What is Emo?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Emo is a genre of rock music which appears to fall somewhere between Goth and grunge on the post-punk rock spectrum. Although there is a significant amount of disagreement on this subject, the term is said to be short for "emotive punk", a successor to straight-edge punk rock originating in the late 1980s. Other sources say that it's short for "emocore," an emotionally charged form of softcore punk which started in the Washington, DC area during the mid-1980s. Emo music is definitely derived from the anarchic punk sound, but is often described as the flipside of the grunge sound originating in Seattle.

Emo could be described as the flip side of grunge.
Emo could be described as the flip side of grunge.

To understand emo, it might help to start from the beginning. First there was hardcore punk, an anarchic and energetic form of music that provided an alternative to disco and heavily produced pop music of the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, however, many of the hardcore punk bands had disbanded or changed directions musically. This left a very large hole for local hardcore or alternative bands to fill. Some bands developed an edgier style of playing the same three power chords as original punk, but with the addition of philosophical or angst-ridden lyrics sung in a more emotional style than straight punk rock. This became known as emotive punk.

Emo provided an alternative to disco and heavily produced pop music.
Emo provided an alternative to disco and heavily produced pop music.

While emo worked its way from the Washington, DC area westward, other groups in Seattle were exploring essentially the same musical territory. These bands became popular in the San Francisco Bay area about the same time that grunge rock bands took over the Seattle music scene. While grunge rock performers and fans adopted a scruffy, unwashed image, emo performers and their fans often wore heavy eye makeup, dyed their hair jet black and adopted a more metrosexual look. Eventually, the genres became uncomfortably linked together in record stores and music industry publications.

Emo and similar genres have a particular look.
Emo and similar genres have a particular look.

While grunge enjoyed a brief but memorable period of time on the pop charts, emo bands tried very hard to remain non-commercial. This aversion to all things commercial is a hallmark of the emo music scene. The albums are often recorded on cheap vinyl LPs using vintage or secondhand recording equipment. Emo musicians use tube-based amplifiers and inexpensive guitars, not solid state amps or tricked-out modern electric guitars. Performers have been known to stage extended jam sessions ending with real emotional outbursts, such as sobbing or primal screaming onstage. Fans of the genre appreciate the honesty and rawness of the bands' emotional performances.

There have been a handful of emo bands which have found commercial success, such as Jimmy Eat World, Fall Out Boy or Dashboard Confessional, but a number fans consider these bands to be corporate versions of the emo music scene. Many of the most influential bands never made it out of their small hometowns, and the lifespan of an average group is rarely more than two or three years. The emo musical scene sees itself as a rightful heir to the hardcore punk legacy, even though many bands incorporate a few guitar arpeggios and sensitive lyrics to the straightforward, high-speed chord crunches of the original punk genre.

Emo guitar players often play through an amplifier.
Emo guitar players often play through an amplifier.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Well that made me actually go and listen to some Emo, thinking it would be fantastic, and i must have missed out on something since the Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam Days. Ouch!

Sadly i just hear pop music and polished girly lyrics with some crunching guitars. It's a fake scene in my opinion. The whole interpretation of it being underground, well it's pop gone underground to me. No way would i ever put it anywhere near grunge.

As for emotional? LOL. That is the worst music genre definition I've ever seen. Why not call it hormonal instead?

All music is emotional. That's what music is,

whether angry, placid or full of love. To say emo is an emotional side to punk, well that's debatable indeed.

I would define it completely differently.

Emo is pop music trying to be cool like the grunge era was in the 80's. Pop, meaning sentimental drivel with some old vintage guitars to prove they are cool.

Take away the vintage guitars from emo and you have pop!

Take away the guitars from grunge and you still have grunge.

Take away the guitars from punk and you still have punk.

Do the math, people!


Emo=/=emotional emo kiddies

It's the name of a genre, and how can you classify a genre just by it being emotional? You can't.

Emo stands for emotive hardcore, and its a genre of music that originated in the 1980s, bands like sunny day real estate, the get up kids and jimmy eat world are post emo, having the same emotional feel of the previous bands, but being much less heavy and punk heavy.


It would be best to cover first, second and third wave emo. Emo was originally the rebellion against the teflon testosterone-fueled ultimately UN emotional music punk had become. That's what the emoting on stage was about.

Fugazi might be the closest thing to true emo without being emo. If you listen to Rites of Spring and Fugazi back and forth, you can see they were coming from somewhat the same place.

"Emo" groups that are currently popular such as Jimmy Eat World are descended from an early offshoot of Emo called Midwest Emo. These bands were very different from original emo bands - they took the textural and stylistic approach and made it melodic, gave it counterpoint. In fact, two guitars doing counterpoint is kind of the signature feature of that type of music.

American Football and especially Christie Front Drive are examples of the bands that gave modern emo its start -- a continuation of an offshoot. Listen to Jimmy Eat World's "Static Prevails" album along with Christie Front Drive's "Anthology" and the connection becomes obvious.


wrong. emo is emotional. i hate that people don't know that it stands for emotional. people don't have to cut themselves to be emo. big deal if they do that. what they want to do with life then let them. it's their own body not yours they are destroying, so don't worry about them. if they want to do it let them.


This I believe is referring to more indie artists rather than emo. Emo derived from hardcore punk without the screaming and a little more emotional quality to it. And no, not all emos dye their hair black and have a metrosexual look. Actually half of them don't look like that. Just look at fall out boy and Jimmy Eat World and tell me they all have black hair and dress "metrosexual."

And for a proven fact, emos don't cut themselves. They are easily mistaken for goths.

Some gothic concerts and festivals most of the time contain a performance where people pierce and cut themself. That is Goth.

Emos are everyday musicians that are emotional. Who cares. It's not the style or the idea, it's the music that matters and now it is completely destroyed with pretty boy posuers claiming to be punk and emo when they are just some crappy pop band that only care for fame.

In conclusion, Emo is an emotional side to punk and will always stay that way. Don't be misguided by poseurs.


anon19116-Well then ignore her. She's not worth the time to explain to and there is no need to explain to her if she's a lazy cow.


I am at school right now, trying to prove to this girl what emo is....And that me and my friends are NOT emo...... She is a lazy cow who is homophobic and stereotypical and she is sitting right in front of us. :x

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