It has since come to describe several variations of music with common roots and associated fashion and stereotypes.
In the mid-1980s, the term emo described a subgenre of hardcore punk which stemmed from the Washington, D.C. music scene. In later years, the term emocore, short for "emotional hardcore", was also used to describe the emotional performances of bands in the Washington, D.C. scene and some of the offshoot regional scenes such as Rites of Spring, Embrace, One Last Wish, Beefeater, Gray Matter, Fire Party, and later, Moss Icon
Starting in the mid-1990s, the term emo began to refer to the indie scene that followed the influences of Fugazi, which itself was an offshoot of the first wave of emo. Bands including Sunny Day Real Estate and Texas Is the Reason had a more indie rock style of emo, more melodic and less chaotic. The so-called "indie emo" scene survived until the late 1990s, as many of the bands either disbanded or shifted to mainstream styles. As the remaining indie emo bands entered the mainstream, newer bands began to emulate the mainstream style. As a result, the term "emo" became a vaguely defined identifier rather than a specific genre of music.
From about 2004 to the present, emo referred to pop-punk bands such as Good Charlotte, Fall Out Boy and Simple Plan who took the influence of original indie emo acts and mixed them with pop-punk in the like of Blink-182.
Where the term emo actually originated is uncertain, but members of Rites of Spring mentioned in a 1985 interview in Flipside Magazine that some of their fans had started using the term to describe their music. By the early 90s, it was not uncommon for the early DC scene to be referred to as emo-core, meaning "emotional hardcore", though it is unclear when the term shifted.
Within a short time, the D.C. emo sound began to influence other bands such as Moss Icon, Nation of Ulysses, Dag Nasty, Soulside, Shudder to Think, Fire Party, Marginal Man, and Gray Matter, many of which were released on MacKaye's Dischord Records. The original wave of DC emo finally ended in late 1994 with the collapse of Hoover.
As the D.C. scene expanded, other scenes began to develop with a similar sound and DIY ethic. In San Diego in the early 1990s, Gravity Records released a number of records in the hardcore emo style. Bands of the period included Heroin, Indian Summer, Angel Hair, Antioch Arrow, Universal Order of Armageddon, Swing Kids, and Mohinder. Also in California, Ebullition Records released records by bands of the same vein, such as Still Life and Portraits of Past, as well as more traditional hardcore punk bands, all having various social and political themes in common.
At the same time, in the New York/New Jersey area, bands such as Native Nod, Merel, 1.6 Band, Policy of 3, Rye Coalition, Iconoclast and Quicksand were feeling the same impulse. Many of these bands were involved with the ABC No Rio club scene in New York, itself a response to the violence and stagnation in the scene and with the bands that played at CBGBs, the only other small venue for hardcore in New York at the time. Much of this wave of emo, particularly the San Diego scene, began to shift towards a more chaotic and aggressive form of emo, nicknamed screamo.
By and large, the more hardcore style of emo began to fade as many of the early era groups disbanded. However, aspects of the sound remained in bands such as Four Hundred Years and Yaphet Kotto. Also, a handful of modern bands continue to reflect emo's hardcore origins, including Circle Takes the Square, Hot Cross, City of Caterpillar, Funeral Diner, and A Day in Black and White. Following the disbanding of Embrace in 1986, MacKaye established the influential group Fugazi, and was soon joined by Picciotto. While Fugazi itself is not typically categorized as emo, the band's music is cited as an influence by popular second-wave bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Braid, and Jimmy Eat World.
Perhaps the key moment was the release of the album Diary by Sunny Day Real Estate in 1994. Given Sub Pop's then-recent success with Nirvana and Soundgarden, the label was able to bring much wider attention to the release than the typical indie release, including major advertisements in Rolling Stone. The heavier label support allowed the band to secure performances on TV shows, including The Jon Stewart Show. As a result, the album received widespread national attention.
As more and more people learned about the band, particularly via the fledgling World Wide Web, the band was given the tag emo. Even where Fugazi had not been considered emo, the new generation of fans shifted the tag from the earlier hardcore style to this more indie rock style of emo. It was not uncommon for Sunny Day and its peers to be labeled with the full "emo-core". However, when pressed to explain "emo", many fans split the genre into two brands: the "hardcore emo" practiced in the early days and the newer "indie emo".
In the years that followed, several major regions of "indie emo" emerged. The most significant appeared in the Midwest in the mid-90s. Many of the bands were influenced by the same sources, but with an even more tempered sound. This brand of emo was often referred to as "Midwestern emo" given the geographic location of the bands, with several of the best-known bands hailing from the areas around Chicago, Kansas City, Omaha and Milwaukee. The initial bands in this category included Boy's Life, Cap'n Jazz and Gauge. In ensuing years, bands such as The Promise Ring, Braid, Elliott, Cursive, and The Get Up Kids emerged from the same scene and gained national attention.
The area around Phoenix, Arizona became another major scene for emo. Inspired by Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate, former punk rockers Jimmy Eat World began stirring emo influences into their music, eventually releasing the album Static Prevails in 1996. The album was arguably the first emo record released by a major label, as the band had signed with Capitol Records in 1995.
Other bands that followed the "indie emo" model included Colorado's Christie Front Drive, New York's Texas Is the Reason and Rainer Maria, California's Knapsack and Sense Field, Baltimore's Cross My Heart, Austin's Mineral, and Boston's Piebald and Jejune.
A Cornerstone of the late-Nineties emo movement was Weezer's 1996 album Pinkerton, which was to be considered one of the defining emo records of the 90s and was said to have introduced emo to a larger and more mainstream audience.
As the wide range of emo bands began to attract notoriety on a national scale, a number of indie labels attempted to document the scene. Many emo bands of the late 90s signed to indie labels including Jade Tree Records, Saddle Creek Records, and Big Wheel Recreation. In 1997, California's Crank! Records released a compilation titled (Don't Forget to) Breathe, which featured tracks by notable indie emo bands such as The Promise Ring, Christie Front Drive, Mineral, Knapsack, and Arizona's Seven Storey Mountain. In 1997, Deep Elm Records released the first installment in a series of compilations called Emo Diaries, featuring tracks from Jimmy Eat World, Samiam, and Jejune. In 1999, famed 70s compilation label K-tel released an emo compilation titled Nowcore: The Punk Rock Evolution, which included tracks by Texas Is the Reason, Mineral, The Promise Ring, Knapsack, Braid and At the Drive-In among others.
With the late-90s emo scene being more national than regional, major labels began to turn their attention toward signing emo bands with the hopes of capitalizing on the genre's popularity. Many bands resisted the lure, citing their loyalty to the independent mentality of the scene. Several bands cited what they saw as mistreatment of bands such as Jawbox and Jawbreaker while they were signed to majors as a reason to stay away. The conflict felt within many of the courted emo bands resulted in their break-ups, including Texas Is the Reason and Mineral.
By the end of the decade, the word emo cropped up in mainstream circles. In the summer of 1998, Teen People magazine ran an article declaring "emo" the newest "hip" style of music, with The Promise Ring a band worth watching. The independent nature of the emo scene recoiled at mainstream attention, and many emo bands shifted their sound in an attempt to isolate themselves from the genre. In the years that followed, Sunny Day Real Estate opted to shift to a more prog-rock direction, Jejune aimed for happy pop-rock, and The Get Up Kids and The Promise Ring released lite-rock albums.
However, towards the end of the 1990s, Jimmy Eat World had begun to shift in a more mainstream direction. Where Jimmy Eat World had played emocore-style music early in their career, by the time of the release of their 2001 album Bleed American, the band had downplayed its emo influences, releasing more pop-oriented singles such as "The Middle" and "Sweetness". As the public had become aware of the word emo and knew that Jimmy Eat World was associated with it, the band continued to be referred to as an "emo" band, despite their objections. Newer bands that sounded like Jimmy Eat World (and, in some cases, like the more melodic emo bands of the late 90s) were soon included in the genre.
2003 saw the success of Chris Carrabba, the former singer of emo band Further Seems Forever, and his project Dashboard Confessional. Despite musically being more aligned to the singer songwriter school, Carraba found himself part of the emerging "popular" emo scene. Carrabba's music featured lyrics founded in deep diary-like outpourings of emotion. While certainly emotional, the new "emo" had a far greater appeal amongst adolescents than its earlier incarnations.
With Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World's success, major labels began seeking out similar sounding bands. Just as many bands of the early-to-mid 1990s were unwillingly lumped under the umbrella of "grunge", some record labels wanted to be able to market a new sound under the word emo.
At the same time, use of the term "emo" expanded beyond the musical genre, which added to the confusion surrounding the term. The word "emo" became associated with open displays of strong emotion. Common fashion styles and attitudes that were becoming idiomatic of fans of similar "emo" bands also began to be referred to as "emo." As a result, bands that were loosely associated with "emo" trends or simply demonstrated emotion began to be referred to as emo.
In an even more expanded way than in the 90s, emo has come to encompass an extremely wide variety of bands, many of whom have very little in common. The term has become so broad that it has become nearly impossible to describe what exactly qualifies as "emo".
The classification of bands as "emo" is often controversial. Fans of several of the listed bands have recoiled at the use of the "emo" tag, and have gone to great lengths to explain why they don't qualify as "emo." In many cases, the term has simply been attached to them because of musical similarities, a common fashion sense, or because of the band's popularity within the "emo" scene, not because the band adheres to emo as a music genre.
As a result of the continuing shift of "emo" over the years, a serious schism has emerged between those who relate to particular eras of "emo." Those who were closely attached to the hardcore origins recoil when another type of music is called "emo". Many involved in the independent nature of both 80s and 90s emo are upset at the perceived hijacking of the word emo to sell a new generation of major label music. Regardless, popular culture appears to have embraced the terms of "emo" far beyond its original intentions.
In a strange twist, screamo, a sub-genre of the new emo, has found greater popularity in recent years through bands such as Glassjaw. The term screamo, however, was used to describe an entirely different genre in the early 1990s, and the new screamo bands more resemble the emo of the early 1990s. Complicating matters further is that several small scenes devoted to original screamo still exist in the underground. However, the new use of "screamo" demonstrates how the shift in terms connected to "emo" has made the varying genres difficult to categorize.
The difficulty in defining "emo" as a genre may have started at the very beginning. In a 2003 interview by Mark Prindle, Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and Rites of Spring was asked how he felt about "being the creator of the emo genre." He responded:
Emo is often associated with a certain fashion; although it is unclear as to whether the contemporary fashion directly emerged from Emo music's original fashion image or whether Emo was ever identified with any particular clothing, since the mid-80's. Today, however, Emo is more commonly tied to fashion than to music, and the term "emo" is sometimes stereotyped with tight jeans on males and females alike, long fringe (bangs) brushed to one side of the face or over one or both eyes, dyed black, straight hair, tight t-shirts (sometimes short sleeved) which often bear the names of emo bands (or other designer shirts), studded belts, belt buckles, canvas sneakers or skate shoes or other black shoes (often old and beaten up) and thick, black horn-rimmed glasses. Emo fashion has changed with time. Early trends included straight, unparted hair, tightly fitting sweaters, button-down shirts, and work jackets. This fashion has at times been characterized as a fad. In recent years the popular media has associated emo with a stereotype that includes being emotional, sensitive, shy, introverted, or angsty. It is also associated with depression, self-injury, and suicide.
Fans of emo are also often presumed by others to be homosexual or bisexual; this is largely a reflection of the style of dress popular within the "emo scene" (being that the differences between female emo and male emo fashion are very few).
Fans of Emo have been derided for being posers who are overly sentimental; they have have also been accused of "robbing" the fashion styles of other music genres, such as the older Punk and Goth subcultures. This has created a disdain within many of these subcultures who see fans of Emo as merely following the latest trend popularized through the Internet.
The Mexican Music Network Telehit reported that, as of 2008, there have been 136,000 Videos uploaded on Youtube with the term "EMO" and that the majority of these videos make fun of Emo kids.
In 2008, Time Magazine reported that "anti-emo" groups attacked teenagers in Mexico City, Querétaro, and Tijuana. One of Mexico's foremost critics of emo was Kristoff, a music presenter on the popular TV channel Telehit. In a rant packed with curses, Kristoff said emo was a worthless movement that was mainly inspired by "image" rather than a genuine music form; stating "emo was fucking bullshit". However, he went on to condemn the violence against Emos on a subsequent broadcast after the riots occurred.
Gerard Way, the lead singer of My Chemical Romance stated in an interview that "emo is a pile of shit", and that his band was never emo. Panic at the Disco also stated in an interview with NME: "emo is bullshit. These two bands however tend to be classified as emo.
Fans of emo are criticised for purported displays of emotion common in the scene. Complaints pointed to the histrionic manner in which the emotions were expressed.
In October 2003, a Punk Planet contributor leveled the charge that the current era of emo was sexist. Hopper argued that where bands such as Jawbox, Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate had characterized women in such a way that they were not "exclusively defined by their absence or lensed through romantic-specter", contemporary bands approached relationship issues by "damning the girl on the other side ... its woman-induced misery has gone from being descriptive to being prescriptive." Regarding the position of women listening to emo, the contributor went on to note that the music had become "just another forum where women were locked in a stasis of outside observation, observing ourselves through the eyes of others."
Critics of modern emo have argued that there is a tendency toward increasingly generic and homogenized style. A related criticism is the alleged anti-conformist philosophy of emo while at the same time allegedly conforming to a group that demands a high level of conformity .
Emo music has been blamed for the suicide by hanging of Hannah Bond by both the coroner at the inquest into her death and her mother, Heather Bond, after it was claimed that emo music glamorized suicide and her apparent obsession with My Chemical Romance was said to be linked to her suicide. The inquest heard that she was part of an internet "emo" cult and her Bebo page contained an image of an 'emo girl' with bloody wrists. It was also revealed that she had discussed "the glamour of hanging" online and had explained to her parents that her self harming was an "emo initiation ceremony". Heather Bond criticised emo fashion, saying: "There are 'emo' websites that show pink teddies hanging themselves." After the verdict was reported in NME, fans of emo music contacted the magazine to defend against accusations that it promotes self harm and suicide.
In Russia, a law has been presented at the Duma to regulate emo websites and forbid emo style at schools at government buildings, for fears of emo being a "dangerous teen trend" promoting anti-social behaviour, depression, social withdrawal and even suicide.