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When We Were Young: Why Emo Never Really Dies

With the announcement of the 2000s alt-rock nostalgia rollercoaster music festival, here’s a look back at why the emo era became a pillar of millennial pop culture

Riddhi Chakraborty Jan 22, 2022

My Chemical Romance during promotions for 'The Black Parade.' Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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When I was in my early teens, I discovered My Chemical Romance. I was chubby, certainly not pretty, frizzy, and too young to change my looks and blossom into who I wanted to be. My taste in music was deemed outlandish, as were my dreams of one day working in the music industry–most of my classmates wanted to become doctors or engineers or perhaps take over their family businesses. The future I saw for myself was different, and for a long time I was ashamed of it because I was told by many peers that I wouldn’t make it.

Therefore, I found refuge in My Chemical Romance’s brand of not giving a fuck. Their music created a sense of togetherness forged by being outcasts, and an assurance that loneliness is part of the journey to becoming your true self. There was frustration, sadness, anger and victory in their lyricism and for a 13-year-old growing up in conservative South India, it was freedom. MCR opened the doors to several of my favorite alt-rock bands from the era: German rock quartet Tokio Hotel was another life-changing discovery, as were Paramore, Finnish acts The Rasmus and HIM, Avenged Sevenfold, Bring Me The Horizon, Panic! At the Disco and Black Veil Brides. I remember painstakingly combing through Limewire–viruses be damned– to download each (pirated) track onto my iPod, which I still have and cherish to this day. (To any of the artists reading this, I apologize. I bought your albums the moment I was old enough and could make my own money.)

I’d already loved Avril Lavigne since her debut in 2002 with Let Go (it was in fact the first album I ever bought, and my awakening to the fact that I was different) but I truly embraced the world of pop emo punk when I came across MCR’s “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” by chance on YouTube in 2005. I still remember that rush of comfort while reading the words in the movie trailer-esque music video: “If you ever felt alone/ If you ever felt rejected/ If you ever felt confused/ If you ever felt lost/ If you ever felt anxious/ If you ever felt wronged…Be prepared to feel revenge.” For me, revenge was about achieving every single one of my dreams and proving everybody around me wrong. Soon after, MCR dropped The Black Parade in 2006 and it felt like I had finally found my community, my safe space of existence in this world, and I truly understood what makes music so powerful. It was the album that fueled my drive to become a music journalist and still remains my favorite record of all-time.

This initial discovery period was before the time of HD and 4K, when YouTube itself was a fledgling of a website. I dove into the gloriousness of emo culture with 480p music videos, a desire to steal my mom’s eyeliner, use markers to draw skull and heart ‘tattoos’ on my skin, and straighten my curls into the signature emo sweep. These were the heydays of MySpace and Tumblr, adding an abundance of ‘xoxoxo’ or ‘<3’ to your profile name, and befriending fellow Internet scene-kids who you’d completely forget about in five years. It was a glorious time and despite the loneliness and imposter syndrome in school, I was happy, cocooned in my emo web of alt-rock, eyeliner and black hoodies. As time passed and EDM took over mainstream music in the 2010s, the era ended but I remained a scene-kid inside, forever clutching my copy of The Black Parade close to my heart.

When I saw the ‘When We Were Young’ (‘WWWY’) lineup poster drop on Twitter earlier this week, I thought it was a prank. Seeing all the logos of the bands I grew up with–many of whom have broken up, reunited, changed lineups or gone on different paths since the 2000s–brought forth not just a wave of nostalgia, but also a fog of disbelief. In fact, it looked like something a scene kid would have put up on MySpace, a list of all the bands we loved, emo culture defined by a flood of logos, crammed onto a background of the signature black and pink combo we were all obsessed with. The mystery around the festival’s sudden appearance had my colleagues stunned as well, and we immediately had a thousand questions, the first being: ‘How?’ This isn’t the first edition of ‘When We Were Young,’ but it definitely is the most ambitious. 65 bands in one day seems impossible–in fact, this might be a Fyre Fest Part Two in the making– yet I pre-registered for the show while my brain scrambled between panic and thrill. (Spoiler alert: it sold out in the blink of an eye and I have been waitlisted.)

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While we do not know the ‘how’ of it all, and what exactly is going to happen when October 22nd rolls around, we do know why there was a need for something like ‘When We Were Young.’ Right back on the brim of 2020, we began to see an emo/punk revival of sorts begin to take shape in the pop-saturated global music scene. Blink-182’s Travis Barker made a glorious pop-punk return on Machine Gun Kelly’s 2019 track “I Think I’m Okay.” This in turn kicked off a fascinating chain of events where millennial and Gen-Z musicians began to revisit Y2K culture–Willow Smith recruited Barker and queen of pop-punk Lavigne for her record Lately I Feel Everything, while Olivia Rodrigo channelled Paramore on “Good 4 U” and South Korean artist LØREN stepped away from K-pop production to debut with an alt-rock single, “Empty Trash.” Today, as we enter 2022, we have ‘WWWY’ on the way. A lot of people asked me why this was all happening now, why are pop-punk, alt-rock and emo culture back in such a big way, but the answer really is quite simple. Life was miserable for a lot of us millennials when we first discovered these genres, and they served as balms to our pain. As we entered the era of Covid-19 and the world was thrust into loss and devastation, there was a need for familiarity, comfort and reassurance. We sat isolated in our bedrooms against our wills, suddenly scared and angry teenagers once again. So we turned back to the voices and music that rescued us the first time around.

As the bands began sharing the ‘WWWY’ poster on their own social media accounts and reality seeped in, there was a team discussion at Rolling Stone India about the artists and eras that changed our lives. “I feel like a lot of these artists are still definitely relevant in their own lanes and circuits, but the lasting success of artists like Paramore, Panic! At the Disco (conspicuously missing!) and others show that emo was more than just a phase for some of us,” shared my fellow Assistant Editor, Anurag Tagat. “To some, it was about the hair and makeup and the persona you could project; to others it was a safe space. To a lot of us, I think it was great music. Some of it doesn’t stand the test of time, no doubt, but a lot of it still does. It’s probably why these bands are still around showing us a good time.” He recalls looping emo, pop-punk, hardcore and their offshoots around 2003-2006 on MP3s, his obsession with Hot Topic and how, despite the passage of time, most of the artists performing at ‘WWWY’ are still on his ‘must watch live’ list, from top billed acts like MCR, Paramore and Bring Me the Horizon to Thursday, A Day To Remember and Four Year Strong. 

While our Staff Writer Divyansha Dongre wasn’t an emo kid, there was still a sense of familiarity that comes attached with a few of the artists. “I am more of a pop enthusiast, but a lot of the acts on the ‘WWWY’ roster balanced my musical palate and continue to do so–especially Avril Lavigne and Paramore,” she says. “I often find myself looping 2000s pop and rock tracks during the weekends and have noticed a striking difference in the nostalgia each evokes.” It’s a reminder of the edgy, angsty teen you thought you were or the resident emo kid with band tees and postered walls– either way, she explains that it feels like home. 

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For our Executive Editor Nirmika Singh, pop provided that home. “I watched Backstreet Boys on stage for the first time ever in 2019, and that gig remains one of my favorite music memories of all time,” she told us. “In that moment it didn’t matter that I had long overgrown the Boys’ prosaic pop aesthetic, or the fact that their oh-so-1999 all-white costumes look outrageously silly now. All I saw was five top-rate stars — still together as a ‘boy band’ 26 years after they debuted — playing a kickass gig. The sold-out show’s major attendees were women in their early thirties to late forties (the band’s original fan base) and their Gen-Z kids. What a sight!” Her experience is proof that when an artist makes an impact, our love for them never dies. The world keeps turning, we get a little older and a new generation will eventually take our place, but the music and its message still stands strong. We’re expected to move on from pop culture ‘fads,’ to grow up and take on adult responsibilities, but for a lot of us it’s impossible to completely walk away from the artists who were once our salvation. 

As our team’s conversation went on, I realized we all ended up together here because of a common foundation of music built in the late Nineties and early 2000s. Sure, not everyone was part of the emo community, but it’s that same search for a safe place in music that molded us into the people we are now. There’s a sense of gratefulness we feel towards these artists that gave us a way to escape the torture that was our shitty teen years, and I’ve learned it’s never a one-time phenomenon. 

The second time a generation of musicians saved me, were those who belonged to the K-pop industry. It’s actually a pretty common link a lot of us who were emo-kids in the 2000s share, as explained by journalist Biju Belinky’s brilliant 2019 piece for VICE, and I think it’s because the emo in us never died. We live for poetry, for drama, expression and above all emo(tion,) and K-pop embodies a lot of these characteristics. In a brilliant turn of events, pop-punk is seeping into K-pop right now, and it’s the most wonderful blend of my worlds. I’m pretty proud I belong to both eras, and the shame that I fostered as a teenager about being my true self has completely disappeared thanks to these artists. If not for them, I don’t know if I would have made it to where I am. I dedicated my life to music because it’s what saved me, strengthened me and pushed me to forge a path none of my bullies from back in the day could hope to walk on. 

When I look back at teenage Riddhi, I wish I could assure her that not being okay was the key to achieving every one of the dreams she had. She wanted to interview musicians for a living because emo culture had inspired her to do so. Today, as a tattooed, blonde, music journalist writing this piece for Rolling Stone, I feel I’ve finally done that girl justice. 

So now it’s 2022. The folks behind ‘When We Were Young’ are about to unleash millennial chaos in Las Vegas, and the Emo Renaissance has officially begun. From my part, I’m happy to report that I’m (still) not okay (I promise.)

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