How to Be Emo

Three Parts:Understanding EmoParticipating in Emo CultureLooking the Part

From the suburbs to the beaches, from Mexico to Iraq, teenagers have been self-identifying as "emo" for years and it still manages to confound and confuse the mainstream. What is emo? What does it mean to be emo? Based on the melodically-aggressive and complicated hardcore music of mid-80s Washington DC, emo has its roots in mostly indie but has expanded into many styles, sounds, and cultures from indie rock to pop punk. Emo is huge and it's here to stay. If you want to learn about the history, the music, and the culture to get started participating in emo culture, you've come to the right place.

Part 1
Understanding Emo

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    Keep an open mind. Ask a room full of twenty-one self-identifying Emos to define "Emo" and you'll probably get twenty completely different answers. To a casual music fan over the last several decades, it can seem like the only thing that makes someone an Emo is the ability to argue endlessly about the difference between indie-emo, screamo, emo pop, and emocore, none of which really matters to the core or to real emo fans.
    • "Emo" has been used to describe an ever-changing variety of music over the course of thirty years. It's difficult to pin down, so don't try to. The first criteria of being a good emo? Be inclusive. Don't get sucked into stupid arguments about what "real" emo is or isn't. That doesn't make you an emo, that makes you rude and will give "being emo" a bad name.[1]
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    Tell the difference between emo and other stereotypes. Emo and Scene are usually very hard to differentiate for some people, mostly because the haircuts and make-up is almost the same. Though, being Emo and being Scene is very different.
    • Emo is a sub-culture that deals with self-expression and self-exploration, usually through singing, writing, playing an instrument, etc. From the looks, emo people wear dark colors (black, maroon, dark blue, etc.) from skinny jeans and band T-shirts, then add a small splash of colors with neon studded belts and bracelets. The hair is usually raven and straight, and can have a few colorful strands.
    • Scene is about fashion: If you're scene then you most probably dye your hair in wacky colors and wear light-colored clothes.
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    Know what emo is. Emo is not about self harm or self-loathing. That all is just normal things occurring among human beings and has been among human beings since the dawn of time. Emo is short for emotional or emotive hardcore and is a subgenre of hardcore punk that began in the 1980s. In the 1990s, bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker and Jimmy Eat World were coincidentally called emo due to their emotional lyrical content. Since the 1990s, emo has also had its roots in indie rock and pop punk. Bands like Texas is the Reason, Thursday, Sunny Day Real Estate and Cap'n Jazz are all emo bands.
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    Check out the roots of the emo tree. "Emo" was first used to describe hardcore punk bands in the DC area that wrote more confessional and personal lyrics than more traditional hardcore punk bands. Influenced by pioneering hardcore bands Minor Threat and Black Flag, bands like Rites of Spring and Beefeater both wrote confessional and personal lyrics in their hardcore punk songs that led to the coining of the term "emotional hardcore" and eventually "emo." So, originally, emo was a fairly small local scene in the DC area that gained some attention.
    • In the early 90s, bands like Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate began flying the emo flag, except these bands sound basically nothing like early DC emo. Influenced by California pop punk and indie rock, these bands have big catchy hooks and personal lyrics, writing songs with sweeping structures and loads of melodrama.
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    Recognize more recent developments in the sounds of emo. Emo broke out huge in the 2000s, with Victory Records bands like Taking Back Sunday, Thursday and the Used patenting a particular brand of "screamo" music that returned somewhat to emo's hardcore roots. It was big, loud and extremely popular.[2]
    • Concurrently, Dashboard Confessional headlined a kind of emo that featured acoustic guitars and big choruses, but sounded more like acoustic folk than Black Flag. These two different directions made it very difficult to categorize emo in, say, 2005.[3]
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    Develop a passion for different kinds of music. Generally speaking, all emo music has two things in common: big, sweeping, extremely melodramatic guitar-based music, either aggressive and harsh or acoustic and gentle, that contain confessional or explicitly personal lyrics, often about heartbreak and loneliness. The Used doesn't sound much like Death Cab for Cutie which doesn't sound anything like Jawbreaker. So what? They're all emo bands. Pick the sounds you like and don't listen to what you don't like.
    • If you want to dress emo and listen to Sunny Day Real Estate, go for it. If you also have Lady Gaga, Johnny Cash, and Cannibal Ox on your iPod, that doesn't make you any less emo. A real "emo" is someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about a diversity of music and proud of their taste in it.
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    Define emo for yourself. Much like the terms "hipster" or "punk" calling someone an "emo" is often used as an insult. It's fairly common for young people - who want desperately to belong somewhere - to try to jump on a "cool" bandwagon without really knowing anything about it. Being seen as "fake" or as a "poser" is at the heart of much emo controversy. That's why widespread violence against emo kids happens in Mexico and Iraq. That's why endless YouTube comment streams are full of immature and shrill arguments about whether or not Bullet for My Valentine is really emo or not.
    • While a guy with dark hair and guyliner listening to Dashboard Confessional in Columbus, OH might be considered emo by a lot of people, the California blonde who surfs and listens to Dashboard Confessional might consider herself emo as well. Treat this as an opportunity for everyone to appreciate the music.
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    Look to the bands for tips. For tips about music, definitions of "emo," and fashion, check out the guys and gals making the music for advice. See who they listen to, who they're influenced by, what they read, and what they recommend. Learn straight from the source.
    • Like grunge or "jam band" music, most bands labeled as "emo" or "emocore" would probably take issue with the label anyway and prefer to just be called a rock band. It's a sloppy term used by rock journalists and grabby fans to categorize completely different things in completely different regions over different times. Worry less about whether something is "real emo" and worry more about whether or not it's good.

Part 2
Participating in Emo Culture

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    Appreciate Emo music. From Thursday to Jimmy Eat World, Weezer to Brand New, Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate) to Paramore, all people who identify as emo have an active and passionate interest in emo music. Test out different bands to see what you like. If you like what you hear, keep exploring sub-genres like screamo and emocore to see what you like best. If you don't like the music, that's okay too. You can still express your emotions through fashion and lifestyle. Here is a short, incomplete and imperfect primer on some emo bands to get started. You might not like these and still be a passionate emo listener. That's alright. If you want to get a foot in the door, check out:
    • Rites of Spring - Rites of Spring
    • Embrace - Embrace
    • Sunny Day Real Estate - Diary
    • Weezer - Pinkerton
    • Dashboard Confessional - Swiss Army Romance
    • The Get Up Kids - Something to Write Home About
    • I Hate Myself - Ten Songs
    • Thursday - Waiting
    • Taking Back Sunday - Tell All Your Friends
    • Hawthorne Heights - The Silence in Black and White
    • Silverstein - When Broken is Easily Fixed
    • Texas is the Reason - Do You Know Who You Are
    • The Promise Ring - Nothing Feels Good
    • Jimmy Eat World - Clarity
    • Jawbreaker - 24 Hour Revenge Therapy
    • Fall Out Boy - From Under the Cork Tree
    • Panic! At the Disco - A Fever You Can't Sweat Out
    • My Chemical Romance - Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge
    • Green Day - American Idiot
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    Know the subgenres of emo. This can help you identify which type of emo music you'll enjoy. If you hate one style of emo, try others. Here are some genres:
    • Emocore - Short for emotional or emotive hardcore, emocore is a subgenre of hardcore punk from the 1980s. It began in Washington DC with bands like Rites of Spring and Embrace. It blended punk with emotional lyrical content.
    • Indie emo: Indie emo began in the 1990s when emo changed its roots and broadened from just punk rock. These emo bands are more indie than punk. Bands include Dashboard Confessional, Further Seems Forever, Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral.
    • Emo pop: Emo pop began in the 1990s during emo's regeneration and blends emo with pop punk. Bands include The Get Up Kids, Fall Out Boy, Jimmy Eat World, Paramore and The Starting Line.
    • Screamo: Screamo is a subgenre of emocore which involves screaming and usually fast tempos, loud-soft dynamics and sometimes unconventional song structures. Bands include The Saddest Landscape and Orchid.
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    Go to shows. Originally, emo was a small local scene that attracted national attention. In this way, a movement started that's now global. Get back in touch with that original impulse by hanging around the local shows in your own backyard. It's one thing to go to the Warped Tour and check out the national bands you hear, but it's another to check out and support local emo bands who are trying to get started.
    • Volunteer to help out at all-ages shows and DIY clubs to put on gigs. Hand out fliers and befriend other bands. Check out local zines and participate in the scene.
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    Cultivate a creative persona. In general, the emo subculture values the arts. Painting, making music, writing, and expressing yourself creatively are all important ways to participate in the emo subculture. Find a way to express yourself and devote your free time to perfecting your art. Write poetry and turn your words into songs. Write reviews of emo music and start a music blog.
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    Consider picking up an instrument. Being able to play music by yourself or in a band would give you huge credibility and would be a fun way to engage with emo more directly. Start writing your own songs and playing your own music and you'll be actively participating in the creative culture.
    • Try playing the bass or guitar, or perhaps even the violin, which sounds amazing in emo songs if you invest enough time in it. The drums might also be a very good instrument, because drummers are in regular demand for all sorts of bands.
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    Read a lot. Emo is a subculture that prides itself on self-exploration, intelligence, and feeling.[4] Start reading up on contemporary and classic emo novels and books:
    • Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture by Trevor Kelley and Leslie Simon
    • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
    • It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
    • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
    • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
    • The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
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    Don't feel like your religious or political beliefs mean you can't be Emo. If you like the subculture, enjoy it! Accept others and be yourself!

Part 3
Looking the Part

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    Sweep your hair. Up until the mid-2000s, there was no real emo hairstyle. "Emo hair" usually refers to a particular layered haircut in which long bangs are swept and styled to one side, usually held in place with mousse. Emo hair is usually dark or dyed, sometimes featuring a bright highlight of blonde or other punky colors.
    • To get emo hair, start growing out your bangs, but still getting clean-up cuts on the back of your neck. Pull the bangs over evenly across above your eyebrow and use mousse or hair gel. It's also sometimes popular to spike up hair on the back of the head, cowlick style.
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    Rock the geek chic look. Featuring Rivers Cuomo-style cardigans and horn-rimmed glasses, this look popularized emo in the mid-90s as it ascended toward the mainstream. It's basically a cool-looking smart-kid look. To cultivate this look, you'll need:
    • Glasses (preferably thick-rimmed with black rims)
    • Tight jeans
    • Sweater vests or cardigans
    • Chuck Taylor All-Stars
    • Band t-shirts
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    Try out the screamo look. The genre that rose in the mid-2000s brought with it a patented hairstyle and way of dressing. Mostly in black. To rock this look, you'll need:
    • Dark, tight-fitting jeans
    • V-Neck black or white t-shirts
    • Skate shoes, like Vans or Airwalks
    • A swooped-bang hair cut, typically dyed black with some bright highlight
    • Japanese style Yakuza tattoos or koi-fish ink
    • A mouth piercing
    • A studded or white belt
    • Your keys on a carabiner
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    Embrace androgyny. Style is largely similar for both male and female emo kids. The haircuts, dress and use of make-up tend to cross the sexes, resulting in a distinctive and androgynous look.
    • If you wear eyeliner, it should be preferably thin and trace your eyes. Take it easy on the make-up. Cherry-colored Betty Page style lipstick is also common for girls.
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    Make good friends with the hoodie. Nearly all emo styles involve in some way or another the best old-friend of the wardrobe: the hooded sweatshirt. It's possible to give that hoodie a distinctively emo flair, however, which doesn't need to take more than a little extra effort to pull off. Most emo hoodies will be black and tight-fitting, sometimes featuring band patches or a small amount of white trim.
    • Cut a hole for your thumbs in the sleeves of your hoodies. Wear it with your thumbs sticking through to keep yourself warm in the winter months.


  • Don't become emo unless it's your true self. Find your own style and expand it.
  • Remember that being emo doesn't mean you must wear black. Emos, in fact, can often wear lighter colors.
  • You may be subjected to negative criticisms by your non-emo friends and possibly the majority of society if they aren't emo, so just ignore them.
  • Don't confuse emo with scene. Scene is just a term for the people who look kind of like Dot Dot Curve and Brokencyde. They have neon tight jeans or cigarette pants, party shades, neon colors, big hoodies and the same hair only more stylized. They like music like Blood on the Dance Floor, Breathe Carolina and 3OH!3.
  • Don't confuse emo with goth, either. Goths are the ones who are into music like Joy Division, Samhain, The Cure or Bauhaus and their look is usually wearing more black and stuff.
  • If someone asks you if you cut yourself or are depressed, just ignore or deny it if you don't. If they asked you, chances are, their opinions are already made and then your approval isn't going to change it much.
  • Don't feel like you need to wear eyeliner to look emo. Many people who dress emo, in fact, don't wear eyeliner. Especially guys. You'll notice that looking at emo boys on Google Images. You shouldn't feel forced to paint your nails black. Most emos don't paint their nails black, especially guys. It's actually quite apparent.
  • If you apply emo makeup, don't wear too much or really big makeup if the makeup is black! You will look more like Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons or Marilyn Manson.
  • Some people (mostly online) will harass you for your style.
  • If you're applying eyeliner, do not be afraid to apply to the inside of the lids and under the bottom lash-line.
  • When shopping, remember that you don't want anything that's too expensive. Emo really isn't about the clothing, you don't even have to go shopping to get what you need. Simple clothes are fine.
  • Layer your clothes. An example is wearing a long sleeved shirt under a band shirt, tank tops under a tee shirt, or leggings under ripped jeans. You probably should only wear layers in the winter, fall, and early spring. Hoodies are also really good for layering as well.
  • Don't feel forced to change if your friends are emo. Emo is all about being yourself and not being afraid of what others think.
  • You do not have to cut, torture, or harm yourself in anyway to become emo or even goth. Self harm is never good and it can hurt lots of people to see you hurt. Just try to stay quiet or sit down and relax on your own when you don't want to be disturbed. Try to look at least a little peaceful and not desperate by purpose.
  • You don't have to deny that you are Emo. This is a stereotype that, in all truth, only some Emos follow. In 2016 (or whenever you're reading) it is perfectly acceptable to outwardly tell people that you are Emo.
  • However, don't go around saying it to whoever makes eye contact with you. This is what posers do. A simple, "Yeah, I'm Emo" in conversation will do.
  • If you're going to be emo, you have to be confident in yourself.


  • Emo is absolutely not about cutting yourself, anger or depression. It will not make you more emo. Emo doesn't mean self-harm; it means self expression. (If you or someone you love is in a crisis please call 1-800-SUICIDE )

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