What in the world is emo?

By Gus Bode

What the fork is emo?

It’s a pizza chain that lasted in Carbondale for a matter of weeks right?

Oh, is it that little, red, fuzzy thing from Sesame Street?


Is it a style of music that has inspired depressed youth across the nation to put on their favorite ’80s t-shirts and thick, black-framed glasses and remember all the girlfriends/boyfriends that treated them like crap?

Or does it even exist?

To those who do think it exists, it’s short for emotional, and it’s brought out a whole mess of bands who say everything sucks. It’s clear to fans that the style exists, but who exactly fits in the categories is somewhat hazy. Fortunately, there are plenty of websites dedicated to teaching teenagers and young adults exactly how to be an “emo kid.”

One of those sites is www.fourfa.com, which breaks down the history, categories and style of emo. But musicians like Jeff Funburg, who plays guitar and sings for Big Fat Nothing, said the concept of emo is “bull shit.”

“All new punk music gets labeled emo,” Funburg said. “I think emo’s just an excuse not to come up with anything better.”

But according to the website, emo is real, formed from punk and has quite a history.

According to Andy Radin, who operates fourfa and is in an emo band himself, emo started to take shape in Washington D.C. after the band, Minor Threat, broke up in 1983. Radin said this was around the time that “D.C. hardcore punk” ended.


Radin said it was after the band’s separation that punk bands all over the country started searching for new styles, including “cheeze-metal,” mosh and alternative. Emo’s forefather, according to Radin, was the turn toward “melodic rock with punk sensibilities.” Radin said this began in Washington D.C.

In 1984, a band called Rites of Spring formed from former members of The Untouchables and Faith and Deadline. Radin said this band had the same speed and texture of punk, but with “intensely personal lyrics dripping with emotion and sweat.”

Radin said in the summer of 1985, a “new wave of rock-tempo, melody-based, sung-vocal bands” formed from the remaining punk musicians in Washington D.C. He said these bands, which included Gray Matter and Shudder to Think, did not keep the punk style created by Rites of Spring.

Radin said soon after, Minor Threat’s front man, Ian MacKaye, joined a band called Embrace. He said this band used lyrics that were “emotional and deeply self-questioning, but still clear and unambiguous.” He said bands like Embrace were negatively labeled as emo by critics and magazines because of their more emotional style.

In 1986, according to Radin, more bands began to flock toward the emo style with bands like The Hated in Annapolis and Moss Icon.

“Moss Icon strips the ’emo’ element down to the core and adds a great deal of intricate guitar melody with a strong focus on loud/soft dynamics,” Radin said on his website. “The vocals, too, break new ground by building up to actual top-of-the-lungs screaming at songs’ climaxes.”

Radin said on his website he considers Moss Icon as the true originators of emo, and later bands would borrow their styles and create their own kind of the style, which has several of its own sub-categories.

For Funburg, anything can be emo. He said that if it means emotional, a lot of songs can fit in the category. One example he gave was Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” which was written about the death of Clapton’s son.

“If someone does something personal, it’s considered emo,” Funburg said.

But for Radin, emo is its own style and has several forms that have branched out from it.

The first category is emocore, which, according to Radin, includes bands such as Fuel and Jawbreaker.

“The emocore style has become broader over the years,” Radin said on his website. “In the beginning, these bands consisted mostly of people who played in hardcore punk bands, got burned out on its limited forms and moved to a guitar-oriented, mid-tempo rock-based sound.”

Radin said this style has the emotional punk vocals with a couple guitars played in distortion and at the same time.

The second is plain emo, which includes bands such as Indian Summer and Julia. This style, according to Radin, has more intense vocals than emocore that start off soft and get louder and sometimes result in “gut-wrenching screams” and sometimes even crying.

“If you’re receptive to this kind of thing, it can be extremely powerful and moving since it’s very hard to fake that kind of pure emotion convincingly,” Radin said on his website.

He said the lyrics are more like poetry and sometimes can be hard to understand. It’s also not unusual for the singers to keep their backs to the audience during the softer parts.

The third style is hardcore emo, which includes bands such as Antioch Arrow and Second Story Window.

“This is extremely abrasive music, with vocals screamed at the physical limit of the vocal chords,” Radin said.

Radin also described this style as faster, louder and more “single-minded” than regular emo.

The fourth style is post-emo indie rock, which includes bands like The Get-Up Kids and Sunny Day Real Estate.

According to Radin, this style has less of a harsh sound and more of the soft-and-then-loud songs.

“Anyone that claims to like both straight-edge and emo is probably talking about this kind of emo,” Radin said.

While Big Fat Nothing may be considered as fitting into one of these categories, Funburg said his band is punk and nothing more.

“We’re just punk,” Funburg said. “We don’t really write about girls.”

But those who do consider themselves to be emo can proudly state their preference of music simply by the clothes they wear.

Emo hip? Learn how

On Radin’s website, he gives fashion tips to all those who wish to look the emo part, starting with the head and going down.

Radin said the hair should be “short, thick, greasy and dyed black with bangs cut straight across.” A bald head and furry face can also be acceptable. Other websites have approved the mop top as well. The eyes should be accompanied by thick, black frames.

For shirts, Radin said a typical emo kid can be seen in a cardigan or v-neck sweater that’s too small. Also accepted is polyester button shirts (which must be buttoned), and children’s size t-shirts with random slogans, with ’80s themes often preferred.

The emo kid should wear heavy slacks, often too short and tight. But other websites say emo kids can wear tight blue jeans as well.

On the feet, Radin suggests “clunky, black shoes,” but regular tennis shoes are also acceptable. While Radin doesn’t suggest it, experts also suggest buttons with short catch phrases.

Finally, Radin suggests that those who wish to go emo should become extremely thin. He said vegenism helps in this category.

Funburg said the whole concept of trying to look emo is also a bit of a ridiculous act. He said it’s not really a trendy style, but something certain people adopt to their personalities and private lives.

“I think it’s a lot of people who don’t really like the [popular] style,” Funburg said. “A lot of the time, it’s just kids who don’t fit in.”

Funburg said that there are enough people who claim to fit into an emo category. But while it’s impossible to determine whether the style truly exists, he said the different styles of emo can actually fit into different musical categories and do not count as a trend.

“I don’t think there’s an emo scene,” Funburg said.

Reporter Codell Rodriguez can be reached at [email protected]