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Is there such a thing as "real emo" music?

Before diving into this episode ... if you play guitar and want to learn some emo songs, here's an incredibly comprehensive article with over 50 songs to get started with, provided by Beginner Guitar HQ:


REC – “Break You” (from Parts and Labour)

REC – “Suddenly” (from Synergy for the Weird)

NICK – “Your Sweetness” (from Your EP)

Welcome to WEEK 263 of MUSIC is not a GENRE (Video #89 & S4Ep30)


See that link right above this line? It makes me feel … whatever. Basically, I get all “emo” whenever someone tries to define what “emo” is and which bands do or don’t qualify. Not unexpected, I’m sure, since you know well I’ve got issues with “genres”.

As with any genre, one band you’re sure belongs is associated with another band that’s a little different. That band is close to another band etc. etc. until five bands down the line you’ve made it from emo to pop punk to Olivia Rodrigo, or emo to goth punk to The Cure. That said, I’m going to dive headfirst into this swirl of emo shite & hopefully resurface with some actual conclusions.

So what’s up with all the labels in this week’s title? First, it’s a perfect illustration of the mess we get in with this subject. It’s also an abridged history of where emo came from, when it popped (pun intended), and where it’s going.

As to that first thing, your definition of emo depends largely on when you discovered it, possibly more than almost any other type of music. If, like me, you learned about emo in the 1990s, you think of anything before Sunny Day Real Estate as proto-emo, and anything after, say, Jimmy Eat World as NOT emo. If you came to emo in the early 2000s, you’re more likely to call Fall Out Boy & Blink-182 emo acts. Here’s a quick breakdown of what I see as the main emo divisions:

PRE-MO – These are 1980s bands who were doing sensitive/personal lyrics/vocals over soft/loud guitars before it was called emo. Think Rites of Spring (and subsequently Fugazi) And a quick nod to the Cure. They “contain multitudes” of genres like the Beatles or Prince, and thus influenced multitudes. Think the Seventeen Seconds, Faith, & Pornography era. And Husker Du was a huge influence on future emo.

DREAMO – This is what I call the early-mid 1990s version of emo. It was less formulaic & more wide-ranging & experimental than what would come the next decade. Think Sunny Day Real Estate (and later The Fire Theft), Jawbreaker & The Promise Ring. Like the era before, these bands hated to be called “emo”. I wanna give shout outs to Smashing Pumpkins & Green Day, who clearly weren’t emo but influenced what emo would become. I’ve heard people call Weezer emo too, but nah.

EMO – This is the bridge from the 1990s to the 2000s, Bands like Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day, & New Found Glory. This & the previous era are where I came into the picture, so I’m more inclined to think of these bands as “true emo”. Which objectively means nothing. Tangential bands that were way more progressive than traditional emo: ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, At the Drive-In and Coheed & Cambria.

SCREAMO – Again kind of a gap-bridger, but more its own offshoot that added major hardness in both sound & vocals. I’m talking Thursday, Taking Back Sunday & Hawthorne Heights. A personal fave.

GLEAMO – What I call the super poppy-punk version of emo, and the iteration that most people today associate with the genre. You know … Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, Paramore, Panic! At the Disco, Relient K, Plain White T’s, and about 15 others. I argue that this is just straight-up pop punk, and more tongue in cheek than truly heartfelt emo, but whatever. Quick side shouts to AFI & My Chemical Romance, who were related to the genre but respectively too post-punk/new wave & goth/drama to be true emo.

FE-MO – There’s been a wave of new bands reviving the emo sound, but busting up the boys’ club both with their genders & their lyrics. Bands like Remember Sports, VENUES, and Meet Me @ The Altar have been a breath of fresh air.

EMO RAP – Again its own offshoot like screamo, and equally as vital. Hip hop is as malleable as any other genre, and nowhere today is that more evident than in emo rap. As with rock, this version of hip hop came along to inject some much needed lyrical sensitivity and overall vulnerability into a genre that was too jaded & macho for its own good. It’s been controversial because some of its biggest stars – Juice WRLD, Lil Peep, and XXXTentacion – suffered tragic deaths. But that doesn’t diminish the music’s passion, and artists like 24kGoldn, Lil Uzi Vert & Lil Yachty are carrying on the new tradition.

So what is “real emo”? If you know MUSIC is not a GENRE, you already know the answer: There IS NO ANSWER. Qualities of emo can be found quite prominently in some 1980s bands, some grunge bands, and quite a bit of pop music. Some pop punk has emo leanings & some doesn’t. Some metal & prog bands are emo-adjacent. Others aren’t. What makes all this fun is finding the threads & following them until you hit on the “emo” that fits you.

You can argue that I was doing emo as early as Sunny Day, such as the song “Your Sweetness” (several years before Jimmy Eat World’s “Sweetness”, btw), but really the influence doesn’t pop up prominently until REC’s Parts and Labour, with the first song being the hands down best example of how emo REC can be. The second song is more in the line of “GLEAMO” than “EMO”. And the third one is the aforementioned “Your Sweetness”, from all the way back in 1996.

REC – “Break You” (from Parts and Labour)

REC – “Suddenly” (from Synergy for the Weird)

NICK – “Your Sweetness” (from Your EP)

Do you know any of the music of the bands I profiled? What do you consider “real emo”? Do you think emo can be clearly defined, and if so which bands would qualify? Discuss dammit!


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