Poster: Hank @ Thu Jul 03, 2008 9:16 pm
Tell you what : if there was one 80s/90s youth trend that I didn't think would still be hanging around at the end of the 21st century's inaugural decade, it was emo. When the first subculture began to spread widely in the aftermath of blockbuster albums by Fugazi and then Weezer, most of us in the popwatching vulture community assumed that this soggy genre leftover from the 80s would mold quickly in th' fickle fridge of fads and be unceremoniously tossed out.
Instead, 'emocore' morphed into plain ole emo and proved to be the most durable trend since 'punk.' Unlike genre-bound and ideology-heavy 90s trends like 'grunge' and 'jungle,' emo proved itself highly adaptable, absorbing features of other subcultures and managing to attach itself to a succession of increasingly silly youth musics. The most amusing and puzzling aspect of the emo orientation is that of the dress code, which has grown from its simple 'punk rock' and 'indie' beginnings into an elaborate costume that at its best rivals 'high Goth' in complexity, impracticality, and hilarious appearance.
As most music fans now know, what we call 'emo' had its start, like almost every other bad idea in American history, in Washington, DC. Goofy Italian greaseball kid Guy Piciotto was helming the riotiously-named Rites of Spring, widely considered to be the first group to transcend mere whiny punk and truly become Emo. His buddy, crypto-racist vegetarian Ian MacKaye, was busy creating another, equally-noxious, subgenre, 'straight-edge,' with his drug-shunning nerd chums across town.
These groups, especially MacKaye's group Minor Threat, attracted a fairly substantial number of clench-jawed teen fans. They generally followed the 80s 'hardcore punk' dress code of skateboard-influenced baggy shorts and t-shirts with sneakers. Hair was shortish or shorn, depending on how slavishly one aped MacKaye. One distinguishing factor between the nascent emos and normal skaters was that the emos generally favored black clothing and eschewed the Spicoli palette in order to better express their high angst levels.
In the middle of the grunge boom, Los Angeles weepy cro-mags Social Distortion got a big national break with their self-important plodder "Bad Luck." Due to this group's affectation for ersatz rockabilly persentation, some emos began to roll up their Gap jeans and shoot pool. Doc Martens, Grinders, and various creepers began to be seen alongside Vans and Converse on the feet of emeopaths. Some began to go way out on a limb and experiment with makeup and other adornments, which met with a lot of opposition from the DC crowd.
After the blazing success of Weezer's first record, the tough-guy facade of the typical teary-eyed ankle biter began to soften in favor of the more forgiving thrift-store / what-your-mom-bought-for-you indie-rock look. This was generally easier to pull off, since you're not allowed to look like a wimp under the "harDCore" stylesheet but are actually encouraged to appear as a bookworm pansy if you're indie rocker. This sartorial shift matched the poppification of mope-metal that Weezer enabled, replacing Black Flag copycat mania with a sound that more closely approximated a self-conscious version of 70s arena cows such as the geographically-named Boston and Kansas. The defining bit of emo clothing became the tight sweater, followed closely by the ringer T-shirt.
Things more or less continued apace until the mid-late 90s, and the movement, such as it was, slowly waned as whiny but generally not maudlin California pop-punk in the Green Day / Blink / NoFX vein [ed. note : vane] increasingly dominated the youth market. Pop-punk might have been homogenous and boring, but at least it promoted humor and pink hair. It should be noted, however, that AFI, who were part of this punky pop succotash, had latent gothy tendencies that would provide real tinder for the next phase.
Suddenly, things took a marked turn for the emo. The late 90s brought a swarm of popular groups, including Sunny Day Real Estate, The Get Up Kids, At The Drive-In, and numerous similarly-named entities, that held the emo flag high and codified a number of its essential features. The new standard for emotive singing was a strangled warble that took equal parts from Tom Verlaine of Television and Ian Curtis of Joy Divison in their more tune-agnostic moments, with anguished shrieks added for occasional emphasis. One of the important effects of this emo wave was the gradual lengthening of hair and the acceptance of full beards. Most of these groups appeared to be composed of assistant English professors, and soon their minions followed suit, marching about in greasy mop-tops, pseudo-Afros, and hermit scruff with the latest issue of "Magnet" in their shoulder bags. No satisfactory hypothesis for the sudden proliferation of beards has yet been offered, but it seems likely to be a compensation for the looking and acting like what used to be called a 'wuss.' The tendency of emos to wear t-shirts with grindcore and other metal band logos appeared at about this time, for reasons that are undoubtedly related.
As emo's dominance grew, so did its tendency to absorb other genres. The trend of emos trying to make their image more rugged picked up steam quickly, and so emos started drinking at bars instead of at home. In addition, they glommed onto the body-modification trend in a really big way, taking the extensive quasi-traditional tattooing of punk/rockabilly and the clanky piercing and lobe-stretching of grungy junkiedom to expensive extremes. These costly hobbies dovetail nicely into the self-mutilating orientation of the whole genre as well as allowing those who engage in them to feel tough while they squeeze a plastic flange the size of a quarter into their earlobe.
A pretty big shift in the music of the emo mainstream began to be effected at this time. The subgenre of 'screamo,' which in short is usually ungroovy math-metal with hoarsely-shouted (or inhaled!) Norwegian black metal style vocals and angsty emo lyrics, almost totally supplanted the mewl-n-strum style of Conor Oberst and Chris Carraba (each of these good specimens of emo plumage) amongst the cognoscenti. This was quite a coup, because a casual listener is generally unable to discern the lyrics in songs of this nature and will generally assume that the music at hand is some kind of poorly played metalcore. In fact, this impression is encouraged by emos (who, of course, hate to admit that they are emo at all), and who themselves univerally reject the 'screamo' moniker and call everything "hardcore." In a way, this is full circle : recall that the initial emo boom was born from actual hardcore punk and was known as "emo-core." Some groups eschew the black-metal rasp in favor of more traditional grindcore "cookie monster" style vocals in order to further camouflage themselves. However, one can almost always spot an emo band by its name : if it has a name like "Ashes of November, " "Fail in Flames My Dear," or, say, "As I Lay Dying," it's emo even if they try to sound like Cannibal Corpse.
By late 2000 and into 2001, emos had essentailly attained their current recognizable form. The thrift-store nerd look had been almost completely supplanted by a generic black-t-shirt-and jeans-with-Vans uniform adorned by as many nautical-style tattoos and shiny face jewelry as could be afforded. Hair was, more often than not, dyed black and / or worn longish. Emo jewelry began to incorporate elements taken from the similarly-multilated 'rave' culture, such as brightly colored acrylic ear-gauges. Likewise, many emo groups began using drum machines and recasting the tiresome genre of 'electroclash' (read : house music for dorky nerd punks) as even whinier than before. One more innovation would soon be introduced, however, that would vault emos into their well-deserved place; more on that in a moment.
When Green Day went emo to promote their blockbuster comback album, it was a sign of the times. The group most responsible for flossing the grunge and sad-rock out of our collective teeth now realized that the best way to sell records was to slop on the Social Distortion eyeliner and wear all black outfits. Their music changed too, though it sounded more like arena-rock a la Creed than any emo band in particular. Concurrently, a whole slew of mopey, blackhaired rock bands including "My Chemical Romance" and "Fall Out Boy" (can you spot the emo names?) sold zillions of records and officially cemented emo's status as the new mainstream rock look and attitude.
The success of these groups meant that all parents now had to deal with their kids being emos, not just those unlucky paterfamiliases whose kids wanted to be underground hipsters. Jocks began affecting emo hairstyles. As a reaction to the mass adoption of emo tropes, the emo rank and file decided that it was time for drastic action to differentiate themselves from the star halfback who had hair hanging over his face and blasted "Atreyu" in his F-150. This turned out to be a simple matter of doing in public what many had long suspected emos generally did in private : wearing womens' clothing.
Ironic trucker / New Era caps off to the first emo 'male' to take tight jeans beyond standard pegged rocker convention and solidly into the androgynous realm. The new emo look circa 2004 was based on the wearing of jeans so tight from waist to ankle that they truly looked like they belonged on a "fly girl" from the 80s. This may have been a kind of hearkening back to the spandex rock of Britney Fox, or it may have been purely reactionary. In any case, it made a big difference in the public's ability to distinguish the casual longhair from the true weeper.
An amusing side effect of this trend was that, likely due to the fact that emo jeans are not only tight but actually too small for the wearer, the seat of the jeans generally does not cover the posterior of the individual. This creates a 'sagging' effect, which incongruously bring to mind images of WC and Mack 10 circa 1996. Disgustingly, many male emos have as of 2007 begun to sartorially regress to prepubesence, opting to wear briefs over boxers while sagging in girl jeans -- and nobody wants to see that.
Most emos also listen to rap music as long as they can stand it in order to emonstrate their musical erudition. Also common is the affectation of certain hip-hop clothing elements, such as gun / oppression motifs and the aforementioned New Era hats. Other common accessories include nail polish (stolen from the goths and just won't die), bracelets and wristbands borrowed from rivetheads and hippies, iPod headsets, and the absolutely ubiquitous white and / or studded belt. The white belt rose to prominence in 1999 and has annoyingly persisted.
Distended lobes, elaborate tattoos, architectural hair, and sagging girl trousers combine to make the modern emo an impressive specimen. Naturalist Bob Roberts notes :
"The North American emo is now prevalent in all climates and has no surviving natural predators save for the marmot, the lamprey, and the 11-year-old BMX punk."
If you see an emo, don't laugh too loudly. Remember that they have become what they are today by a defined chain of events that you helped create by your participation in culture. It's all a part of natural emolution.
Next time, be more careful.