And I don't know anyone
And I don't know God
And I don't know if anything at all will be all right
I've got my hands on the one hand,
but I don't know where to put them."
Originally short for Emotive Hardcore, a sub-genre of Hardcore Punk originating in the early '80s and developing into a Pop Punk / Alternative Rock movement generally referred to purely as "Emo" in the '90s. Notable for distancing itself from the anti-authority, anarchic aggression of standard Punk Rock, "Emotive Hardcore" sought to express a more varied, emotionally-aware, contemplative and introspective range of ideas via the stripped down, DIY punk mentality, with bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate, AFI and Fugazi. Particularly in the '90s and onwards, this philosophy turned itself to expressions of heart-on-sleeve feelings, often pertaining to unrequited love, feelings of insecurity, and alienation. The Turn of the Millennium saw the genre gain popularity, with bands like The Used, Taking Back Sunday and Brand New gaining devoted cult fanbases. It also saw the term take on a quite different meaning, with the emergence of 'Emo Pop' bands such as Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy, and an associated loose subculture that has since become archetypal of the decade.
The emo fanbase came to be known as "Emo Kids," or just "Emos." Due to the nature of the music, young people of a similar disposition and attitude were attracted to the scene, and the idea of "being emo" took on a personality of its own, reflecting the nature of the music. "Emo" thus came to suggest an individual (usually young) of a uniquely sensitive, introspective, insecure, "deep," and often melancholic disposition; usually a social misfit with low self-esteem and a bent towards the artistic/literary, prone to taking issues more seriously and personally than considered "normal." Emo has since undergone considerable Flanderization, and has become a victim of Cowboy BeBop at His Computer, particularly since the mid 2000's when the term began to be used (often erroneously) by the mainstream and uninformed media. As a result, "emo" has become a catch-all for a generic and ill-defined mish-mash of alternative, music-related youth cultures and scenes with little in common with the original term.
Currently, "emo" is incorrectly often seen as an insincere, superficial affectation of attention-seeking teenagers. In this usage, it oxymoronically refers to a youngster who in fact displays a fairly narrow range of emotion, all of it negative and most of it Wangsty. Many depictions of these so-called "emos" also have them fascinated by issues such as self-harming and suicide, not necessarily because they are suffering from any of the genuine problems or issues regarding depression or such that often drive people to such acts, but out of a misplaced and slightly worrying fascination with the 'glamour' supposedly inherent within these acts. As a result, the standard, modern stereotype of an Emo is that of a self-pitying poseur; someone who adopts a superficial facade exploiting genuine problems and painful issues in order to appear cool, trendy, and to belong to the sub-culture.
Still, while "emo" has erroneously become a catch-all term to describe general teenage self-absorption in the mind of the mass-public, it does not inherently entail "affected behaviour," "posing," or "attention-seeking." This assumption is a largely modern construct caused by the mass commercialization of the term during the mid 2000's and the scores of teens who DO affect such behaviour in order to appear "emo" for fashion purposes. Due to this mass misappropriation, "emo" will frequently be used this way and attracts considerable (and in the cases outlined in the above paragraph, understandable) derision. "Emo" may, however, also be used as its original descriptor when pertaining to both music-based subcultures and personality; to refer to an often shy, sensitive individual who displays a higher level of introspection, self-reflection / absorption, angst (be it wangst or justified angst), or other such introverted, emotional traits than is considered standard in their situation. Even in genuine, non-affected cases, these traits may invite derision as the emotional and mental concerns of others are frequently treated with intolerance. What constitutes a genuine "reason" to angst or over-think is highly subjective (YMMV); one persons genuine angst is another's wangst. Nevertheless, some people are just naturally inclined to angst, over-think, be withdrawn but over-sensitive, etc.
Ultimately these are three possible characterizations for an "Emo (Kid):"
- A fan of post-hardcore or emo music. Such a character stereotypically will be a somewhat shy, excessively thoughtful, hyper-emotional, uniquely sensitive and introspective misfit, but not necessarily. They may simply enjoy the music and scene. Their love of an unashamedly emotive genre, however, will likely suggest a generally sensitive, emotionally-aware, and good-natured individual, at the least. As "emo" has become less and less recognized in relation to its musical roots, this (its original characterization) is rarely used except by those informed on emo's history.
- A person characterized as having an "emo personality." This person may or may not be a fan of the music genre or scene, but may be considered as being "naturally emo," having personality traits common to fans of, and reflected in, Emo Music. That is an introverted, highly sensitive, often awkward, insecure misfit with a tendency to angst more than is deemed "normal." When a character in fiction is deemed "emo," it is usually based in this trope. Though naturally this is highly open to subjective interpretation. Some will deem any degree of emoting or angst as "emo," regardless of whether it is common behavior for that character. For a character to be considered "emo," though, such behavior should be a common attribute in their characterization.
- A vain, trend-hopping teenager faking being one or both of the previous types in order to appear cool / individual / alternative, and because it's currently fashionable. This type is usually a teenager who, up until they discovered the "emo trend," was a pretty normal kid who had no problems fitting in, never worried or angsted excessively, and had no interest in poetry/writing, etc. and had no problems with depression. Yet suddenly they throw on some skinny jeans and eyeliner and insist they're a miserable, misunderstood loner. This trope is more commonly applied in Real Life than in fiction, but unfortunately has become the mass-public's understanding of the term "emo."
Interestingly enough, in Elizabethan times, many young men posed as "melancholy" which translated to sad, troubled, fond of wearing black, and artistic, making this trope Older Than Steam.
Not to be confused with comedian Emo Phillips, nor with Emo, County Laois. And especially not to be confused with Goths. Whilst certain elements of the Emo and Goth scenes share some common fashion, and while Goths also come across as introverted and moody, the Goth is usually more cerebral, and generally not seen as emotional. Quite the opposite, in fact. See Emo Teen for the portrayal of the subculture in fiction, and Wangst for characters felt to push this to the extreme.