In the way of living somewhere where everything comes late, I have been noticing a ton of emo kids in Austin lately. They were around Portland before I was ever out of Reed, but I've only noticed them down here in the last year or so. The ones in Portland are probably on to something else by now.
If you don't know what emo is, you can start here, but basically it's a fashion/lifestyle "subculture" characterized by a certain style of dress and a heavy dose of misery, as well as allegiance to some specific music. Those kids with the tight jeans, stringy black hair in their faces, and constant expression of
contemplation constipation? They're emo.
And there is no way for me to properly emphasize how much I hate emo.
Now this is almost inevitably due to my being too old and uncool to properly understand. I get that. But I hate it all the same. It is definitely not that I have a problem with wallowing in your own angst (I mean, c'mon, that's pretty much my favorite past time), or a particular issue with your hair being in your eyes. I'm not even bothered as much as I once was by folks who don't shower often. Emo music is all bad, as far as I can tell, but I've heard worse.
What bothers me is the way emo looks an awful lot like a really, really poor imitation of two subcultures that I do have a bit of experience being in and around: goth and grunge. These kids think they're miserable? I remember when you could be miserable AND sexy.
I was never really goth (though I've made the occasional attempt). I'm a bit young for it. Goth culture came to the U.S. in the late 80s and early 90s (from England and Germany, mostly), when I was still adolescent. However, it was still very much alive and kicking by the time I was in high school and college in the mid-late 90s. One of the annual events at Reed was a "Fetish Ball," where the goth kids got up in their finest leather and lace and did things like bit and flogged one another. I attended. I wonder, now, how much of the sexual subculture that was being celebrated so publicly was really taking place privately, but that wasn't really the point. The point was to celebrate pain, to indulge in thinking it was sexy, and for everybody to look hot. It is undeniably silly now (and was then, too, actually), and there was definitely an aspect of commercialism and commodification to it even then, but there was also something real behind it. For the most part, those indulging were freaks, even within the already freaky Reed social hierarchy. It was a way to embrace being an outcast.
I did grunge a lot better than I did goth. Partially it must have been regional, since I grew up in Oregon in the shadow the of the Seattle scene, and partially it was just better timing, with grunge hitting big right as my early teen hormonal flood kicked in. I don't have a picture to show you, but I wore my jeans-black tee shirt-flannel-Docs combo faithfully, even if my hygiene was always a little bit too good. And it wasn't just about fashion. Wikipedia describes grunge music as being "typically angst-filled, often addressing themes such as social alienation, apathy, confinement, and a desire for freedom." That's pretty much Grace, circa 1992-1997. Grunge was, to those who embraced it in my generation (and the one before mine, really), what punk was in the years before that--a reply to a mean, confusing, alienating world that was both defiant and resigned. And again, it was for outcasts--those who saw what was happening in the society around them and in their own lives and, for whatever reason, couldn't pretend it was going to be OK.
Given that I grew up with and identified with both goth and grunge, two subcultures that were built on angst (remember, I could have been a rave kid instead if I'd wanted to be happy), it seems like I'd be all over emo, right? No. Emo may look something like a goth-grunge slushy, but it strikes me as a very pale imitation of the real things. Unlike goth, there's no sexiness to emo. The emo kids want to cut themselves, but the pleasure-from-the-pain element doesn't seem to come into it. And the emo-ers may not wash, but there's none of the rebellion of grunge, none of the insistence that this outside part doesn't matter anyway.
It is almost inevitable that I am missing some important core element of emo here, just by virtue of being too old and too far outside of it to understand what it means to the people who are inside it. The commodification and fake misery I see when I look at emo kids is probably very similar to what old-school punks say when they looked at grunge kids, and it definitely resembles the Hot Topic-ization of goth. And much as it annoys me, if emo culture is providing to kids now some of what goth and especially grunge culture provided to me as a fucked-up outsider kid, them more power to it. But I still can't help but resent how fake it looks, and how it doesn't seem to recognize its roots, and how we did it better in my day.