‘You let me know like no one else, that it’s okay to be myself’: Youth and the emo scene


By Michelle Neleman

Inspired by the letters received over the years, the Canadian band Simple Plan decided to write a song based on the experiences of their fans. On Twitter, they posed the question: ‘Can you tell me how our music has made you feel through the years?’, which launched the responses that ultimately would make up the lyrics of This Song Saved My Life:

I want to start by letting you know this
Because of you, my life has a purpose
You helped be who I am today
I see myself in every word you say
Sometimes it feels like nobody gets me
Trapped in a world, where everyone hates me
There’s so much that I’m going through
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you

I was broken
I was choking
I was lost
This song saved my life
I was bleeding, stopped believing
Could have died
This song saved my life
I was down
I was drowning
But it came on just in time
This song saved my life

Sometimes I feel like you’ve known me forever
You always know how to make me feel better
Because of you my dad and me
Are so much closer than we used to be
You’re my escape when I’m stuck in a small town
I turn you up, whenever I feel down
You let me know like no one else
That it’s okay to be myself


You’ll never know what it means to me
That I’m not alone
That I’ll never have to be

I decided to open this paper with these lyrics, because many of the lines describe the responses of my interviewees spot on. Furthermore, the method of creating the song resembles the aim of my paper. Based on ethnographic research, this paper reveals the meaning of the emo scene as given by those who are part of it. Specifically, it will show how the scene contributes to the identity formation of the young participants, by examining the values the emo culture represents, the common features the emo youth share, and the meanings they attribute to the scene’s distinctive (music and fashion) style.

My interest in the emo scene started in high school. As a teenager, I was struggling with low self-esteem and feelings of insecurity. Like many other teens, I was trying to fit in. It was not until connecting with punk-rock music (yes, Simple Plan) that I found myself understood and empowered. Until today, I feel the music has helped to shape the person I am. This has motivated me to find out how the scene influences others. By conducting interviews with seven respondents (two male and five female) between the ages of 17 and 21 [1], and one ‘band’ interview with two members of the Dutch band Only Seven Left, I gained insight in the lived experiences of young emos. This has been a learning experience, both academically and personally, but most of all a lot of fun. I have experienced how music can truly connect, as attested by the relative ease of finding and approaching people for interviews, and the warm and open welcome I received during these conversations. Still, it should be emphasized that the emo scene is not homogeneous. Even though there are many similarities in my respondents’ stories, I have come across nine different personalities. This paper aims to understand the general cultural phenomenon of emo and in doing so will provide an insider’s perspective in which most emo youth will recognize themselves, yet perhaps with different personal experiences and meanings attached to it.

In order to overcome its negative connotations, I will first explain the definition of ‘emo’ as used in this paper. Then I will discuss the three key areas of the scene: emo as lifestyle, emo as music style, and emo as fashion style. To interpret the data gathered by in-depth interviews and participant observation, I draw on theories by the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies and Sarah Thornton on subcultural capital and agency. Furthermore, I am aware of my own subjective position as a researcher. Being part of the scene can bring more in-depth knowledge and understanding. A challenge, however, has been to focus on the experiences of others without getting too emotionally engaged. To maintain reliability, I have reflected on my role as a researcher throughout the research.

Confronting stereotypes

Michelle Neleman - Illustration1Emo is a loaded term. The word has been associated with self-mutilating practices, depression and suicidal thoughts. The teenagers involved are often described as having an introverted personality. The stereotypical emo wardrobe consists of skinny jeans, band t-shirts, and either Vans or Converse sneakers. The hair is usually straightened, dyed in black and/or bright color(s), and covering one eye. Other associations with emo include: deviant sexualities, music obsessive, veganism, and social media junkies:

The stereotype of Emo is a depressive, self-mutilating, bi-sexual or otherwise gay teenager, who has a fascination with ‘darker’ style things and clothing, and has attempted suicide. They listen to rock music and things noted as ‘heavy’, ‘melodic’ and ‘depressive’. (Mibba.com)

In popular discourse, the emo scene is sometimes referred to as a dangerous cult, persuading teenagers to start cutting or commit suicide[2]. But how much of this image is reality? Should these warnings be taken seriously or are we merely speaking of a moral panic (Phillipov, 2010; Cohen, 1973)?

Figure 1: Emo stereotype

The term emo is so loaded that I have been hesitant to use it for this paper. So at first, I referred to the pop-punk scene, but I found that this term falls short. Despite its negative connotations, I realized ‘emo’ captures the scene better as a whole. Pop-punk refers to only one style of music, while my respondents did not limit their music preference to one genre. Emo refers to a wide variety of genres ranging from pop-punk (or punk-rock) to the more screamo versions (emocore or post-hardcore). A second concern is that pop-punk only captures the musical aspect of the scene, neglecting the scene as a lifestyle and fashion style. As members of Only Seven Left put it, referring to their identification as ’emo band’:

‘It’s more than just the music, it was the whole style, the kind of band photos… (Jochem: the hair…) Yeah, the hair. We used to have ‘emo bangs’ maybe that’s why they considered us emo.’ (Bram)

The respondents recognize the stereotype, yet they explain emo in reference to music style, clothing, associated behavior and band attitude. It should be noted that neither musicians nor fans use the term emo to refer to themselves. The label is given to them by outsiders. Thus, even though they acknowledge the term and are able to give their own interpretation to it, they do not use it in daily life.

According to the respondents, to them the meaning of ‘emo’ does not match the stereotypes of self-mutilation or suicide. I do not want to imply that it does not occur within the scene nor that it should be completely ignored. That would deny the severity of the problem. But it should be recognized that it is not stimulated within the scene. As Emily (18) says:

‘My whole music taste is labelled emo, which makes me ‘emo’. But I don’t cut myself. […] Tumblr bothers me nowadays because it’s full of those [cutting] pictures, which I think of as attention seeking. It’s a serious problem, those people need help, not show others on the Internet.’ (Emily)

In this paper I hope to overcome the stereotypical image of emo and provide the term with the meanings given by participants in the scene itself. I will show that these meanings are mostly related to a state of mind. Throughout the paper, I give examples of lyrics to illustrate this emo state of mind.

Emo as lifestyle

In Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture (2009), Trevor Kelley and Leslie Simon[3] recognize that emo is, above all, a state of mind. There is indeed more to the scene than its music. I was able to cluster my respondents’ statements concerning the ‘emo state of mind’ to what at first glance seems a bunch of paradoxes. Together they describe the core values of the scene. The first paradox, individual versus collective, is linked to both the quest of self-discovery and emo as a place to belong. Specifically, emo is discussed here in its relationship to identity formation during adolescence.

– (Extra)Ordinariness –

I won’t apologize for being different, I can be who I am (Sleeping with Sirens)

Emos are rarely found among the popular kids. Like all teens they are searching to fit in while, at the same time, they are on the road to self-discovery. ‘Adolescence is a time that is characterized by a strong desire for autonomy and a strong desire for conformity with their peers’ (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004: 253). This causes a struggle: on the one hand they want to be ordinary to be included in the mainstream, on the other hand they are looking to be extraordinary in order to become a unique individual.

Being ordinary may have different outcomes. Emos are not necessarily outcasts. They may blend in with the mainstream. However, since they do themselves often feel ‘different’, blending in doesn’t seem satisfactory. They are either not able to express themselves fully around the friends they have, or do not identify themselves with their group of friends. Self-discovery is an underlying cause of this. They seem to have the desire to pursue extraordinariness as embodiment of ‘being somebody’. Today’s culture promotes individualism, which results in the belief of being true to oneself. Standing out is portrayed as an act of courage and considered a virtue (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004: 248). At the same time, this clashes with ‘fitting in’ which requires ordinariness.

Another outcome is that they do not succeed in blending in. Many of my respondents feel that they either did not have a lot or no friends at all in high school. Some of them have experienced bullying. The emo scene embraces extraordinariness and provides a space where those who feel ‘different’ can express themselves. The scene is a place to belong for those who have difficulty fitting in with the ordinary mainstream. ‘It’s a place where people who don’t fit in – but long to fit in with others who don’t belong – come to find solace’ (Kelley & Simon, 2009: 1).

– Emo and space –

I have found a click to call my own (Good Charlotte)

Emily’s mother explained to me that her daughter’s ideal spatial conditions would be in the middle of nature, alone. Although Emily agreed, later in the conversation she expressed her longing for the city: ‘In the city I would feel more comfortable’, because it is there that she finds more people who share her taste in music. I found this to be an interesting paradox. As mentioned above, self-discovery is an essential characteristic of emo as a lifestyle. Therefore emo youth are looking for a group of people where they have the opportunity to find and be themselves. ‘By joining groups that have a strong feeling of cohesiveness but also pride themselves on being different, group members can emphasize their sense of (in-group) belonging at the same time as promoting (intergroup) distinctiveness’ (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004: 252). I believe that this causes the inconsistency in speech. On the one hand they express a desire for peace and quietness: conditions for self-reflection and understanding (Parkins, 2004: 377). On the other hand they long for the city, where it is more likely to meet people with similar tastes and values.

– Satisfaction vs restlessness –

I’m so sick of watching while the minutes pass as I go nowhere (All Time Low)

Linked to the idea of social opportunities is the feeling of restlessness. This can be explained in regard to a physical as well as an emotional state. The former is seen in the longing for the city. Two of my respondents, who live in the north of the Netherlands, said they would rather move to the city than stay at their current place of residence. Even though they could appreciate the green and quietness of the countryside, they longed for the anonymity and excitement of the city. As Parkins (2004: 366) notes, ‘young people seek out places to live, work and socialize where the pace is faster, assuming a link between speed, vitality and excitement’. Speed is associated with modernity, freedom (of expression), and progression whereas slowness becomes romanticized (2004: 365). This image of the city corresponds with the idea of ‘finding oneself’ and being able to express oneself without feeling judged.

The second condition concerns an inner state of mind. Emo youth are often drawn to the music and the scene because they have gone through a rough time in their lives. The respondents described past events and all of them recognized that they had gone through personal growth over the years. Basically, they are satisfied with where their lives are heading at the moment. But at the same time they are searching for something more. An emo lifestyle embodies, in a way, romantic ideas about self-development. Perhaps because they have felt a lot of let-down, there is a certain urge to prove oneself. As Lexi (21) explains:

I appreciate the feeling of ‘being meaningful’… or to value myself […] Perhaps because I’ve been underestimated my whole life.’ (Lexi)

This can be read as a form of self-improvement, the urge of perfectionism or the determination to prove others wrong. Thus, even though they might be content with life as it is, there is a feeling of restlessness that keeps them pushing for more.

– Realism vs escapism –

I can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim (Bring Me The Horizon)

Romanticism is associated with dreams and fiction, which in a way relates to the emo scene. The music functions as a way to escape their current physical as well as emotional state, in the sense that the music creates an inner world in which one can escape from the reality of the world outside. Thornton (2013: 19) explains that one way in which youth claim space, is by filling it with music. This may give them a sense of empowerment and autonomy, by distancing themselves from their surroundings. At the same time, the music can support reality. The music shapes the way the listener is feeling, which in effect influences the listener’s thoughts and behavior. The music supports the person’s inner feelings, which helps them cope with outer situations. Lexi explains it as a ‘soundtrack’:

I decide which music I listen to, based on my inner state of mind. Without that, I get easily annoyed in real life.’ (Lexi)

Yet, the music achieves more emotionally. The majority of the respondents had gone through a time of bullying, feeling left out, illness, depression, or other difficulties. Despite the gloomy lyrics, the songs provided them with an opportunity to either escape or decide to deal with the negative emotion, as Kyle (18) feels:

You can’t hide forever in the music.’ (Kyle)

This shows that they do have a good sense of reality. One of the characteristics of the emo genre is that the lyrics are based on (dealing with) personal circumstances, inviting for identification or understanding. Using the example of ‘Bulls in the Bronx’, a song by Pierce the Veil inspired by the story of a fan’s suicide, Emily explains that the lyrics do not necessarily have to apply to herself, as long as she is touched by the story. An essential characteristic of emo youth is being empathic. Empathy makes them aware of the meaning behind the music, whether it applies to their own situation or not.

– Insecurity vs fuck it –

I got troubled thoughts and a self-esteem to match (Fall Out Boy)

I found a contrasting set of attitudes among the respondents. Some expressed having feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. They care much about what others think of them which makes them hesitant to express themselves, including their taste for emo:

You’re being judged nowadays […] I’d rather keep my music taste to myself.’ (Emily)

Others expressed the opposite, a certain ‘fuck it’ attitude. They feel as if they already do not blend in, so why even try? But rather than seeing these attitudes as opposing, they can be seen as part of a transformation. As Emily and Laura expressed in my joint interview with them:

I don’t understand why you didn’t have any friends. You’re the nicest person I know.’ (Emily)
Now I am myself, back then I wanted others to like me.’ (Laura)

Perhaps self-doubt is part of growing up. The respondents were introduced to the scene when they were either around the age of 12, or around 16-17 years old. These ages fall at the start or the middle of adolescence, a period associated with trial-and-error. Arnett (1999: 319) argues that adolescence is a difficult period in life for both biological and cultural reasons. Boyes and Chandler (1992: 279) note that ‘a central task of the adolescent period is to orient one’s self to the range of commitments that impending adulthood demands’. This causes pressure on youngsters to find an own identity to fall back on. They further argue that youngsters who have failed to consider the matter of their own future and who are not genuinely committed to any particular life course are to be in a vague state of identify diffusion (ibid.). It can thus be said that youngsters who do not yet have a stable identity find themselves in a state of confusion. The life of a teenager is characterized by insecurity, which explains the lack of confidence among my respondents. Those who got to know the scene at a younger age said they felt insecure in the beginning, but learned to care less about other’s opinions as they grew older. It is perhaps after they learn who they are and accept that it is okay to be themselves, that they are able to let go of the insecure feelings. The ‘fuck-it’ attitude is then the result of the process of growing up.

Emo as music style

Listening to music is at the core of the emo scene. Music is the binding factor. As Sarah Thornton (2013: 3) has argued, club crowds ‘generally congregate on the basis of their shared taste in music, their consumption of common media, and their preference for people with similar tastes to themselves’. Even though the music is stereotyped as depressive, I argue that the music embodies emotion as a whole, rather than negative emotions only.

– Content –

I’m not okay. I promise (My Chemical Romance)

Emo is described as a mixed genre, ranging from pop and electronic versions of punk to screamo/emocore. O’Connor (2002: 226) explains the ‘emo’ tag as music typified by musical complexity and dramatic changes in tempo. It moved beyond punk music of inept musicians, three chords and 4:4 time. The label is subjectively placed upon a band. During dinner with a friend, I learned that it is difficult to agree on whether a band should be labelled emo or not. Kyle also noticed that a band, or even a single song, can fall within different genres at the same time. It is a matter of feeling rather than a given set of rules. There are, however, some common factors which apply to emo as a music scene.

The emo genre relies heavily on lyrical content. The fans are either invited to identify with the lyrics or sympathize with them. They often contain the message of honest feeling (‘It’s okay to not be okay’) or self-acceptance (‘It’s okay to be myself’). It’s usually the identification that draws the youth to the scene. As Sarah (20) puts it:

I’ve always felt that Fall Out Boy sings about ‘my life’. It may sound a bit weird, but in all of their lyrics, I recognize something of myself.’ (Sarah)

Yet as suggested above, it is not always necessary to personally identify with the lyrics, as long as one can empathize with the general message. While outsiders might label emo lyrics as depressive, the young participants in the scene feel comforted by them.

A common misconception is that emo songs are solely negative. The respondents often define emo as short for ‘emotion’ of any kind. As Jesse (21) puts it, ‘music brings every kind of emotion there is’, implying that emotion should be understood in its broadest sense. This is not limited to lyrics alone: ‘Certain melodies touch me.

According to band members of Only Seven Left, fooling around and having fun is definitely a pop-punk thing. I saw this confirmed by the performance of the American band All Time Low which I attended in the club Paradiso on February 23rd 2014. Throughout the concert, the fans jumped and sung along, mirroring the band on stage. Guitarist Jack Barakat ran around to every corner of the stage and the jokes between him and frontman Alex provided much of the entertainment. The humor is part of the scene’s exclusivity, since outsiders might not get the jokes. Another characteristic of these concerts is the moshpit, which looks like a violent crowd crashing into each other. Looking more closely, it can be considered a form of dancing or emotional outlet. Thus, the music as emotional escape functions on both negative and positive sides of the spectrum.

Michelle Neleman - Illustration2
Fig. 2 Unwritten rules of Moshing (Source: wikihow.com)

– Extraordinariness within the Ordinary –

What I do is what I choose, which makes it my decision (Sum 41)

Even though the members of Only Seven Left could not immediately think of a message to the fans, Bram noted that:

‘I appreciate it when people recognize that we do what we want… (Jochem: just four friends having fun in what they do…) Actually I’d love for the fans to do the same.’

Within the scene, musicians are considered stars. On the one hand, they function as a point of identification, while on the other hand they are looked up to. The band is considered extraordinary, something special, as well as ordinary, one of us. This apparent paradox is part of stardom itself (Dyer, 1998: 43).

Extraordinariness is embodied because the bands are, first of all, good at what they do and, second, an inspiration for the young fans. Sarah explained that she appreciates the bands for their musical skill. Lexi, on the other hand, admires the musicians for their attitude:

‘I have a lot of respect for musicians with a ‘fuck the world’ attitude.’ (Lexi)

Rather than outcasts, emos can be considered underdogs: the ones who feel less likely to achieve something, yet have the potential to. The music functions as an encouragement or reassurance that things will become better. During the concert of Fall Out Boy which I attended on March 8th 2014, at the Heineken Music Hall, bassist Pete Wentz held a speech about how every single one of us in the audience could be the stars of tomorrow, making the connection to how they first started out themselves. This shows that stars are extraordinary, in the sense that they have achieved success and inspire others to do the same, as well as ordinary, because they once started out in the crowd.

Ordinariness is what I experienced during my interview with Only Seven Left. Even though I tried to keep my expectations even, it turned out less life-changing as I had expected it to be. A friend’s comment made me realize how to fit in this interview with the rest of the paper: ‘It seems they’re ordinary people after all.‘ The interview had been exactly that: an ordinary, informal conversation in the backyard. Jochem and Bram emphasized several times that they are ‘normal’ people making music and this is exactly the feeling I got out of the conversation. The band embodies the idea that heroes can be born out of the ordinary.

A result of the band’s ordinariness is the close and informal relationship with fans. The concert of All Time Low was accompanied by a signing session at the Magna Plaza shopping mall in Amsterdam. Despite the limited time, the band did not rush talking to the fans. Likewise, Only Seven Left suggested approachability to describe the band-fan relationship. During the acoustic set, the crowd at the ATL concert threw glow sticks as a joke and two fans were invited to sing on stage. This characterizes the informal relationship between the band and the fans. Even though the band is positioned as the star, the fans are able to reach out to them.

– Authenticity –

‘A lot of people would prefer us to make that kind of music all the time [music from the first album].’ (Jochem)
‘I don’t think you should make music only to please fans.’ (Bram)

Struggles over the boundaries of the music and style are often at issue within the subculture itself (O’Connor, 2002: 226). I am not able to give an objective set of criteria by which an emo band can be identified as authentic. It is a matter of subjectivity and personal interpretation. However, as in the old days of rock music and especially the punk movement, authenticity is considered to be highly important. The scene is North-America dominated, which might be the logical effect of when only Anglo-American rock was considered authentic (Gudmunsson, 1999: 45). Although there are authentic emo bands from outside the US, the American music industry and the English language play a major role in achieving success.

Although the fans do grant the musicians a chance to become successful, commercialism is not stimulated nor appreciated within the scene, as this is associated with ‘selling out’. As Kathie (19) expresses:

‘I prefer for it [selling out] not to happen, to keep it within the group. I like other people not to know my music. On the other hand, I’d like for the bands to become successful” (Kathie)

When a subculture becomes consumed by the mainstream, it causes insiders to feel a loss of identity because their identity depends on an opposition (Moore, 2006: 233). One area in which a band maintains authenticity is skill. This includes the ability to play instruments and songwriting. The text should be personal:

‘It’s important to write about your true feelings, what’s real.’ (Bram)

Undeniably, the musicians use their music to make money. To counter the potentially negative effects of this, they keep an anti-capitalistic attitude. The experience of All Time Low exemplifies this. In 2011, the band left their previous label Hopeless Records, which is a smaller indie-label, and signed with Interscope Records, which is part of the larger Universal Music Group. The album that followed, Dirty Work (2011), sounded different from what they had done before. A few months later they released the following statement:

It was the usual story that we promised ourselves we’d never let happen. […] Unfortunately we got lost in the mess of big business and higher-ups making deals. Lesson learned. No hard feelings. (Alex Gaskarth, AbsolutePunk.net)

The statement explains that the way in which the album was produced did not match the band’s original intention. In order to make the following album their own, it was (for the most part) produced independently and released back under Hopeless Records[4]. The example shows that the main criterion for authenticity is for the band to do what they want instead of being dictated by capitalistic institutions. Personal honesty is of main importance, which corresponds with the scene’s other values of self-discovery and acceptance. Even at the risk of losing fans, bands decide for themselves.

Emo as (fashion) style

The scene’s exclusivity is built on the extraordinary and difference. When the scene becomes open to the mainstream, it loses its exclusive character. Once the subculture fails to maintain the barrier between the mainstream and itself, its subcultural value and intended message are lost (Teffs, 2010: 4). An alternative fashion style is another area through which the mainstream is resisted by continually reinventing itself:

‘At one point everybody started wearing red jeans and skinnies and alternatives had to think of something different.’ (Bram)

In Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), Dick Hebdige argues that style can be used as a form of resistance by provoking the mainstream. By presenting difference, it contradicts a mainstream in which sameness is promoted.

– Style as subcultural capital –

The emo scene is characterized by a ‘spectacular’ style (see the section on stereotypes). Yet, I found that the majority of emo youth does not necessarily keep to an ‘emo image’. The respondents came up with several reasons. While they all could appreciate the style, some felt too insecure to apply it to themselves. Others were struggling because of job obligations. Respondents that had been part of the scene for a longer period, previously used elements of the emo style, but as they grew older it seemed less relevant:

‘In the past I felt that it seemed more relevant to dress a certain way in order to fit in [with the scene].’ (Sarah)

At both of the concerts I attended during the research period, the musicians wore regular clothing rather than costumes and make-up. This corresponds with the idea of the band as ordinary. There are some examples in the scene of more theatrical bands, such as Black Veil Brides or Panic! At The Disco. Their use of make-up and costumes enhances the extraordinary aspect of the scene. Thus there are different forms of stylistic engagement in the scene, both among fans and bands. As long as one shares the common language of the scene, the individual differences do not matter (Hebdige, 1979: 122).

Neither musicians nor fans seem to attach much importance to (fashion) style to be part of the scene, or as subcultural capital. Thornton explains subcultural capital as a way to portray ‘status’ within a subculture. This can be objectified, through consumption, or embodied, by being ‘in the know-how’ (2013: 11). It seems that within the emo scene, embodied capital has more weight than objectified capital. Although consumption, for example CD’s and band merchandise, is part of the scene, it is not a necessity to be part of the scene. Style does function as a point of recognition: ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ (Jesse). Yet it is not what ultimately defines ‘emo’. This often causes confusion about ‘typical emo’ clothing. As Laura (19) recalls:

‘I don’t understand why people thought I was emo. I never wore skinny jeans.. converse.. I wore black, wide clothes. That’s not how I define emo.’ (Laura)

Style is only a small element of the scene. Embodied capital, in the form of knowledge, is more important:

What are you doing at a concert when you only know one song?’ (Kathie)

– Style as Resistance –

I don’t want to waste my time, become another casualty of society (Sum 41)

Though style may not be consciously used as resistance, it does have a function. Hebdige (1979: 94) uses the term to not only refer to clothing, but to subcultural signs in general. Thus, style should be looked at in its relationship to lifestyle and music. The distinctive emo style may stimulate the young participants to pursue their personal style rather than following the mainstream:

‘It’s not that I don’t want to be mainstream. I’m just sick of doing what society wants me to do. Since a year or two, I do what I want [referring to both music taste and clothing style].’ (Lexi)

It is a way for youth to constitute a visible identity. What follows is that style makes the scene and its youth visible. The extraordinary appearance of emo makes the scene recognizable for people within the scene as well as, most importantly, for outsiders. Whether intentional or not, the emo scene presents a silent resistance to the mainstream. By celebrating individualism, it challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus (Hebdige, 1979: 18). In other words, spectacular subcultural styles present a challenge to the mainstream whose defining characteristic, according to Barthes, is the masquerade of naturalness (Hebidge, 1979: 102).

Michelle Neleman - Illustration3.1
Fig. 3 Bryan Stars on individuality

Paradoxically, within the emo scene the extraordinary becomes the ordinary. Therefore I believe that in their search for ‘the self’, emo youth are not necessarily seeking a place to be different but rather looking for a place where they can be themselves without being judged. The scene as a whole assists them in discovering their own identity. This is formed as soon as they step out of the mainstream. As Joel Madden, singer from the band Good Charlotte and coach on The Voice Australia, put it:

‘The only way, shape or form that I’d say that I’m a rebel, or go against the grain, is that I’ve refused to let the world decide what I can be.’ (Joel Madden, interviewed on A Current Affair).

Self-acceptance represents the symbolic resistance of the emo scene. Individuals question the ‘naturalness’ of their identity and recognize themselves as subjects with resistant agency (Raby, 2006: 162). This also applies to the musicians, since they embody the idea of successfully overcoming their personal struggles in order to become who they want to be.

Simultaneously, being a threat to the mainstream makes them a victim of stigmatization. Any deviant behavior can result in a moral panic (Hebdige, 1979: 93). By labeling emo as deviant and dangerous, the hegemony is secured (Friesen, cited in Phillipov, 2010). However, Phillipov (2010: 64) explains that emo, by blurring the genre boundaries, has been fairly resistant to labeling and categorization. The punk movement presents a threat to the labeling process by not openly acknowledging the term. This raises questions about the existence of emo as a musical and cultural movement (ibid.). As shown in this paper, the emo scene includes many areas with no clear set of rules. According to Phillipov (2010: 65), the malleability of this cultural identity suggests that compatibilities between the mainstream and the deviant are not impossible.

– Youth and agency –

Still, even though the emo scene and its members cannot be clearly pinpointed, it suffers from negative stereotypes and connotations. And without apparent representatives of the scene, no one challenges these negative meanings (Phillipov, 2010: 65). Thus, there is a lack of collective agency within the scene: when no one identifies themselves as emo, there are no opposing readings. Labeling may make cultural groups ‘knowable’ and therefore definable in terms of dominant interests, but in this case the reluctance to be defined makes it possible for emo to be filled with meaning from elsewhere (Phillipov, 2010: 66).

Nevertheless, the emo scene does provide an opportunity for individual agency. The scene as a whole, including the lifestyle, music style and fashion style, offers a pillar for the youth during tough times. An essential characteristic of these youth is that they are struggling (or have struggled) on a personal level. The scene is a space in which they can express their feelings without being judged. It is also a space in which they are free to explore and accept their own identity. Additionally, there is room for individuality and visibility through style. The power of individual expression is what functions as the youth’s agency. Collectively, they may not feel the necessity to change the image of emo. Instead they put their energy into self-development. The scene itself is not power, instead it stimulates its insiders to find their own personal strength: ‘The recruit uses the values and imagery of the subculture to alter his own self-image’ (Brake, 1985: 17).

Lastly, it is necessary to highlight the importance of strength for these youth. The encouragement and strength they gain is necessary to overcome their personal struggles. Usually it is youngsters who are dealing with some sort of difficult situation that are drawn to the scene. The stereotypes of suicide and self-mutilation cannot be fully ignored. However, problems like suicidal thoughts are not a characteristic of emo, but of youth in general (Phillipov, 2010: 68). The scene should not be looked at as a cause of suicide, but rather an effect of already troubled youth. Instead of leaving out the negative image, it is important to be aware of the issues that (emo) youth are concerned with. In order to come up with a solution, it is important to state the cause.


Darlin’ you’ll be okay (Pierce the Veil)

The emo scene should be understood based on meanings given to it by insiders, by the lived experiences of the young participants themselves. For one thing, emo can be seen as part of growing up. A common feature of emo youth is the search for and acceptance of the self. Underlying is having a strong will to achieve or prove themselves. While the music functions as escapism, physically and emotionally, it also a case of authentic emotion.

The band as embodiment of both inspiration and identification characterizes emo as a music scene. The musicians are appreciated for their skill and looked up to for their attitude. They are the inspiring example of a successful transformation from an insecure teenager to taking control of their own lives. By expressing their stories through their music, the youth are able to identify.

At the same time, the scene functions to empower. While style functions as recognition rather than resistance, it complements the other values of the scene. Although there is no evidence of collective opposition, style has the potential to offend the silent majority. More importantly, the scene reflects personal agency. It provides the youth with the opportunity and freedom to find individual strength, helping them to overcome (personal) struggles.
Emo as an identity means going through the transformation of ‘becoming oneself’. The visual appearance of emo will most likely wear off as the youth grow older. Yet, the long-term effect is something advantageous for the rest of their lives.

An important lesson I have learned from this experience is that one event does not change who you are. It was not the interview with Only Seven Left that most affected me as a person; it was the whole experience of meeting and talking to people, the continuous reflection and surpassing my personal boundaries. Five years ago, I would not have expected to have the courage to approach strangers nor be able to reflect on personal memories. This research definitely had its ups and downs, but overall it has been a positive experience. I could recognize myself in the people I spoke with, and realized I am not much different from any of them. Yet, as an ordinary student from a small forgotten town, I have had the chance to make friends out of strangers and eventually, after many rejections, arranged an interview with the band. To achieve the seemingly impossible, all it takes is passion and courage. I am reminded of a class assignment during the first session of Youth Cultures in which we discussed our dreams and anxieties. I had responded that ‘a part of me still wishes to inspire others, perhaps through writing’. I hope this paper inspires others, especially my fellow ’emos’, to take up the courage to do something they feel passionate about.

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

Michelle Neleman is a student at the University of Amsterdam, interested in cultural studies, popular culture, music and media. Connect with Michelle on LinkedIn.


[1] Some of the respondents’ names have been changed in order to maintain anonymity.

[2] See, for example, ‘The Emo Culture – What Every Parent Must Know‘, in Examiner.com, 01 January 2011, accessed 27 April 2014; or ‘Suicide of Hannah, the secret “emo”‘, in The Sun, 08 May 2008, accessed 27 April 2014.

[3] Both are contributors of Alternative Press, one of the leading magazines in alternative rock.

[4] The music video of I Feel Like Dancin’ which also appeared on Dirty Work can be considered a critique of the capitalistic practices of the popular music industry which the emo genre ‘rejects’.


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Cover illustration by Adam Elmakias.