How Mainstream Emo Made Us Talk About Mental Health
Despite moral panic and tabloid witch hunts, mainstream emo threw a mirror up to what has long been overlooked in society: that kids need help, and they should be taken seriously.
This feature is part of 'The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health' (in association with Help Musicians UK).You can read more from this series right here, and follow 'Mental Health Awareness Week' on Twitter here.
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When emo hit its commercial peak in the early 00s, it ushered in a new subculture. Defined by emoting, sexual fluidity (however performative), and oppressively tight jeans, emo’s millennial incarnation was bolstered by the fact that it arrived in tandem with MySpace—the first and only social network to be inherently twinned with music culture. It created the perfect conditions for a new social movement to grow in new and unprecedented ways.
2000s emo didn’t just ride the wave of social media to greater heights than the genre’s former incarnations, it was a different beast by nature, both defined and dismissed by two major factors: a larger base of female fans, and a distinct connection with mental health. It was that connection with mental health that would go on to become the genre’s biggest bone of contention, peaking with fan protests, British tabloids labelling the genre a “sinister cult,” and, in 2008, an all out moral panic. But now the dust has settled, and we can look back on that period with hindsight, it's clear that mainstream emo did more for promoting awareness and understanding of mental health amongst young people, during an era of high stigma, than most cultural movements could ever dream of.
You can trace the origins of emo back through the 90s with indie-leaning bands like Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate, and even further to the 80s DC hardcore scene with Rites of Spring and Embrace, but most would shuck off the actual “emo” classification; partly because it has routinely been used as a way to discredit and devalue the music, as if “emotional” is an inherently negative quality, and partly because it became a pretty meaningless catch-all for almost anything featuring guitars and a chorus.
“I get what people are saying with the eyeliner and the girl pants and this and that,” said Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz in a 2007 interview with Rolling Stone. “Hopefully, [emo] is more than just a T-shirt slogan.” Later that year, in an interview with American college website The Maine Campus, My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way said, “I think emo’s a pile of shit.” So there’s also that. Still, for the purposes of this article we’ll keep calling it emo, because, let’s face it, everybody did. Whether we’re talking about Jawbreaker or My Chemical Romance, emo has consistently been a logical gravitational space for many young people wrestling with feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and depression. It wasn’t until the 00s, though, that emo and its fans were stigmatised so aggressively.
In 2006, The Daily Mail ran an article issuing an “emo cult warning for parents,” in which it described emo as a teenage trend "characterised by depression, self-injury, and suicide." As exemplified by stories on Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Eminem, and Slipknot long before emo entered the mainstream, this was far from the first time the media forged links between alternative music and harmful behaviour. But the emo controversy raged on consistently, and finally reached its zenith in May of 2008, the year after Hannah Bond, a 13-year-old girl from Kent, committed suicide. Her story became national news after it was revealed that she was “obsessed” with My Chemical Romance, and the coroner, Roger Sykes, made controversial comments linking her fandom with her death at the inquest.
"The emo overtones concerning death and associating it with glamour I find very disturbing,” Sykes said. “A girl aged 13 years has […] taken her own life for no reason that could be regarded by anyone as sensible or justified and if in doing so she was thinking about how this would go down with those others who were involved with the emo fad I just believe this a terrible tragic explanation for what happened.”
Afterwards, The Daily Mail published a series of articles describing emo as a “sinister cult” that “no child is safe from” and My Chemical Romance as a “suicide cult band.” Her death, they said, was motivated by a desire to “demonstrate dedication” to a lifestyle "characterized by depression, self-injury, and suicide" that emo bands supposedly promoted. They even went so far as to make inaccurate claims that My Chemical Romance’s “black parade” was “a place where all emos believe they go when they die”. The reporting was so at odds with what fans believed to be true that hundreds of followers, mostly teenage girls, gathered in London’s Marble Arch to protest, holding signs that read “MCR save lives” and “I’m not afraid to keep on living” (a lyric from The Black Parade track “Famous Last Words”).
All this controversy was born from the assumption that fans of alternative music, whether it be emo or metal, are directly influenced by the bands they listen to as opposed to turning to them to cope with pre-existing issues. The fact that fans were so vocal about things like depression, self-harm, and suicide was considered performative or attention seeking, rather than a reflection of genuine struggle. But, considering one of the biggest concerns among teenagers is “fitting in,” it makes perfect sense that those dealing with similar problems would find solace in a movement that wore them on its sleeve.
In her 2011 academic research paper “Emo Saved My Life,” Dr Rosemary Lucy Hill, a lecturer in Sociology at University of Leeds, challenged the discourse of mental illness around emo and My Chemical Romance specifically, and found that gender was a large contributing factor in how the narrative was shaped. Her research found that women were automatically treated as victims of the music rather than fans who found solace or agency in its message.
“Girls and boys are socialised differently and the conditions of their teenage lives are some what dissimilar,” Hill writes. “Findings that young men use metal to cope with anger suggest that we could similarly explore My Chemical Romance fans’ reasons for listening to the band in the context of their reported self-harming and discussions of suicide. We need to listen to what the young women have to say.” After doing so, Hill found that: “Rather than emo being a fashion that pushes them towards feelings of desperation, into self-harming, to commit suicide, it can help fans to survive mental ill health.”
I spoke with Hill recently to ask how she feels about her research five years on and, if anything, her view has cemented. “I think the coroner’s comments at Hannah Bond’s inquest were absolutely shameful,” she says. “He blamed the music and passed off her ill health as a ‘fad’. He refused to take her illness and her death seriously which can be seen as part of a larger misunderstanding of mental ill health. But it can also be viewed as part of the sexism that reduces girls’ and young women’s interests to nothing more than frivolous wastes of time.”
The fact that bands like My Chemical Romance have such large female fan-bases is arguably a part of why they were critically maligned. As Brodie Lancaster wrote in an essay for Pitchfork: “The crux of teen-girl illegitimacy is the assumption that they are incapable of the critical thinking their older, male counterparts display when it comes to their favorite bands.” It’s doubly ironic, then, that the music responsible for providing an outlet for feelings of depression and insecurity was in turn mocked for being too emotional.
The Used were another band that fell under the umbrella of emo whose albums became an outlet for people who had no other. If you had to make a list of definitive “emo” hits, their 2002 single “The Taste of Ink” is among the biggest and most memorable. Its chorus—“So here I am alive at last / And I’ll savor every moment of this”—was a reprisal against hardship, not just for young people, but for anyone endeavoring to take things day by day and come out of the other side.
When The Used formed as teenagers in 2001, vocalist Bert McCracken was struggling with what he tells me he considers to be the same problems that “every teenager in the US” might suffer from: divorced parents, bullying, not fitting in, and not understanding your place in all of it. “Those are pretty regular things for everyone,” he says, “and that’s kind of what I felt like growing up, being in school and picked on for being different. It’s a time for self-discovery, so if there’s people constantly putting you down on your path to discovering who you are and what you wanna do with the life you’ve been given, then it’s pretty tough. I think music is a really pure escape, and that definitely helps so much in those times. It’s finding something that’s not detrimental to the future of your life and your safety, but that can still make you feel like you’re getting your head out of your problems.”
Although breaking down stigma around mental health is more a byproduct of the music than the band’s intention (which is true of most emo bands), McCracken understands all too well the lack of help that’s available for those who need it, and the nature of the pharmaceutical industry in the States, especially, can be seen as creating a dangerous prevalence of prescription medication. “During gigs, I often ask the crowd how many people know someone who’s been prescribed medication from a doctor, and every single hand goes up,” he tells me. “I ask how many of those people have been prescribed medication for their heads or for their bodies, all the hands stay up. And when I ask how many people know someone who’s overdosed from prescription medication, not a lot of hands go down.” And while prescription medication has undoubtedly helped countless people navigate their mental health struggles, on its own, it can feel like a short term fix.
The US isn’t alone in its tendency to employ short term mental health policies rather than finding ways to support long term. In the UK, austerity politics are worsening an already bottlenecking mental health crisis, leaving many people in need without hospital beds. It’s absolutely no replacement for direct help and support, but music can be one of the things that ends up being there for people when not much else is. With that in mind, the media framing mental ill health through the lens of music fandom seems to be just another way of shifting blame and not looking at the underlying problems.
“We should ask questions of why young music fans are the focus of these kinds of panics,” Hill tells me. “Is it to do with the new identity formations of young people as they enter puberty and start to distinguish themselves from their parents? Why does music get the blame when it is likely that the stresses of puberty and the difficult societal structures that must be endured in adolescence are culpable? This latter question is particularly pertinent given that fans of My Chemical Romance (and heavy metal more generally) describe the music as helpful in dealing with mental ill health.”
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that Gerard Way and Bert McCracken have both dealt with depression extensively, and one of the reasons people gravitated towards emo in the first place is because that became, and continues to be, a shared experience with their fans. “One thing that [the band and our fans] always connect over and still do in a serious way is that this music has saved my life. I hear the story over and over and over, that [The Used’s] first two records saved my life, and I share that story because it’s true for me as well,” McCracken says.
“There were moments in my life where I’ve felt like I couldn’t go on, and these records were really there for me when I was too low to even call my best friends or my family,” he adds. “So in that way, we understand that there is an alternative. It might not be up to our standards of instant gratification, but we understand little by little that the more time we give ourselves we do have the power to control what we’re thinking and when I’m the lowest I’ve ever felt I know that I can put on music and wait through that hell. I know I’m going to feel different, if not the next day then the day after that.”
Similarly, when My Chemical Romance disbanded in 2013, Gerard Way set up a P.O. Box as his local post office in Tarzana so he could maintain a connection with fans. The volume of mail came in so thick and fast the post office couldn’t deal with it, so he moved it to the Warner Bros HQ and drives it home by the car boot-full every so often. “The amount of gratitude, connection, courage, and positivity contained within them is staggering,” he wrote in a blog post two years back, “And I thank you for everything, for letting me know what music can do for people... [the letters] helped me a great deal, possibly more than some of you feel I helped you.”
My Chemical Romance and The Used were two of a whole host of bands loosely billed as “emo” who helped create a space where it was okay for people to talk about their problems when they felt like their parents, their friends, their teachers, and the world-at-large would either invalidate them, or react with hostility. For all its melodrama, emo was a movement that (at least at its core) took those issues and those people seriously.
“I think emo probably has helped make talking about mental ill health easier for some groups,” Hill tells me. “There has been a broader shift towards more openness and less stigma over the last few years, so we need to bear that in mind as well,” but, she says, “bands like My Chemical Romance definitely helped some fans negotiate their mental ill health. They not only provided support groups through their fanbase, but also their lyrical messages were about living and learning to live with mental ill health, to find ways to cope and gain support.”
The image of emo may be one of perceived weakness and hurt feelings, but the music was by no means passive. It was furious, extreme in all aspects, and often as theatrical as it’s possible to get without actually being on Broadway. My Chemical Romance have said several times that they have more in common with Queen than any punk band, and covered “Under Pressure” with The Used as if to prove the point.
Whatever you were battling—depression, bullying, anxiety, problems at home—emo was music to fight back to. Although unfortunately male-dominated, bands like My Chemical Romance, The Used, Thursday, Taking Back Sunday, and Brand New threw a mirror up to what has long been overlooked in society: that kids need help, and they should be taken seriously. For young men, these bands challenged pre-existing codes of masculinity by delving into the fields of emotional vulnerability, sexual insecurity, and loss. They emoted to an audience of hundreds of thousands in a world where men are encouraged to not be emotional at all.
Of course there were bands who, intentionally or not, exacerbated the negative stereotype that surrounded emo. Hawthorne Heights’ infamous lyric "Cut my wrists and black my eyes / So I can fall asleep tonight or die" from 2004’s “Ohio Is For Lovers” has become one of emo’s most immediate reference points, and “Play Russian roulette as we kiss / I’ll be your cheap novelty / Blow your brains out on me” from Senses Fail’s “Choke On This” and “Take this razor, sign your name across my wrists / So everyone will know who left me like this” from Bayside’s “Synonym For Acquiescence” didn’t do much to dampen a reputation that twinned death and romance in a way that reduced emo en masse to a vision of heartbroken dudes crying in Taco Bell. But as a result, we made the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You only need to look to Halsey—a new breed of pop star raised in part by bands like My Chemical Romance and Brand New, who constantly tries to foster attitudes of empathy and support for people dealing with mental health problems—to see the emo’s legacy in the way newer generations talk about mental health.
The wave of 2000s emo may not have been the only group of bands to have had that effect; the same can be said of pretty much anybody who uses their art to cope and communicate their problems. “Songs that are willing to engage with painful topics may well speak to those who are feeling low,” Hill tells me, “but lots of bands and genres do that, including pop music, which is too often dismissed as just romance songs. People find the music that works for them and that suits their mood. It may be that My Chemical Romance and other bands of the mid-2000s just happened to be the ones who did that for a lot of young people at the time.”
As soon as something gets popular, it often loses all nuance. The finer details become eclipsed by more common trends, and cliches begin to creep in and turn serious issues into fashion accessories, invalidating what should be treated as real concerns. Depression, self-harm and teenage suicide became part and parcel of an image that the commercialisation of emo created, but that doesn’t change the fact that it helped countless people deal with their problems. Tabloids are hardly going to be the most informative or balanced sources of information on youth culture, and the fact that fans resoundly rejected everything that was published is telling. The press may have fostered a hostile environment for kids who dressed a certain way and listened to a certain type of music, but who did they care about more: The Daily Mail, or My Chemical Romance? My guess is the latter. Although Hill retains an optimistic view: “[Seeing it in the newspapers] did seem to encourage conversation between parents and their children, which can only be a good thing.”
Most of the original My Chemical Romance fansites are inactive these days, but there is a Tumblr account that hosts stories from people claiming that My Chemical Romance saved their lives. The most recent entry is just over a year old, and comes from a user called Marisa. She writes: “I have been going through a lot in terms of depression, a lack of identity, familial problems, general loneliness, and only having one, for a time no, friends since I can remember. MCR was popular back in my middle school days; The Black Parade was released when I was in sixth grade. Over the years, I forgot them.” She goes on to detail a relationship with a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, a miscarriage, followed by a prolonged period of self-loathing, and almost flunking out out of school. “I was playing around my Beats Music app and “The Light Behind Your Eyes” started playing,” she says, “It brought me back from a dark place. I’m not where I would like to be; there are still plenty of instances where I cry myself to sleep. But I’m getting there [...] Even though MCR’s music is 8-10 years old, it’s still so relevant. You’re not alone. You’re NEVER alone.”
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This feature is part of 'The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health'. You can read more from this series right here. If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website here. And if you would like to know more about the work of Help Musicians UK, you can visit them here.