(Was hier folgt ist zu lang. Die Red.)
Coming-of-age is, by definition, almost always a time of crises, of search for identity. It is not a coincidence that most subcultures root in the rebelliousness that is encoded in the genes of adolescents at the height of puberty. Look at the swingers of the early 60s or the Summer of Love, at Punk or Hip Hop. It is always youth that embarks upon these journeys to challenge the status quo. In Austria of today, there is a new, very much front-and-center kind ouf youth culture: Emo. This essay is a feeble attempt at trying to shed a light at some of the practices and remarkably unique aspects of this phenomenon.
So what exactly is Emo? Emo is defined by music, style and attitude. The music is guitar-brandishing, fast rock music. What sets it apart from mainstream rock is the fact that the lyrics deal with alienation, loneliness and sickness, whilst putting the singer in a position of intense frailty, and (in an outdated way) effeminate emotionality. Having derived from 1980s US post punk, the music sounds very aggressive, but the lyrics express emotions that are easily accessible in a society where acceleration, isolation and egoism appear to have immense influence on the experience of coming-of-age. The fashion and attitudes of Emo will be part of the following paragraphs.
But music this is not last word in trying to define Emo: There is also a ditch a mile deep and a foot wide between the American view of emo and the European one. What is considered Indie, Alternative or Alternative Country in Europe, is all considered Emo in the US. The deliciously funny and concise „Everybody Hurts: The Essential Guide to Being Emo“ defines Emo in this American, wide scope, while the European view of emo is much more narrow: If we think about a typical emo, we see a teenager with tight black jeans, black mascara, long bangs of dyed black hair and multiple piercings in his or her face. However, in the American sense, this is just one particular sub-breed of Emo, namely goth emo.
One of the most obvious or visible characteristics of Emo is its tendency to bricolage items of mass consumer culture by choosing and re-arranging them so they communicate an Emo meaning. Very much like mainstream teenagers, emos shop at H&M, wear Vans Sneakers and put a lot of effort into looking good. But by chosing only a very limited amount of patterns (checkered, skull and bones) and colors (lots of black, some white, red and purple), they transform mainstream clothing into something that is as much a uniform as it is an expression of opposition to the mainstream. And in deed, the song „Welcome to the Black Parade“ by My Chemical Romance comes to mind when a group of Emos crosses ones path. They all try to look different from the mainstream. And by that, they all look just the same.
Another essential aspect of Emo fashion is the band shirt. The band shirt communicates much more than just its color – it defines the wearers in terms of who they are (or who they want to be) in the eyes of the people he or she meets. Furthermore, this piece of cloth avers a great spate of in-groups: The people who know the band, the people who were at a concert of the and (you can buy most band shirts only at the shows), and maybe even the people who have the exact same shirts. Those are the peers the band shirt clad Emo can relate to. But the most important factor might be that a band-shirt can, so to speak, be inscribed by the wearer with a certain meaning, that only he or she knows about. Wearing a t-shirt by (in the American sense) emo band Belle & Sebastian that reads „PUSH BAR (man) TO OPEN (old wounds)“ can mean so many things to the person who wears it, as well as to others. Does he like the album? Does he like the band in general? Does he like a good play on words? Is he okay? Is he on a binge, maybe?
Most of all, a band-shirt is always a good way to get into contact with like-minded peers, whilst simultaneously shielding away those who have an opposing taste. And taste is, quite frankly, everything. In a sub-culture that is built on a particular understanding of the importance of music, liking the same bands for the same reasons is almost as close as two hurting, alienated teenagers are going to get.
While some aspects of Emo fashion are shared by the mainstream (piercings, tattoos, H&M), there is one part that is uniquely emo: make-up for boys. Emos oppose the hegemonic view of what is male and what is not. Much more dark than the eye-shadow and glitter of the glam rock era (think David Bowie circa „Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars“), emo make-up is essential for the communication of otherness. While the mainstream in Europe has clearly seen a rise in body maintainance accessoires aimed at men in the last few decades, the open attitude towards a more feminine sense of beauty among Emo males is astonishing. And even though the Jocks might view Emo as „gay“, sexual orientation is only marginally responsible for tons of make-up being spread across acne-suffering, teenage faces all around the world. Of course, make-up is part of a Emo fashion, and might therefore be void of any meaning whatsoever. In other words: Is the average Emo a sociological subject that is behaving according to what he is not supposed to do in the eyes of mainstream culture and, at the same time, does he what is supposed to do in the eyes of his peers. Of course he is. Trends and standards are essential to any youth culture. But it is my understanding of the phenomenon that make-up is just the most visible aspect of a general affinity towards gender-bending among male Emos.
After all, most of them shop at girls‘ H&M, and they are into music that is distinctly emotional in a very open, and therefore, hegemonically speaking, feminine way. After having adopted the „female“ ways of fashion and music, it is only logical to also assume a distinctly female way of treating the body.
This of course is quite interesting, after all one should not forget how young most of these emos are. The „normal“ way of expressing one‘s own gender during high and late puberty is by over-exaggerating the male or female persona. In mainstream culture, boys in puberty very much act a certain way to ensure their growing sense of masculinity, even hypercorrecting their bodily inadequacies by being louder, stronger and more „male“ than they actually are. Emo breaks with this tradition. Here, boys try to look and act distinctly feminine.
But it appears that the re-appropriation of Emo fashions, signs, and music by the mainstream is already at work. Already, there are shops in shopping malls catering to Emos. The best-selling bands in the US, as well as Germany, can be described as Emo. The most successful artists of Emo are nowadays invited to MTV and „Wetten, dass…“. But in this aspect Emo might surprise us, too: Punk and the Summer of Love had to end when embraced by the mainstream, because the were a counterculture, opposing the very core of what was normal and accepted. But Emo is a subculture, and is, in essence, fullfilling what is expected from any member of society: they consume. Emo is apolitical, egalitarian and consumerist, very much in the same way that mainstream is. So maybe Emo might survive the re-appropriation and diffusion of signs into mainstream, because they are, to a very large part, important members of it.
Fully aware of the fact that this essay has raised more questions about meaning, representation and gender in relation to Emo culture than having answered them, one might conclude that: Emo is a young and fragile sub-culture, which is unique in as many ways as it is normal. Normal in the sense that youth always has formed and always will create new ways of self-definition in contrast to what is considerd „normal“. But examining a youth culture this exciting and new is also, at least for me, a bit of a sad experience. A few years ago, when I could have had the chance to be part of a youth culture, I chose to listen to the music and read the books of the glorified Haight/Ashbury, „On The Road“, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young counter culture of the Sexual Revolution. Back then I was too young to be part of the culture of my choice, now I am too old to really understand what it means to be Emo.
Admitting that one is out of the loop at 22 years of age is a very sad realisation in deed.