Emo (an abbreviation of "emotional") is a term now broadly used to describe almost any form of guitar-driven alternative rock that expresses emotions beyond traditional rock's limited emotional palette of alienation and rage. It is also used to describe fans of this genre, most commonly teenagers. (e.g., emo kid). The actual term "emo" originated in the mid-1980s D.C. scene, with the band Rites of Spring. The term addressed both the way the band connected with its audience, as well as its tendency to deal more with topics of personal and relationship politics than with the standard themes of rock music.
The roots of the emo style can be traced to two seminal bands of the post-punk era. In 1983, Mission of Burma's album VS did much to expand rock beyond its original constraints while still retaining its raw emotional punch. There are still emo bands around today, but most of them take on a full-on screaming approach (hence the name Screamo) like Circle Takes The Square and Saetia. In 1984, Hüsker Dü's album Zen Arcade established what is widely considered to be the definitive blueprint for emo: simple, raw guitar-oriented music with intense vocals and deeply introspective songwriting.
As the style caught on, bands such as Moss Icon, Policy of Three, Navio Forge and Indian Summer evolved the form into what became known as simply "emo", a style which intensified the dramatic aspects of vocal performances in order to achieve a cathartic breakthrough with the audience. Done well, the result was powerful emotional release that often left emo bands and their audiences crying or screaming at the end of performances. While effective, such open displays of emotion made many traditional rock fans uncomfortable, and caused much friction between the two camps.
With the mass-market acceptance of alternative music in the early 1990s, a new derivative style variously called "chaotic emo", "screamo", and "Emo Violence" emerged featuring a blend of the more aggressive parts of bands like Rites of Spring, mixed chaotic rock music and with abrasive, emotional screaming vocals. The record label Gravity from San Diego, California was a major influence in releasing many defining records of the style in the early 1990s. Significant emo bands include Heroin, Angel Hair, Antioch Arrow, Swing Kids, and Mohinder. Many of these emo bands, such as Antioch Arrow, were significant to a blossoming scene on the west coast of the United States. After the decline of the significant bands in this movement, the focus on emo has shifted to the east coast instead. Focus on Screamo has shifted to Europe.
Later in the 90s, bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Elliott, Christie Front Drive, Get Up Kids, Cap'n Jazz, The Promise Ring and Mineral explored a more moderately paced form of emo that mixed the early emo sound of Rites of Spring with the post-hardcore innovation of Fugazi and Quicksand. This style is sometimes referred to as "midwestern emo", due to many of the bands coming from midwestern American cities like Chicago or Kansas City.
Today, the term "emo" is increasingly ambiguous. With the success of such power pop bands as The Get Up Kids, Jimmy Eat World and The Promise Ring, the music industry has eagerly appropriated the term "emo" as a marketing tool. Consequently, the emo label is now wrongly applied to a wide assortment of many diverse guitar-pop bands, such as Thursday, Senses Fail, Hawthorne Heights, the New Amsterdams, and more recently to quieter, acoustic-driven bands such as Dashboard Confessional. Bands such as Bright Eyes are often mistaken for emo but are not.
Recently, as emo has edged its way into the public consciousness, non-fans of the genre (and even some ironic fans) have taken to using the term as a condescending insult, representing the stereotype of the angst-filled and overly-dramatic teenager. Examples include "cheer up, emo kid" or "I hate emo-fags".
"Emo fashion" seems to be directly derived from pre-existing rock fashion and retains staples from it, including the tendency for dyed, flat matte black hair and multiple piercings; in particular, labrets and ear "plugs" are prominent. Rolled-up (and often times form-fitting) jeans and t-shirts displaying sarcastic slogans or images of old-time cartoons are popular as well. Also band t-shirts, buttons for bands, and converse all-stars tend to be worn. More recently, many aspects of emo fashion have become mainstream and are regularly sold at stores like Hot Topic. Emo fashion, according to its proponents, is deeply rooted in a "being proud of who you are", anti-consumer subculture. Critics of the fashion point out that it has become so mainstream that it has become shallow and antithetical to this notion. To this extent, various websites and magazines have taken to poking fun at "emo kids" and stereotypical emo fashion, some offering guides to "making yourself emo".
emo: The Hated, Native Nod, Indian Summer, Sleepytime Trio, Evergreen, Embassy, Moss Icon
emocore: Rites of Spring, Gray Matter, early Lifetime, Samiam, Hot Water Music, Ignition, Jawbreaker, Kerosene 454
post-emo indie: Sunny Day Real Estate, Promise Ring, Mineral, Getup Kids, Jets To Brazil, Cap'n Jazz, Joan of Arc, Braid
nu-emo: The Used, Taking Back Sunday, Hawthorne Heights, My Chemical Romance, Thursday, Finch, Thrice, Senses Fail, Machbook Romance