The beginner’s guide to the evolution of emo

Starting way back in the '80s...

‘Emo’ might be music’s dirtiest word. An eyeliner-smudged, often snarkily-delivered genre tag, it’s one that attracts scorn like few others. It’s also one of music’s most confused terms.

While many might point, laugh and snort at the likes of supposed emo forebears like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, the genre’s roots actually extend way back to the 1980s, and the post-hardcore era of West Coast punk. Like most guitar music in the last twenty years, there’s ties to Fugazi too. Inevitable, really.

Below, we’ve brought you the essential briefing to music’s most maligned genre – proof that there’s far more to emo than skinny jeans and floppy fringes.

1. 1980s: The first wave


Born out of Washington D.C.’s 1980s hardcore-punk scene, emo’s roots are often traced back to Rites Of Spring. Musically similar to the scuzzed-up riffing of post-hardcore, it was Rites Of Spring’s personal lyricism that saw them picked out as the fathers of emo. “I woke up this morning with a piece of past caught in my throat / And then I choked,” howls Guy Picciotto on the stunning ‘For Want Of’ – one of the first examples of the intensely “fucked up” (his words, not ours) mindset that would come to define emo’s lyricism and vocal delivery. Be careful with that tidbit of knowledge though – the band themselves fucking hate the tag. “I’ve never recognized ’emo’ as a genre of music,” said a clearly irate Picciotto in a 2003 interview. “I just thought that all the bands I played in were punk-rock bands. The reason I think it’s so stupid is that – what, like the Bad Brains weren’t emotional? What – they were robots or something? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

That rejection of the term ‘emo’ carried on throughout its mid-80s evolution, with bands like the Ian McKaye-fronted Embrace fully, er, embracing the emergent genre’s trappings, but lashing out at the term itself. ‘Emo-core’, as it was then dubbed by skate mag Thrasher, was “the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard”, said McKaye. Regardless, though, Embrace (not to be confused with the Yorkshire group of the same name) joined the likes of Beefeater and Dag Nasty in the 1985 Revolution Summer movement, which saw emo go head-to-head with its hardcore peers, challenging the inherent violence of moshing, and the sexism that sadly remains rife in punk-rock. The majority of the early emo-core groups disappeared as quickly as that ‘core’ suffix, with Piccolotto and McKaye going on to form Fugazi. The scene, however, was set.

The essential bands: Rites Of Spring, Embrace, Beefeater, Dag Nasty

2. 1990s: The second wave

Throughout the ’90s, emo spread out from that West Coast birthplace, most notably taking hold of the Midwest region of America. Bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Piebald, Cap’n Jazz and The Promise Ring tidied up the gnarlier edges of that early emo sound, and amped up the emotion in the process.


It’s an era that captured the hearts and minds of a global youth, with a generation of teenagers quickly becoming enamoured with emo’s woeful sound. Defined by an emotional intimacy between bands and their fans, emo became a fully-fledged underground movement, with labels like Deep Elm and Jade Tree becoming go-to destinations for those on the cutting edge, signing bands such as Joan Of Arc and Nada Surf.

Numerous sub-genres began to splinter off in the mid- to late-’90s, with Midwest emo’s jangly, math-rock-esque take spawning the likes of American Football, while screamo saw bands like Saetia and Orchid fusing the genre with ear-splitting screams, long before the term ‘screamo’ became a meaningless, catch-all term for heavy music.

The essential bands: The Get Up Kids, Sunny Day Real Estate, American Football, Saetia

3. 2000s: The third wave and late-’00s explosion

By the time the millennium came around, the boundaries of emo had blurred even further. The ’00s saw pop-punk and emo become inexorably intertwined, with the likes of Jimmy Eat World, Saves The Day and Brand New fusing their scrappy punk chops and withering lyricism with a sense of melody and pop structure. Elsewhere, more post-hardcore and screamo-leaning acts like Thursday were proving that there was still life in the heavier underground.

And then everything went wild. In the mid-’00s, the emergence of MySpace took emo from a music genre to a fully-fledged counter-culture. The likes of Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Paramore and Panic! At The Disco became the figureheads of this ‘mall emo’ offshoot, which was dominated by skin-tight jeans, ‘guyliner’ and black hair dye, while pant-shitting ‘newspapers’ like The Daily Mail quickly scrambled to declare it some kind of cultural crisis point. It’s fair to say if you asked your mum what emo was, she’d probably pull up a picture of MCR frontman Gerard Way or Paramore’s Hayley Williams – both of whom became icons of the scene almost overnight.

It’s an era that countless emo purists like to reject, but it saw the genre take flight like never before. From heavy MTV rotation to finally becoming part of the wider cultural lexicon, the ’00s took emo further than ever before.

The essential bands: My Chemical Romance, Jimmy Eat World, Paramore, Fall Out Boy, Saves The Day

4. 2010 and beyond…

In the last decade, the term ‘emo’ has become taken two quite clear paths. The ‘emo revival’ saw many bands look back to the genre’s second wave for inspiration, and launched careers for the likes of The Hotelier, La Dispute, Foxing, Modern Baseball and more, each of whom brought their own slant to the emotional indie-rock of their 1990s record collections.

Elsewhere, the likes of Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco and Paramore have transcended the emo tag, becoming fully-fledged, festival-headlining pop acts in the process. Looking to the future, a new generation is also blending emo sensibility with hip-hop. Artists like Lil Peep, Princess Nokia (and her ‘A Girl Cried Red’ mixtape), nothing, nowhere and Ghostemane are tackling the genre with a future-facing approach that’s both irritating old-school emo nerds and exciting young, fresh-faced kids. Where emo goes next? It’s anyone’s guess.

The essential bands: The Hotelier, Modern Baseball, Lil Peep

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