By night they haunt Glover Park and Sub Nine, and by day they slouch around Manners Mall, scowling beneath thick black eye liner. Strange looking and equally strange sounding “Emos,” wear tight black jeans with long greasy fringes. They ooze teenage angst, spout forth bad poetry and cry periodically. Not to mention the self-harm. Or so the cliché goes, at least.
Every decade has its own maligned sub-culture, be it the punks of the 1970s, the goths of the ‘80s and grunge in the ‘90s. Now, it is the turn of the emo to be the butt of jokes and to be abused in the street. No wonder they cry so often. But are they all fringes and tears? Are the clichés true? And how many emos does it take to change a light bulb? (Correct answer, according to the popular joke: they don’t need to, they can cut themselves in the dark). In the spirit of true investigative journalism, I decided to go undercover as an emo and find out.
My emodification begins with music. “I won’t explain or say I’m sorry/ I’m unashamed, I’m gonna show my scar”, the lead singer from My Chemical Romance bellows from the stereo as I struggle to pull on the black stovepipe jeans I bought two years ago during a fleeting, and ultimately misguided, attempt to go punk rock.
His constant refrain that “we’ll carry on,” presumably in spite of being shitcanned by the “mainstream,” gives me the inspiration to carry on and get the button done up safely.
The emo sub-culture essentially was born out of music, in particular the hardcore punk music of Washington D.C in the 1980s. Far from being a recent phenomenon, the term “emo” was first coined to describe bands such as Fugazi and Rites of Spring, whose hardcore punk music was mixed with emotional, self-questioning lyrics.
Known as “emotional hardcore”, or just “emo” for short, by the 1990s the genre had become more loosely defined, encompassing rock music with emotional lyrics or effects.
However, over the last couple of decades the meaning of the term emo has metamorphosed. Somewhere along the line, the emo label became associated with the pop punk or rock of bands such as My Chemical Romance, Panic! At the Disco and Dashboard Confessional – aptly described by one internet commentator as “punk music on estrogen”. There now appears to be a great deal of confusion in the media as to what actually constitutes emo music, with even one of my favourite bands Bright Eyes being tarred with the emo brush. And that’s just not true.
“Emo now isn’t what it used to be”, says a self-confessed emo named Leroy. “People go around abusing the word, when really it’s just a music genre. Over the past few years it’s turned into more a fashion style.” Which explains the preponderance of tight black jeans, long fringes, dyed black hair, tight tee-shirts and falling-apart Chucks on Cuba Street. Unfortunately, stovepipes are about as far as my own emo wardrobe extends, and I realise I’m desperately in need of emo style aid. Enter my erstwhile colleague Laura McQuillan.
While she disputes being classed as an emo, she was able to hook me up with a tight black Illicit tee-shirt, black fingerless gloves, and studded belts and arm bands. After applying thick black eye liner and brushing my hair into a long fringe, however, my emo-make over is still not quite complete.
McQuillan takes a red sub-editing pen and draws scratch marks on my wrist. The media in particular has made much of the clichéd link between emos and self-harm. An opinion piece in the British newspaper the Daily Mail last year, for example, warns parents of the dangers of the “celebration of self-harm” and the “cult of suicide” supposedly promoted by the emo sub-culture. As Marilyn Manson became the scapegoat for the Columbine shootings, the emo sub-culture seemingly has become an explanation for why some vulnerable young people try to deal with emotional pain by hurting themselves.
Gerard Hoffman of the Victoria University Counselling Service says that self-harm is much more complicated than simply identifying with a sub-culture. While he believes that more vulnerable and emotionally fragile people might choose to associate themselves with the emo sub-culture, a perfectly happy person who identified themselves as emo would not necessarily partake in self-harm just because it was proscribed by the sub-culture. In fact, he says it is “probably harmful” to make such throw away comments about emos.
It’s a view that Leroy agrees with. “People seem to think that we go around cutting ourselves or being depressed, but I know heaps of emos and they don’t cut themselves. I know people who cut themselves but they’re not in that emo genre.” Self-harm, then, is not limited to the emo sub-culture. Instead, Leroy says that identifying as an emo is “more a way for the people who don’t quite fit into crowds to fit into a crowd.” And he says he hates My Chemical Romance.
Meanwhile, my transformation is complete and I’m ready to go out into the world disguised as an emo. It’s mid- afternoon on a hot summer day, and the first thing I notice is that tight black jeans are incredibly uncomfortable to wear in such conditions. Wandering through the University, I glare enviously at all the girls in their floaty floral skirts, and wonder how emos cope in such warm weather. Eventually I come across the answer when I spot a fellow emo in three quarter length tight jeans. Utter genius.
My next problem presents itself in the form of perspiration. I’m sweating like a fat business man in a sauna, and it’s making my make-up run. “You look like you were punched by a panda”, a friend remarks, giggling. “Shuddup”, I spit resentfully. While I’m having issues with make-up, Leroy says he wears the eyeliner and eye shadow for the fun of it. “I wear probably more make-up than most girls. Not all the time, at work I don’t. Say if I’m dressing up, I do it mainly for the fun. Half the fun in that is getting ready with your friends.” He’s also down on my cliched emo style. “A lot of people associate emos with wearing complete black and although I wear clothes tighter than usual, I prefer my colours.”
“Emooooooo…..”, shouts some guy out of the passenger seat window as a car passes me on Aro Street. “Fuck you!” I shout back, but the car is travelling too fast to hear me. Secretly, however, I’m pleased that people are falling for my emo disguise. Patrolling up and down Cuba Street during the day hunting for fellow emos has thus far been largely unsuccessful. They’re probably all at school. Now, however, at 9.30 on a Friday evening they’ll hopefully have come out to play.
First stop is Manners Street, where, accompanied by McQuillan who has also dressed up for the occasion, I scout for emos. Several groups of rowdy young people are milling around, but most are wearing baggy jeans, thus discounting them from emoism. Finally we spot a guy wearing a My Chemical Romance tee-shirt coming out of McDonald’s.
“I’m not an emo, I’m only wearing this so I’ll fit in at Sub Nine”, he says defensively. “I can’t believe they thought we were emo!” he shouts indignantly to his friends as we walk away, dejected. We were, in fact, quite mistaken in our emo identification.
My mission to find some emos to hang out with is proving to be harder than I thought. Next stop is Zeal, an all ages venue across from Glover Park that, according to those in the know, is an emo magnet. However, we arrive to find the park deserted except for some older looking people, who could be classed as either emo, punk or goth, drinking what looks and smells a lot like urine from a cask.
When I asked them whether they are emos they explained they were too old and preferred to known as “freaks.” “Emos have got no sense of their own style,” says another. “If they’re just following what is cool, then they’re probably emo”. We’re about to walk away when a group of probably drunk and loud young men slope through the park towards us.
“Are you guys emos?” I shout. “Yes,” replies one. He’s wearing all black, including the tight jeans. He also has light scratch marks up his arm. “It takes the pain away from your life,” he says when we ask about them. They’re all 15, have already been fined by the cops once that night for under-age drinking, and are trying to find Sub Nine. They boast about a friend called “Duncan” who supposedly swallows razor blades, and one even offers to cut himself in front of us. We decline.
So, are the cliches true? Often there is some factual, although of varying degrees, basis for such cliches. In my short time as an emo I saw a lot of fringes, but not so many tears. I saw evidence of self harm, and tight black jeans. While the meaning of the term emo has undergone massive change over the past twenty years, its re-emergence is not as a musical genre, or as a cult of suicide and self-harm, but as a fashion. A mostly harmless group of angst-ridden geeks.
Perhaps then there is some justification to Emos whinging about being misunderstood.