nobody outside of Dundee excitedly cites The View as having a profound impact on their lives. Yet the effect emo had is still being felt on a grand scale. So many of our current pop stars have clearly adopted some emo chic, whether that’s Harry Styles, Billie Eilish or YUNGBLUD. My Chemical Romance are currently playing stadiums throughout the UK, and Paramore, Panic! At the Disco and Fall Out Boy never stopped playing arenas.

But more than that, perhaps the intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive emo kids grew up to become the mental health advocates of today. Emo might have been melodramatic, but it was still a forum for deeper discussion about mental health. Lest we forget, it also peaked at the dawn of social media age where these discussions could be had almost anonymously on MySpace.

Timing is everything. Emo spread just as we began to connect virtually, allowing the disconnected to connect, but before it became a normal part of our everyday lives. Perhaps the reason it could exist as a subculture then is the same reason there aren’t any rock-based subcultures left. We no longer need them. We’re connecting every day.

We at Planet Slop have long been voicing the end of the rock era, and maybe this is another symptom. After all, rock & roll is a communal pastime. Emo was not only the last rock subculture, but the only one to thrive in the very medium that killed the concept.

 

My Chemical Romance play Warrington’s Victoria Park on Friday 27th May.

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