In high school, I spent a weekend in Chicago to see a grindcore concert. My dad had planned to join me but inevitably decided that his yacht rock sensibility didn’t quite match grindcore’s relentless desire to invoke auditory highs and lows through power tool texturing and lyrical obscenity. . My older brother became a comer instead, and despite being by far the most outspoken member of the family against my musical tastes, I could ignore his lingering questioning looks in exchange for access to free beer.
We headed to the venue, an unassuming bar whose building was canvassed by the L train tracks. The main section met my expectations for a dive bar in Chicago; Bear props lined the walls, painted pipes protruded from the ceiling, and flannel-clad patrons stared at a few broken flat-screens depicting the Bulls being run over.
Obviously, it wasn’t the gig. For this we had to walk to the end of the main room, where a single discreet door badly muffled the crashing bass from the other side. Upon entering, I was greeted by a wave of black. The actual gig demographic was quite diverse, a pleasant discovery given how insular grindcore and adjacent genres can be. But the fashion was uniform. All the clothes were black. All makeup was black. Even despite basic probabilities suggesting otherwise, most of the hair was also black.
When I looked at myself, I was shocked: black pants, a black long-sleeved shirt, and the blackest pair of shoes I owned (a broken pair of Nike Free Runs). I didn’t remember choosing this outfit, yet there I was, completely blending into the crowd. My brother stuck out like a sore thumb next to me in his bright orange puffy vest.
I asked myself several questions: what, in the genre, allows him to create and diffuse his own style? Can style predict gender? What kind of individual power does the artist have to propagate his own style to the masses?
When it comes to emo music, one of the most notorious convergences of the genre and fashion, complications are already cropping up. A point of confusion is that there is a key distinction between emo as a genre and emo as a subculture. As a genre, emo dates back to the mid-’80s, when Rites of Spring took the gritty sensibility of hardcore to a more emotional place. In the 90s and early 2000s, the aggressiveness of the emo genre waned as the melodrama escalated. Bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring became leading innovators in this turn to melody, and the equally raspy, whiny intonation of singers Jeremy Enigk and Davey von Bohlen captured the hearts of lonely teenagers and emotions everywhere.
At this point, while rapidly gaining popularity, emo was still technically in the underground. Where the genre went from here is where many older fans claim it became less about music and more about style and culture. Think: Jimmy Eat World and My Chemical Romance, skinny jeans and chain wallets. The confusion between goth and emo was never greater than at this point in the 2000s, when black eyeliner and gaunt skin tone dominated the fan base. This confusion is slightly more passable if you just consider the design side of things. However, in terms of musical style, there is quite a stark contrast. Gothic music focuses on darkness as its main theme, with its roots in post punk. Bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division and The Cure are considered the ancestors of gothic rock. Meanwhile, emo is much more interested in expressing suppressed emotion, which inevitably sounds faster and brighter than goth.
What’s fascinating is that emo fashion looked completely different in its origins. Back in the 90s era, looking into a crowd at a Jawbreaker concert revealed not a sea of Gerard Ways but a sea of Buddy Hollys. Paula Rath was one of the first to invent this fashion sense, calling it geek chic. It was all about looking modest: thick-rimmed glasses, tucked-in button-up shirts, standard jeans and Converse sneakers. The reality was that, for the first two decades of its existence, emo was a bunch of strangers trying to express their loneliness to the world.
What changed in the mid to late 2000s was that being a foreigner became popular in its own right. More importantly, this type of screaming has become profitable. Major record labels got involved. MTV started promoting the genre like crazy, with Unplugged performances. The bulletin boards began to fill up. Much to the horror of older fans, emo had become a fad.
Then he completely disappeared. Suddenly, dressing up as a second-rate Edward Scissorhands and playing the opening of “The Black Parade” whenever a piano was present was no longer being treated like a joke everyone was into. The genre’s popularity got too close to the sun, and many of its strongest proponents had already left the scene. Much worse, emo was now “cringe”. You could say that as the music became more and more incidental to the culture, the culture became less and less stable. A building without a foundation is rarely self-sufficient. As a result, the classic emo couldn’t recover.
That being said, fashion in music has come to be defined by the individual. Artists today find themselves with bigger online platforms where they can make purely image-based statements outside of their music. Until Kanye West’s latest instance of hate speech, his clothing brand was one of the most successful ever by a musical artist (although it’s still debatable whether that success translates into objective styling).
If there’s one artist who captured his fanbase with his style, it’s Harry Styles. I can’t in good conscience say that Styles is one of the first male artists to embrace free-flowing fashion – he’s not – nor will I say he’s the first prominent, but he is undeniable that he was massively influential in pushing this boundary and normalizing it for the public. At the very least, Styles’ fashion choices have an effect on his audience, especially his young fans, many of whom show up to his shows representing gender-nonconforming identities. Even for her cisgender fans, there seems to be an increased enthusiasm to get in on this game with fashion. I witnessed a great example a few weeks ago while staying with a family friend in Chicago. All the kids in the family went to see Styles perform at the United Center. When the group came downstairs dressed for the show, the son – who is 24 – appeared fully dressed in an ankle-length skirt (an impressive find considering his 6’5″ height), sequins, in a tight shirt and several boas draped around her neck, she was someone who, whatever the weather, could always be counted on to wear a sweatshirt and basketball shorts.
Of course, the fact that cisgender fans are embracing this non-binary fashion sensibility has raised questions about whether Styles is actually co-opting queer identity. He said this ambiguity is not purely for show, but it raises the question of whether it is possible to separate the style from the brand. It seems obvious that the clothes we wear should be allowed to represent our identities. The opposite – that our identities are designed around the brands we wear – seems a more dubious assertion. In Styles’ case, it’s hard not to sympathize with Billy Porter’s point of view. Unlike Styles, Porter had to fight for years to be accepted for having a more androgynous style, which makes the seemingly instantaneous celebration of Styles’ fashion choice relatively undeserved.
I can’t help but think back to that grindcore gig and understand the position of the friend of the family. It’s not like I clearly identify with the gang of over 30 chain smokers right next to their daily jobs. Yet there I was, completely entrenched in the same insignia, buying into the cultural imagery. Genre fashion and artist fashion are able to spread to the masses for a reason, and it stems from the product they offer. We love certain music because it resonates, validates, and places us in a space we wish to occupy. Getting back to emo, it doesn’t matter if it’s inevitably performative. Ask anyone in Taking Back Sunday or Dashboard Confessional in the 2000s and they’ll tell you they relate to this feeling of social incompatibility. The music provides the space for exploration, and that exploration clearly transfers to her fashion as well.
Daily Arts writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at [email protected]