When we think back to wilderness years of excitement and futuristic desire that followed the turning of the millennium, a reflection of high school for most of the millennial population, it was a period of pop culture revelry for two seemingly uncool factions of the musical hierarchy: emo and pop-punk. Artists such as Panic! At the Disco, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, My Chemical Romance, Green Day and Weezer littered the airwaves and gave an identity to swathes of a generation. And now, it’s back.
If there’s one thing that can be said about what once was thought of as the fleeting era of pop-punk, scene, and emo, it’s that there was always a richness and depth that coincided with its widespread reach. In a way, the emo movement came at the perfect time to achieve heights that many countercultures before it were unable to do.
For those who weren’t tuned in, emo, scene, pop-punk, and even post-hardcore and metalcore artists swept plenty of teens and young adults into the wave of counterculture throughout the 2000s. Characterised by certain specific bands with often slightly poppier and more emotional sounds than the punk-rock that inspired it, being emo included a lot of details and signifiers beyond the music itself. Band T-shirts, flat ironed bangs, skinny jeans, black nail polish, studded belts, eyeliner, MySpace, hating your hometown, and openly discussing mental health and depression were all a part of this movement. However, make no mistake, it was always still rooted in the music.
One of the tools that made this movement so accessible and widespread was the internet. For the first time, this was a counterculture where the specific signifiers and in-group knowledge became available to those even in the most remote of places. With the use of the internet, not only were plenty of musical acts and bands discovered, but fans and little emo kids everywhere were suddenly able to participate fully in a cultural scene that had the widest open doors we’d ever known.
Unlike the punk rockers, the beatniks, and the hippies, you did not have to leave your entire life behind (or else be born in a major city by sheer luck) in order to fully participate in the community around you. On the contrary, it was a part of this culture to form small friend groups in the corners of suburbia. It allowed for sensitivity and welcomed those who felt like outsiders. Because of this, it became one of the most widespread and popular forms of counterculture in recent memory. You can hear people talk about having been “a little bit emo” or “kind of emo” in a way that wasn’t true of other subcultures before it.
Previously, subcultures were fiercely protected by gatekeepers who would not only critique your credibility through style, musical collection and noted influences, but actively attempt to keep the population of said scene to a minimum in some thinly-veiled act of artistic fascism. Dropping a toe into the vibrant scenes of the 20th Century was nigh-on impossible. You either were a hippie, or you weren’t. You were a punk rocker, or you simply weren’t. For emo and pop-punk lovers, this revelation provided a far deeper community to be enveloped by.
However, the nature of the movement was still on the severe side, and it rang a little juvenile. Considering the base thoughts and expressions that underpinned the songs and musical acts, plenty of those who fancied themselves pop-punk, scene, and emo simply grew out of clinging to that identity. With much of the material being rooted in feeling like an outsider and hating your hometown, plenty of those who felt such a strong sense of community simply moved on to find other, perhaps more personally appropriate forms of expression. Simply put: it became a little bit cringey to be emo. As years passed by and the culture began to wane, descriptors like “whining” and “pathetic” were often shelled out with malicious intent at a collection of artists who had authentically shared their work to a happy and hungry audience. But, it seemed, in the main, that emo had simply grown out of their phase, just like their mothers said they would.
Just when it seemed that emo culture was dead, never to return, sparks began to fly from unlikely places. It’s no secret that the fashion cycle has started to move at an alarming pace due to the rise of social media platforms like TikTok, which has resulted in bringing back style elements from the early 2000s and even 2010s for Gen-Z, that nobody had predicted. The skinny jeans, studded belts, heavy eyeliner and obnoxious piercings that most of the original emo kids would never dream of donning again have started to become trendy once more. That, in tandem with a bit of a shift in pop music, has created an unexpected Gen-Z emo revolution.
The emo revival in the music world actually began extremely subtly. At first, we had artists like Billie Eilish citing some of the original pop-punk music as inspiration. We also saw the reunion of My Chemical Romance, a staple emo kid band that was, by all accounts, finished performing together. Then, artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Willow Smith began to incorporate that signature pop-punk sound into their repertoires. Rodrigo saw her popularity rise with a song so similar to Paramore that she got sued over it, and Willow Smith teamed up with Machine Gun Kelly to produce a song literally called ‘Emo Girl’.
Plus, with bands like Crawlers popping up and Avril Lavigne making a well-timed comeback, it seems that the emo identity that millennials let go has been picked up once again by the next in line, ready to cherish it for all its over-indulgent glory.
Perhaps it was naïve to ever think that Gen-Z was simply too cool to be interested in replicating a counterculture that brought comfort and innovation to the generation that came before them. As a group, the attitudes of Gen-Z have been so concerned with future development and protection that the idea of looking backwards seemed somewhat alien. But, there was something tantalising about the emo scene, perhaps that it had been so keenly derided in the last decade that the youth of today are desperate to prove what it could or maybe should have been.
If there’s one thing that can be universally said about emo, it’s that it is extremely youth-driven, for better or worse. It’s a genre that quite literally plays on the feelings of being lost, losing control and feeling like you don’t fit in, something that runs parallel to the journey of growing up. Even with the advent of social media and accessibility to trends that millennials never had, these feelings are hallmarks of the youth experience, and they don’t go away because an entire generation is suddenly too cool to care about them.
And that’s just it. That’s what’s so special about it. Emo isn’t about being too cool to care. In fact, it’s about being cool enough to care a little too much.