A teenage girl is found dead in her bedroom. The culprit? Emo, a death-obsessed youth subculture. But while some teens claim emo romanticizes mental illness, others call it therapy.
In May of 2008, the parents of a thirteen-year-old girl named Hannah Bond returned to their home in Kent, England to find their daughter hanging from her bunk bed. A popular student with no history of mental illness, Bond’s untimely death quickly became fodder for British tabloids. Yet rather than focus on Bond’s social and emotional life, reporters at the UK’s Daily Mail and Telegraph were most interested in the contents of her iPod. Bond’s decision, news sources alleged, was not prompted by a recent break-up, family conflict, or undiagnosed psychiatric issue—instead, the tabloids blamed her suicide on the black-clad, angst-ridden emo bands that she and her friends idolized.
The term “emo” was coined in the mid 80’s to describe an offshoot of punk music characterized by melancholy, introspective lyrics and unabashed displays of emotion. Originally termed “emotional hardcore,” the genre—which includes Rites of Spring, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Jimmy Eat World, among other artists—shares punk’s raw sound and disdain for conservative norms. Yet while punk artists directed their frustrations outwards, denouncing authority figures and their conformist followers, emo explores more intimate personal battles such as heartbreak, depression, addiction, and abuse.
As the genre grew increasingly popular in the late 90’s and early 2000s, it developed into a full-fledged youth subculture. Nearly two decades after the movement first emerged, emo is no longer merely a genre of music—it’s also a style of dress, a set of values, and, to some extent, a way of life. Yet if emo is a lifestyle, it takes an uncanny interest in death. From the requisite all-black wardrobe to the dissonant riffs and tortured vocals that characterize emo music, the subculture is fixated on mortality, destruction, and inner pain.
Like other so-called emo teens, Bond dressed in black, caked on dark eye makeup, and listened to My Chemical Romance. She also cut herself—a habit that worried her parents, but which she explained—according to the Telegraph—was part of her emo “initiation.” After her suicide, both Bond’s family and the coroner who handled her case expressed concern that the death-obsessed culture that had prompted her to lacerate her wrists had also driven her to end her life. Pointing to My Chemical Romance’s popular album “The Black Parade,” the Telegraph suggested that Bond had been seduced by the album’s “glamorous” portrayal of death, eager to join her own “Black Parade” in a cult-like fervor.
Claims that emo glamorizes depression and self-harm aren’t entirely unfounded. “When people hear ‘emo,’ they think of a person who cuts themselves and wears all black and is sad all the time,” explained Aisling Steel, a 20-year-old Massachusetts resident who became interested in the subculture in the seventh grade. “When I called myself emo, it was for those three reasons.”
Much of this image comes directly from emo music itself. Comments about self-hate, cutting, and suicide that would put any psychiatrist on edge are not only accepted in the genre, they define it—the chorus of Hawthorne Heights’ emo anthem “Ohio is For Lovers,” includes the lyrics, “cut my wrists and black my eyes.” And “The Killing Lights,” a 2006 track by A.F.I, opens with a similarly self-deprecating image, “Five A.M. on the bathroom floor from the night before / Do you find me dreadful?”
Coming from popular artists– many of whom gained near-iconic status– phrases like these could easily be interpreted as promoting self-destructive behavior. “It romanticizes mental illness,” one college student, Eva Grant, said of the genre’s over-the-top rage and angst. Even so, the claim that emo music is somehow brainwashing teens into cutting and killing themselves confuses correlation and causation. There’s no denying that self-harm is a part of emo culture; arm warmers—which conveniently conceal self-inflicted wrist wounds—are as much of a wardrobe staple as black hoodies, band tees, and skinny jeans. But was Bond really just the innocent victim of a toxic, cult-like cultural movement? Or was she drawn to emo precisely because she was already grappling with difficult psychological issues?
No one was forcing Bond to listen to “The Black Parade.” Rather, she sought out the album– and the subculture more generally– because something about it compelled her. And she was not alone. For many emo fans, the introspective genre offers an opportunity to make sense of complicated emotions. “I was trying to figure out what was going on in my own head,” reflected Grant, who considered herself emo in middle school. Later, she learned she had been coping with an underlying anxiety disorder. Steel similarly noted that many young people struggling with anxiety and depression turn to the subculture because “they don’t understand their own feelings.”
This was certainly true for me. In 2008, at the time of Bond’s death, I was also thirteen, and listening to much of the same music that she was. Having tried, and failed, to fit in with my Abercrombie-and-Ugg-clad peers, I was desperate for a way to define myself, and unsure how to go about finding one. With its all-black uniform, dark makeup, and arts-focused culture, emo offered me a much-needed sense of identity. Yet for other reasons, too, the subculture drew me in. A geeky teen on the lower rungs of the middle school social ladder, I found these bands’ shameless displays of anger, sorrow, and insecurity both cathartic and validating. Like many seventh-graders, I was awkward and lonely, as unhappy with myself as with the peers and adults who seemed to overlook my loneliness. I was depressed. And I was tired of pretending otherwise.
In the raw, anguished performances of the musicians I came to idolize, I found a kind of release; an outlet for the angst and frustration that I’d perceived for so long as mere weakness. It was refreshing to find a space where sadness was not merely acknowledged but embraced, where speaking—or singing, or screaming— about internal conflict wasn’t derided as strange or frightening, but was valued. Like a kind of musical psychotherapy, emo artists’ dark ballads taught me that sadness and anger need not be concealed, that expressing and working through difficult emotions can be far more helpful, in the long run, than forcing a smile.
Most importantly, for the first time, I wasn’t alone. Here were highly successful artists voicing, without inhibition, the same anxieties, sorrows, and insecurities that I had long been ashamed of; and here was a community that understood and supported them. For Amir Elfakih, a college student who still considers himself a fan of the genre, this sense of empathy and solidarity is precisely what makes emo music and culture so compelling. “It’s understanding to how you feel, and makes you feel like less of an outcast,” he explained. Steel shared a similar perspective. “Some people feel completely alone, and emo music is the only thing that helps them feel like there’s someone else who knows their pain,” she told me.
In covering Bond’s death, reporters stressed, again and again, how little reason she seemed to have to end her life. On the outside, Bond had it all—she was an attractive, upper-middle class white girl, a diligent student who cared about her friends and loved her family. The only suggestion that anything might be wrong came from her wardrobe and music library. Yet the very notion that depression needs an excuse is largely what emo—both as a genre of music, and as a broader cultural movement—opposes. If there was one lesson to be learned from these black-clad young people, it was that unhappiness does not need to be justified; irrational sorrow is not something to be ashamed of. From a contemporary psychological perspective, this is actually a very progressive viewpoint. Once dismissed as character flaws, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and addiction are now widely understood to be diseases that are hardly more rational or predictable than contracting the flu.
Whether or not emo actually contributed to Bond’s suicide remains an open question. Still, it’s worth noting that one of the largest mental health-related organizations—To Write Love On Her Arms—thrives off support from the angsty subculture. The group, which is committed to raising awareness about depression, self-harm, and suicide, sells its trademark T-shirts and wristbands at Hot Topic, and has sponsored several emo concerts and festivals including Vans Warped Tour. If emo condones behaviors like cutting, it is equally committed to helping teens overcome them.
Since 2008, I’ve long ditched the shaggy bangs and band tees that once defined my wardrobe. After all, emo appeals to a young demographic for a reason, and once the initial waves of teen angst passed, the dissonant, tormented anthems I’d once listened to on repeat lost their appeal. Looking back on those black-clad, smoky-eyed years, I can only be grateful to have lived them out and moved on—something the still thirteen-year-old Bond will never do.