emo was the last true subculture

Misunderstood and maligned, emo defined a generation of suburban kids coming of age as social media took off.

by Hannah Ewens
07 July 2015, 4:00pm

If you're a millennial reading this, I'd bet you once had a good friend named Tom. Millions did. Actually, we were all friends with the same one. His full name was Thomas Anderson (aka Myspace Tom) and he was automatically assigned to be your first "friend" on Myspace after the creation of your profile. He was the nerd who built a social networking company that helped create and fuel an entire subculture back in the early aughts.

Besides the youth culture surrounding grime and garage, emo was, without a doubt, the last real British youth subculture. Youth trends come and go. Fashion can seem ground-breaking but inevitably have little permanence. But some time between 2003 and 2008, emo reached through computer screens, grabbed teenagers by the threads of their insecurities, fired up rebellious angst and proceeded to pervade their lives in every possible way. For many people in their twenties, emo doesn't just mean the studded belts, cut-my-wrists-and-black-my-eyes lyrics or black and red aesthetic; it conjures up strong memories of a distinct lifestyle. And there hasn't been a movement as striking and wide-spread to make its mark on youth culture since.

It started with the music. The genre was born from the mid-80s hardcore punk scene in DC, later traced to the cathartic drive and twiddly guitars of 90s Midwestern bands like Mineral and American Football. But it wasn't until the early 00s that pop merged with this emotional hardcore to create the marketable, MTV-friendly music that provided the subculture with a soundtrack: Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, Hawthorne Heights, My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy et al.

However, as much as it was about the music, it was a subculture driven by technology. The perfect conditions were in place at the very right time for the phenomenon to grow. A social media empire was created. For the first time, without even leaving their houses, young people could have an interaction with bands. Artists had their own social presence, making them seem more human and more attainable than ever. Meanwhile very confessional, emotive music with enough power to encourage a whole generation of devout followers was on the rise. Enter a new crop of suburban teens ready to devour and create with everything the internet could provide.

Through this technology we were hit with sound, style, meaning and a way of belonging by not belonging. Importantly, Myspace allowed us to sculpt our online identities. It was simple enough to teach yourself basic HTML and customize your profile. The selfie as we know it was born and so was filtering it to shit. Your name could be anything you wanted it to be - typically though you just added "Morphine", "Switchblade" or anything similarly hxc. (Try this scene name generator for inspiration). At an age when we were wrestling with ideas about self and identity, emo was there and so were millions of virtual friends doing exactly the same thing.

The look was singular. You sacrificed most of your head of hair to the side bang and razor-cut the rest until you probably just ended up looking like that guy from The Horrors. Make-up was no longer the reserve of girls when Pete Wentz rimmed his lids with thick eyeliner and Gerard Way sported the pink-eye of someone sat in a dark room sniffing glue. Gender didn't matter because everyone dressed the same: girls' skinny jeans, nail polish, hair dye, band tees tight enough to cut off your circulation, and band names Sharpied onto your shoes.

In stark contrast to any other subculture that had come before, emo was introspective and cautious. This was partially the result of being the first subculture born online. Instead of being angry at the world, it turned the fire inward. As the lyrics told, relationships were important but impossible; they were everything only to become nothing. People were little more than future betrayal personified and you were just as likely to betray yourself. Emo was furiously against "labeling" and individuals would be ready to deny that label. But in actuality, being identified as one of a tribe was part of the aim.

At its height, emo became so big that it consumed itself, picked up by adults, buyers and execs who'd discovered the spending power of teens and repackaged for H&M Divided. Topman began to sell emo staples. Bows, zip-up hoodies and skinny jeans were available to all, rather than those willing to hunt them down online. For the first time in a long time, the high street became open to provocative youth styles. Those teens only previously on the peripheries were buying into the aesthetic.

And so, in a way, emo died in the later 00s in the natural way that subcultures always have - by being swallowed by the mainstream. Most central to its breakdown, however, was the mass migration to Facebook. Eventually, even the soundtrack simmered out as bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy moved away to a more current sound.

But by that point, the subculture had become so mainstream and so intrinsically connected to the technology it thrived on, Myspace and emo were the templates for how we interact with each other as twenty-somethings today.

It was the beginning of social media overshare culture. Bulletins were a way to vent your angst and relationships existed to be polished into a high contrast image and an online display of affection. It was a training ground for today's personal branding. We learned to be thirsty for public approval; PC4PC becoming braying for IG hearts and likes on statuses, showing appreciation of others just as much for our own benefit and to be liked than anything else. It was even the beginning of memes, of motivational messages, of Tumblr culture.

It showed how powerful social media was in harnessing youth groups to business execs and the technology world, laying the groundwork for Twitter and other social media networks. On a different note, it taught the powers that be the importance of artist-fan interaction and artists having their own social presence.

In terms of style, so much has remained popular and it'd be easy to argue that growing up during that period of time created a generation more open to the alternative. Many pieces have stuck around indefinitely as mainstream staples, like thick-rimmed glasses, leather jackets, skinny jeans and Vans. Internet trends like cyberpunk and the surrounding Tumblr fashion very obviously looked back to emo and scene aesthetics while moving forward.

Emo also played its part in the start of Etsy, Depop and the open economy of online creating, consuming and selling fashion. Teens would own Myspace shops and sell bows, wristbands, tee-shirts and other accessories to those in the UK who couldn't just go down to Hot Topic or re-sell their own unwanted items and band merch.

While it was the initial explosion of the internet that enabled emo to emerge and spread, it is the internet that has ensured subcultures will never exist in the same way again. Broadband is constantly beaming every budding youth culture into households the world over, none of them growing or translating IRL. That along with police crackdowns, the saturation of media coverage and risk-adverse major labels, means emo could well be the first and last of its kind. But looking at all the ways it affected our lives, it made a dark mark that'll not be forgotten soon.


Text Hannah Ewens
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youth culture
Street, Sound & Style