Emo wasn't cool.
Neither critics nor cool kids liked emo in its heyday. Nostalgia would have us believe otherwise.
Howdy, and welcome to Good And Good For You, a newsletter about music and feelings. I’m working on a book about Paramore, so naturally, a lot of said feelings I have, are about them. P.S. for our purposes here, I’m using “emo” to mean, like, 2000s emo. I love Braid and Fugazi and ~*~real emo~*~ from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s as much as the next chick, but this post is not about that.
It was 5th grade. So we were what, 11?
I’d asked what some lyrics were from. Cally Brown, the coolest girl in my class, looked me straight in the face and said, “What, you haven’t heard of Death Cab For Cutie?” and I’d never felt so humiliated.
Now, of course, I realize those blonde girls with glossy lips and razor-thin eyebrows knew these ephemeral, edgy names from watching The O.C. It’s a clarity that helps elucidate why it was Cool when they liked bands, but not, a few years later, when I decided I fell in love with rock, scrounging up new favorites on Limewire and lovingly uploading pixelated album art.
I get Cally flashbacks sometimes when I see stuff about “emo nite” events, when I read Elliott Smith thirst-tweets from hot twenty year olds. Whether you’re a millennial like me or a young bucko, liking certain emo shit is cool now. And while it’s no less surprising to me than any other old thing being new again, it’s a bit of a mindfuck sometimes. Especially when I see old discourse patterns starting to reemerge from the Internet bad-take bog.
I literally, actually cannot believe I’m still seeing music writers acting like they’re too cool for Olivia Rodrigo. Or, if they like her, feeling some need to qualify her as real emo. Twenty years later, how does it STILL feel embarrassing to say I like rock-leaning pop?
There have always been very limited confines to the kind and amount of earnest media girls can consume, whether set by time, or the bounds of a show soundtrack, or even the arbitrary rules of a clique. There are socially acceptable parameters for loving Big Feelings Music.
(Now, that’s where fandoms intercept—they create a group setting where it’s mutually agreed that geeking out is criteria for belonging. But that’s also different than just liking bands on a personal level, using music as a portal into yourself, not necessarily into community.)
When I was a teenager, it was NOT cool to like Paramore. I say that with the utmost conviction. While their first three albums obviously did well enough to earn them stardom and decent critical reception, there was a very cut-and-dry crowd who liked Paramore, and it was ~alternative~ teens. I’d be lying if I said I was ever actively made fun of for liking Paramore, Jimmy Eat World, Thrice, Blink-182, or even the acts that didn’t age as gracefully, like All Time Low or Hellogoodbye. But it was very clearly understood in the social wilds I traversed that unless the other party was also wearing Vans and straightening their bangs to a conspicuous extent, it was no use trying to talk about my favorite bands; TV soundtracks and Top 40 radio were the acceptable music discovery venues.
Even worse, though, was the other side of the fence—the music blogs I worshipped so vehemently, my doorways into a world where edgy shit was cool—they shunned emo music, too. We’re talking Strokes era, for context—and the sounds were all intertwined, really (that’s another essay)—but in 2009, it would have been UNHEARD OF to see a cool music writer talking about Paramore or My Chemical Romance the way they do now. (And I internalized that shit!!)
The truth is that a lot of earnest music about feelings is, and always has been, the domain of weirdos. Especially if it’s melodic, or sung by a girl, and especially, especially if both.
Being 𝓟𝓤𝓝𝓚 has always been a loophole, on the industry side.
However, the pitfall there for fans—that we’re seeing play out in realtime right now with the Olivia Rodrigo discourse—is that the bar is incredibly nebulous. When it comes to Paramore, I’ve watched that target move for decades now. Even today, for every culture writer who claims them, there is one who scorns them for being too poppy—perhaps they’re not the ones writing their publication’s Paramore review, as most reviews these days are positive, but the opinion remains common nonetheless, especially among oldhead (cough*men*coughcough) critics.
I never stopped loving the bands I loved, but I always felt there was an unbridgeable divide on both sides—whether among my high school peers or culture critics, emo simply wasn’t as popular as modern nostalgia would have us believe.
But isn’t that the story of so many nostalgic favorites? Whether they’re musical gods or fantastically corny, so many artists that pass time’s test weren’t by any means universally beloved in their heyday. My dad indoctrinated me and my siblings with ABBA songs growing up, and my mom made fun of us all—ABBA?? REALLY???? was her bewildered cry. We used to make fun of the people who listened to them, she’d insist; they were really not cool.
Well, a kid on TikTok in the year 2023 would beg to differ.
Time’s a buffer, it seems. Liking music that’s earnest—even cheesy—the implications soften under nostalgia’s gaze. Of course, we all liked emo music. We were young and angsty, weren’t we? I can’t help but feel like Emo Nites are full of girls like Cally. The ones who wrote the tacit rules about which edgy bands were acceptable and which ones were too much.
And yet! At a certain point, it becomes impossible to parse. My social experience as an emo teen may have been clear-cut, but music never is. If the Callies of the world, who mocked Hayley Williams in the 2000s, claim GUTS now—even implying, perhaps, that they always would have—who am I to summon ghosts to prove a point? Perhaps more importantly, on the other side of the coin, if “all american bitch” is the closest thing to rock a 13-year-old today has ever listened to, who am I to tell them she’s not punk enough?
Like what you like now. It just might be cool in 15 years. Or not. Who gives a fuck.
It’s 2023, and most everyone loves my favorite band, Paramore. It’s strange, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Let’s dance and scream and revise history so we all had choppy self-inflicted side bangs. I really don’t care if music critics think they’re truly punk (I would argue: yes) or if they really were universally beloved by the 2000s everyteen as the Internet claims (I know: no). I care that their music, every note, every song, every CD liner note, made me who I am. And I know that I wouldn’t love them so dearly if they hadn’t been, for so many years, so uniquely, dorkily, ardently mine.
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