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Welcome to the RAWRing 20s: the rise and return of emo

From the viral success of When We Were Young Festival to musicians Lil Huddy and Machine Gun Kelly, emo culture is thriving online – but why?

Last week, ageing emos from decades past fell into a frenzy when a festival poster went viral online for its line-up of practically every famous pop-punk and emo band from the last two decades. With Paramore and My Chemical Romance as headliners, and the likes of Avril Lavigne, Bright Eyes, Bring Me the Horizon, and A Day to Remember also playing across the one-day event, When We Were Young Festival – as the name suggests – feels like its been plucked from a late-noughties time warp of Myspace pages, skinny jeans, and high-angle selfies. “Finally the alts treated with the respect and reverence that they deserve!” tweeted one person. “My best mate is getting married that day; friendship-ender,” said another.

As social outcasts worldwide began plotting their trips to Vegas to see the marching band, some were less convinced. How can 60-plus acts play across three stages in 13 hours? That’s 35 minutes per band – without breaks. Others pointed out that it’s run by Live Nation, the same company behind Travis Scott’s ill-fated Astroworld Festival – and there are no refunds. It’s either the best line-up in the world or a scam to rival Fyre Festival.

For former Myspace queens and Limewire devotees, however, When We Were Young Festival presents an opportunity to squeeze back into the skinny jeans of youth – a metal-studded window into the halcyon days of mosh pits and Monster cans, side fringes and snakebites. But emo never really disappeared. Relegated to the corners of shopping malls and skate parks in suburban towns, the once-maligned subculture – often referred to as the last real youth subculture – lay dormant until around 2019 when it started creeping into Gen Z consciousness by way of TikTok and Discord servers. Introducing: the rawr-ing 20s.

On Tiktok, the hashtag #emo has 11.6 billion views, with videos that include everything from #scenequeen makeovers to music ID challenges and tutorials on how to dress like a Hot Topic employee in 2005. The popularity of TikTokers Lil Huddy and Jaden Hossler has brought emo into the mainstream, while OG emo Avril Lavigne’s entry onto the platform last year garnered millions of hits.

Additionally, the presence of artists like YUNGBLUD and Machine Gun Kelly offer a palatable entry into the genre, with radio-friendly hits and playful pop-punk fashion. The subsequent hot goth girlfriend resurgence, spurred on by Kelly’s relationship with Megan Fox, has only bolstered the aesthetic appeal, with headline-grabbing stunts that include thorned wedding rings and blood-drinking engagement rituals.

Beneath the surface, however, the mall-punk renaissance has its roots on platforms like Discord and Soundcloud. Described as the sound for a post-pandemic world, the hyperpop genre came into full swing in 2020 as young people found solace in online communities during lockdown. Song names are styled in lower-case lettering, reminiscent of online messaging boards, and low-res visuals evoke the scene queens of Myspace.

“Scene culture has managed to evolve and blossom in the 2020s as people have become more familiar with Soundcloud, and scene music has moved into hyperpop, with many artists relying on an online fanbase,” says @oatmilkandcodeine, the 18-year-old organiser behind London-based hyperpop night Swagchella. “Hyperpop and scene artists nowadays can be found on Discord sharing beats and exchanging vocals to make more and more experimental music even from small towns where it is hard to find creatives alike.”

For Gen Z, who grew up experimenting with gender expression, the fluidity of the emo aesthetic has an immediate appeal. “I fell in love with emo and scene style as it lets me dress freely, free from gender expectation and let me express myself truthfully,” affirms @oatmilkandcodeine.

Palesa Weekes, an 18-year-old emo fan based in London, agrees: “I think Gen Z are more open to experimentation because of social media influences. In our digital age exposure to every style imaginable is easily accessible to us through apps like Tiktok, which have huge fashion communities for people to share their ideas and style. I think this makes it easy for Gen Z to change freely and not put restrictions on our own self-identity.”

Between the ongoing pandemic, environmental collapse, and the capitalist churn, it’s not surprising that Gen Z are finding solace in the emotional honesty and rawness that the emo elicits. “I love the emotion and storytelling that can be done within the emo fashion scene,” says Weekes. “I connect with it personally because I love being able to reflect how I’m feeling through clothes, and I think the emo scene is so broad and I can express myself without limitations.”

“I was very emotionally turbulent in my early teens, so that music was very therapeutic for me,” agrees daine, an emo pop star signed to PC Music. “It felt like a whole world away from reality, digging yourself down the rabbit hole of rare bands on Subreddits and Facebook groups. It’s escapism, basically.”

Similar to the return of indie sleaze, the sudden boom of late noughties emo aesthetics feels like the logical next step in our cultural obsession with nostalgia, moving from the diamante glean of early aughts babeism and towards the alt corners of the y2K revival. As literary theorist Fredric Jameson once said, nostalgia is “an alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history.” So, it’s no wonder we’re seeing young people reach for subcultures of era’s past when the future feels particularly bleak. This is especially true for Gen Z, most of whom were too young to fully experience the 2000s the first time around. “Through social media, people can post nostalgic throwbacks as they pine over their childhoods growing up watching Dan and Phil and other stars of the YouTube golden era,” says @oatmilkandcodeine. Young people on TikTok can now live out their #emophase to a backdrop of “Dear Maria Count Me In”. They can don on thick eyeliner and show off their #scenequeen makeovers, or watch Avril Lavigne lip-sync to her greatest hits and reminisce about better times.