They might be your kids. For sure, they know all about emo and you do not. It is a well-known and common international youth subculture, a celebration of depression that, so far, is virtually invisible to most adults.
"For me, the most disturbing part of this 'emo' phenomenon is the whole 'I hate my life, I want to die' part," says Chelli Riddiough, a junior at Madison West High School. "The 'I want to cut myself' joke that's not really a joke at all. Thanks to the rejection of forthright emotions, teenage depression is being dismissed as just being emo."
Emo is a kind of music, and a kind of fashion style, and above all a kind of demeanor. It's so well known among young people that they already see it as cliche. It's verbal shorthand for "emotional." If the term had been current a generation ago, humorous depressives such as Charlie Brown and Woody Allen would have been labeled emo. Except that today it's not funny.
"I have a lot of friends that are truly emo," says Alex Policastro, a 17-year-old student at the Madison Area Technical College. "I think emos are people that have had a tough life, or just a tough time, and either need help or should be helped."
\ Searching for emo
Finding emo is rough, if you're older. On the one hand, it's so well known that if you run "emo" on the Google search engine, you'll find 50.3 million listings. Compare that to, for example, 8.16 million for "Jesus Christ" or 1.94 million for "bill of rights."
That's perhaps not surprising; according to a survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the average age of the most active creators of Internet-content is 25. Emo seems to skew far younger than that, reaching down even into middle school.
On the other hand, we asked adults if they knew what emo was. We asked school psychologists, area high school and middle school counseling staffs, experts at the UW-Madison School of Education, and the Madison-based Briarpatch youth crisis intervention service. Some had heard of emo. No one could even define it.
So what is emo?
"Oftentimes, emo is used as a derogatory term, a sort of 'grow up and grow out of it' statement," says Riddiough. "For the most part, the term is typified as pessimistic, angsty, self-injurious and even suicidal. And sometimes homosexual, since male and female emo styles are pretty much the same."
"I don't know if I'd really classify myself as emo," says Jennifer Wilson, age 21, a Madison sales associate. But others have called her emo. "It's kind of one of those things that outsiders label others as, if that makes sense. Like, a football player wouldn't label himself as a 'jock.'"
"I have been called emo before," says Policastro. "I am not emo. If you want, you can categorize me as punk, maybe."
Says Riddiough, "Nobody I know would gladly admit to being emo. It's become such a joking term, such an insult, even, that few would seriously describe themselves as such."
So despised is emo that one contributor to Yahoo Answers, an advice Web site, confessed to cutting himself. But that wasn't the problem. The problem was that friends labeled him emo as a result. He plaintively complained, "I don't get why ur emo if u cut. It's stupid I think."
Emo as a demeanor apparently arose in America. It spread via the Internet to Europe a few years ago. There, at least, it has begun to receive press attention. London's Daily Mail reported that "teenagers are less equipped to manage strong emotions and a cult of suicide could have real and horrible consequences." Kathimerini, a Greek newspaper, warns that psychologists there are concerned. In Australia, according to the University of Queensland's Newspace, "Emo is the new vogue."
\ A musical start
At first, emo was just music. "I believe emo came out of the hardcore scene - metal plus punk," says Jennifer Hanrahan, a host and DJ at the UW-Madison student radio station WSUM. "However, by the 2000s, emo had become more of a fashion style rather than a musical genre."
Hanrahan says that acts such as Fall Out Boy, Dashboard Confessional and My Chemical Romance all became known as emo, even though one could argue that there were differences in their music. Another famous emo band is the Brooklyn-based Rainer Maria, which started in Madison. The band has not responded to requests for comment.
Like individuals labeled emo, "The bands who are commonly called emo don't appreciate the term," says Hanrahan.
Still, emo as music was relatively non-threatening, and it therefore played on top 40-radio stations and music television channels, "and so became popular with white middle to upper-class pre-teens and teens," Hanrahan says. It became commercial. "Due to its young and affluent audience, emo began to get a bad rap with the wider musical public, whether deservedly or not I can't quite say."
The music defined the message, and the message came to define a more or less uniform androgynous fashion sense. "Nowadays, emo is considered as a white teen wearing tight black jeans, heavy mascara, and a floppy hairstyle," says Hanrahan. Every emo Web site agrees with the stereotyped portrait: bangs over one or both eyes, Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers and band T-shirts are signature emo traits. With the crystallization of outward style came a defined demeanor.
There has been teen angst as long as there have been teens, of course. We just keep coming up with different names for it; Romeo's Juliet was only 13, after all. Before emo there were the black-clad "goths," whose clothes and black and white make-up resembled that of television's "The Addams Family." Emo is very different.
"From what I've observed, Goth is about being angry and trying to be different," says Riddiough. "It's about rebelling and, yes, wearing black. Emo is about being sad and emotionally weak."
\ The emo world
If you're an outsider, emo is, above all, easy to ridicule. You can visit www.TheEmoQuiz.com("The glass is: a) Half empty, b) Half full, c) Shattered in a million sharp pieces, d) Full of blood"). There are also online cartoons, mocking emo in an artistic style resembling the big sad-eyed kitten posters of the 1960s. One shows a weeping young man, and announces, "Emo is just an excuse for boys to act like girls." Another shows an emo kid working on a poem, asking another emo kid, "What rhymes with razor blade?"
Another common Internet joke is, "I wish my lawn were emo, so it would cut itself."
"As for the cutting thing, I don't cut myself," says Wilson. "I never have. I know people who have cut themselves that wouldn't be classified as 'emo.' I know people who are emo that don't cut themselves. I think that it's more of a stereotype than a fact. I wouldn't say there isn't any direct correlation, but then again the whole 'emo thing' is a huge stereotype anyway."
Still, sometimes emo can be a call for help.
"I have a male friend who used to be extremely emo," says Wilson. "I once called him to ask what he was up to. He said, 'I'm laying on the floor of my dark, cold basement listening to depressing music. I know, I'm emo.'"
"From my understanding, emo means 'emotionally disturbed,'" notes Policastro. "I am trying to spread help to people who need it."
Given that emo is most often an unfair stereotype label applied by others, is it necessarily bad?
"I think I definitely have certain emo characteristics, but overall, I'm a happy person," says Wilson. "The things that I would say about myself that are similar (to emo) are the fact that I love to express myself through things like art, writing, fashion and music. I dress a little less conservatively. I guess if you're going by what 'emo' is short for, 'emotional,' then I suppose that could be true too. Everyone's emotional. Maybe we're all a little emo."
"It means the manifestation of sadness and pain," she says. "Everybody feels it. Everybody is emo."