“Articulating the Feeling is Hard”: Women and the Emo Revival

By Marian Phillips

During the 1980s, the first wave of emo music was born. An offshoot from Washington, D.C. hardcore bands, the musical genre introduced the world to traditional punk stylistic elements mixed with emotional vulnerability and poetic lyrics. Most notably, emo’s roots can be traced to Rites of Spring, making them the fathers of emo. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Midwest became the nation’s powerhouse for all things emo with bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, The Get Up Kids, and American Football. As the new millennium began, so did the third wave of the genre. At the same time, the lines of what qualified as emo blurred and gave way to elements of pop-punk, punk, and hip-hop to intertwine with it. Thus, Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Jimmy Eat World became the figureheads of the third wave. Then Myspace appeared. 

The social media website opened the door for emo to go mainstream with bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Paramore. As a result, “mall emo” [1] formed and gave the genre more negative attention than it had before. The term emo was never truly accepted by anyone in the scene or outside of it, no one truly knows what the definition of emo is, and whether or not it’s a fashion choice or a musical genre at all. Regardless of the complexities and confusion that comes with emo, 2008 witnessed the fourth wave, more commonly known as the “Emo Revival,” and it’s still going strong to this day. But this time there are critical differences. You may have noticed that almost every band listed above are fronted by men, that is not the case anymore. Today, we are seeing more women at the forefront of this revival than we have seen previously and the  amount of people welcoming the word emo into their lives is increasing. 

If you were to ask anyone about women in emo bands during the 2000s, more times than not, you’ll either hear Hayley Williams (Paramore) or an “I don’t know.” Today, the answers are entirely different. You might hear Zoë Allaire Reynold (Kississippi), Brianna Collins (Tigers Jaw), Alex Menne (Great Grandpa), Julia Steiner (Ratboys) or Rachel Lightner (Nervous Dater). Growing up during the third wave of emo in the early 2000s, I constantly sought bands that were led by women or even included a woman in their line-up. Pre-teen me would find Paramore, Hey Monday, and Eisley, but that was pretty much it. The third wave is marked as the most sexist years of the genre, so the lack of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals does not come as a surprise. 

For instance, lyrics of abusing women or adamently denying homosexuality swarmed the third wave. In 2005, Fall Out Boy wrote “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” which included Patrick Stump singing “so wear me like a locket around your throat/I’ll weigh you down/I’ll watch you choke.” [2] The lyrics are caked in jealousy and anger towards an unknown woman that they are having an affair with. Furthermore, in 2017, Jesse Lacey – frontman for the popular third wave emo band Brand New – was accused of preying on underaged fans. Which comes as no surprise when you look at the lyrics Lacey wrote for the song “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis” from the 2003 album Deja Entendu: “I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans/My tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent/Bring you back to the bar/Get you out of the cold/My sober straight face gets you out of your clothes.” He sings “I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do,” [3] giving himself the image of predator and women as prey. [4]

As I reached the age of sixteen in 2012, bands like Pity Sex, Adventures, Bully, and Tigers Jaw entered my heavy rotation playlist. Today, we are witnessing such an impecable growth of women fronted punk, emo, pop-punk, and hardcore bands that make options almost endless. Considering that the image of emo historically looks very white, cisgender, heterosexual, and solely for men, we are also seeing more LGBTQIA+ individuals and women of color making space for themselves in the Emo Revival. For instance, the band She/Her/Hers calls out this image in their song “Kill the Boy Band,” “So you started a band?/Well, let me guess who’s in it/All-straight all-white able-bodied cis men/Say you don’t know many female musicians/Why the fuck would they want to be part of a scene with people like you in it?” [5] The women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color that participate in the Emo Revival reject the expected norm of what emo has historically looked like. 

Tigers Jaw (left to right: Brianna Collins, Ben Walsh, Teddy Roberts, and Logan Schwartz) at the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania June 21, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author. 

The importance of emo bands have always been their ability to articulate to a group of people that they are not alone in what they are experiencing or feeling. The lack of women in the genre up until this point, in my experience, felt isolating. These women of the Emo Revival are making space for more diverse demographic to participate in the genre. For instance, while living in Lawrence, Kansas from 2014-2018, I had the opportunity to watch the DIT (Do it Together) community nurture the growth of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals in every genre of music. I watched eyes light up, and felt my own do the same, when someone I could identify with walked on stage and melted away the isolation I felt in my teenage years. We weren’t listening to a man whine about a girl not wanting him back or breaking his heart, we were hearing emotions such as frustration, anger, and resentment with an unjust system, patriarchy, and the mistreatment of women at large. 

It was at this point, during the 2010s, that another wave of Riot Grrrl punk bands emerged and began to merge with emo. In fact, most of the bands I have listed that are women led are, more often than not, considered punk bands. The two genres tend to meld together when a mixture of emotional vulnerability, a fast tempo, and sharp vocals with contrasting melodies are performed. Lyrically, they can sound the same, depending on the band and musician (for example, the Canadian band PUP is considered both emo and punk). Yet, emo often uses more abstract language to articulate a point, while punk may just get to the point in a forthright manner. Regardless of the differing stylistic elements between the genres, the Emo Revival includes bands that we would probably consider more punk than emo, but are also listed under that moniker. 

Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Crevy at the Bowery Ballroom in Brooklyn, New York February 16, 2019. Photo courtesy of the author. 

I wrote this piece when I thought of all of the women fronted emo, punk, pop-punk, alternative, and indie bands that have gone under the radar in favor of the played out figurehead of a man who’s whining about a girl. These bands are just as deserving of the scene’s attention. Their presence in DIT bars and venues, clubs, concert halls, and basement shows impact communities in a larger way than we usually consider. Girls Rock Camps are popping up in almost every city, and women musicians are actively nurturing the growth of women and young girls in music, no matter the genre. In short, this piece isn’t simply about where emo was or what it is now, this is about where the future of music is going, and the increasing presence of women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color in every genre of music and their capability of fostering a supportive and welcoming community. 

2020 will see Paramore’s Hayley Williams do a solo project, Halsey’s Maniac on January 17th, Poppy’s I Disagree on January 10th, a new album from Soccer Mommy, and rumors of Tigers Jaw’s upcoming album coming in 2020 have recently surfaced. 


Notes

[1] Tom Connick, “The Beginner’s Guide to the Evolution of Emo: NME,” NME Music News, Reviews, Videos, Galleries, Tickets and Blogs | NME.COM, April 30, 2018, www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/emo-wave-guide-evolution-2302802.

[2]  Fall Out Boy, Patrick Stump, “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” From Under the Cork Tree, Island Records, 2005, track 5. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/5nkUSlIhtoJZMOUlB0sNCp?highlight=spotify:track:6HJzCcSMggn7Ultxs48dAe

[3]  Brand New, Jesse Lacey, “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis,” Deja Entendu, Triple Crown Records, 2003, track 8. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/6vDiMhyfSnTn18OY99BSQX

[4] Jenn Pelly, “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave,” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 17 Nov. 2017, pitchfork.com/thepitch/unraveling-the-sexism-of-emos-third-wave/.

[5] She/Her/Hers, Emma Grrrl, “Kill the Boy Band,” Grrrl Angst, 2018. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/1joEVEBQ4YuxikhoClLGBP


Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies. She will present “‘Activists, Punks, Freaks, and Rebels’: Queercore’s Grassroots Activism from 1980 to the Present” at Sarah Lawrence College’s 22nd Annual Women’s History Conference on March 27-28, 2020.

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