The thing about emo (as a musical genre and a cultural phenomenon) is, I think, that it was a response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the Bush administration’s painful mishandling thereof.
No, I’m serious. My Chemical Romance was formed as a direct result of Gerard Way witnessing the towers fall. Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ (an album that, at least as far as I can tell from having been a teenager in Canada at the time, was seminal in influencing the look and sound of emo) is all about the Bush administration – all the lyrics are about life under a democratic dystopia and many reference current events from the time – and it came out in 2004, halfway through the Bush presidency. A bunch of Linkin Park’s stuff makes reference to it also, especially their album ‘Minutes to Midnight’, where they first started moving out of the nu-metal/rap sound they’d been working with before and into a more mainstream emo-rock sound. That album came out in 2007. All of the really big bands with that kind of sound – and most of the smaller ones with more of a punk/hardcore sound but similar themes – were active in the mainstream from around 2001-2010. Many of them didn’t survive past 2009, and those that did either totally reinvented themselves (Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, MCR for the five minutes it took to produce Danger Days, Linkin Park) or became near-totally irrelevant (Paramore dropped an album sometime in the last two years; did any of you know that? And Green Day haven’t mattered since 21st Century Breakdown, which was released in 2009).
Why? Well, many of you are probably too young to remember this, but the 2001 terror attacks were what really made ‘Islamic terrorism’ a real threat in the minds of most Westerners. We’d never experienced an attack of that scale on American soil, and it was just as the internet was really becoming a mainstay in every house and my generation was getting online. As a result, it was not only a major political event, but it was hugely personal – the coverage was everywhere, in everybody’s home, all the time, and there were a lot of kids being exposed to the coverage in such a way that they often had no good way to process it. I’m not exaggerating when I say it changed the way we live. I’m Canadian and I felt this shit. Before, we could fly to America domestic, without a passport. Now? Half the draconian, ridiculous rules that hold you up at the TSA today were initiated in September and October of 2001. It was the only thing anyone could think of to do – lock down, protect your own. People were scared, on a continental scale.
And to make matters worse, George W. Bush’s government, which had to somehow respond to and take point in the response to this unprecedented event, didn’t seem to have the first foggiest clue what they were doing. This was a government that not only didn’t seem to listen to its people, not only lied blatantly to its people, but did it badly. They made hugely unpopular decisions, including starting a war in the Middle East that dragged in multiple countries and completely failed to achieve its stated goal of catching Osama bin Laden or proving that he had in his control weapons of mass destruction (the whole war was predicated on the fact that these so-called weapons of mass destruction existed, that the Bush administration had good reason to believe that they existed, were under the control of the Taliban, and were going to be used against Western targets, none of which was ever proven to be true).
So, from 2001-2009, the two (TWO) full terms of the Bush presidency, there were a whole lot of people who couldn’t vote (be they under the age of majority, like most of the emo kids I knew, or Canadians unhappily dragged along with the US’ boneheaded foreign policy decisions because we’re allies, also like most of the emo kids I knew) and therefore felt, not only scared of basically the impending end of their world in a way that they hadn’t previously had to feel, and not only angry about being clearly lied to and clumsily manipulated when the truth was obvious to anyone with eyes, but also powerless to do anything to change anything about that. And meanwhile, people kept dying in this pointless war and the president kept trying to hold together the illusion that everything was hunky-dory.
And what was popular with teenagers from about 2001-2009? Yep. Emo.
Emo as a genre was very personal, very focused on the individual (with the exception of the albums I noted above), but lyrically and musically, it fit right with the cultural atmosphere of the time. People were scared of the impending end of their world/their lives? Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge and The Black Parade. People were angry about things they felt powerless to change? From Under The Cork Tree and Decemberunderground. Emo captured what kids were feeling about trying to fit into a world that was so clearly fucked up and broken and pretending to be okay, putting on a strong face to Show The Terrorists They Didn’t Win. Emo was about stripping away the mask, exposing the messy, angry, frightened, sad, true underbelly of American society at the time, and exposing hypocrisy – in individuals as much as in politicians. The hatred of ‘preps’ and ‘posers’? Totally not just a My Immortal thing. Emo was about wearing your heart on your sleeve, about it being okay to mourn, to rage, to be afraid for your life beyond this – and to keep moving forward regardless, step by slow step.
So what changed in 2009 that made the phenomenon fade without so much as a whimper? Simple. Hope. The Audacity of Hope, to be exact.
Barack Obama won his presidency largely because young people supported him. Those were the young people who suffered through feeling helpless and powerless under Bush, who wanted things to change but felt they had no chance of making it so. Barack Obama was a chance. One of his first campaign promises was to end the Iraq war, a promise he followed through on. And even if his presidency hasn’t been perfect, it has never been the Bush administration, with the feeling that the will of the people was being entirely and quietly ignored by those in power to further their own agendas.
What I am saying, then, I guess, is that it’s time to buy stocks in Hot Topic, because whatever happens in the upcoming US presidential election, there are a lot of young people who may soon be needing black, white, and red graphic band tees and Manic Panic hair dye.
From someone who was in American high school in 2001, we were also incredibly terrified for at least the early Bush years. We were all pretty sure that the draft could possibly be reinstated and we could get sucked into the war. Some of my friends and I had plans on how best to get Don’t Ask, Don’t Telled out of the draft. We were all absolutely terrified of the prospect.