Tell All Your Friends
Updated: Jun 8
Misogyny and Whitewashing in 2000’s Emo
One afternoon in 2010, my bandmates and I drove up to Poughkeepsie. That night, we would perform at a venue called The Loft.
We parked the car and, instruments in hand, climbed the grimy stairs to the venue. We were the first band to arrive. A light was on in a small office, across the room from the stage. I walked past and got a glimpse of someone sitting at a small desk. His head was down and his hair covered his eyes. He looked up.
Dread swallowed me.
Ryan was the frontman of a Poughkeepsie-based, pop-punk band that gained a ton of attention locally. We had mutual friends and had met once before. Arrogant and image-obsessed with an alarmingly inflated ego, he was now in charge of booking shows at The Loft.
He walked over to us, clapped his hands once and said, “what’s up, guys?” He surprised me with his casual, friendly greeting. He wore black skinny jeans and a band tee, almost identical to my bandmates. As he approached, Ryan shook everyone’s hands.
Everyone except for mine.
I felt like some random groupie just tagging along with the guys. I felt insignificant, like I wasn’t good enough to be where I was. Though I would open for one of my favorite bands that night, I emerged small, talentless, there by mistake. I pretended not to notice that he had completely snubbed me. I pretended to ignore the ugly, entitled smirk etched onto his face. I didn’t see what girls my age found so attractive about him.
That whole night, he never looked in my direction.
In 2010 I was a 16-year-old, Latina emo kid. Like all emo kids, I wholeheartedly rejected that term. My life revolved around pop-punk shows, wearing vans and skinny jeans exclusively, and getting piercings I knew would scare my parents.
My life also revolved around waking up at 5am on school days just to straighten my thick, frizzy hair. My image hinged on dark-black eyeliner and foundation too light for my skin tone. I saw images of what I wanted to look like on Myspace (before its demise) and in music videos. In 2006, I saw the music video for “Helena” by My Chemical Romance on MTV for the first time. In the video, a beautiful, bewitching dead woman with paper-white skin wakes up at her own funeral, only to dance around the family and friends mourning her. Black and red eye shadow brought out her lustrous blue eyes, an effect I desperately wished my brown eyes could mimic.
I’d been sucked in to the misogyny and whitewashing of the early-mid 2000’s emo subculture. Now, as an adult, I know former emo girls of color who went through the same things. Girls who practiced habitual hair straightening, smoldering the curls that they desperately wished away. Girls who longed for dead-looking, pale skin like the women on their favorite album covers. Girls who were disrespected, sometimes even assaulted at shows, by men eager to take advantage of them. As a result, we became more self-conscious of things that society had already told us were less than: our curls, our skin tone, our gender.
In his book “Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo,” Andy Greenwald says that early-2000’s emo kids tend to be middle class and white. This population often has the money and resources to meet their basic needs, so their major hardships are “emotions amplified for the typical teenager” (Greenwald). But who is left out of this definition? Who were the working-class, non-white girls of the subculture that the literature fails to acknowledge? If our white, middle-class, male counterparts were characterized by an identifiable set of challenges, then what transpires when you add racial, gender, and socioeconomic oppression to the mix? I have my own experience to offer.
Emo of the 2000’s was horrifically, violently misogynistic.
In her 2003 essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” Jessica Hopper shares concern for the young girls of her time aching to be part of the culture. She writes: “I watch these girls at emo shows more than I ever do the band...I wonder if this does it for them, if seeing these bands, these dudes on stage resonates and inspires them to want to pick up a guitar or drum sticks. Or if they just see this as something dudes do, because there are no girls, there is no them up there. I wonder if they are being thwarted by the FACT that there is no presentation of girls as participants, but rather, only as consumers—or if we reference the songs directly—the consumed” (Hopper). With zero representation of girls who looked like me, I felt defective, like my skills, my existence, my place within the music industry had no basis in reality.
When I started attending shows regularly at age fourteen, I felt like I finally had agency over my life. When a man in his late 20’s tried to hit on me at a show, I didn’t consider it gross or predatory. Amidst my feelings of inadequacy, of not being as “hardcore” as the guys, and not being as white as the girls in the music videos, maybe this meant I belonged. I realize now that in the hyper-gendered power dynamic that infiltrated the culture, a girl could belong only if a man decided she did.
Emo of the 2000’s was horrifically, violently misogynistic.
It’s weird to think, looking back, that I was the type of girl that Hopper describes in her testimony. I listened to bands like Brand New and Taking Back Sunday. I sang along to the lyrics about slutty girls breaking their hearts and, therefore, deserving to die. I was a girl of color in an emo band, defying the norms, but I didn’t see anyone like me on stage. I felt more shame than thrill when performing, like I was drawing negative attention to myself. I was “other,” but not in the way the culture prescribed.
Emo wasn’t always characterized by the sexism it so brutally adopted.
In “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave,” Jenn Pelly expands on this history. She notes that emo in the 80’s and 90’s was much more radical and progressive. In reference to early-2000’s emo, Pelly asks, “What caused the vindictive mall-punk 180? Most of all, I wonder why us girls couldn’t detect the harm in these lyrics as we shouted them back, plastered them on our profiles, carved them on our Converse with ballpoint pens. Maybe we internalized our own misogyny, saw those girls in the songs as Them, not Us.”
I never spoke to my bandmates about my feelings. I didn’t think they would understand where I was coming from. Instead, I normalized these feelings and experiences, learned to expect them. As Pelly suggests, I internalized the harmful messages that all the whitewashing and demeaning lyrics sent. I never fought them.
In 2002, Taking Back Sunday recorded “Cute Without the ‘E’ (Cut From The Team),” one of the most characteristically emo breakup songs ever written. The chorus embodies emo’s attitude toward women. Lead vocalist Adam Lazzara sings: “And will you tell all your friends. You’ve got your gun to my head. This all was only wishful thinking. This all was only wishful thinking.” There’s also some easy-to-miss background vocals. Lazzara cries, “All of this is all your fault,” and “She’ll destroy us all before she’s through and find a way to blame somebody else.” Early 2000’s emo songs depict women as malicious and destructive. Breakups don’t just result in sadness and longing; they’re violent crimes at the hands of a sadistic ex-girlfriend. The lyrics capture the narcissistic, black-and-white mindset of emo music and culture: women perpetrate horrific injustices, while the men’s bleeding hearts are ripped out of their chests and beat to a bloody, devastated pulp. These lyrics belie a harsh reality; the men who gained fame and status through these lyrics often abused their power.
Jesse Lacey of Brand New is a known predator. Lacey groomed at least two young girls who sought belonging in the scene. If the 15 and 16-year-old girls didn’t comply with his demand for nudes, he threatened to ignore them the next time his band was in town (Yoo). In 2001, he recorded “Jude Law and A Semester Abroad,” where he literally wished a girl dead because she studied abroad: “And even if her plane crashes tonight, she'll find some way to disappoint me, By not burning in the wreckage, Or drowning at the bottom of the sea.” To Lacey, women are only worth what he can get out of them.
In 2008, Hit the Lights recorded “Drop the Girl,” a song about “dropping” a girl, both figuratively and literally, to her certain death: “Drop the girl, she's not worth the time. She's wasted on her back dragging other boys into her lies. And you know she's no good for you. She'd sink lower than a body in the Hudson could ever do.” And later in the song, “Drop the girl from the highest building.” In the fucked-up logic of this toxic, misogynist brand of music, “lying” to boys warrants death.
Nonetheless, I sang along with passion and admiration. I screamed when Hit the Lights played at The Loft on my 16th birthday. I lost my Converse in the mosh pit during that very song.
Looking back, I wonder how I would respond to Ryan now. If I would shake his hand myself, or say I felt slighted. Or maybe just tell him to fuck off. Ryan upheld a culture that normalized and incentivised diminishing women. Women in emo never lived up to men’s expectations and desires. We were figments of their narcissism, tools used to elevate their egos. As a woman of color with years of practice, I have learned not to internalize society’s toxic messages. That being said, I still listen to the emo music I grew up with. I’m not trying to cancel emo, or even silence it. We must name the ramifications of villainizing the oppressed, so as the cycle repeats, again and again, we know it has a name.
Correctional Edit, 06/08/2020: A significant introductory portion was missing from the original article. This has been added in order to maintain a consistent narrative. Additionally, a photo of the author has been credited to the photographer.
“Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers and Emo” by Andy Greenwald
“Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” by Jessica Hopper
Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave by Jenn Pelly
Two Alleged Victims of Jesse Lacey Detail Years of Sexual Exploitation of Minors by Noah Yoo