Describing emo music to people can be tricky. As it really stands for emotional music, that can mean a lot of different things, depending upon who you ask. In reality, the emo music genre has changed considerably over time and grown into several subgenres as it entered the mainstream music world. In this article, we’ll dive into what exactly emo music is, where it came from, and discuss some of the biggest names in the scene.
What Is Emo Music?
Deciding the definition of emo music isn’t the simplest task out there. For a lot of people, it can mean different things. But thankfully, there are a few main components of emo music that are shared, regardless of what subgenre or style of it you decide to delve into.
Emo music is characterized by emotional lyrics. On the surface, that doesn’t sound like much of a definition, since outside of pop and party songs, a lot of other music carries weighty emotions as well. But in emo music, the emotion is often the point of the track. It came out of the hardcore punk scene—more on that later—and had an undeniable undercurrent of social feelings that included rage, hopelessness, and depression.
As emo came out of the hardcore punk scene, it’s considered a form of post-hardcore. The best musical definition for it is as a type of alternative rock, though other subgenres have moved away from that.
Much of the time, emo music uses guitar work that incorporates both the softness the genre is known for and the loud sounds associated with punk music. It also has a solid base of unorthodox lyrical structures and extreme dynamic shifts. In many ways, those two traits mirror the mindset of the emotional roller coasters in the music, hence the name of the genre itself.
Another main component of emo music is the topics the songs address. Many are written as confessionals or are deeply personal. They can deal with all manner of topics including pain, love, insecurity, social angst, self-loathing, suicide, or any other introspective topic you can think of.
One of the most stereotypical parts of emo music is the fashion and style associated with it. Artists and fans alike often get referred to as emo themselves, as the music genre spawned a full spectrum of cultural and social themes.
The Beginning of Emo Music and Its Evolution
Emo music found its start in Washington D.C. in the 80s during the Revolution Summer movement. That movement was a shift by artists in the hardcore punk scenes trying to move away from the typical sounds you expected to hear from the post-hardcore punk bands of the day. Much of it was hard and harsh, an overwhelming sonic attack.
The first group recognized as moving away was Rites Of Spring, with lead guitarist and vocalist Guy Picciotto essentially pioneering the movement. Fugazi would come along a bit later, moving in the same direction. Rather than the hard material of the punk scene, they focused much of their work on relationship failures, loss, misanthropy, and other heavy emotional topics.
The mid-80s was when the term emo was coined as well. While we’re mostly uncertain of the exact origin of the term, it was undoubtedly popping up in this era and was a common practice by 1985. Emo-core would be the name given to the genre for a bit, but it was universally hated so it didn’t end up sticking.
The first publication using the term was Thrash magazine, dubbing the style emo-core in an article discussing the band Embrace. The entire 80s emo scene only lasted a few years, but it wouldn’t be the end of the genre when it faded from semi-popularity during that decade. Other notable bands of the 80s involved in the scene included Gray Matter, Beefeater, Dag Nasty, and Soulside.
Emo remained mostly the same in the 90s, as new bands paired its famed fatalism with the dramatic worldview of the hardcore punk scene yet again. New bands would continue to pop up, with Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate being the biggest of them in the early 90s. But it would be 1991 that alternative rock subcultures gained more notoriety in the mainstream music world, thanks in large part to Nirvana’s Nevermind album.
Jawbreaker was known for combining pop punk with emotional lyrics, reinventing the emo genre as a whole. Sunny Day Real Estate was part of the Seattle grunge boom. But it was Weezer who laid a lot of the foundation for 90s emo music.
While we don’t particularly put the band into that category today, their self-titled debut album in 1994 was the basis for the melodic side of the emo genre. Jimmy Eat World came together around this time as well, though by now, they and Weezer are more aptly labeled under the pop-punk wing of alternative rock rather than emo.
The mid-90s was when emo music really took off. Record labels were all about capitalizing on the rise of alternative rock, so no stone was left unturned in the numerous subgenres involved there. Oddly though, emo music was left out of that in large part. While alternative rock rose to the surface, emo music retreated back into underground circles for the most part. It would eventually emerge as an entire subculture, a mixture of hardcore punk passion and indie rock that had all the power of punk.
Coined as Midwest emo, bands like Jimmy Eat World, Cap’n Jazz, Mineral, and The Promise Ring all formed in the central US. Even today, their style is enigmatic but unique among 90s emo music. Numerous bands popped up and added to the culture over the next few years, but in 1997, it began a real uptick in popularity.
The late 90s was the true emergence of emo music as a genre. While it would never rise to the commercial success of other genres, by the year 2000, emo was here to stay. In 2002, it finally broke into the mainstream music world. This is also the time the emo subculture and appearance we all know of today became popular. The black clothes, the dyed hair, all of it. Jimmy Eat World saw their single The Middle top the Billboard Alternative Songs chart and their album Bleed American went platinum.
Emo pop was the name of the game, and bands with giant followings would begin appearing in this era. Record labels saw emo music as the new grunge or rap rock, with a lot of potential for growth going forward. Goth-inspired looks were the norm for those groups, including the likes of My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, and Panic! At The Disco. Paramore and The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus were two other incredible emo bands of the day that I still listen to now.
Each of these groups, as well as many others, would continue their mainstream popularity until the mid-2010s. From that point on, fans of the bands remained fans, but emo music seemed to dwindle in terms of mainstream listening. This was for a variety of reasons. Many of the most popular bands ended up either breaking up or moving away from their original sound in favor of trying a new direction. By 2013, both Paramore and Fall Out Boy had abandoned their emo sound.
The genre would continue underground in spite of the mainstream flow of it seeming to die. There, it experienced a revival of sorts and drew back on the 90s hardcore punk roots of the genre.
Emo music would live on in other mainstream genres though. Many of the guitar elements from it would continue to be used by newer artists finding their start in the late 2010s and early 2020s. In addition to this, other traits, like the theme of addressing mental health issues would become something seen much more often in the pop music world.
Subgenres of Emo
Emo has continually evolved over time, spawning several subgenres and fusing with more mainstream genres to create something new. Here, we’ll go over the four main subgenres and fusions that came out of the emo music scene.
Emo music has its darker and more aggressive side, especially the kind that was developed in San Diego in the early 90s. The best traits to come from that development were the short song styles, intense vocals, and dissonant dynamics. The style would be dubbed “screamo,” an emo style with lyrics screamed instead of sung, often in a way that’s hard to understand.
It came from the aggressive punk scene and eventually became relatively popular in the early 2000s. Several screamo scenes would pop up, from the US and Canada especially. It’s interesting because screamo has no set definition, it only has common themes. Often, that boils down to screaming vocals laid over rock guitars, which suddenly switches to quiet melodic guitars.
If you look up sass as a music genre, you’ll get a list of about 12 other names for it. The official ones include things like sassy screamo and sasscore. Imagine the screamo you know, but it incorporates dance, disco, metalcore, mathcore, new wave, and other elements. Generally, you can pick this one out for its flamboyant mannerisms on stage, synthesizers, lisping vocals, and dance beats. While it remains emo in the lyrics, it takes on sexual themes much more often than traditional nihilism.
Emo pop is a subgenre of emo music, but it’s probably the kind you’re most familiar with. It’s the style that Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco were producing when they became the faces of emo music worldwide. It often blends the angst of emo music with mainstream appeal, high-pitched melodies, and rhythmic guitars. You could call it emo music made by boy bands if you wanted, and it would be hard to argue against you.
Emo rap is a relatively new genre of emo music, becoming popular in the late 2010s but dating back to the mid-2000s. It’s a mixture of hip hop and emo music, a type of fusion that keeps all of the lyrics and themes of emo music but lays them over rap beats and raps the lyrics out. XXXTentacion and Lil Peep stood at the top of the genre, though today it seems to be Lil Uzi Vert’s show.
Examples of Emo Music Artists
Panic! At The Disco
This is one band that every emo kid knew and loved. They put out so many amazing, iconic songs, from I Write Sins Not Tragedies to The Ballad Of Mona Lisa. Perhaps no band in the emo genre, other than our next entry, rose to the same levels of mainstream popularity.
Fall Out Boy
Fall Out Boy might have written and produced more emo anthems than any other band in history, Dance, Dance, Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down, Thnks Fr Th Mmrs, and This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race. All of it was amazing. And even when they changed their sound, many fans still loved and followed them.
Paramore was an outlier, as they were fronted by Hayley Williams rather than being an all-boy outfit. Their earliest work in their Riot! album is arguably their best stuff, with songs like Misery Business and That’s What You Get leading the way for emo groups in the late 2000s.
Lil Uzi Vert
Other artists may have led the way to making emo rap mainstream, but it’s Lil Uzi Vert who is leading the way today. Songs like XO Tour Llif3 and Money Longer attracted massive mainstream attention.
My Chemical Romance
My Chemical Romance is another name you can’t leave out when discussing iconic emo bands. Songs like Welcome To The Black Parade and I’m Not Okay ended up being their biggest hits, and they had so many great tracks that it’s almost impossible to nail down a greatest hits list.
Jawbreaker was one of the emo bands that helped pave the way through the late 80s and early 90s. Songs like Condition Oakland and Kiss The Bottle remain legendary.
All Time Low
All Time Low is more of a fan-favorite pick here, as they had an incredible cult following and ended up producing one of the most iconic emo songs to ever come out in the genre. Dear Maria, Count Me In remains to this day a track any former emo kid will be forced to sing.
Rites of Spring
Rites Of Spring has to be on our list here, as they were really the first band to pioneer the emo genre. Without them, the rest of these great bands wouldn’t have existed. While they only produced a singular album, it would lay the groundwork for an entire genre and decades of great music.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.