There’s no consensus definition for “emo,” but there are plenty of things related to the culture we can break down. From Rites of Spring to the Fifth Wave and all points in between, here’s a handy guide that will help you avoid being labeled a poser.
My Chemical Romance is touring again, Paramore and Jimmy Eat World are headlining a major festival this fall, and there’s a skinny, tattooed white dude with a guitar dominating the charts. In case you haven’t heard, emo is back, baby! In honor of its return to prominence—plus the 20th anniversary of the first MCR album—The Ringer is following Emo Wendy’s lead and tapping into that nostalgia. Welcome to Emo Week, where we’ll explore the scene’s roots, its evolution to the modern-day Fifth Wave, and some of the ephemera around the genre. Grab your Telecasters and Manic Panic and join us in the Black Parade.
Why is the word “emo” so hard to define? At first, “emo” was short for “emo-core,” which itself is short for “emotional hardcore.” The term was born in the D.C. music scene, where the band Rites of Spring is credited with introducing a new kind of hardcore that focused on the personal instead of the political. But Rites of Spring didn’t embrace the term. Neither did Embrace, another pioneering D.C. band that gets lumped into the category. (Isn’t all music supposed to be emotional?) So if the supposed forefathers of the genre didn’t come up with the word “emo,” who did? Was it Thrasher magazine, who first committed it to print in 1986? Haters jealous of the cultish success of bands like Rites of Spring and Embrace? Just some guys Mike and Dan, as someone hypothesizes in Andy Greenwald’s 2003 book on emo and pop-punk, Nothing Feels Good? Ultimately, some people there at the beginning felt it didn’t even matter. “It didn’t mean anything then and doesn’t to me now,” D.C. musician and activist Jenny Toomey told Greenwald.
But the word clearly means something to some people—or else, why would The Ringer be holding an entire Emo Week? After its humble D.C. beginnings, the movement traveled around the country, and then the world. In the ’90s, emo spread in basements throughout the urban Northeast and small rock venues in the Great Plains. In the 2000s, it spread to Hot Topics in suburban malls and the MTV offices in New York City. Today, with the genre firmly entrenched in its Fifth Wave, it thrives on Bandcamp, where sullen kids from across the globe tap into the spirit of Rites of Spring, sometimes trading guitars and drums for Ableton and sample packs. Along the way, it’s made stars: We owe emo for the likes of My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Fall Out Boy, Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, and dozens of other aughts rock stars, even if all they shared with Rites of Springs was a propensity to turn a mirror onto themselves and write about what they saw.
Still, no one can agree on what “emo” means. But if we can’t define the word itself, we can certainly define the many things that make up emo culture. What follows is a comprehensive attempt to do that: From the key figures to the slang to the seemingly infinite social-networking sites where the culture spread, we’re running through all the strange and beautiful things that have gone into the past 40 years of emo. You may learn something. You may see pieces of yourself in here. Just try not to get emotional about it.
7-inches: Small, typically 45 rpm records that helped spread the music of First- and Second-Wave emo bands, sometimes through “splits” with other bands. They still exist today, but as Andy Greenwald wrote in his book Nothing Feels Good, emo may have been the last culture born of vinyl rather than computer bytes.
8.0: The numerical grade often given to great emo albums by indie-leaning and largely un-emo website Pitchfork. Good enough to qualify as high praise, but still a few decimal points shy of qualifying for the site’s coveted Best New Music designation. The cause of at least a few martyr complexes.
My replies when some emo album gets an 8.0 or less https://t.co/V5akmzOa0h
Absolutepunk: A defunct online community and alternative news source that focused on punk and emo. While Absolutepunk had over tens of thousands of news articles and more than 2,500 reviews in its archives, its biggest draw was its forums, which boasted over 300,000 users at its peak. The perfect place to argue about what’s emo and what’s not.
Alternative Press: An L.A.-based publication that turned into a music news powerhouse. Known for BuzzFeed-style emo quizzes and emo shitposts. Potentially a reason why so many bands who aren’t emo get classified as such—as one publicist for a legendary rock label told me recently, AP became so famous for covering the genre that even some of the straight punk and hardcore bands it covered got slapped with the big E-word.
“Am I Emo?”: A risible how-to guide compiled in 2002 by uncredited author Mara Schwartz Kuge for Seventeen magazine. Kuge’s observations from solid (Promise Ring and Chuck Taylors both never go out of style) to terrible (a “janitor-style” keychain does not exactly equate to chic, emo or otherwise) to offensive (there’s no such thing as “emo pickup lines”; acting like there are will probably get you beat up).
American Apparel: A “sweatshop-free” clothing manufacturer founded by all-time creep Dov Charney. The legacy is appropriately tarnished (and the brick-and-mortar stores are all closed), but the hoodies were undeniably ubiquitous circa 2006.
American Football house, the: Perhaps the most famous piece of architecture in all of emo: Chris Strong’s photograph of a run-down home just outside the University of Illinois in Urbana adorned American Football’s first album cover in 1999. In 2022, it’s a tourist attraction, occasional concert venue, and a meme.
Angles: Anyone with a Myspace account in the early 2000s knows what wonders a digital camera held at exactly the right height—and, almost always, with the flash on—can do. Real heads don’t use selfie sticks.
Away messages: A short greeting for your AOL Instant Messenger or MSN Messenger, and also the perfect place to post your favorite Dashboard lyrics (and maybe get your crush’s attention, but probably not).
Bangs: Whether side-swept or two-toned, having the right hairstyle covering your forehead could be as important as getting the perfect selfie to trick, err, impress your crush.
Barker, Travis: Drummer for the decidedly un-emo pop-punk band Blink-182, who has since gotten enough tattoos to become a totem for rappers looking to make their quote-unquote “emo” project. (See: XXXTentacion, Trippie Redd, and especially Machine Gun Kelly.)
Basement shows: The subterranean concert circuit where countless emo bands cut their teeth. Places where a 40-person show felt like a religious experience—one where the preacher asked if you knew where the bathroom was right after his sermon.
Black Parade, the: Derived from the title of their third album, an affectionate name for the big tent created by mall-punks My Chemical Romance. That album has been dubbed emo’s Sgt Pepper’s. Make of that what you will.
Buddyhead.com: A circa-2000s website turned record label best known as a punk-adjacent provocateur. Started by Travis Keller and Aaron North, Buddyhead was known for its inflammatory gossip news hits and high-profile stunts (which included tagging the Strokes’ tour bus with “$ellout$ $uckn Dick$” and breaking into Fred Durst’s office at Interscope Records). Subject of lawsuits and legal threats by Drive-Thru Records, Courtney Love, and Axl Rose, among many others. “I was just trying to make my friends laugh, express myself, and shine light on shit I thought was cool,” Keller said in 2019. That’s an understatement.
BUDDYHEAD (@buddyhead_) • Instagram photos and videos
Christian Emo: Bands looking for salvation in not just the arms of a man or woman, but also God. Examples include This Providence, Anberlin, and at one point early in their career, Underoath. Of course, bands often reject the Christian label as much as they reject the emo. Take Philly’s mewithoutYou: As frontman Aaron Weiss once said, “I don’t think we live up to that calling, so I’d be reluctant to go saying that, and God knows the truth.”
Connolly, Cynthia: One of the pioneering women of the D.C. punk and hardcore scene (and by extension, early emo). A photographer and graphic designer, she’s best known documenting the city’s punk and hardcore scene and making the cover for Minor Threat’s Out of Step. She also worked closely with Dischord Records from the late ’80s through early 2000s, and booked and promoted shows at the legendary alt-arts venue d.c. space. Her works are collected in the book Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes From the DC Punk Underground (79–85).
CD-Rs: After mixtapes and before playlists, mixes were burned onto CDs from HP tower computers and fancifully decorated with Sharpie scribbles. Perhaps the most intimate expression of desire—nothing says “I yearn for you” like a well-placed Jimmy Eat World drop.
Darko, Donnie: The titular character from the 2001 cult film classic starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The mopey, hypnotherapist-visiting teen felt like the perfect avatar for the era, even if he preferred Echo & the Bunnymen to Rites of Spring. (And even if no one can really explain the plot of the film.)
Defend Pop Punk: A tongue-in-cheek rallying cry started by New Jersey’s Man Overboard, meant to parody a Most Precious Blood logo that called to “Defend Hardcore.” Explaining the difference between pop-punk and emo—particularly the more mainstream Third-Wave stuff—can sometimes feel like giving into the narcissism of small differences. (The short, vague answer is to evoke Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: You know emo when you see it.) If nothing else, “Defend Pop Punk” makes for a great T-shirt.
LIKE to Defend POP PUNK RT to Defend METALCORE pic.twitter.com/PW6umd9ijX
DeviantArt: An online community founded in 2000 for art, videography, and photography. Likely launched more amateur modeling and photography careers than the Polaroid.
Diary (album): Sunny Day Real Estate’s landmark 1994 debut album and perhaps the finest LP the emo genre ever produced (if only for its first three tracks). Notable for how the Seattle band stood apart from geographical peers in grunge and Jeremy Enigk’s melodic—though not too melodic—singing. Diary was Sub Pop’s second best-selling album of the 1990s behind Nirvana’s Bleach, and SDRE bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith would join Dave Grohl in Foo Fighters. In an alternate timeline, maybe Sunny Day Real Estate would’ve been the big bang that changed rock music in the ’90s.
Diary (yours): There’s a reason why Diary felt like the perfect title for an emo album: So much of the genre as we’ve come to know it seems based on the words frantically scribbled down on a notebook before bed or posted to a low-trafficked LiveJournal. (Famously, Enigk pulled lyrics from his own personal journals to craft the songs on the SDRE debut.) Part of the appeal of a lyricist like Chris Carrabba is his ability to take highly specific details and make them feel relatable. (“It’s warmer where you’re waiting / It feels more like July / There’s pillows in their cases / And one of those is mine.”) It feels like his diary—or maybe yours—come to life.
Diaries, The Emo: A series of 12 compilations put out by Deep Elm Records between 1997 and 2011 that shined light on dozens of independent bands and helped define the sound of what came to be considered “emo” in the genre’s Third Wave. Originally intended to be called The Emotional Diaries, but it wouldn’t fit on the cover.
Dischord Records: Legendary D.C. record label founded by Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson in 1980. Home to Fugazi, Rites of Spring, Embrace, and countless other legendary hardcore and punk bands, Dischord is still going today and still doing it DIY style. Speaking of which …
DIY: The punk ethos of doing it yourself—booking your own tours, pressing your own CDs, taking ownership over your art. This isn’t music, it’s a lifestyle, man.
DMCA: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which made downloading pirated MP3s illegal. Despite a few horror stories and urban legends, though, it didn’t stop anyone from loading up their iPods.
Donut Friend: Pair of vegan donut stores (and an ice cream shop) in Los Angeles founded by famed emo producer Mark Trombino. Best known for naming its donuts after punk, indie, and emo bands. Try the X-Ray Speculoos, Jets to Basil, or Strawberry Lab next time you’re in town.
Egan, Rich: Pop-punk populist and one-time emo bogeyman who helped turn the genre into big business through his Vagrant Records. As label owner/manager, he played a role in making stars out of the Get Up Kids, Saves the Day, and Dashboard Confessional, and in the early 2000s he concocted an emo barnstorming tour called Vagrant America that brought the company’s acts to every corner of the country. Subject of countless turn-of-the-century media profiles about the rebirth of punk (plus some criticism for seeing the music as a money-making venture). Vagrant was acquired by BMG in 2014; Egan left the company three years later.
Emo (noun): Derived from the phrase “emotional hardcore,” or “emo-core.” As outlined in the preface to this dictionary, a nebulous term, as least as it relates to genre. In just under 40 years, it’s gone through several waves (we’re on our fifth now) and encompassed disparate bands like Rites of Spring, Dashboard Confessional, and Camp Cope. Expanding the definition, pop-punk acts like blink-182 and Avril Lavigne sometimes get lumped in, though strict originalists shudder at the thought. We’ll give you $20 if you can come up with a definition everyone agrees with.
Emo (adjective): Short for “emotional.” A little easier to apply: Drake isn’t big-E Emo, but he certainly is emo. You’ve been emo before too.
Emo’s (club): A club in Austin, Texas, formerly near the Red River District downtown, now located on Riverside Drive. Not specifically an emo venue, though the emo/Emo’s distinction fooled at least one musician briefly: Mineral’s Chris Simpson.
Emo Night(s): The number of emo-themed dance nights that have sprung in the past five or six years now seems impossible to count. There’s Emo Night Brooklyn (which, confusingly, takes its show on the road sometimes resulting in events like Emo Night Brooklyn OKC). There’s a party once known as Taking Back Tuesday, the Los Angeles-based Emo Nite (which played Coachella this year). There’s Emo Night: London. There are variations like Myspace Emo Prom in Chicago. If we were to list all that we could find, this dictionary would turn into a directory.
The rapid spread of emo nights across the U.S. underscores how emo nostalgia has turned into a big business. Predictably, there have been disputes over who owns the rights to the idea, with a trademark battle over the name “Emo Night.” And the profits aren’t just confined to cover charges: The L.A. iteration has sold hundreds if not thousands of their “Sad As Fuck” T-shirt, while the Brooklyn crew recorded an original song in 2018. There’s a lot of money to be made playing mid-aughts classics off of a Spotify playlist.
Emo rap: Heart-on-sleeves hip-hop music that deals with relationship and familial problems in a manner not unfamiliar to fans of emo rock. We’ll get into the Lil Peeps and Juice WRLDs in a bit, but it’s worth shouting out early 2000s indie rap stalwarts like Atmosphere and Sage Francis who first earned the label for their heart-on-sleeves bars. God loves ugly, and he also loves emo.
Emo Revival: A somewhat inaccurate name for Fourth-Wave that implies the genre ever truly went away. Years after emo’s commercial Third-Wave apex, a bunch of mostly independent acts operating in similar sounds were grouped under the Revival umbrella: the World Is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, the Hotelier, Modern Baseball, and Touché Amoré. (The latter may be closer to hardcore than emo-core, but this is a dictionary, not an op-ed page.) The term is occasionally still bandied about today, about a decade after music publications first began evoking it—and years into the Fifth Wave of emo. It’s probably only a matter of time before we get the Emo Revival Revival.
“Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t”: The seminal 2003 essay by Jessica Hopper that explained how emo—particular around the turn of the century—had become a super-macho boys club, where girls had no names but were always to blame for the protagonist’s woes. It cut against what many had considered the genre to be: a more considerate, progressive collection of music written and sung by waifish, sensitive dudes with a propensity for wearing makeup and skinny jeans. But a closer examination of the lyrics and the lack of equality in the scene made it impossible to ignore Hopper’s point. The genre’s grown more inclusive in its Fourth and Fifth Waves, but the reports of sexual misconduct by Brand New’s Jesse Lacey in 2017 resurfaced the genre’s undercurrent of toxic masculinity.
Emogame: A series of crude Flash games that appeared online between 2002 and 2004. Plotlines involved Skeletor as the devil, the Alkaline Trio as hit-and-run victims, the Get Up Kids getting assaulted by Steven Tyler, and George W. Bush as, well, a president who started a war over oil. (Maybe that last part is forgivable.) In 2017, the games were taken down and their creator offered a public apology to Chris Carrabba and New Found Glory. As Rob Harvilla likes to say, don’t get involved.
Fest, the: An annual punk and hardcore concert that attracts about 4,000 people to Gainesville, Florida, every year. Subject of the 2010 documentary Fested: A Journey To Fest 7. This year’s edition takes place in late October and features legendary emo groups like Samiam, Algernon Cadwallader, and Cursive.
Fifth-Wave Emo: The current wave of emo, which began roughly around the mid-2010s. Like all waves, there’s no one unifying sound. (This Fifth-Wave explainer thread by the excellent Palm Coast, Florida, band Home Is Where shows just how diverse the genre’s current crop is.) The question is now: When does Sixth-Wave Emo begin and how will we know it?
5th wave emo variants explained with bands part of that sound. this is in no way trying to pigeonhole these bands into a micro genre of a sub genre. this is for people just getting into or don’t understand what 5th wave is. all these bands rule. 5th wave or die pic.twitter.com/dgO0jx57YB
Fire Party: All-female D.C. hardcore band led by Amy Pickering that existed from the mid-1980s through 1990. Once described as “the world’s first female-fronted emo band.” (See also: Revolution Summer.)
Friendster: An early social networking site that predates wherever you get your instant dopamine rush today. Friendster crawled so Myspace could fly (and Facebook could crash the plane).
Friendsorenemies.com: A social networking site founded by Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz in 2005 that allowed users to separate people into lists of who they liked and didn’t like. More importantly, it gave fans up-close access to blogs by All-American Rejects and Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy, not to mention the Fall Out Boys themselves. (Sometimes, that access was really up-close—like when Wentz and Ashlee Simpson announced their engagement via the website.)
Fueled by Ramen: Founded by John Janick and Less Than Jake’s Vinnie Fiorello in 1996, one of the most successful emo labels ever, no matter how you define “emo.” Artists once or currently signed to the label include Fall Out Boy, Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, and Panic! at the Disco. FBR still exists, but both Janick and Fiorello are gone, with Janick serving as CEO of Interscope Records. (Home of modern-day, emo-adjacent pop acts Machine Gun Kelly and Olivia Rodrigo.)
Fugazi: The post-hardcore group that included Ian MacKaye and Rites of Spring’s Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty. Not an emo band, though they’ve likely done more to influence your emo favorites than any other act you can think of.
Fuse (TV network): An emo-adjacent cable network? Sure, why not. Fuse is best remembered for programming like Steven’s Untitled Rock Show, which broadcast emo and screamo to millions of kids sick of MTV’s reality-heavy programming. Fuse is still around, but it’s dramatically scaled back its music content, and the world is a little less emo for it.
Get Up Kids, the: Pop-emo band from Missouri that did as much as anyone to bridge the gap between the genre’s more underground Second Wave and its mainstream Third Wave. A key part of the Vagrant Records global-domination plan in the early aughts and the people to blame for the New Amsterdams and Reggie and the Full Effect.
Goth: A fashion style/lifestyle distinctly different from emo, even if they share a certain sullen disposition. Where emo style thrives on the ability to care while appearing as though you don’t, goth reeks of effort and is proud of it. To this end: The Cure is firmly goth, not emo.
Green Day: A decidedly not emo band—no matter how many times Billie Joe Armstrong asks you to wake him up when September ends—whose ascent in the mid-’90s nonetheless helped kick off a major-label feeding frenzy over punk, emo, and hardcore groups.
Hardcore: The punk subgenre that sprung up in the late ’70s and early ’80s around Southern California, Washington, D.C., and other regional hubs. Emo grew out of its scene—specifically in the nation’s capital, as artists began incorporating more personal lyrics. There are dozens of permutations of hardcore, so be careful before you start calling a mathcore band emo.
Hot Topic: The commercial mecca for scene kids located on the third floor of your local suburban shopping center. A pilgrimage site for any self-respecting (or self-loathing) scene kid who needed band tees but couldn’t make it to the show.
Indie rock: The hipper (or at least snobbier), more detached cousin of emo that also peaked in the aughts. While also known in its heyday for skinny jeans and its instantly striking hairstyles, indie typically played it cooler with its emotions. Perhaps not coincidentally, aside from a few success stories like the Strokes and White Stripes, the indie bands who tended to make it big were a lot louder with their emotions. (Think: Arcade Fire.)
iPod: Before smartphones, a port in the storm that is life. Coming in various colors and storage capacities, Apple’s portable music player changed the way we listen to music. Streaming would later do the same—for better or worse—but nothing will ever feel the same as a click wheel.
IsThisBandEmo.com: A website created by the Washed Up Emo podcast’s Tom Mullen that will tell you whether your favorite band is emo or not. Some results may shock you—you’ll gasp when you check for MCR—but before you get upset, remember that it ain’t that serious.
iTunes: Apple’s now-defunct music software. (While the name of the program has changed to simply “Music,” the iTunes Store chugs along for people who have yet to adopt streaming services.) Besides it being the feeder for the iPod, the program’s biggest draw was allowing users to curate their digital collections. Whether your MP3s were a chaotic mess or highly organized said a lot about you as a person.
Jawbreaker: Jawbreaker’s story is supremely ’90s punk: Shortly before the Bay Area band released their great second album, Bivouac, hyperliterate frontman Blake Schwarzenbach developed a polyp on his vocal chords. He had surgery, which affected how his voice would sound on subsequent records. After returning to the States, the members took up day jobs—Schwarzenbach as a librarian—and when it came time to record their third album, Jawbreaker did it at Steve Albini’s house. That confluence of events produced one of ’90s rock’s defining artifacts, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. Major-label bidding ensued, and they landed on David Geffen’s label for the 24 Hour followup, Dear You. It was clean and crisp—something a sellout band would do. Everyone hated it at the time. Now everyone loves it. (How could you hate a song like “Accident Prone”?) Of course, Jawbreaker broke up after Dear You before reuniting in 2017. (To the possible chagrin of the band that named itself Jawbreaker Reunion—really messes up the SEO.)
But is Jawbreaker emo? This has vexed IsThisBandEmo.com, though the site has ultimately decided to go with popular opinion and affirm their status as forefathers of the genre. Call them post-hardcore if you’d like, but at least acknowledge that a band responsible for the lyrics “I kissed the bottle / I should’ve been kissing you / You wake up to an empty night / With tears for two” deserves to be acknowledged in this exercise.
Kelly, Machine Gun: The rapper-turned-pop-punk pitchman who teamed with Travis Barker for his last two albums. Probably the face of mainstream emo-adjacent music—he has a song with Willow Smith named “emo girl.” Say what you will about the music, but at least he seems to be owning his late-career pivot: His most recent album is titled Mainstream Sellout.
Kerrang!: A British hard rock magazine that started publishing in the 1980s but didn’t reach its commercial peak until it shifted its focus to emo and metalcore in the mid-2000s. Since then, Kerrang! has returned to its natural state of Slipknot cover stories.
Kinsella brothers, the: Two handsome dudes from the Midwest named Mike and Tim who did as much for the genre in its Second Wave as anyone. Together, they’d both play in Cap’n Jazz, Joan of Arc, and Owls. Mike would add American Football, Owen, and Their / They’re / There to his résumé, while Tim’s notable non-Kinsella clan works include Friend/Enemy. True ambassadors for the emo brand and proof that no matter what the lyrics may say, family ain’t all that bad.
Lavigne, Avril: Pop-punk and not emo, for sure, but think of the fashion. Practically all teen emo gals in the early aughts had a pic of themselves with a tie over their tank tops on their Photobucket accounts.
LimeWire: A post-Napster file-sharing service where you downloaded dashboard_confessional_featuring_adam_lazzara_live.mp3 only to discover it was a mislabeled Saves the Day song. (See also: BearShare, Kazaa, Morpheus, and probably a dozen others.)
LiveJournal: Of all the circa-Y2K social networking sites, LiveJournal was the most “emo” at its core. Developed by Brad Fitzpatrick when he was just a teenager, the basic blogging site quickly turned into a digital diary for millions of users. Suddenly, what was once tucked under your pillow became sentiments for the whole world to absorb. It wasn’t always—or often—pretty, but it was raw. (And more than a little rawr XD.)
Long Island, New York: Home to a vibrant emo/scream scene that included Taking Back Sunday, the Movielife, glassjaw, and From Autumn To Ashes. Once dubbed the “new Seattle” by New York magazine. It wasn’t, but the moniker isn’t that far off.
Long song titles: There’s a cottage industry of clickbait dedicated to the long emo song title, but consider the beauty of one in particular: Fall Out Boy’s “‘I’ve Got a Dark Alley and a Bad Idea That Says You Should Shut Your Mouth (Summer Song).’” It’s the “(Summer Song)” that sells this—did FOB add the parenthetical because they felt the song title needed more words? To give it a shorthand name for fans? To change the mood from the threatening aura of “I’ve Got a Dark Alley, etc.” to something sweeter? Whatever the reason, let it be known that the 18 words in that title make up just a fraction of the 127 that appeared on From Under the Cork Tree’s back sleeve.
MacKaye, Ian: MacKaye’s name frequently pops up in these kinds of exercises despite a simple fact: The man hated the term “emo.” In 1986, the former Minor Threat, then-Embrace frontman dismissed “emo-core” as the “stupidest fucking thing” he’d ever heard of. Maybe he was right—all music is emotional, after all—and maybe there was a better name for what was going on. But the name stuck, and in a way, the pioneering punk became a trailblazer in another way: He kicked off a long tradition of emo musicians rejecting the label outright. (See also: Dischord Records; Fugazi; Philips, Emo; Revolution Summer; Thrasher.)
Makeoutclub: A very early social networking site catering to young music fans, particularly ones who described themselves as “emo” or “indie.” While it didn’t leave the same cultural footprint as Myspace, it was a big deal for the thousands who used it. As one MOC member told Andy Greenwald for Spin in 2001, it was a “great way to get to know a person on the inside.” It didn’t hurt that it was also a place to find a hookup who liked the same bands as you.
Manic Panic: The hair dye of choice for 2000s scene kids. Responsible for countless shocked glances at family functions.
Midwest Emo: As much a sound as it was a regional movement, Midwest Emo is often used interchangeably with Second-Wave Emo, the 1990s iteration of the genre. It can be confusing, but it’s what allows emo taxonomists to group bands like Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate and Texas’s Mineral alongside Illinois’s American Football and Kansas City’s the Get Up Kids. Midwest Emo, which sounds more like lo-fi alternative rock than it does ’80s D.C. hardcore, is often marked by open guitar tuning and less aggressive melodies. Where the D.C. stuff relied on pure energy, the ’90s bands largely worked toward catharsis. There’s no better example than perhaps the best song the genre has produced: the 1999 American Football song “Never Meant,” a 4:30 journey into sparkling riffs, odd time signatures, and odder falsettos. “Not to be overly dramatic,” Mike Kinsella sings as a narrator trying to pave over a painful past, “I just think it’s best / ‘Cause you can’t miss what you forget.”
A decade-plus earlier, Rites of Spring and Embrace were playing whack-a-mole with all the heavy emotions they were experiencing, but bands like American Football ran straight toward them. The style named after a regional scene is part of the reason the genre became adored nationally a few years later.
Modern Baseball: Perhaps the biggest band of the fourth wave. Even Wendy’s has thoughts about bringing them back.
MTV Unplugged: A series of stripped-down TV concerts that featured Eric Clapton, Mariah Carey, Nirvana, LL Cool J, and Jay-Z. Big names—considerably bigger than Dashboard Confessional was when Chris Carrabba was asked to bring his guitar and stool to the studio in 2002. But despite being the first act who had yet to go platinum to headline the series, Dashboard put on one of the more memorable performances in Unplugged history. Images of teens weeping and finishing Carrabba’s lines for him were broadcast into millions of homes. The next year, Carrabba got a Spin cover that name-checked the special and compared his fan base to a cult. It was titled “The Crying Game.”
Myspace: The platonic ideal of a social-networking site, one that allowed bands to connect directly with fans like never before and users to let their emo flags fly in the form of GIFs, elaborate wallpapers, and MCR lyrics in the About Me section. Likely taught more than a few scene kids to code basic HTML and made many feel like Cool New People. While life can be lonely and isolating, Myspace was a reminder that you’ll always have at least one friend. His name was Tom.
Never Been Kissed: A 1999 Drew Barrymore rom-com about a literary type with a lacking love life (sounds pretty emo) who poses as a high school student for a story and eventually develops a relationship with one of the school’s teachers (less emo). For emo’s purposes, look to the soundtrack, which snuck in Jimmy Eat World’s “Lucky Denver Mint” amid R.E.M. and Cardigans songs.
Nu-metal: Look, it’s ridiculous we have to say this, but despite its ability to attract disaffected teens, nu-metal is not emo. (Think of it as the aggro, Mountain Dew–swilling cousin of emo.) But on a long enough timeline, things get flattened, so don’t be shocked if you hear Papa Roach or “Break Stuff” at your local Emo Night.
Nothing Feels Good (album): The landmark second LP by Milwaukee emo rockers the Promise Ring. The titular phrase pops up on the album’s best track, “Red & Blue Jeans”: “Nothing feels good like you,” Davey von Bohlen cries through his trademark lisp. There’s a beautiful ambiguity to that phrase. Read it however you’d like, but whichever way you choose to, you’re going to feel it.
Nothing Feels Good (book): The classic book on emo culture by Andy Greenwald (of The Ringer’s The Watch podcast). Make sure to read for stories of college-aged Chris Ryan going to basement emo shows in Boston.
Nowcore! (The Punk Rock Evolution): A shockingly excellent late-’90s compilation of indie and emo produced by K-Tel, the company known for hawking ice-cream makers and country LPs in late-night infomercials. Artists include Braid, At the Drive-in, the Promise Ring, Modest Mouse, Hum, and Texas Is the Reason. Worth stealing your mom’s credit card for.
Oberst, Conor: The Omaha-born singer is more of a Dylanesque troubadour than a Kinsella-indebted rocker now, but for a few years in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Oberst was the face of indie emo. On Bright Eyes albums like Fevers and Mirrors and Letting Off the Happiness, he wailed some of the most nakedly aching lyrics ever committed to wax. His other project from the time, Desaparecidos, ditched the acoustic for the electric and tackled the gray expanse of the Midwest like only a true emo kid could. But true heads know that Conor’s history with the genre goes back even further: As a teen, he started Commander Venus with eventual members of the Faint and Tim Kasher, who would go on to found Cursive and the Good Life. Just listen to “We’ll Always Have Paris” and tell me Dylan could do this.
Orange Rhyming Dictionary: No emo dictionary would be complete without the most notable dictionary in the genre, Jets to Brazil’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary. (Which truthfully may hue a little closer to indie than emo, but given the presence of Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach and Texas Is the Reason’s Chris Daly, we’re gonna count it.)
Peep, Lil: Long Island rap-adjacent musician dubbed the “future of emo” by Pitchfork. Lil Peep rapped over songs sampling early Modest Mouse, the Microphones, Brand New, and Mineral, but beyond those aesthetic choices, the face-tatted vocalist expressed depression better than any artist of his generation. Peep died in 2017 at the age of 21 of an accidental overdose. (See also: SoundCloud Rap.)
Philips, Emo: The comedian name-checked in Ian MacKaye’s “emo-core” rant. Not an emo musician, but maybe his falsetto could’ve made him the perfect one. (See also: MacKaye, Ian.)
Picciotto, Guy: Pronounced ghee and not gie. Patient zero for the genre, even if all he was trying to do was make hardcore in a way that felt right to him. In 1984, a teenaged Picciotto formed Rites of Spring, which took its cues from other D.C. bands like Minor Threat and cranked the energy up to a thousand. Rites may have gone down as just another footnote in a thriving scene if not for one key difference: Where hardcore had been a largely political genre, Picciotto made Rites music more personal. Take their best and most popular song, “For Want Of”: “I woke up this morning / With a piece of past caught in my throat / And then I choked,” he sings. Powerful stuff from a teenager, especially when consumed by a fellow teenager. Rites of Spring would play only 19 shows in its brief existence; a scant three of those took place outside of the DMV area. Their influence, however, remains strong 40 years on. Even if it’s difficult to see the direct lineage in the music between Picciotto’s first band and the stuff plastered all over MTV in the early 2000s, it’s bound together by direct expression of raw, youthful emotions. (See also: Fugazi; Revolution Summer.)
Piercings: Emo rap had face tats. At its 2000s peak, emo proper had facial piercings. Take your pick: labret, Monroe, or angel bites.
Pinkerton: The case for Emo Weezer is based on one album: 1996’s Pinkerton, the follow-up to their self-titled smash-hit debut. While its predecessor is alternative bliss, Pinkerton is a partly neurotic, partly romantic journey into Rivers Cuomo’s psyche. What’s there wasn’t always pretty—the open Asian fetish, for one—and critics hated it. But many listeners loved it, and when Weezer returned from a self-imposed hiatus a few years later, they were hoping for more songs like “Tired of Sex.” What they got instead were nondescript hits like “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun.” At least Pinkerton devotees got this SNL sketch many years later, when Leslie Jones volunteered as their tribute.
Phase, a: What you told your parents you weren’t going through during your emo years, even if that’s exactly what you were going through.
Poser: Someone who co-opts a style or movement to fit in without having paid the proper dues. Every popular subculture has ’em.
Post-hardcore: What virtually every band that gets labeled “emo” wants to be called. “Post-Hardcore Week” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
Postal Service, the: If the most emo thing you can do is send long-distance love letters then the most emo way you can create music is to mail tracks back and forth. Around the turn of the century, that’s exactly what Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and producer Dntel did. They christened the project with a name inspired by the means of collaboration, and their resulting album has one of the most emo titles possible: Give Up. Their biggest hit (“Such Great Heights”) is an electronic emo song through and through, and in true classic emo fashion, they broke up after one great album and have only teased at new music since then.
Rainer Maria: A prominent (and excellent) second-wave band that featured vocalists Caithlin De Marrais and Kaia Fischer sometimes harmonizing, sometimes dueling. Like many great emo bands, there was a literary reference baked into their DNA: They’re named after the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
Rawr XD: Translates to “I love you” in … dinosaur? Possibly a DeviantArt invention. The last thing you want to see someone else commenting on your gal’s or guy’s Myspace PFP.
Reines siblings, the: Foul-mouthed, shit-talking brother and sister Richard and Stefanie Reines, who founded the influential California label, Drive-Thru Records in 1996. Artists on Drive-Thru included Hellogoodbye, New Found Glory, Something Corporate, and early Dashboard Confessional. With New Found Glory, in particular, they figured out how to market emo to a mass audience: The band’s third album, Sticks and Stones, shocked the industry when it debuted at no. 4 on the Billboard chart, and it was eventually certified platinum. Unfortunately, the company struggled to find success long term. After entering into a series of disadvantageous deals with larger companies, Richard and Stefanie shuttered Drive-Thru’s doors seemingly for good in 2008.
Revolution Summer: An idea hatched by Fire Party’s Amy Pickering to reclaim the D.C. punk and hardcore scene in the summer of 1985, focused on counteracting the growing violence and sexism in the community by focusing on more inclusive and progressive ideals. Pickering’s platform embraced animal rights and communal living while shunning racism and “slam-dancing.” It sounds like the wide-eyed dreams of a young optimist, but the spirit of the Revolution Summer has reverberated over the past four decades: Riot Grrrl and Positive Force both trace its roots to this moment. As does emo. The official start of Revolution Summer—June 21, 1985—is marked by one of the most fabled performances in the genre’s history: Rites of Spring’s sweat-drenched, 11-song sonic boom at Nightclub 9:30. (See also: MacKaye, Ian; Picciotto, Guy.)
Russia: In an attempt to address mental health issues among teens, the Russian legislature briefly considered “Government Strategy in the Sphere of Spiritual and Ethical Education” in 2008—legislation that would’ve heavily limited “emo” websites and regulated emo and goth dress styles in schools. The totalitarian-sounding measure failed, allowing the West’s most nebulous musical export to continue to spread freely in the country without fear of persecution.
Scene: Typically referring to the Manic Panic’d and neon-cloaked fashion of the mid-2000s, though musicians like Brokencyde, 3OH!3, and Jeffree Star are best classified as scene over emo. (See also: Poser.)
Screamo: A subgenre to the subgenre of emo marked by aggressive music and vocals pushed to within an inch of breaking. Sometimes synonymous with metalcore. It’s complicated.
Sellout: The worst thing a band could be called. This distinction was typically earned by signing to a major label or doing something to display the desire to make money off music. An antiquated term that means nothing to anyone under the age of 30.
Sellout: A 2021 book by Dan Ozzi that covers a handful of punk, emo, and hardcore bands making their major label debut. Artists covered include: My Chemical Romance, Jawbreaker, and Thursday, who adorns Sellout’s cover.
Skrillex: Before he donned the most famous haircut of the 2010s, the bro-step EDM hero was the frontman of From First to Last, the SoCal post-hardcore/emo gods best known for songs like “Emily” and “Make War.” For what’s it worth, the severe undercut probably fits him better than sideswept bangs.
Smiths, the: Morrissey and Co. are not an emo band—they’re post-punk or proto indie if anything—but it’s hard not to associate the boys from Manchester with the word. The hardcore kids loved them and some learned a few things about pop songcraft from them. Plus, Moz frequently tossed off lines like, “So for once in my life / let me get what I want / Lord knows it would be the first time.” Consider them patron saints of emo.
SoundCloud Rap: A subgenre of hip-hop named after the DIY streaming site it proliferated on. Typified for its moody beats, auto-tuned wailing, and face tats, the term became a pejorative shortly after it broke through to the mainstream in 2017. But it produced a lot of great music, and Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi Vert became the biggest artists of their generations. As always, sadness sells when teens are the ones buying it.
Sports: Where so many emo bands get their names from: American Football, Modern Baseball, Chinese Football, Football, etc. The great fourth-wave band Dikembe (presumably named after basketball great Dikembe Mutumbo), has an EP titled Chicago Bowls in which every song turns a Bulls player into a weed pun. (“Michael Jordank,” “Luc Bongley,” etc.) All of this is somewhat ironic considering most emo musicians aren’t exactly world-class athletes.
Stick-and-pokes: Tattoos done with a needle without an electric gun. A way for kids under 18 to get ink on the cheap. Also an aesthetic choice for people old enough and with the means to get professional tattoos.
Straight edge: An emo-adjacent lifestyle based on abstaining from mind-altering substances. Like most things here, it starts with Ian MacKaye.
SuicideGirls: The “alt” lewd and nude website/magazine that employed models with a “punk” aesthetic. Dubbed “The Punk Pornographers” by Spin, SG once had a book sold at Urban Outfitters. Of course, there were issues—shocking, considering the business was ran by people named “Missy Suicide” and “Spooky.”
Telecaster: An affordable electric guitar that’s practically a birthright for sullen teens. The Telecaster is also the perfect instrument for that beloved Midwest Emo sound. Don’t buy your kid a Tele unless you’re prepared to deal with the fallout.
“The Middle”: In 2002, as most of the music press was spilling untold gallons of ink about the Strokes and the White Stripes, a group of emo survivors shot up the charts and improbably landed as one of Billboard’s Songs of the Summer. Jimmy Eat World had toiled away as an afterthought on Capitol for a few years, failing to break through in any meaningful way. Their fourth album—alternately self-titled or called Bleed American depending on when you encountered it—changed that. Released on DreamWorks after the dissolution of the Capitol relationship, the LP spawned “The Middle,” a power-pop anthem that sounds like the Replacements swapped out Paul Westerberg for the class valedictorian. Accompanied by a seemingly salacious but ultimately sweet video, “The Middle” was a song about succeeding by being yourself and not succumbing to the pressures around you. For a band that had triumphed following their major-label woes, it seemed more than a bit autobiographical.
Third-Wave Emo: The reason we’re having Emo Week at The Ringer. The genre has rich artistic roots that date back to the ’80s hardcore scene, but the third wave is what made emo go pop. Dashboard Confessional, My Chemical Romance, Panic! At the Disco, Fall Out Boy—all the biggest stars that spring to mind when you think “emo” belong to this era of the genre.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the era when “emo” went from pop-punk and post-hardcore curio to something more codified—and ultimately mockable. Hot Topic sales didn’t boom because of Sunny Day Real Estate, and the Promise Ring didn’t have scene kids reaching for black eyeliner. Third-wave emo is when “emo” became something kids embraced en masse—and for many that found it during the 2000s, it was just a phase. Perhaps for that reason, third-wave emo should be considered emo’s hair metal phase. But not all hair metal was bad.
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The O.C.: The popular aughts Fox teen drama known for its soundtrack. While a lot of the music fell into the “indie rock” bucket, emo bands like Pinback, Bright Eyes, and Jimmy Eat World snuck into the mix. (Death Cab for Cutie—who could be classified as either “emo” or “indie” depending on who’s doing the classifyin’—also featured prominently on the show.) If that’s not enough for inclusion in this exercise, let me add two words: Seth Cohen.
Thrasher: The skate magazine that first published the term “emo-core.” In January 1986, Thrasher wrote:
It goes by the name of Emo-Core or Emotional Core. Bands like Embrace (featuring Ian MacKaye), Rites of Spring, Beefeater, among others, are taking the severe intensity of an emotional projection and adding it totally into their respective live sets. Crowds are said to be left in tears from the intensity. This sort of a gig is not a frequent affair as the bands are fully drained after their performances.
While this prompted MacKaye’s famous against-emo monologue, it’s worth noting that when second-wave gods Sunny Day Real Estate got their national TV break on MTV’s 120 Minutes, singer Jeremy Enigk was sporting a Thrasher tee.
Top 8: A MySpace feature that allowed users to place their eight favorite friends, crushes, and bands on their profile. Source of many blood feuds, and easily the best (and worst) thing the social-networking site ever did (and, probably, the reason why Kevin Durant liked it so much). (See also: MySpace.)
Tumblr: A microblogging site launched in 2007 where online emo culture lived in the post-MySpace days. Births its own aesthetic that’s probably more associated with Drake and early Weeknd records than with emo, but as previously stated, those guys were emo in their own way.
Twilight: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: The album accompanying the 2008 film about a relationship with a waifish, romantic vampire. (Hey, sunlight and emo don’t exactly go hand in hand.) Included two Paramore songs. One of them, “Decode,” charted in the top 40. In the twilight of third-wave emo, Twilight held us down.
Twinkle daddy: A silly term for emo-ish bands with sparkling guitar riffs and hoarse vocals like Algernon Cadwallader and CSTVT. Possibly invented by the ultimate twinkle daddies and mommies, the World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die. (See also: Emo Revival.)
Vans (brand): A skate brand that transcends skating; a mall staple that has beat the poser charges in a way that Hot Topic and Journeys could never. (See also: Warped Tour.)
Vans (transportation mode): The only way any credible band can get around. Nothing’s more punk than piling in a camper with three to four other people, a bunch of gear, and three pairs of underwear for a basement show tour.
Victory Records: The onetime home to bands like Thursday, Taking Back Sunday, and Hawthorne Heights. At the label’s peak, founder Tony Brummel was called out for allegedly fraudulent accounting practices and, um, something to do with a whoopee cushion. Victory was sold for $30 million in 2019.
Warped Tour: A traveling festival that started as an alternative rock festival but eventually morphed into a punk and emo series. At its mid-aughts peak, it wasn’t uncommon to see punk legends NOFX next to emo acts like New Found Glory and Taking Back Sunday. Sponsored by Vans for much of its existence, Warped Tour shut down in 2019, though it could reportedly return as soon as 2023 in case you need an excuse to dust off your old checkered slip-ons.
Weed emo: Just trust us, this is a real genre (on Bandcamp, at least).
Webb, Marc: Famed music video director who parlayed gigs like “Helena” and “Ocean Avenue” into (500) Days of Summer, two Spider-Man movies, and the upcoming live-action Snow White adaptation. That’s taking emo lemons and making box-office lemonade.
Wentz, Pete: Fall Out Boy’s bassist (the rare occasion when the bassist is undeniably the coolest person in the band). He’s the mastermind of the entire operation, the ex-husband of Ashlee Simpson, and the only emo musician for whom an article headlined “PETE WENTZ TALKS KANYE & MEETING JAY Z WHILE SNEAKER SHOPPING” doesn’t feel at all strange.
Winamp: The cool MP3-software alternative to iTunes known for its visualizers, skins, and an easy-to-use EQ. Well maybe not that cool—it did say “It really whips the llama’s ass” when you loaded it up. That’s a bug, not a feature, guys.
When We Were Young (festival): A two-day festival in October 2022 featuring exclusively pop-punk and emo acts. Headliners for the Las Vegas concert are slated to be My Chemical Romance and Paramore, with Jimmy Eat World, Bright Eyes, Avril Lavigne, and dozens of others supporting. The first reaction to this was disbelief: Type “when we were young” and “fyre” into Twitter, and you’ll get a handful of results, and “when we were young festival scam” is the third suggested autofill that comes up in Google.
Nevertheless, tickets sold out quickly for the festival. Live Nation added a third date the following weekend. One lesson is nostalgia sells. Another: Even if things seem too good to be true, we want to believe.
Williams, Hayley: The lead singer of Paramore and the most successful female vocalist in emo’s history. Retired one of her biggest hits from her live performances because of its “anti-feminist lyrics.” Currently hosting a podcast appropriately titled Everything Is Emo.
Xanga: Can we interest you in yet another early social-networking site? This one, founded in 1999, has the distinction of being the “angstiest” of all (at least according to our former Ringer colleague Kate Knibbs). Xanga had some tortured-sounding features (its microblogging feature was called “Pulse” and instead of favoriting something, you gave it “eprops”), but it also launched “Audioblogs” in 2006—right around the time podcasts were first taking off. If a place to spill your feelings in both text and audio in the mid-2000s isn’t enough to qualify Xanga as particularly emo, how about some of these backgrounds?
Yank Crime: More than any other famed ’90s act, Drive Like Jehu’s music feels like a direct descendent of the genre’s origins. The San Diego post-hardcore group’s sophomore album, Yank Crime, is a raw explosion of force, undeniable for its riffs and pounding drums (courtesy producer extraordinaire and future Donut Friend founder Mark Trombino). Yank Crime would not only be DLJ’s breakthrough, but also their swan song: Despite widespread acclaim and a cult following that developed in the wake of the album, they broke up, reuniting only for a run of shows between 2014 and 2016.
Zines: Short for fanzines. Typically DIY, short magazines featuring articles and collages. Many covered the punk and hardcore scenes of the ’80s and ’90s, including Punk Planet and Jessica Hopper’s Hit It or Quit It. Years later, Kate Flannery briefly became a media sensation for her zine Sneer. The art form is more quant these days, made less urgent and more of an art project because of the rise of social media. Zines were the original LiveJournal or MySpace page—as literary or customizable as the creator wants to make it, but ultimately about getting out your thoughts. It was a simpler time—or maybe the nostalgia just makes it seem that way. Either way, we’d love to go back.
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