What's the Deal with Emo Music? With bands ranging from the Rites of Spring to My Chemical Romance, emo is a musical genre with no clear definition. Emo has always meant different things to different people at different times. BPP director Jacob Ganz walks us through the evolution.
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What's the Deal with Emo Music?

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What's the Deal with Emo Music?

What's the Deal with Emo Music?

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So the emo protest in England isn't the first time the concept of emo has come up in the news in recent months. If you remember in Mexico earlier this year, violence against emo-identified, makeup-wearing teens resulted in serious demonstrations. And the Internet is like emo heaven, awash in websites telling you both how to look emo, how to identify someone who looks emo. But I'm pretty sure this is music, too. Right?

Who better to ask than BPP director Jacob Ganz? He's our resident expert on all things music. He listened, apparently, admittedly, to emo obsessively for just a few weeks in college, and he has stacks of CDs on his desk. So, I'm dragging him kicking and screaming from the control room into the studio to give us a little history lesson on emo. Hey, Jacob.

JACOB GANZ: Hi, Rachel. How are you doing?

MARTIN: Doing well. Let's start from the beginning. Where did the name emo and the music originate from?

GANZ: The name emo comes from emotional hardcore. Emo started out as basically - well, to give sort of an overview of the whole scene, it started out really narrow, got really wide for awhile, and then recently has become sort of something very specific again. But starting at the beginning, like James said, it started out with a band called Rites of Spring, who were part of the Washington D.C.-hardcore-punk movement.

And what that scene was known for at the time was political songs, a very, very, sort of, aggressive, thrashing sound. And Rites of Spring is very similar to that, but it added some sort of more personal lyrics to the mix. Or that's, anyway, what their reputation is at this point. Let's hear a little bit of Rites of Spring.

(Soundbite of "For Want Of")

Mr. WILL SHEFF: (Singing) I, I believed. Memory might mirror no reflections on me. I, I believed, that in forgetting I might set myself free.

MARTIN: So there's a - it's reflective. It's like emotional, more emotional language, more reflective language.

GANZ: Exactly. That's a song by Rites of Spring called "For Want Of." It's off their only CD by them that you can buy at this point. There are lots of smaller records. But they completely - one of the members of that band became a member of the very influential band Fugazi.




GANZ: And at this point, he completely disavows emo entirely.

MARTIN: So people were calling him this...

GANZ: People were calling him emo.

MARTIN: And he did not - he was like, I am not emo. I don't know what this is. I don't want to be this.

GANZ: Exactly. And he still says he doesn't think emo means anything. He though he was always just in punk bands. He thinks that, you know, he said, like you and James were talking about earlier, music is emotional. That's what it is. But this sort of carried over, and Rites of Spring and other bands that were sort of in that same group started - they influenced a bunch of other bands, especially in early and mid-'90s.

And this - especially bands in the Midwest, who, sort of, took that very emotional, sort of, very heart-felt, really sincere lyrics, and some of the sound of emo, and turned it into a more cohesive genre. But at the same time, started sounding a little bit more diverse. That might be a little confusing, but I'll try to explain. Let's hear little bit of a band called Sunny Day Real Estate.


(Soundbite of song "In Circles")

Mr. JEREMY ENIGK: (Singing) Throw yourself into your door. I go in circles.

GANZ: OK, so that's Sunny Day Real Estate playing "In Circles."

MARTIN: And they took it in a different direction?

GANZ: They took it in a slightly different direction. You can hear sort of the same thing as Rites of Spring were doing. But they developed the sound a little bit more. You can hear, like, a little bit more ache in his voice.


GANZ: And this is where emo starts to really take shape.


GANZ: It becomes more about the feelings of the person, and there are lots and lots of bands that did this, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, Mineral, Braid. These are all like big-time classic emo bands. But they basically, at the same time as their sort of cohering around a sound, disavowed the idea of emo as well.

MARTIN: So no one wants - it seems like the narrative here is that people are thrusting this label on bands, and they're like, no, we're just doing our thing. We're not emo. I mean, what about this group? Weezer has now become this fundamental kind of poster child for Emo, right?

GANZ: Sort of. Weezer, I think you'd be hard-pressed to call Weezer an emo band itself. But Weezer made what's probably the most influential record in emo today. Let's hear a little bit of "Pinkerton."

(Soundbite of "Tired of Sex")

Mr. RIVERS CUOMO: (Singing) I'm spread so thin, I don't know who I am. Monday night I'm making Jen.

MARTIN: What was the impact of that?

GANZ: The vocals go even further. They're more - they're like sort of more aching, they're sort of more torn up. The guitar is like more tortured. You can hear that feedback there.

MARTIN: Yes. I'm being tortured now.

GANZ: Yes. OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GANZ: So this record really didn't do well, but it influenced tons of bands. And at a certain point, emo became sort of just - it became this. It became guys complaining about the failed relationships that they have. And...

MARTIN: And this is what it is universally now, right?

GANZ: And this is pretty much what it is universally now. Taking Back Sunday, Hawthorne - Heights, these are all bands that essentially compare emo - I mean, essentially compare failed relationships to death. And this is not news to anybody, but it's really something that youth can obsess over totally easily. It's like, you know, you like a boy, he doesn't like you, you like a girl, she doesn't like you. That's worth dying over, right?

MARTIN: I guess so. I mean, it's at least worth kind of congealing a movement around.

GANZ: Yes.

MARTIN: Jacob Ganz, BPP music expert, walking us through the history and the sound of emo, a little emo primer. Thank you, Jacob.

GANZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: I appreciate it. I learned something from that. Educating Rachel. That's what the parenthetical title of the show should be, Educating Rachel. Hey, folks. That's it for this hour of the BPP. But we don't go away online. We're there all the time at npr.org/bryantpark. My name is Rachel Martin, and this is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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