Thursday, May 29, 2008

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 generation 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
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."