A Decade Under The Influence: Emo, The Music That Saved Our Lives.

Photo: Matty Vogel

Subcultures have always intrigued me — the way they thrive when no one else is looking, the way they thrive because at that point in time, no one even wanted to look.

I’ve always been an outsider. But when it comes to defining moments in social culture, I’ve either been young or too old to be part of anything revolutionary. Emo, however, was something I got to experience from the inside out.

What began in America in the mid-1980s shortly after the hardcore punk movement, filtered its way down to Australia by the late ‘90s, coinciding with Blink 182’s release of Enema of the State. It was around 2004 that I found my own place amongst the pack of spray-on skinny jeans, snakebite piercings and overly straightened side fringes. My nose may have still been unscarred and my hair still it’s natural brown but I had finally found some sense of belonging.

Through a combination of band message boards, MySpace and MSN, where our usernames were of course song titles, I had found people who struggled to fit in too. Emo didn’t discriminate. For me, it was a cold private school whose strength in sports and status was something I myself couldn’t claim. For others it was neglected childhoods, broken homes and teenagers who had for one reason or another, decided that they weren’t enough. Music brought us together from all different backgrounds; it gave us an identity.

Much like today, most of our interactions were digital. I say most because occasionally someone would create a “MySpace Allniter” bulletin and a group of us would meet at 10:00pm under the Flinders Street clocks, stroll across to “The Palms”, listen to our iPods, and drink and kiss each other until the first train home. Somehow my parents let me go. My memories of these nights are a blur but the fact a bunch of anti-social, underage kids made this happen still amazes me. Even if we didn’t realise it at the time, this was important and special. We may not have changed the world; but we did change each other’s lives. And while I’m not sure how healthy it is to find solace in screaming Brand New’s ‘Seventy Times 7’ lyrics, “have another drink and drive yourself home”, we weren’t mentally healthy anyway.

Welcome To The Black Parade

We were confused, introverted yet outspoken, and naively sure of ourselves. What all seems naive now was so sincere then, even if we did swear by song lyrics that we didn’t always understand. Saves The Day’s ‘As Your Ghost Takes Flight’ was written about their friend’s heroin addiction which I’d argue was something that most of us couldn’t relate to at the time. But it’s off the album, Stay What You Are — a memorable title for so many of us. Two of my good friends even have it tattooed on them.

We weren’t alternative, we weren’t punk and we certainly weren’t hardcore. Our version of emo found it’s oxygen in the small gap between desperately wanting to fit in and the rebellious satisfaction of antagonising well, everything. I’m sure some would argue that emo had already taken a mainstream turn by the time Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends and My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge were released. Still, we proudly revelled in our scene and shouted as loud as the music would let us.

The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows

The quieter part of emo, though, speaks some sadder truths: an affinity with heartbreak, self-harm and suicide. In fact, it glorified these things. A few months ago, I saw The Used play live as part of their 15 Year Anniversary Tour. That show surprised me. It pulled on my heart strings and nostalgia more than I had prepared myself for. Lead singer, Bert McCracken can no longer scream so when it came to ‘Bulimic’, a track named after his own personal struggles, the crowd of course yelled the chorus, “Goodbye to you, goodbye to you, you’re taking up my time”. There’s something very powerful about standing in a room full of adults, the same ones I had met on MySpace 10 years’ ago, with our middle fingers raised, screaming those words.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful.

In the same way that Gerard Way [My Chemical Romance] had once given us an excuse to shout, “I’m not okay” under the guise of it being a catchy song, it hit me. Though emo certainly wasn’t the only genre or scene to use music as an emotional outlet, there is a certain, unique authenticity in how we held songs so closely, like tools for self-preservation. So when Bert stood on stage talking about the lives The Used’s music had saved, no words felt truer. I may now be world’s apart from my 15-year-old self but after a terrible day, I’ll still blast The Getaway Plan’s ‘Ashes / A Different Kind of Mess’ like it’s nobody’s business.

We may not feel the same things we once did or express them as aggressively, but when you clench your fists so tightly for years, there’s still a hell of a lot to let go. Afterall, the scars from lip piercings never quite fade. To quote Tom DeLonge of Blink 182, “Well I guess this is growing up”.

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