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I'm Not OK: Remembering What It Meant to Be Emo

Straightened hair, snakebite piercings, straight guys kissing—what a time to be alive.

by Joe Bish
Mar 11 2016, 3:15pm

I'm a little suspicious of the near-constant reverence given to youth cultures. Perhaps it's because I'm not too far away from being in the catchment age for that sort of thing, but when I was a teen, I couldn't be fucked with it all. I certainly didn't think I was part of anything special, or important. Yet here I am, about to write a lengthy diatribe on why emo music, being "scene," and all the rest of it—though perhaps not particularly influential to who I am now, to the degree that punk or whatever is to old, crust punk guys who hold signs outside Camden Station and look a bit like if Central St. Martins students were responsible for dressing corpses—is still the thing I know the most about.

It's my Mastermind subject, my piece of the Trivial Pursuit pie. I have a nigh-on encyclopedic knowledge of terrible screamo scene metal music, underground, and mainstream. I want to share a little bit of that with you. Come with me on a journey of guyliner, hair over one eye, clip-on fringes, studded belts, Bebo, self-harm, and the hammed-up homoeroticism present in any scene that involves a lot of pretty young men.

As many purists of the genre will tell you, emo isn't, or wasn't, what the stereotype typically represented. A hundred thousand guys in thick-rimmed glasses and plaid shirts, who would look more at home as extras in an episode of Portlandia than the MySpace top six, will bemoan its reputation as idiot teen fodder, and point you in the direction of the OGs: Sunny Day Real Estate, Dashboard Confessional, Jawbreaker, and the like. This was before the turn of the millennium, a time when the romanticism of dusty Midwestern boredom was heavily used to turn tricks in alternative rock. Its unglamorous origins soon gave way to much camper fare. The emotional content of the music blended with the popular noughties pop-punk sound of Blink 182, Sum 41, et al, and birthed a whole generation of crunchy sadness.

My interest came as a result of heavy internet usage. At 13, I got my first email address, a Hotmail, my ticket to the world's fair of nonsense that would soon become, and still is to some extent, the only thing I really engage with every day. I got MSN Messenger and started adding random people from internet forums like IMDb on it, just for shits and giggles. As this was during the calming-down stage of ultra-internet-pedophile-grooming-murder scandals, I'm sure my parents would have been horrified to find out about it. I got a drum kit for my birthday that same year. Between that, my growing teenage disinterest in any and all things that weren't banter, and my newfound obsession with the never-ending wonders of the online world, the path to looking like a cunt and listening to shit music was muddied but clear enough to walk down.

I say shit music—I loved it. I maintain to this day that the best three consecutive singles ever released by a band in chronological order are "I'm Not OK," "Helena," and "Ghost of You" from My Chemical Romance's second album Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, released in 2004. I'll still bang a couple of the big'uns out on a day of nostalgia. But, for the most part, the stuff was trash. The lyrics especially were untenable. The most popular example of this overegged malaise was Hawthorne Heights's 2004 smash hit "Ohio Is For Lovers," which features the famous chorus refrain of "So cut my wrists and black my eyes/ So I can fall asleep tonight" among other things that a schoolboy would mouth while grimacing, looking out of a train window on the way to school.

Suicide and self-harm played a large part of the style. Funeral for a Friend's video for 2006's "Roses for the Dead" featured a bullied teen eventually jumping from what looked like a high-rise parking lot. Our teen years are pretty far from what you'd describe as enlightened times, and among my peers, a lot of the self-harm stuff was met with cold mockery. It was attention-seeking, as is everything anyone does at that age. But when you're young, you're oblivious to the crush of life's many penetrating horrors. A more experienced person would see parallel scratches on a girl's arm and be concerned. Mean-spirited teenagers see the same thing and wonder how they can make more of them.

Perhaps that's a little dramatic, but this is a scene steeped in drama. It is obsessed with tragedy, obsessed with forbidden love. A big moment for emo girls all over the world discovering their sexuality was the two contemporary kings of unconventional sexiness, Bert McCracken of the Used and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, sharing an on-stage kiss. It had parallels with indie in many ways: the faux homosexuality, the use of Camden as a base, and the lame, overcooked poeticism. But while the gods of the indie scene dressed like redcoats had bad teeth, worse skin, and an addiction to all kinds of life-threatening barbiturates, emo godfathers had expensive-looking haircuts, fresh, youthful skin, make-up, and plugs.

It could be argued that emos and scenesters were the first to adopt the fabled MySpace angle, a way of taking photos that used science to erase your ugliness. The less you can see of your face (while still having it in shot), the better. This is all part of the identity, of the look. Covering your face with straightened, colored hair, distracting the eye with the glint of a snakebite piercing, and holding your digital camera aloft, the wrong way round, so more of your scalp is on display than your face. It's the unconfident narcissism of young people that stretches way beyond this extremely narcissistic scene.

Moving on from emo, we find ourselves in the company of its jock cousin, "scene." If emo was the contemplative, moody sunset of Midwestern angst, scene is the brash, catty, sexualized bastard son of hair metal. A very Californian affair, it birthed the career of Sonny Moore, a.k.a. Skrillex, in his band From First to Last and the metalcore outfit Bring Me the Horizon. This is where it starts to get cutesier but also more mature. It's more of a party scene. It's more about drinking and having sexual encounters. It's more raw and rugged. Artists like Alexisonfire, Silverstein, Underoath, and more used this to great effect in screamo, the inevitable blend of being sad and being angry. But this still didn't have the filth. Well, it had filth, but it was more of a "hardcore" filth, like dirt and mud and sweat, as opposed to a gyrating Jagger-esque grot that you'd get with most heavily made-up Kerrang! bands. That was left to your So-Cal types, your sons of Motley Crü, and it lives on today in groups like Escape the Fate, blessthefall, Pierce the Veil, and Black Veil Brides, as well as all other veil-related acts.

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In the UK, this was always the salve of the provinces. It was for kids who hung out in graveyards on the outskirts, drinking cans, being weird, and talking about weird shit. It wasn't something you felt a sense of pride in. It wasn't a movement that changed the world. It was a cosmetic excuse, an exercise in vanity for people who rejected the "lamestream" music of the time.

There's a time to grow up and look elsewhere. Moshing is something you shouldn't do past the age of 20. You can't take ecstasy and watch As I Lay Dying. You have to branch out. But it was as good a place as any to spend a few mopey years, listening to some scraggly guitars, with a man who weighs less than my leg belting out a scream about his heart being turned into an urn.

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