From Rites of Spring to Olivia Rodrigo: How emo conquered pop

Singer Olivia Rodrigo attends the Billboard Women in Music Awards at YouTube Theater in Inglewood. Picture: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Singer Olivia Rodrigo attends the Billboard Women in Music Awards at YouTube Theater in Inglewood. Picture: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Published Sep 25, 2023


By Chris Richards

There's no home test kit where Olivia Rodrigo can do a cheek swab and find out she's three percent Rites of Spring, but if you believe in musical genealogy, there is a line you can trace from the hardcore punk of Washington, D.C., circa 1984 to the summit of the current Billboard albums chart. It's strange, but it's real, and no matter how hard anyone fights it, everyone keeps calling it "emo."

The word still confuses people because it continues to generate meanings.

Emo began as a style of music, which became an attitude, which became an identity, which became a stereotype, which became a slight, which is why the term "emo" now serves as pop culture shorthand for any hue of interior teenage sadness.

But before all of that, emo was a sound, originally a hyper-expressive idiom of high-decibel hardcore punk, but now so profoundly mutated across the decades, its only recognisable features reside in the voice (melodies sung as if they're too big for your mouth), which is how emo has found its way into so many of today's most eager and exhilarated pop songs, including Rodrigo's.

As music, emo has a four-decade history, and it looks something like this: Smack in the middle of Reagan's '80s, a young hardcore band called Rites of Spring arrives at a vulnerable, cathartic new sound that the punk scene - dizzy and grasping for words - dubs "emotional hardcore."

In the 1990s, a new class of bands pick up emo like it's a torch that deserves carrying, all while trying to dodge the stigma of the word itself.

Then, as a new century fires up, tons of fame-hungry bands pounce on it, polish its lofty sadness to a gleam, then roll it out to Warped Tour, to MTV, to Myspace, to Hot Topic, and ultimately, to the bank. In the 2010s, emo gets both smaller (waves of principled revival bands) and bigger (rap stars who worship Paramore).

Now it's 2023, and the likes of Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift and Rodrigo - whose emo-tinted new album "Guts" just went No. 1 - have funnelled trace elements of this underground noise into the hits that perfume the top of the world.

Instead of thinking of emo as a style, maybe we should think of it an adaptation.

Even at its most introspective, introverted or solipsistic, this music has always been a response to the tumultuous everything-else that exists outside our heads.

Emo is an explicit recognition of humanity in a world that wants to strip it away. And that world keeps changing.

The standard retort: Isn't all hardcore - all music! - emotional? But more than a misdirected insult, emo was a misnomer.

Yes, all music is emotional, but it isn't always vulnerable, and the unprecedented self-exposure of Rites of Spring is what made the band's songs feel like a form of metaphysical truth-telling, an almost violent exteriorization of the human spirit.

Someone could have just as easily called it "soul." But emo was still hardcore, and hardcore was still punk, and this raw, new expression of the innermost self required a certain courage that ran parallel to the anti-conformity of being a punk in the first place.

And while those waves didn't wash emo back onto mainstream shores, a new generation of rappers did soon after. Lil Uzi Vert eagerly cited the influence of Paramore and Fall Out Boy.

Which means emo might be a Mobius strip, even though you can jot down its lines of succession on the back of a napkin. The Hated influences Sunny Day Real Estate. Mineral pantomimes Sunny Day and the Hated. Paramore covers Sunny Day Real Estate. Lil Peep raps over a Mineral sample.

If emo's immense breadth does actually contain every sensation generated by surviving this world's bigness and brutality, it also contains a very specific one: Feeling like you matter, but knowing that you might not.