It's hard to pinpoint when exactly—or why exactly—emo became a buzzword in the early 2000s. The genre, which began its gestational period in the mid-80s, evolved dramatically in the decade that followed, with countless bands pulling on the genre's different threads and chasing them for as long as they could. But by the year 2000, emo was no longer "emocore," the term that Ian MacKaye famously bristled against way back in 1986, but an increasingly polished and marketable sound.
In 1999, Seventeen magazine would run its now infamous "Am I Emo?" infographic, with handy style tips and awkward innuendos about having a "Promise Ring 12-inch in your pocket." Within the next couple of years, emo would begin to have its real moment in the sun, with Dashboard Confessional's The Swiss Army Romance getting released the following year, Brand New's Your Favorite Weapon, Thursday's Full Collapse, and Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American in 2001, and, of course, Taking Back Sunday's Tell All Your Friends in early 2002. For many, these would be the albums that would define the sound and aesthetic of this new wave of emo bands. And though they'd all receive their own mixture of commercial success and critical derision, they were never given prime placements on shows like TRL, which was still a director of youth culture. Instead, they were given Clone High.
At the tail end of 2002, Clone High U.S.A. premiered on Teletoon in Canada, and in January of 2003 would find its way to MTV as Clone High. The show was created by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who, together, would go on to write and direct The Lego Movie and are currently producing the upcoming Spider-Man film. Along with Bill Lawrence, the three would conceptualize a show that took famous historical figures such as Abe Lincoln, Joan of Arc, and Mahatma Gandhi and used them as animated teenage clones attempting to navigate the ins and outs of high school life (while unknowingly being groomed by the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures for an elaborate military experiment).
While the show's animation style ebbed toward that of Cartoon Network hits like The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack, the characters' fashion sense could have been cribbed directly from the emo article in Seventeen. Be it Abe Lincoln's ringer tee, Gandhi's striped shirt and Chuck Taylor lookalikes, Mr. Butlertron's stylish red cardigan, or Joan of Arc's penchant for black and dark red hair, the wardrobes were an appropriate send-up of emo fashion. And while the show was clearly taking aim at the overblown melodrama of Dawson's Creek and the relaunched Degrassi: The Next Generation, Clone High's use of era-appropriate touchstones gave it an air of authenticity that few of its contemporaries had.
A big part of Clone High's effectiveness was its music selection, the kind that felt like both a nod to the kids watching it and an in-joke for them as well. When Joan of Arc first sees Abe, the object of her affection, kissing Cleopatra, it makes perfect sense that Dashboard Confessional soundtracks the moment, with Chris Carrabba's screams of "I starve for you" matching Joan's over-the-top anguish. And while hearing Dashboard Confessional in an MTV show was no big shock at the time—due in part to the band's successful Unplugged performance in 2002—hearing the likes of American Football, The Get Up Kids, Thursday, Alkaline Trio, Saves The Day, Hot Rod Circuit, Sunday's Best, Owen, and, for some reason Snapcase, in the background of crucial moments, felt like a knowing wink to the world the show was using as source material.
What Clone High was able to achieve thanks to the dutiful work of music supervisors Amy Fritz and Melinda Matkowsky was a show that would be both a real-time document and a wry parody of the emerging emo culture in the mainstream. Just as Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World, and Taking Back Sunday were beginning to land gold and platinum albums, Clone High was embracing that moment and reflecting it on cable TV.
In the series' fifth episode, "Sleep of Faith: La Rue D'Awakening," the main plot circles around Abe, as he becomes Cleo's tutor in an attempt to win her heart, and his busy schedule means that sleep starts taking a backseat. As the episode nears its end, Abe finds himself in a drag race against John F. Kennedy, who had long been vying for Cleo's love. As everyone worries that the exhausted Abe will fall asleep at the wheel, Thursday's "Understanding in a Car Crash" comes blasting in. Clone High knew what references it needed to make in order to turn a musical cue into a richer punchline. And, in this case, it's an auditory gag that was meant for an emerging viewership, the kind Clone High knew was there even if others didn't just yet.
It's something that's mimicked in softer moments, such as in "Film Fest: Tears of a Clone." After Joan completes editing her submission in the film festival, an experimental art piece that doubles as her love letter to Abe, she is told, point blank, that Abe only sees her as a friend. And as Abe's monologue continues, and Joan is crushed by the reality, American Football's "Stay Home" plays in the background, all the way through the commercial break.
In the season's two-part finale, the clones make their way to prom, and the long-running subplot that sees Principal Scudworth attempting to break away from the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures so he can use the clones for his own devices finally becomes central to the show's narrative. In the final moments, as Abe realizes his love for Joan, the entire cast gets frozen, his breath never getting past his lips and the entire cast stuck in that moment for the rest of their lives. Though it surely wasn't meant to be the series finale, given that a second season was pitched to MTV and then passed on, the end of Clone High retroactively became stronger by ending on this cliffhanger. Instead of wrapping things up with a nice bow, all the messy emotions and sexual tension were left wide open, leaving the clones just as lost as they were at the start.
Yet even if it was unplanned, it became the perfect end to a show that captured a moment—and a movement—focused solely on teenage feelings. Emo would continue to evolve further away from its roots and, just a few years later, bands like My Chemical Romance and Paramore would be bringing the genre to even greater heights. But Clone High was long gone, allowing it to remain a loving satire of emo's first breakthrough moment without having to keep up with it. Like so many emo records from that time, it's a show that's messy and flawed, but always focused on some sort of real emotional growth. Clone High got to stay 18 forever—and it remains better off for it.
David Anthony is on Twitter.