When we talk about emo, we refer to the last true youth subculture that was able to involve an entire generation – a subculture that represents not just a distant memory halfway between cringe and nostalgia, but an entire aesthetic language capable of evolving earning a huge following that it shows no sign of disappearing over time. The origins of the term “emo” can be traced back tohemocore, a sub-genre of hardcore punk, whose main peculiarity lies in the strong interest in emotions and feelings, which takes hold in the United States around the 70s and 80s, reaching its peak during the 90s. The first hemocore groups are the Embrace and the Rites of Spring but the greatest exponent of this new movement is Ian MacKaye, the lead singer of Minor Threat, a group that despite its short career has had a huge influence on the scene, so much so that it is even considered revolutionary. The subculture that gathered around these bands were adolescents united by the need to feel part of a community. This aggregation of young people specifically had its foundations in the search for emotions: depression and pessimism, very often, are their most representative traits. Their colors, the black of the hair and eyeliner, the blue of the jeans and the dyed hair, the occasional touches of red and the metal of studs and piercings.
Detached from reality and disinterested in the judgment of others, the emo subculture was, together with that of the metalheads, the most feared by “adult” society, making its members even more excluded and misunderstood. Emos were the subjects of numerous episodes of moral panic over the years – the most notable moment was in 2008 when the Daily Mail published an article titled Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo blaming the subculture for the suicide of a thirteen year old in the United States, something that happened already in the 80s with the music of Black Sabbath and again in the 90s, after the Columbine massacre, with the music of Marilyn Manson. Despite this, emos have proudly continued to voice their haunted thoughts in an authentic and free way. If we think about their style, the boys in particular, more and more tired of having to respect mainstream models of masculinitythey experienced an androgynous aesthetic. The masculine and feminine look becomes interchangeable: the strictly pale complexion, the dark hair up to the shoulders always worn with a long and flat tuft to hide one or both eyes, the black eyeliner to make oneself sexually ambiguous.
Yet, contrary to what many think, the subculture did not end a decade ago but found a way of evolving over the years. Over the last decade the music, clothing and style of the emo scene have changed, managing to adapt to the new Gen Z market, extremely receptive to change but also, like the “original” emos eager to define and build the own identity. But times have changed: the emo aesthetic it is no longer considered ambiguous or obscure, but a style, an aesthetic – something that does not directly involve moral aspects but signals belonging to a “scene”. A whole generation of artists, among other things, declared his love for this genre: from Matty Healy of The 1975 who called himself “the Emo Lord” to Halsey who said he loved My Chemical Romance.
Even in pop culture and television, offshoots of emo culture survived: Effy di Skins or Maeve’s Sex Education are all examples of looks adjacent (both visually and thematically) to that kind of style – embodied, in its reinterpretation for Gen Z, especially by singers such as Phoebe Bridgers and Billie Eilish, with her dyed hair, eyes full of eyeliner and studded belts. It was Billie Eilish who showed an emo attitude in the early years of her career, which can be found both in the melancholy writing of her lyrics and in her looks and make-up: a half-eyelid gaze that never comes off the camera, dyed and bleached hair, chokers, chunky studded sneakers. Last weekend, at the Oscars ceremony, where she won the Best Song award, Eilish maintained her loyalty to the emo aesthetic by showing up in a long black Gucci dress. Also for Phoebe Bridgers, also a singer so tied to Gucci that she showed during the Love Parade show in Los Angelesthe insistence on very emotional themes passes both from artistic production and from personal style – just think of the Thom Browne dress worn by last year’s Grammy cantate decorated with all-over embroidery of a skeleton.
Considering the importance that music is representing for the return of this style, even in an era dominated by hip-hop, American artists have returned to reflect and paint a collective regression towards adolescent angst. Sometimes it can be something superficially aesthetic, like in the song Emo Girl from Machine Gun Kelly and WILLOW. But already in the recent and very recent past the music scene has not abandoned this fascination towards the more melancholic aspects of life: from the sadness aesthetic of Yung Lean, to the Paramores in trend on TikTok, not to mention Avril Lavigne rededicated as e-girl queen to alongside Travis Barker.
This wave, undermined a few years ago by the hip-hop boom, is back today the clothes of the so-called “emo rap”. What unites these two worlds are shared feelings: sadness, anger, malaise and precarious mental health – all combined with a hybrid musical output, with a melancholy but also carefree vibe. There are those who believe that the father of this musical genre is Kid Cudiwho dealt with emocore themes on his album Man on the Moon: The End of the Daypublished in 2009, and often criticized for its chaotic style and nihilistic lyrics suspended, however, on relaxed notes fueled by beats and samples from the punk / rock of the 2000s.
Emo rap has the advantage of hybridizing different genres and attempting a more truthful story of reality, an imaginary that manages to mix colored tones with the shadows of an existence in the balance. And unfortunately, speaking of suspended and now lost lives, the most representative examples of this black and white rainbow are Lil Peep, XXXTentacion and Juice WRLD. Their imagery was, and is, clear and well defined: the inner malaise they experienced managed to attract the attention of fans from all over the world and was able to empathize with others, making them feel listened to and cared for. The trend then continued by joining emorap to cloudrap with artists such as Yung Lean and the Sad Boys collective, the first to let us experience the oneiricity of vapowave without neglecting emotional introspection. Defining the aesthetics and style of this genre is not easy, as it is intrinsic to infinite sub-genres, a multisensory experience born in the chaotic age of the internet. In the Italian panorama, however, we can identify the first solo piece by Side Baby, Medicines, released four years ago, as the perfect representation of this scene. The emergence of a new scene also resides in the songs of many exponents of the second trap generation, such as Sxrrxland, TauroBoys and Pretty Solerofirst spokespersons for cloud and emo instances.
We can therefore say that today’s emo universe is no longer, only, that of the Fall Out Boys and Tokio Hotel, or even Dari and Vanilla Sky, to name the Italian exponents. The musicality, as well as the style, have undergone a change adapting to the current pop scene. MySpace has been replaced by TikTok, populated by e-boys and e-girls, where talking about mental health and drug abuse is tantamount to talking about your zodiac ascendant. Topics that have been stigmatized and labeled for years have finally found a place in the world and acquired their well-deserved importance. Thanks to sadness aestethic and to its exponents, the sense of identification aroused for years by the emocore scene is inevitable but, above all, unstoppable.