The subculture of “emo” has been defined by black clothes, sad music, and bold eyeliner. But what does it truly mean to be an emo kid? I took a cringe-filled walk down memory lane to remember my infamous emo phase and how it ultimately changed me as a person.
I like to joke that my introduction to this out-of-the-ordinary world started in my childhood. Specifically, I’d say my descent into emo began when I stole my mom’s Evanescence CD. This was 2003, so hearing “Bring Me to Life” once a day on the radio was nearly impossible to avoid. I was entranced by the album cover, adorned with deep blues and dark shadows outlining the determined expression on Amy Lee’s face. Her hair was as dark as mine, her makeup as bold as her voice. I was drawn in by the haunting vocals and powerful instruments that amplified every song I played over and over again. To me, music like this was the audial embodiment of Halloween, a holiday I was never allowed to take much part in growing up.
Though I knew my mom’s music taste was vast and inclusive, there was still much she didn’t exactly approve of. We weren’t a Halloween family. Plain and simple. Instead of trick-or-treating with my friends, I was always whisked off to whatever non-secular activity a local church was hosting. As if taking away an essential childhood moment wasn’t bad enough, I wasn’t allowed to pick a real costume either. Every year I had to be a princess. I tried to bargain with my mom, suggesting I could be a vampire princess or a princess that just so happened to grow bat-like wings. She was never convinced. If you don’t give a kid their Halloween, they’ll become it. Thus began my growing desire for the “alt kid” lifestyle.
I’d grown up watching spooky cartoons like Courage the Cowardly Dog and The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy. I marveled at my friends who owned merchandise from any Tim Burton movie, and I longed for the day I could buy a backpack that looked like Gir from Invader Zim. Casting these childhood favorites aside, I grew up to like other things by the time I was in middle school. For a while, it was like my emo inner child never existed. That was until a friend of mine introduced me to a band called My Chemical Romance, the gateway drug towards most emo phases. I didn’t admit to liking them at the time. At this point, I was into wearing cardigans and naming every Coldplay album off the top of my head. But MCR made sure I heard from them again, or rather, their fans did.
It’s safe to say Tumblr played a significant role in how I consumed media as a teenager. Whether or not that’s an inherently good or bad thing, I can’t really say. Within months, I found a real sense of community there, rediscovering the band whose aesthetic puts the “FUN” in “funeral”. I viewed high school as a time to reinvent myself and I wanted to be whatever Gerard Way was. Jumping into a subculture is not for the faint of heart. I took this newfound passion and dove deep into it; spending hours online watching concert videos, how-to-look-emo tutorials, and decorating my laptop with “rawr XD” graphics. I started shopping at Hot Topic religiously, going there so often that the cashiers learned my name. The more bands I got into, the more merch I wanted.
Wearing band merch to school was like a secret code. Only a select few would recognize the logo, the lyric, or the band name itself. It was an opportunity for a friendly exchange, an approving head nod, or a quick grin. At my school, however, wearing the shirts wasn’t enough. There was an unspoken hierarchy of alternative kids. The top of the food chain was dominated by the upperclassmen who liked heavy music and wore cargo shorts every day. Below them were the goths who gathered to loudly disapprove of everything under the sun. Then you had the artsy emos who took refuge in the art room and painted everything they could get their hands on. After them were my personal favorites, the quiet emos who kept to themselves, their appearances doing the talking for them. Lastly, there were the overly excited scene kids and the metalheads, polar opposites but I somehow had friends in both groups, regardless of their differences.
I was too afraid to completely commit to the style back then, especially when my mom would cry about how I’d get bullied for painting my nails black. Her heart was in the right place, it’s just weird explaining what “emo” is to a black, Christian woman who was raising her socially anxious child in the south. I persisted still, finding an interest I connected with and people who I wanted to look and act like. There was one boy I became utterly fascinated by. He was the textbook definition of emo, with his black bangs covering one of his eyes, piercings, black clothes, and the fact that he looked like a corpse. I was into it.
A friend of mine somehow gathered the courage to talk to him which eventually led to us sitting with him at lunch sometimes. On those days, I tried my best to impress him, stating facts about band members, pointing out the lyrics he’d written on his binder, and talking about which bands would play in our town soon. There wasn’t a muscle in his pale, stoic face that budged when I spoke. The worst of my attempts to impress “The King of Emos” was experimenting with my makeup. I didn’t have much experience with eyeshadow but I thought I’d seen enough YouTube videos to wing it. I sat down at our table and his eyes widened. I finally got a real expression out of him but it wasn’t what I thought it would be. His voice was laced with worry as he asked if I was okay? Had I had an allergy attack? My moment of victory was short-lived upon realizing he was referencing my haphazard red eyeshadow.
After that moment, I made emo my own, embracing it in a way that fit me. My hairdresser aided in this, forming an alliance with me every time I asked her to cut my bangs or put colorful streaks in my hair. I made a lot of friends online and in person who liked the same things I did. I went to concerts where I made memories to last a lifetime, meeting my emo idols and getting trampled in mosh pits. My mom became supportive, glad that I felt comfortable in a room full of people that shared the same interests; though she did leave me at a Pierce the Veil concert after the first song prompted her to ask me if they believed in Jesus. Picking your battles in these situations is a wise choice.
College was where I let my emo phase completely evolve into a part of my identity, not for a lack of embarrassing moments though. Those things seem to go hand-in-hand. When I was home for the holidays, my mom caught my friends and me bleaching my hair in my cramped bathroom at 2 AM. She thought my hair would fall out so I had to rush to finish the job which left me with a disoriented rainbow of blues and purples on a third of my head. I wore a lot more hats that year.
Most kids with an emo phase either grow out of it or grow up to be alternative adults. Personally, I like that I carry the nostalgia of those times with me in my life. Though I ditched the cheesy band bracelets for more refined style choices, I still stay true to my roots. Because of my experience with the subculture, I feel more confident in my fashion and the depiction of myself I show off to the world. Whenever I wear black lipstick or throw on some black platform boots, I feel like an amplified version of my past self. I know the “me” that once got mistaken for a Spencer’s employee would love the Monster High-esque appearance I’ve grown into.
Nowadays being “emo” isn’t as taboo as it was back when I was in high school. The idea of being “alt” has grown into some cool mainstream thing which I both love and hate. The e-kids on TikTok probably didn’t have the same experiences I did growing up, but it’s nice that something that’s been deemed cringey for nearly two decades is being redefined. Sometimes it’s better if phases don’t phase out!