Defining Emo: Why Is It So Misunderstood?

An Amber Walters Guest Post

I have called myself an emo pretty much all my life. Panic! At The Disco were my first music love and My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade makes me cry happy and sad tears all at once. I have never been ashamed to call myself an emo, I don’t think that you should be ashamed. When I was 14, I had a side fringe and a guns n roses tee shirt. I’ll admit that.

But what sort of music qualifies as emo? I did some research and found out that emo music is a style of rock music resembling punk but with more complex arrangements and lyrics. These deal with more emotional subjects than punk music. It includes bands such as Fall Out Boy, Paramore and Taking Back Sunday and is a completely certified genre of music.

I did some more research. What sort of person qualifies as emo? The general consensus is someone who wears skinny jeans, band tee shirts and black, straight hair with bangs. It is associated with mental health issues such as depression, self harm and suicide. This is often seen in a negative light. People who are ‘emo’ tend to be viewed as outcasts or, often, sociopaths. Urban Dictionary has over 1000 entries for the word emo. Around 50% say something along these lines. The other 50% have a different idea.

In 2008, there was outrage after the Daily Mail accused rock band My Chemical Romance of fuelling a ‘suicide cult’ among teenagers. Reporters, parents and friends all blamed the rise of emo culture for the deaths of many young adults who had been influenced by the music. The influence was so strong that both My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco removed themselves from the label. Stigma towards the music and the people who listen to it has remained in places where the culture has diminished. Listen to Panic! At The Disco now and you would find it hard to believe that they ever promoted such values.

But that may be because they didn’t. The other 50% of Urban Dictionary definitions refer to emo as a genre of music. The people who listen to this music may or may not have straight black hair, they may or may not own several kohl eyeliners and they may or may not have marks on their skin. Emo has and always will be just a genre of music and if people want to identify themselves as emo then they can and should. If you like Green Day then you are punk, if you like Dolly Parton you are country.

On the basis of My Chemical Romance having 5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, I would like to offer an alternative point of view. Because My Chemical Romance never inspired me to hurt myself, they never made me depressed and they never made me want to commit suicide. What they did tell me was to ‘carry on’, to speak out when I felt like I was struggling and to accept my problems and fight back. They sang about heartache, grief and depression. They helped me in a time when I really needed it. They helped millions of people all over the world. These people united in their struggles and identified as emos.

Instead of saying that listening to My Chemical Romance causes people to want to commit suicide and self-harm, consider that feeling suicidal causes people to listen to My Chemical Romance. In the words of the band themselves: ‘you only hear the music when your heart begins to break’. Emo music often covers topics of mental health and so, inevitably, people suffering from depression are likely to be listening. People who were going to self-harm and attempt suicide anyway found comfort in emo music. In some cases, it saved, not ended, their lives.

And remember that behind every band is a group of people. Human beings who are probably already suffering with their own problems, being told that they are responsible for the suffering and deaths of their young fans. They are not responsible for the death of anyone. That is an unfair burden to put on anyone.

I end this on a message for the journalists, parents and friends of teenagers who consider themselves emo. You may not understand what they are suffering with, you may be scared of it and will take any excuse to blame it on something else. But they may be using the music as something to identify with when they feel that nobody else understands. The music may be a safe and comforting environment that is keeping them going. And they probably need you to ask if they are okay, not take it away from them.

My Chemical Romance told me to keep going.
Fall Out Boy told me not to care what people think.
Panic! At The Disco told me you can change your mind all the time and people will still care.

So next time you think of an emo as a dark haired, angsty teenager who slits their wrists, think about what that actually means to do so. Think of the comfort they are getting from it and the people they have met through it. Being emo is a silent nod to others that are struggling, to prove they are not alone. And to stand in front of everyone, literally wearing their pain on their sleeve, and accept who they are, well, that’s braver than you would ever know.

Amber Walters is a 19 year old writer and blogger based in Shropshire, England. Having been diagnosed with anxiety and depression as a child, she aims to help and inspire others by writing about music, mental health and life in general on her blog



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