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Black Sky Thinking

Ballads Of The Sad Boys: Why Emo Makes Sense In Suburban England
Marianne Eloise , September 16th, 2019 08:30

Emo sparks derision and division, even among those who claim to love the music. Yet, as Marianne Eloise argues here, it provided community and solace for alienated British teens just as much as it did Americans

In the history of music, it's unlikely there's ever been a genre more divisive than emo. Derided by those on the outside for its perceived "femininity", overt emotions and seemingly meaningless wailing, its boundaries and values are just as contested from the inside. Fans argue over where it was born – was it D.C., or the Midwest? Others argue when, with some boldly claiming that Pet Sounds was the first emo album, and others more reasonably placing its roots in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While very few bands will proudly claim the label "emo", fans wrestle between themselves about just who can claim it. Many attribute its pushing to the mainstream to Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday and their ilk in the mid-2000s. The more serious (read: older, male) fans will only accept Mineral and other late-90s post-hardcore derivatives as canon. Ultimately, emo is maybe not really a strict genre at all, but more of a movement that encompasses everything from Rites of Spring to Panic! At the Disco, despite the lack of sonic similarities.

But none of that mattered to me, sitting in my bedroom in a village in England in 2005 listening to Hawthorne Heights, and it matters even less to the teenagers who boldly push emo into the future with rap-emo hybrids like Lil Peep and Lil Uzi Vert. For as much as men in their 30s with families of their own can spend more time arguing over the nuances of emo's sounds than they do actually listening to it, it's not really for them, anymore.

In the mid-00s, when emo finally made its way over to the UK on the front covers of Kerrang!, its most prominent figureheads wore guyliner and skinny jeans. They made out with one another, dropping wry lines in interviews about their gender and sexuality and just how little it mattered. I did not hear of Mineral or Jawbreaker until I was an adult writing about Fall Out Boy. But I found emo as a mentally-ill, gender-nonconforming teenager wrestling with her bisexuality, and it was the first time I had felt represented. Never mind that these artists were all American men in their late 20s – I, a 12-year-old in Leicester, felt understood.

Emo, and the culture surrounding it, was the first thing that gave me any idea there was an entire world away from my village, one where I would be accepted. Emo, and its sister pop punk, dealt explicitly (and often melodramatically) with mental health and the desire to get out at any cost, things that I had never heard anyone else wrestle with. In the mid-00s, the internet was also becoming a huge part of my life, and I used it to discover music and to talk at length about the things nobody else wanted to hear. I made friends through MSN and MySpace, meeting up with other teenagers who struggled with self harm and their sexuality but above all just really loved music, too.

Emo put words to the feelings I was grappling with, and while it didn't necessarily stop me from dabbling in drugs and alcohol (as any young child in the countryside, especially a poor one, will) it gave me friends to do it with. While I had been dealing with directionless rage until that point, I had a place to channel it and a community of people to explore my feelings with. Not only that, but I had something to look forward to. In a bleak existence, I had a reason to save every penny I made. I saved to see bands I loved live across the Midlands, to meet artists whose words had resonated with me. I found more to identify in the words of a 30-year-old man from 3000 miles away than I did in any of my classmates.

Some will claim that to understand emo and its roots, you need to have been there. You need to have been on the ground floor, in some sweaty American basement in the 90s, drinking in the sad guitar sounds. But as much as those nights will have helped their fair share of men now in their late 30s through breakups, they are no longer teenagers. I would argue that emo, with its explicit exploration of mental health, break ups, teen angst and escaping your hometown, is for teenagers, wherever they're from. It doesn't matter how much you know about something or its origins. What matters, especially with emo, is what it means to you.

In that sense, emo simply followed a trend set by the "sad boy" bands of the past. It embraces the campness of Pulp or Suede, the verbose lyricism of The Smiths, the sad introspection of The Cure. Many emo artists cite these bands as influences, and it's no surprise; they're linked to one another not by their sound, but by a feeling, or at least the pure expression of them. In a world that encourages people, especially men, to suppress their feelings. Artists who explore emotions openly are popular with sad outsiders who like to think nobody understands them.

The way emo wears its wounds on its sleeve gave rise to a moral panic in the UK, as the Daily Mail cried that it would encourage teenagers to self harm. I found instead that it gave words to the things I was feeling anyway, dealing explicitly with issues that everyone in my life skirted awkwardly around. It gave me a community, and the friends I have made since 2004, at home, in London, and in the US are largely made up of a network of former and current emos. Friendships are only made tighter when we realise we were in the same scene at the same time. So much bonding is made through screaming to My Chemical Romance, attending reunion shows, and realising we were at the same shows at the same time. 

The homegrown emo bands inspired by the US wave, like Funeral For a Friend, Kids in Glass Houses and You Me at Six, hail mostly from the middle of nowhere. It's no coincidence that the hopelessness and loneliness present in music by those from the American suburbs would strike a chord with those from our countryside, too. That feeling of going nowhere and of being from nowhere is isolating, and before emo, I had no idea that I wasn't alone. No genre or movement had explicitly dealt with queerness and sadness in a way that I related to, and without it, I'd have fallen off the map. It's no exaggeration – as a teenager, my only desire was oblivion. While emo didn't cure those feelings, it gave me a community and drive, a connection to something larger than my little life. Wherever you stand on emo's definition, it's impossible to ignore what it has meant for generations of hopeless teenagers, both here and in the US.