We’re suffering a plague of emos. Knots of whimpering teenage poets have rendered many of our streets and malls impassable. All the public toilets are clogged with bloodstained tissues used as they cut themselves. Their moping and sighing drowns out our sports commentary and global warming alarms. And every radio station blares their shrieking suicidal melodramas, 24/7.
Or so I understand. Personally I’ve never met an emo. Nor have I seen one. Nor do I have any solid evidence that they actually exist. And yet in the twelve months since the term sprang unbidden into our vocabulary, they’ve been subject the sort of obsessive, intense, casually hostile media scrutiny usually reserved for Republican presidential administrations and Paris Hilton. And frankly, as an intellectual historian – someone whose job involves placing exactly when, where and how ideas and movements arose and developed – it’s starting to bore me.
Of course, based on what I’ve seen the term used to describe, I know what an emo is. An emo is basically anyone who has black hair and doesn’t follow the Super XIV. Beyond this membership of the subculture appears to consist primarily of running an account on a social networking website. Which, it seems, pretty much everybody under about 30 is doing. My siblings and I run five between the four of us. Ergo, if we want emos to exist as a distinct subculture, we have to differentiate them from the great bulk of us who just can’t think of anything more useful to do with our computers.
Thoughts immediately turns to the emo ‘look’. Based on the incessant caricatures, this appears to consist of wearing predominantly dark clothing, buttoning on wristbands and dying part of your hair an artificial colour. Pretty much every supposed subculture – Goths, punks, bogans, shredders et al – does this; do we really need to mint a new one because eyeliner is back in fashion? Besides, the clothes don’t make the man. Oscar Wilde is a more clearly-definable proponent of Gothicism than The Cure. These days the people I know who spend the most time snivelling about how Nobody Understands Them devote considerable effort to ostentatiously vicious denigration of emo-rock.
Which, since we’re on the topic, certainly tries to cater to a set target audience, that being “all the boys who the dancefloor didn’t love, and all the girls whose lips couldn’t move fast enough…” – that is, people who Didn’t Fit In At High School. But if the art, literature and music of the last thirty years have taught us anything, it’s that nobody much did. I’ve witnessed numerous arguments between people competing to demonstrate that they were the one who had the most trouble adjusting to fourth form, and much of our recent cultural output has pandered to such self-mythology. And besides, no emo-rock group has yet come up with a lyric more self-absorbed, maudlin and pathetic than:
When the light’s out it’s less dangerous
Here we are now – entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now – entertain us
And that from a cultural property whose citation as brilliant and wonderful is so frequent it’s starting to get boring in and of itself.
Then there’s this business of cutting yourself. So far as I know, two of my friends do it, and neither are called emos. One is called sick and is currently in residential psychiatric care. The other has just about managed to keep it a secret so far. Both are chirpy, gregarious, colourfully-dressed, popular girls cracking under the strain of insecurities you wouldn’t otherwise suspect – exactly the kind of people, as I understand it, who’re most likely to get up to such mischief. Cutters don’t advertise. They don’t hang out together and certainly don’t have a uniform. And if it’s okay to giggle dismissively about at the symptoms of an illness, where does that leave John Kirwin’s depression ads?
This could be a regional thing. We don’t seem to have emos here in Dunedin, although I’m informed Wellington is crawling with them. Of course, many of the people who say so also insist on describing the pointlessly broad, irrelevant Scarfies as a documentary, so who knows?
Ultimately, the term “emo” seems to belongs to that group of terms and expressions – like “just wrong”, “fascist”, and “stupid Americans” – that have achieved currency more because they’re fun to say than because they actually mean anything. The touchstones of the subculture either don’t exist or are things every man and his modem are doing anyway. This ain’t a scene, it’s a widespread societal conceit. There are no such things as emos. Suggesting there are indicates intellectual sloppiness and mean-spirited slavishness to fashion. This is historical misconception in utero.
I don’t know when the trend for calling people this name will end. All I know is that in 2027, when people start throwing costume parties themed after this decade, three quarters of the guests will turn up as emos. How long it will take intellectual historians to put that record straight is anybody’s guess. After all, we’re still busy sorting out the mess you guys have made of the 1960s.