BBC News

Magazine

Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 13:44 UK

Rock cult or nice kids that do their homework?

Mikey Way from My Chemical Romance

By Jon Kelly
BBC News

They're outraged over their portrayal in newspapers and are planning to march on one tabloid's headquarters this weekend. But are emos a weird rock cult or as pleasant a group of teenagers as you're likely to meet?

You must have seen them, often clad in black, some in skinny jeans and converses, some in make-up - boys and girls alike.

These are emos, a gloomy if essentially non-violent youth tribe who revel in their outsider status and a particularly angst-laden brand of punk-pop.

Kate Ashford
Listening to a band like My Chemical Romance is a cathartic thing
Kate Ashford, emo, 17

While previous generations of bands, like the Smiths and Nirvana, may have also stood accused of wallowing in gloom, to the critics at least, the emo scene specialises in the kind of morbid lyrics that make Leonard Cohen sound like Sinitta.

Here is a passage from Dead! by emo superstars My Chemical Romance (MCR): "Have you heard the news that you're dead?/No-one ever had much nice to say/I think they never liked you anyway/Oh take me from the hospital bed."

Young Hearts Run Free it is not.

But emos have never gathered on Brighton Beach to ruck with mods or rockers. Emo fans instead emphasise their sensitivity and thoughtfulness - as one might expect with the "emotional" etymology of their name. Many belong to the "straight edge" sub-scene whose followers forsake drink and drugs.

Emo march

But the focus of bands like MCR, Dashboard Confessional and Fall Out Boy on inner torment and alienation from one's peers has unsettled many parents. The movement has provoked a flurry of press condemnation rarely seen since Johnny Rotten first publicly expressed his views on the British constitution.

On Saturday, hundreds of emos are planning to march on the Daily Mail's headquarters in protest at the newspaper's coverage of their subculture. The tabloid has labelled emo a "suicide cult" which glorifies self-harm and "romanticises death" - a charge vociferously denied by most emos.

A male emo fan
Fans vehemently deny the music encourages suicide or self-harm

As she knuckles down to prepare for her A-level exams, Kate Ashford, 17, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, offers a less sinister explanation for the appeal of MCR.

The theatrical angst and drama of emo is, she suggests, no more than an outlet for a generation creaking under the weight of social expectation.

"Being a teenager has got to be so much more difficult these days," Kate says. "There's a lot more exams and pressure to get into university.

"Listening to a band like MCR is a cathartic thing. And I suppose emo style is meant to be about standing out, looking different - even if all the other emo kids are dressed the same as you."

Matthew Hirons, a 22-year-old web developer from Stourport-on-Severn, is even more phlegmatic. He suggests that the critics take the music far more seriously than the fans.

"People say emo is all about depression and suicide," he says. "But I'm a happy person. I've got a girlfriend and a good job. I just like the music and the fashion.

"I think anyone over 25 will find it hard to understand what it's all about. Even I'm a bit past it for an emo, to be honest."

It is a largely teenage trend and is characterised by depression, self-injury and suicide
Daily Mail on emo

The musical roots of emo lie in the 1980s US hardcore punk scene, when some bands pioneered a heart-on-sleeve subgenre known as "emo-core" or "emotional hardcore".

A move towards a more mainstream, poppy sound by several emo leading lights took it overground, but the scene's histrionic subject matter irritated many.

Fans were even subjected to violence. Footage of emo kids being beaten up by gangs of punks and heavy metal fans in Mexico attracted nearly a million hits on YouTube.

Yet for all the ire it provokes, media and popular culture lecturer Dr Dan Laughey, author of the study Music and Youth Culture, believes emo is essentially harmless.

"Emo fans are mostly middle-class, often going through puberty," he says.

"For the majority of fans, emo music acts like a release valve, driving away all the negative energy and emotion inside them."

And for all that the scene is preoccupied with alienation and misery, its champions claim it offers a comradeship of sorts.

"At the end of the day, it's quite empowering for a lot of kids," concludes NME news editor Paul Stokes. "It's about saying, 'We're outsiders, but we're all teaming up'."

Even veteran music journalist David Quantick, who despises what he regards as the ostentatious breast-beating of emo, admits that he cannot bring himself to hate its adherents.

"Being a teenager is awful," he says. "It doesn't matter that emo music is rubbish - it gives them something to cling to.

"In 10 years time we'll have all these 30-year-olds on I Love 2008 talking about how embarrassed they are to have been emos. We'll have a Tory prime minister who's a Fall Out Boy fan."

EMO LOOKS
Emo looks
1: "Emo hair is characterised by long fringes that sweep over one eye," says Liz Morris. "It takes some inspiration from Japanese 'manga', with punk elements. It's usually black, with streaks of vibrant colour, and poker straight. The top is often cut short, with pink clips for girls."
2: "Black skinny jeans and studded belts are a must, topped with a skin-tight T-shirt or shirt to emphasise a skinny frame. Tailoring inspired by the Victorian Gothic era is popular for its connotations of romance and death."
3: Trainers are the staple footwear of both genders, notably Converse All Star. "These offer a flash of colour in an otherwise plain ensemble, so many go for bright or pattered versions. Pink, red and purple are popular."


Below is a selection of your comments:

My 16 year old daughter is regularly insistant that emos are not depressive or suicidal. Her music and clothing choices are not unique, every generation have had a "look". I can honestly say my daughter's circle of emo friends are the nicest kids and are welcome at our house anytime.
Sharon Devine, Wigan

Surely just repackaged Goths...
Mike, London

As the mum of two emo children I have to say I see little difference in their clothes, make-up and hairstyles to the ones I had and wore in the early-mid 80s. We just didn't have as good hair products. What really irks me is the abuse they get in the street because of the way they dress and the music they enjoy.. from Buckie-swilling neds in Helly Hansen. I know whose kids I prefer.
Nikkii, Perth

I wish the media would stop using the term "emo" to describe these adolescents and their terrible commercial music. Unfortunately, real emo has been appropriated by the media and others to represent something far-removed from the music I grew up listening to and continue to cherish to this day.
Nathan, Canada

Some of this may be correct, my kid and his friends are a bit emo. He's classified gifted academically, and a vegetarian, as are many of his friends. They do wear more than just black though. But classifing Dashboard Confessional as depressing is just wrong. They are sooooo romantic.
Amy , New Orleans, USA

Anyone living in Liverpool will tell you there is a big emo scene here. Now I am not a massive fan of emo bands - I grew up on Nirvana and Pearl Jam but the message is still the same. I would put it to these scaremongerers that I have not once heard on the news of a gang of emos terrorising the streets of Britain. I put it to the polliticians and the tabloids that I, a soon-to-be-father, would be happier if my child wore dark clothing and stood out from the crowd listening to the angst driven rock. Rather that than my child wish to don a set of Lacoste tracksuits to gang up and terrorise my streets. Rather than creating hysteria maybe we should do some real soul searching about what Britain's real problems are.
Andre, Liverpool

Being an Emo, Goth, Punk, Cyberpunk - whatever is just a label that gets attached to a group of kids looking for answers in music and lyrics. These kids are intelligent, usually of a kind and thoughtful disposition and yes, they are sensitive to their surroundings and culture. It is this sensitivity and uncertainty that might lead to self harm as a form of frustration rather than the fault of the music or scene.

I used to try and work this one out with my mates when one of us was at the end of a good kicking by a nice, "normal" member of my local community and we came to the conclusion that folk who are too afraid to express their difference are afraid of the difference in others. Didn't help when we were picking up our teeth and watching those meatheads trying to crack onto our girlfriends. Worry not about the Emo. They can take care of themselves and will cause you no harm. Look to the hoodie boys and girls who hide their faces, they'll get ya every time.
Damien Bidmead, Eton

I was a Goth in my late teens, early 20s. I am now 40. We dressed how we did cos we liked the music and it was all part of it. Just because someone dresses differently and expresses their individuality and taste doesn't mean they are on drugs or violent. When will people stop stereotyping teenagers in this way? My mum used to dye my hair for me when I was a Goth and did not see my like minded friends as a "threat" or even think we were on drugs (which we incidentally, were not). We, as parents, should encourage our children (I have two of my own) to express themselves and think for themselves whilst hopefully showing and teaching them how to steer clear of the bad influences, such as drugs, in their lives. That's what my mum did with me and I hope it works with my children.
S Grace, Leeds, UK

For heaven's sake "leave the kids alone" - surely someone at the Daily Mail must have worn brothel creepers, carried a flick comb and looked a right idiot shoulder-padding their way down the street trying to look cool. It is a necessary part of growing up that kids create their own identities within their peer groups - just be grateful they aren't joining gangs and carrying knives. Lighten up - even I like MCR and Fall Out Boy and I am a 50-year-old, ex-biker granny.
Sue, Boston

Media organisations like the BBC and these tabloid papers should stop trying to understand the subdivisions of musical culture. The vast majority of you are outsiders staring in, desperate to put a label or a convenient explanation on what you see.
Stuart Bell, Shetland, UK

I would have my kid become an emo a thousand times over rather than become beer swilling, "Ingerlund"-chanting skinhead. Look at the statistics of how many emo and Goth kids go on to higher education as opposed to the trackie-bottom wearing potheads who hang around on street corners all over this country. When was the last time anyone saw an emo or a Goth accused of stabbing, robbing or assaulting someone? These kids are the real future of this country.
Mike Johnson, Worthing, Sussex

Why do people insist on labeling themselves to a specific subculture? Teenagers are too influenced by the media and their fellow peers to realize that they need to be independent and have their own beliefs and way of life. Since I am a 16 year old I have witnessed first hand the problems that these subcultures create. Hatred builds between groups such as "chavs" and "emos" that is creating a new type of discrimination. Instead of encouraging these subcultures the government and the media should be trying to bring teenagers together in unity to help the world problem instead of becoming selfish individuals built up with hate for different types of people which can lead to problems later in life.
Andrew White, Tunbridge Wells, United Kingdom


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific