Exploring Emo Subculture

“Emo always meant emotional. Any kind of art or music should be emotional. If it’s not, then it’s pretty much just a jingle selling bleach or pizza.” — Frank Iero

“Emo” is an abbreviation for emotional. As with most entertainment-focused movements, music, art, and fashion comprise Emo’s most visible side. Musically, it is defined as, “a style of rock music resembling punk but having more complex arrangements and lyrics that deal with more emotional subjects.” According to research by the Center for Mental Health in Schools, Emo is commonly characterized as “emphasizing emotional or personal turbulence, behaviors, attitudes, and values. Popular themes are ‘despair, depression, heartbreak, and self-loathing.’”[1]

The “emo look” is characterized by tight jeans, tight t-shirts, black hair, eyeliner, and long bangs. The common stereotype of an emo follower is someone who is overly emotional or angsty, although as with all stereotypes, there are many exceptions. Emos are often ostracized, and research has shown that this group is subject to an increased risk of homophobic attacks and bullying due to their “effeminate” look[2]. There are also concerns that this group may be more likely to engage in self-harm[3].

Emo culture has also been the target of much negative press. For example, in 2006, the Daily Mail warned parents of an “emo cult” which encouraged self-harm. Following the suicide of a 13-year-old girl from the UK who was a fan of the popular emo band, My Chemical Romance, they ran stories warning of an “Emo” suicide cult” rock band.”

While it is undoubtedly true that certain parts of emo culture explore themes of self-harm and mental health, it remains debatable whether it is life imitating art or art imitating life. Rates of mental health conditions are at an all-time high and have been steadily rising for years, though they are not a new phenomenon. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in six youth aged 6-17 experiences a mental health condition in the United States[4], and recent studies have said that between 13 and 50% of adolescents in the USA have engaged in some sort of self-harm[5].

A great deal of the controversy surrounding emo culture concerns whether it encourages self-harm and morbid self-reflection or helps people who suffer from these pre-existing conditions to express themselves and cope with life. In her academic research paper titled, “Emo Saved My Life: Challenging the Mainstream Discourse of Mental Illness around My Chemical Romance,” Dr Rosemary Lucy states, “[m]y Chemical Romance fans’ willingness to discuss depression has been misinterpreted by their detractors, and I offer instead a positive story of the therapeutic benefits of emo music”[6].

Although some emo lyrics seem focused on despair, it could be argued that they are a constructive form of self-expression when taken in context. Because feeling that one is connected to others is one of the key predictors for mental health recovery[7], these lyrics could be considered an attempt to reach out to others. This could offer comfort since mental health issues, especially during teenage years, can be frightening and isolating experiences. Stigma stops people from speaking out and being heard, and the further derision of emo music’s expression of this isolation is an extension of the already detrimental public stigma.

Emo is not a new phenomenon, and bands have been making emotionally-charged music for many years. The emo subculture’s unique factor was how it spread online, where it experienced a boom in popularity around 2006 with the advent of websites such as MySpace and Tumblr[8]. This allowed teens a platform to share their photos and blogs with people all over the world.

However, many were alarmed when certain emo platforms were thought to be used to promote self-harm and suicidal behavior[9]. As alarming as this may sound, there is also a positive side to being part of online communities – many people who engage in self-harm have found that these communities are safe places where they can talk about their issues without fear of ridicule[10]. Self-harm is highly stigmatized, and this often leads to feelings of shame[11]. The anonymity of the internet can benefit users in this respect.

To conclude, teen movements often seem strange to older generations. A large part of any youth movement’s appeal is its difference from what their parents did. However, despite much adverse media reporting, any culture that encourages young people to talk about their mental health can be seen as a positive and progressive force.

To learn more about the services offered by Heather R. Hayes & Associates and/or to become trained as a trauma-informed transporter, please call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com.


[1] Adelman, Howard, and Linda Taylor. “The Center For Mental Health In Schools”. Smhp.Psych.Ucla.Edu, http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/youth/emo.pdf.

[2] Grillo, Ioan. “Mexico’s Emo-Bashing Problem”. TIME.Com, 2008, http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1725839,00.html#:~:text=It%20is%20the%20conservative%20side,15%20or%2016%20years%20old.&text=In%20the%20lead%2Dup%20the,forums%20and%20TV%20music%20shows.

[3] Scott, Lydia, and Anna Chur-Hansen. “The mental health literacy of rural adolescents: Emo subculture and SMS texting.” Australasian psychiatry : bulletin of Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists vol. 16,5 (2008): 359-62. doi:10.1080/10398560802027328

[4] “Mental Health By The Numbers | NAMI: National Alliance On Mental Illness”. Nami.Org, 2021, https://www.nami.org/mhstats.

[5] Peterson, John et al. “Nonsuicidal Self injury in Adolescents.” Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)) vol. 5,11 (2008): 20-6.

[6] “Emo Saved My Life: Challenging The Mainstream Discourse Of Mental Illness Around My Chemical Romance”. 2011, pp. 143-153. BRILL, doi:10.1163/9781848880573_016. Accessed 4 Jan 2021.

[7] Newman, Michelle G, and Nur Hani Zainal. “The value of maintaining social connections for mental health in older people.” The Lancet. Public health vol. 5,1 (2020): e12-e13. doi:10.1016/S2468-2667(19)30253-1

[8] Simon, Leslie, and Trevor Kelley. Everybody Hurts. Harper Entertainment, 2014.

[9] Trnka, Radek et al. “Understanding Death, Suicide And Self-Injury Among Adherents Of The Emo Youth Subculture: A Qualitative Study”. Death Studies, vol 42, no. 6, 2017, pp. 337-345. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/07481187.2017.1340066. Accessed 4 Jan 2021.

[10] Williams, A Jess et al. “”They aren’t all like that”: Perceptions of clinical services, as told by self-harm online communities.” Journal of health psychology vol. 25,13-14 (2020): 2164-2177. doi:10.1177/1359105318788403

[11] McDougall, Tim et al. Helping Children And Young People Who Self-Harm. Routledge, 2010.

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