When you hear the term “emo,” an image of some really pale kids in tight jeans and tons of eyeliner probably pops into your mind. To a certain extent, that’s pretty fair; by the time emo music made it into the mainstream in the mid-2000s, we were all wearing a lot of eyeliner. But to have that image represent all of emo music would be to ignore several generations of an incredibly varied genre. And, as any emo kid will tell you, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Though “emo” is often viewed as a contentious term, an insult hurled at introverts to mock their sensitive outlook, the genre's roots are more respectable than nonfans probably realize. Emo, short for “emotional” or “emotional hardcore,” was born out of the hardcore punk scene in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, as a subgenre of post-hardcore. A Minor Threat fan, Guy Picciotto, formed Rites of Spring and wrote songs that rejected the aggression and violence that permeated the scene at the time.
With Rites of Spring and other first-wave emo bands, the focus of the music shifted from the community as a whole to the individual, and lyrics, which read like passages taken from a diary, touched on topics like desperation and heartbreak, becoming more personal than political. The songs divulged despair, yearning for self-destruction, hopeless romanticism and nostalgia, turning inner turmoil into a massive underground movement spearheaded by the likes of Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty, Beefeater and Embrace.
As emo music grew out of Washington, D.C., and spread into the Midwest in the 1990s, the style was adopted more and more by indie-leaning acts and bands going for the pop-punk sound that was just beginning to find its bearings. The success of Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991 made room for other obscure sounds and subgenres to gain traction, though emo's fan base did not overlap much with the grunge crowd. Grunge overall hooked into raw, discordant instrumentation and erratic song structure, a righteous “fuck you” to mainstream music of the time. Emo, rather, continued to encompass the emotional fervor of the hardcore scene it grew out of, but with a more refined, sometimes subdued sound than most popular alternative rock.
Lyrically, metaphors and free-association poetry about growing pains and heartbreak took over, as acts like Sunny Day Real Estate, Weezer, Jawbreaker, Mineral and The Promise Ring became the movement leaders of the era, forging the image of “emo” — shy guys with glasses and their hearts on their sleeves, hiding behind guitars — that formed in most people's minds at the time (eyeliner wasn't yet part of the equation).
By the turn of the 21st century, emo spawned acts such as My Chemical Romance and Taking Back Sunday and took a huge leap toward the mainstream, encompassing a dark, theatrical, melodramatic aesthetic that transformed the music into a more neatly marketable product (and, eventually, a cliché). Though 2002 marked a year of mainstream success for several emo-associated bands — Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, The Get Up Kids, New Found Glory — it also marked the moment when, for many, the genre's roots became unrecognizable. Emo morphed from what was essentially a more personal offshoot of punk into the biggest commercialized musical movement of the decade. Songs continued to be sincere, but the movement became oversaturated — and, to many haters, misguided.
Since its mid-2000s peak, emo's influence has dwindled, as the largest acts of the era either split up or experimented with different sounds and lyrical themes. However, in recent years, events such as Emo Night L.A. at the Echoplex (which celebrates its second anniversary on Dec. 6), have signaled a resurgence in the genre's popularity and a nostalgic celebration of the songs that got us from our angsty preteen years to our somewhat less angsty adulthoods.
As a genre classically beloved by the misunderstood, emo resists being easily encapsulated. But here is one emo fan's attempt to boil it down to just 10 essential songs. It's time to feel all the feelings, so break out your eyeliner and get ready to scream.
10. The Get Up Kids — “Holiday” (1999)
Emo kids didn't just listen to songs about death or betrayal with melodramatic million-word song titles (I'm looking at you, Panic at the Disco). Sometimes we listened to catchier, punkier-sounding songs about the ways people disappointed or abandoned us, too. You know, like a breakup song, but one that leans into more intimate issues as opposed to a simple signoff to an ex. Case in point: Wrapped up in the energetic angst of pop-punk guitar, “Holiday” captures the confusion and resentment of growing apart from someone you once loved; the push and pull of feeling that you knew someone but don't any longer. It's a look back at what went wrong from a point in time that's too late, and an expression of how hard it is to move forward, especially when your side of the story feels untold.
9. Yellowcard — “Only One” (2003)
Have you ever been so in love with someone that when you mess up, you can't seem to find enough words in the world to tell them how much they mean to you? Soaked in anxiety, regret and urgency, that's what this song is all about: the moment when you have to throw your hands up, admit your mistake and hope that the bond you share with that special someone is enough to keep them in your life. It was their sunny, SoCal-centered “Ocean Avenue” that made Yellowcard a household name to most people, but it was “Only One” that landed the band on emo playlists everywhere.
8. Hawthorne Heights — “Ohio Is for Lovers” (2004)
The only thing more massive than the number of sparkly red and black “Ohio Is for Lovers” GIFs this song spawned is the movement toward dark, death-obsessed imagery and screaming harmonies it brought to the mainstream. “Ohio Is for Lovers” is like third-wave Emo 101, when the genre migrated away from complicated shy guys with guitars to straight-up sad boys who put words to our bottomless pain. Sure, it's filled to the brim with the clichés that people love to hate about aughts-era emo: doomed romance, melodrama, self-harm, eyeliner. But this track is proof that Hawthorne Heights were depressing and morbid before being depressing and morbid was cool.
7. Sunny Day Real Estate — “In Circles” (1994)
“In Circles” exemplifies emo's power to articulate so much through a simple string of carefully chosen words. Jeremy Enigk's haiku-like lyrics creep and stumble until they crescendo into an aggressive, guitar-driven hook — a common structure found in emo songs — and a confession of helplessness. The song invites listeners into “there, in the blue,” a symbol of the dark void one lover finds himself lost in, deep within the other, where he runs around in circles seeking answers to their problems but has yet to find the solutions to his own. “Oh I dream to heal your wounds/But I bleed myself,” Enigk cries. It's a profound yet poignant story of impossible love.
6. The Spill Canvas — “Self-Conclusion” (2005)
A song about a couple falling for each other after meeting on the cliff they were each about to jump off of. Why isn't this on every list of the most emo songs ever? The Spill Canvas were beloved by fans largely for their ability to turn tragic, romantic fantasies into poetic (and somewhat sensual) musical masterpieces. “Self-Conclusion” is structured as a dialogue between two lost souls, climaxing in an argument as the woman pleads for the man to let her leap, but he begs her to stay and fall in love with him instead. The real kicker is when he reveals he was about to jump, too, in a moment of understanding and connection that, deep down, every emo kid wants for themselves.
5. Rites of Spring — “For Want of” (1985)
It's pretty safe to say that every other song on this list wouldn't exist if it weren't for Rites of Spring. Their self-titled debut (and only full-length release) represented an intentional break from the hardcore punk scene in order to make room for a more vulnerable style. “For Want of” illustrates an attempt to push down the pain (“I, I believed that in forgetting I might set myself free”) only to realize that it's inescapable. A piece of the past sticks like a shard of glass in singer Guy Picciotto's throat, causing him to bleed out into the arms of a stranger he seeks comfort in. This track teaches us that running away from our problems never ends well but can lead to great music for breaking stuff to.
4. The Used — “I'm a Fake” (2004)
There are plenty of songs from The Used that could have ended up on this list, but “I'm a Fake,” off of In Love and Death, captures the genre's over-arching struggle for authenticity in a way that no other song in their quintessential canon does. Destroying façades is a common theme of emo songs, and on this track, Bert McCracken leaves no part of himself concealed. “I'm not afraid to bleed and fuck and fight/I want the pain of payment,” he declares, stitching together imagery of freshly scabbed wounds with a portrait of a neurotic, self-loathing soul just begging to be seen. Steering between half-attempts to convince listeners he's fine and defensive claims that “this sickness isn't me,” McCracken captures all the pain, frustration and urgency of trying to figure out who the hell you are — in a catchy four-minute package.
3. Thursday — “Understanding in a Car Crash” (2001)
A cornerstone of emo music is the vivid imagery it creates in the minds of listeners. “Understanding in a Car Crash” puts you in the driver's seat on a ride geared toward destruction. The need to escape is the only thing on singer Geoff Rickly's mind, though he finds himself with few options. The pace quickens as he leans into the possibility of suicide and oncoming headlights come closer and closer. In a flash there's broken glass, spinning hubcaps and a sense that this is the end. As a listener, frustration and relief wash over you at once, and your heart races as you try to recover from the roller coaster you've just gotten off of and process the life that's been lost.
2. American Football — “Never Meant” (1999)
Another track that successfully creates its own mini movie in the minds of listeners is American Football's classic track “Never Meant.” Listening to it feels like taking a long walk down a lonely road through the crisp October air at dusk. It's contemplative, melancholic and refreshing all at once. Then comes the moment Mike Kinsella sings “Goodbyes/And the autumn night we realized/We were falling out of love,” which is guaranteed to make your stomach drop. “Best friends and better halves” break apart, and the wonder and hope of young love comes to a regretful end. This song has the power to make you mourn a relationship you never had.
1. My Chemical Romance — “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” (2004)
In 2004, when MySpace was in its heyday and the best possible way to convey your true self was through a carefully selected profile song, this was the go-to choice for emo kids around the world. The film trailer–like video, with frontman Gerard Way flipping his stringy black hair about, his green eyes outlined in black and red piercing through the screen, culminating with a croquet mallet–fueled battle of jocks versus outcasts, is among the most iconic images of the early 2000s. It was the anthem of the misunderstood. It spoke directly to the frustration and alienation we felt inside but perhaps could not articulate, or, at least, not so precisely as My Chemical Romance did with three simple words: “I’m Not Okay.” At the end of it all, I wasn’t OK, the band wasn’t OK, but somehow knowing that we all shared that feeling made things seem, well, OK.