“It’s Short for Emo-tional”

by Scott McLemee on April 9, 2007

As if the good people of Grand Forks, North Dakota don’t have enough to worry about, a local news station has alerted them to the menace of a mutant subculture:

[ we’re having a glitch with the video embed, but it’s also available here. ]

This is tone-deaf even by TV news standards. Even someone who will never see 40 again (yours truly for example) can tell that at least some of the material presented here as typical of “emo culture” has obvious satirical intent.

Members of the subculture rank themselves on an “emo scale”? One where you “get more points if you cry a lot” and “win the jackpot by committing suicide”? Granted, lifestyle reporting is not exactly a positivistic discipline. But come on, folks, surely you can be a little more rigorous about evaluating sources than that.

Henry Jenkins cites this at Confessions of an Aca-Fan as “a textbook example of the ways that youth subcultures get misrepresented on television news and the ways that adult anxieties about kids who don’t look, dress, and act ‘normal’ get turned into hysteria by misreporting.”

He dissects the typical failures of competent reporting embodied in this segment. And he takes the whole thing seriously for its role in fueling moral panics. Worth a look.



Kieran Healy 04.09.07 at 11:24 pm

Wait till they get a load of this.


Cryptic Ned 04.09.07 at 11:42 pm

GRAND forks, not North Forks. [thanks, fixed it.-scott]


RWB 04.10.07 at 12:18 am

Do kids still suffer through seeing their music and style used for cheap television drama? I got many giggles out of the “punk” episodes of Quincy and CHiPS back in the day.


christopher 04.10.07 at 12:51 am

“A dangerous lifestyle?” The godfathers of emo (Fugazi) are all well adjusted vegans. Lead singer of seminal (now defunct) emo band Sunny Day Real Estate is a born-again. Sure, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) might seem a little dangerous to a parent, but that is mostly because he is a heartthrob libel to steal their impressionable daughters’ hearts.


Aaron Swartz 04.10.07 at 12:55 am

I think the video disappeared, Scott.


radek 04.10.07 at 1:04 am

Dude, Fugazi were second generation emo. The kids these days, no respect for history nor tradition.


Nick Kasoff 04.10.07 at 2:02 am

Wow, I haven’t seen small-town television in ages. That newscast looks like it was produced in somebody’s basement.


BillCinSD 04.10.07 at 2:08 am

While straight-edge (more or less started by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and later Fugazi) always seemed a little holier-than-thou, it’s still probably a better deal than the more standard heroin-chic rock.


harry b 04.10.07 at 2:10 am

You sure that the broadcast itself isn’t satire? “You hit the jackpot if you attempt suicide”? And the poor guy describing the way they cut their hair, as if he’s never heard of Veronica Lake. Oh, you’re not telling me he hasn’t?


William 04.10.07 at 4:44 am


That’s only until they beat the crap out of you for smoking a cigarette.


Matt F 04.10.07 at 5:17 am

From the quiz they show:

“Do you write poetry? Is it poorly written?”

“Do you wear sweaters? Are they tight? Are they used?”

The producers of this segment are rather daft.


Scott Martens 04.10.07 at 9:42 am

I guess I am now officially out of touch with America. I’ve never heard of emo before. However, I do recall in my distant and misspent youth that there were plenty of depressed teenagers who dressed funny, had weird hair, and wrote bad poetry, and that the music industry was already prepared to market to them. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


John Emerson 04.10.07 at 11:56 am

The godfathers of emo (Fugazi) are all well adjusted vegans. Lead singer of seminal (now defunct) emo band Sunny Day Real Estate is a born-again.

Those are good things?


Matt 04.10.07 at 2:14 pm

Would you really call Fugazi _emo_? I certainly would not have done so. I didn’t listen to much of their stuff after _In on the kill taker_ but none of it sounded at all like Emo to me, nor were they moping and whining all the time like the Emo crowd. (Maybe “waiting room” is a bit like that, but not most of it, I think.)


Lester Hunt 04.10.07 at 3:40 pm

Some of the intent of this behavior may be satirical, but I think a lot of the unhappiness it expresses is probably very real. And when you consider that the typical family is a sort of miniature paternalistic dictatorship, you don’t have to wonder for long where it comes from.


Scott McLemee 04.10.07 at 3:59 pm

Emo itself (whether as a music genre or a subculture) isn’t satirical. But it brings out the satirist in other people.

I can’t imagine Fugazi being proto-emo, though Husker Du certainly was.


Chris C 04.10.07 at 4:43 pm

Thanks for that. I wonder if local news producers take a “alarmism scale” quiz. Bonus points: closeup of the word “myspace”!


Ginger Yellow 04.10.07 at 4:46 pm

Christ on a bike. It’s hard to think of a music subculture less threatening to parents than emo.


spencer 04.10.07 at 4:56 pm

Wikipedia’s long-winded explanation of emo (I know, I know, but I had to start somewhere) actually does cite Fugazi as being proto-emo.

Which proves absolutely nothing.


John Emerson 04.10.07 at 5:14 pm

North Dakota is not an emo place. Did the video say anything about metal? They’re probably cool with metal. It’s just more North Dakotan, as Klosterman has shown.


Brad Kerr 04.10.07 at 6:35 pm

Embrace (MacKaye’s band after Minor Threat but before Fugazi) and Rites of Spring (Guy Picciotto’s band before Fugazi) might qualify as among the first emo bands. But Fugazi is too young to claim that mantle.


American Citizen 04.10.07 at 9:13 pm

Henry Jenkins co-taught one of my elective classes, it’s interesting to see him get a little attention outside of “Technology Review”.


Rich B. 04.10.07 at 9:24 pm

I would be more upset about this, but fortunately I am dead — having killed myself in a pique of depression after my Dungeons and Dragons character died in 1985, and then again during the autoerotic asphyxiation craze of 1996.


C. L. Ball 04.10.07 at 9:59 pm

“…hair that covers one eye” says the deputy with the baseball cap occluding both of his as he looks down.


C. L. Ball 04.10.07 at 10:03 pm

Re 23,

Brown-bag roulette, anyone?


Justin 04.11.07 at 12:06 am

Sometimes my hair falls across my face, and I can’t see the world at all.


BillCinSD 04.11.07 at 12:53 am

I thought The Smiths and Morrissey would have been among the intellectual forebearers of emo rather than Husker Du, but I’m more familiar with Promise Ring/Get Up Kids style Midwestern Emo, than the DC Dischord Emo.

I had a friend that was in a band that opened for Fugazi, and I almost had him talked into having their set be all Minor Threat covers just to mess with Ian macKaye, but in the end he didn’t go through with the idea.

It’s true getting punched for smoking does rather go past the bounds of holier than thou, William, I guess the second wave emo people in South Dakota were than the one’s you ran into.

I think the next expose will be about how Math Rock doesn’t teach fractions well.


Jen 04.11.07 at 12:58 am

I’m more terrified about the Trench Coat Mafia.

(Psst, they’re coming to get you!)

(Edith Piaf was the first emo singer.)


Scott Wood 04.11.07 at 1:37 am

No, no, you’re all wrong. Beethoven started the whole emo thing. Talk about cultural amnesia.


John Emerson 04.11.07 at 1:40 am

Come to think of it, my N.D. nieces are big Smashing Pumpkin fans. As I understand, S.P. are accepted by emo people, but some S.P. fans don’t want to be associated with emo.

On the other hand, my nieces are atypical Dakotans.


Amardeep 04.11.07 at 1:35 pm

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” rule of punk style evolution amongst teenagers. For most kids, the styles correspond to particular age groups that can be correlated to historical moments:

Punk (1976-7) — Age 12
Goth (1978-80) — Age 13
Hardcore punk (1981-4) — Age 14
Emo (1984-9) — Ages 15-17
Pop punk/ska (1990-2) — Ages 18-20
Rotating postmodern recycling of subcultural styles from 20 or more years ago (1992-present) — Ages 21-55

Some qualifications:

Emo is sometimes followed by Indie rock rather than Pop punk at age 18, depending on the specimen and how one interprets the cultural significance of Sonic Youth.

The “Drunk punk” genus (also known as “gutter punk”) and various metal genii are alternative evolutionary paths, which might be roughly analogous to the “invertebrate” category in the Linnaean schema. Japanese noise is really an entirely different Family, though it can sometimes be mistaken for a subspecies of punk.


Britton 04.11.07 at 5:15 pm

This is all so confusing. Could someone please draw me a venn diagram?


John Quiggin 04.14.07 at 5:05 am

Two words – Simple Plan


Daverz 04.15.07 at 4:50 am

re: 29, The Sturm und Drang movement in music goes back to Haydn and contemporaries:


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