You may have heard of Emo music as a genre or an aesthetic fashion trend in the 2000s. As a fashion trend, you may think of long hair covering one or both eyes, skinny jeans and studded belts, and black hoodies over dark band t-shirts. But all of that sprung from a music genre with roots reaching back to the 1980s.
But what exactly is Emo music, and what are the top artists within the genre? In this article, we’ll talk more about the definition and characteristics of Emo music, some examples and top artists, and the genre's history.
Definition: What Is Emo Music?
The term “Emo” or sometimes “Emocore” is a derivation of the words “emotional” and “hardcore.” Emo music derives its roots from the hardcore scene in the 80s, but with lyrics that are more focused on the emotional and personal realm. Emo music takes its inspiration from emotional turmoil and sensitivity. Others may describe the genre as angsty.
The music combines punk rock elements with more confessional and emotional lyrics, though the songs tend to be less structured than hardcore punk with their specific structure and styling.
Characteristics of Emo Music
Emo music is often considered a blend of goth, grunge, and alternative rock sounds. Sometimes Emo features complex guitar riffs and dynamic shifts between extremes. The lyrics are a focal point for Emo music, focusing on soaring vocals and profoundly introspective and intimate poetry. Some may consider the subjects in Emo music dark and depressing.
9 Examples of Emo Music
Emo music as a genre can vary pretty widely in sound. Emo bands tend to take their inspiration from older Emo bands and pop-punk bands from the 80s and 90s. Some of the most popular Emo bands don’t consider themselves to fit the “Emo” label. However, their influence is unmistakable within the genre.
I’m Not Okay (I Promise) – My Chemical Romance
If there’s any song that represents the genre to its fullest, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” by My Chemical Romance does the genre justice. The song itself is complex. The guitar and drum beats create an almost cacophonous sound, guided by the masterful vocals of Gerard Way.
The lyrics are not subtle about the personal anguish the speaker is going through. The chorus repeats itself after poetic verses describing personal suffering and pain.
The Ballad of Mona Lisa – Panic! At The Disco
“The Ballad of Mona Lisa” by Panic! At The Disco is a classic Emo song featuring complex guitar riffs, piano, and soaring vocals by Brendan Urie. These features combined by Panic! At The Disco to great success shot them to the top of the charts, and they became the poster child for Emo music.
The lyrics describe a woman with a drinking problem and the people around her who take advantage of her vulnerability.
Move Along – The All-American Rejects
The All-American Rejects take a softer approach to Emo; the vocals are the focal point of the song, with particular focus on the content and message. The message of this song: keep going. The lyrics describe depression and suicidal ideation, with the hopeful refrain to “move along” and continue until the depression passes.
Thnks Fr Th Mmrs – Fall Out Boy
Fall Out Boy removed the vowels from the title of the song, but don’t worry; the lyrics are not as nonsensical as the title. Combined with powerful guitar and a solid beat on drums, the vocals soar between lows and highs with dynamic shifts. This song is fast-paced, but the lyrics describe heartbreak and a bitter ending to a one-night stand.
Dear Maria, Count Me In – All Time Low
Fast-paced and invigorating, All Time Low exhibits the best characteristics of the genre. This song’s lyrics describe a stripper and the speaker’s desire to boost her into fame and fortune—the vocals mount and ebb with the flow of the music.
Your Guardian Angel – The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus
A slower song, but it is no less introspective and emotional. The vocal dynamics shift and change with the flow of the music, moving from lows to highs with the swells. The song itself is about love. The speaker is devoted entirely to their love and will do anything for them, even if it kills them.
Cute Without The “E” (Cut From The Team) – Taking Back Sunday
With a rapid guitar riff and a fast beat, Taking Back Sunday leverages the key characteristics of the genre to create a song that feels disorganized. This song isn’t quite screamo, but the melodies are off-beat and strange. They don’t use the traditional punk structure of music, and the vocals are mostly shouted rather than sung.
The lyrics feature an angry and emotional confessional of a person in love with someone who doesn’t love them back. Though their love does not love them, they string the speaker along and suck them dry of the joy they feel.
The Taste of Ink – The Used
Much like Taking Back Sunday’s “Cute Without The E,” The Used shouts their vocals during the verses, with a more traditional melody in the chorus. The beat is slightly slower than most of the songs on this list, but the guitar is complex and features interesting riffs.
Though there is some debate among fans about the deeper meaning of the lyrics to this song, the lyrics themselves give off a sad and troubled vibe that is not uncommon for the genre.
The Middle – Jimmy Eat World
Out of all the songs on this list, this one is perhaps the most hopeful and upbeat. The lyrics themselves are about looking up and moving forward when you’re feeling down. Life is a rollercoaster, but you are deserving of self-respect and care. The guitar riffs and vocals are typical of the genre.
5 Top Emo Musicians
The following list includes some of the most popular Emo bands from the 2000s when the genre hit the mainstream. Even if you are not an avid fan of the Emo genre, you probably have heard of these bands or at least a few of their most popular songs. Most of them are included in the song list above.
My Chemical Romance
My Chemical Romance formed in New Jersey in 2001 and signed with Eyeball Records, releasing their first album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love in 2002. Signing with a new label, My Chemical Romance released their second album, Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, in 2004.
Their most popular album eclipsed the success of the other two. In 2006, My Chemical Romance released The Black Parade. The Black Parade reached triple platinum in both the US and the UK. The same year their long-time drummer left in 2010, they released their fourth album, Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys.
The band broke up in 2013 but reunited quietly in 2017. They announced their reunion tours in 2019, though they were postponed to 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The current lineup in the band includes frontman Gerard Way, bassist and Way’s brother, Mikey Way, rhythm guitarist Frank Iero, and lead guitarist, Ray Toro.
Notably, Gerard Way doesn't think much of the genre. He is quoted as calling the genre “f-ing garbage” and that he doesn't consider his band to be Emo. Though, My Chemical Romance's influence on the genre is unmistakable.
The Used formed in Utah the same year as My Chemical Romance and signed to Reprise Records. They released their self-titled first album in 2002. Two years later, their second album was released to platinum certification.
Their third album, Lies For The Liars, released in 2004, reached gold status. According to frontman Bert McCracken, their fourth studio album, Artwork, is about hating yourself. They have released eight albums as of 2020. Their current lineup includes Bert McCracken, bassist Jeph Howard, drummer Dan Whitesides, and guitarist Joey Bradford.
Taking Back Sunday
Taking Back Sunday was formed in New York in 1999 by guitarist Eddie Reyes and bassist Jessie Lacey. Though Lacey would leave the band that same year to form Brand New, Taking Back Sunday released their first album in 2002.
Their breakthrough album wouldn’t be released until 2006, featuring the song “MakeDamnSure,” which would top Billboard’s 200 at number two. The band featured several different musicians in their lineup throughout their twenty-year career. Their most recent album was released in 2019.
Panic! At The Disco
Another case of revolving door musicians in the lineup, Panic! At The Disco is Brendan Urie’s solo project. Originally, Panic! At The Disco was a band in Nevada, formed in 2004 while Urie and his childhood friends were still in high school.
After recording their first demos while still in school, Urie and his friends released their debut album in 2005, to great success. The album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, reached triple platinum in the US with the popularity of their song “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.”
Urie and his band would go on to release another five albums throughout the next ten years. Their latest album was released in 2018.
Frontwoman Hayley Williams and two friends from Franklin, Tennessee, formed Paramore in 2004. Their first album, All We Know Is Falling, debuted in 2005, reaching the top of the charts in the UK in 2009. Their second album, Riot!, hit mainstream success in 2007 with chart-toppers “That’s What You Get,” “crushcrushcrush,” and of course, “Misery Business.”
They received a nomination for Best New Artist at the 2008 Grammy’s and Riot! reached platinum in the US. In 2013, Paramore received their first Grammy award for Best Rock Song from their self-titled album released in the same year. Their fifth and latest album was released in 2017. As of January 2022, Paramore has confirmed they are working on an upcoming sixth album.
The History of Emo Music
The origins of Emo stretch back to the mid-80s in the Washington, DC, post-hardcore punk scene. Emo band Rites of Spring sprang into existence, combining elements of hardcore punk with emotional and confessional lyrics.
As the 90s fast approached, Emo spread to other underground scenes across the US, and more Emo bands popped up. In the early to mid-90s, Emo bands such as Jimmy Eat World and Sunny Day Real Estate came to light during the mainstream surge in grunge.
The 2000s saw the Emo scene become mainstream. Bands such as My Chemical Romance, The Used, and Taking Back Sunday rocketed to the top of the charts and put Emo on the radio. Emo bands reached incredible success never before seen in previous decades.
The 2010s saw the decline of Emo in popularity, the most successful Emo bands either moved away from their Emo roots to explore other genres and subgenres or broke up entirely (like My Chemical Romance) due to burnout. However, there is an underground revival of the Emo genre in the 2010s that throwback to the 90s Emo scene.
What Is Emo Music? Final Thoughts
As a genre of music, Emo builds off of the 80s and 90s underground hardcore and punk scenes, originating in Washington, DC. Taking influence from the punk genre, Emo encapsulates complex guitar riffs, a fast pace, and strong basslines alongside emotional and personal lyrics.
The lyrics are the heart of Emo music. They often feature depression and sadness, turmoil, and sometimes rage. Emo focuses on the individual soul rather than the political anger for which punk is known.
The Emo renaissance hit the mainstream in the mid to late-2000s. Emo bands reached platinum and triple platinum status on their albums, songs received Grammy awards, and tours attracted thousands of fans.
From the 2010s to the present, Emo returned to its underground roots returning to the sounds found in the revitalized bands of the 90s. With an understanding of the history of the genre, its defining characteristics, and the most popular bands and songs, finding your next favorite Emo band is that much easier.