The therapeutic value of emo music

8 Mins read

I am 14 years-old, coming back from a long day at school. It’s the spring of 2012. My walk home is rather short, but I tend to choose the longest path to clear out my head.

Today has been a particularly difficult day: ‘you’re fat and ugly’, ‘you’re a mermaid! Half human, half whale’ — Kids will be kids, right? But one’s never prepared to hear such things, especially at such a young age. I plug my earphones and take the gentle breeze in

Hayley Williams, Paramore‘s lead singer, sings:

Well now I’m told that this is life
And pain is just a simple compromise
So we can get what we want out of it
Would someone care to classify,
Our broken hearts and twisted minds
So I can find someone to rely on
And run
To them, to them
Full speed ahead
Oh you are not, useless

Misguided Ghosts – Paramore

For a moment, I believe them. I feel I am not as worthless as everyone at school made me think I was. I believe I can dig me out of this black hole I currently find myself in. In a way, I know I am not as alone as I think I am. Music was my refuge during a difficult period of my life. I have always battled with my mental health, but as a teenager, the walls of my bedroom shrank, and hopelessness knocked on my door.

When I was 13,  I started developing depression and anxiety. Finding who I was as a teenager was harder than I expected and my headspace got greyer and greyer as time went by. By that time, I discovered emo/pop-punk music. From Paramore to My Chemical Romance, to You Me At Six and Panic! At the Disco, amongst many others.

These bands reached me in a way no-one had ever done before. They made me feel understood and accompanied. Their lyrics conveyed the words I was unable to express and going through hardships became slightly easier.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Without the messages those songs brought, I don’t know if I would be where I am today. I owe a lot of my strength to the genre.”[/pullquote]

Although all the bands I have mentioned impacted me in some way, Paramore was the one that resonated with me the most. A female-fronted band in which all members were unapologetically themselves, singing and playing songs about the struggles of adolescence from a feminine perspective? I was hooked.

Online, I found a group of people that enjoyed Paramore as much as I did and, at a distance, we spoke to each other about our feelings, our hopes and our dreams. We created a rather solid community, and I looked up to get home fast enough to share what happened throughout my days.

I’ve pretty much lost contact with the majority of the people I used to interact with online, however,  the sense of community that was born out of a collective appreciation for a band was a solid anchor at a time of extreme self-doubt.

One’s emo ‘phase’ is usually the laughing stock of parties and numerous social gatherings. And yes, remembering some aspects of it still makes me cringe with embarrassment, but I wouldn’t change the way the genre shaped me during my formative years for anything in the world.

There isn’t a right timestamp regarding the origins of emo. However, the most common answer is that it originated in Washington DC in the ’80s. According to a piece by NME, the genre stemmed from the 1980’s hardcore-punk scene, and it’s frequently traced back to the band Rites of Spring.

Rites of Spring are often called the ‘fathers of emo’, due to their personal and meta lyricism. The genre went through a plentiful amount of changes, and it is considered to have had three waves.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the 2000s that emo exploded and became more than a genre. By that time, Pop-Punk and emo became “inexorably intertwined”,  and bands such as Jimmy Eat World and Brand New mingled their personal lyricism with punk melodies that had a more mainstream structure. In the mid-2000s, with the aid of Myspace, Emo transformed into something much bigger than a music genre — it became a counter-culture.

Paramore, Panic! At the Disco and My Chemical Romance became the propellers of the ‘movement’. As far as the ’emo look’ was concerned: black eyeliner, skin-tight jeans, black and red hair dye became the most relevant signifiers of the genre.

I vividly remember begging my mother to let me dye my hair bright red because of Hayley Williams’s hairdo, and I certainly wasn’t the only one.

Paramore gig, the band playing in the background, the crowd is cheering

Paramore are one of the most important bands of the ’emo generation. [Beatriz Vasques]

The last wave of emo relied heavily on online communities and most fans, unlike before, were mainly female.

The Daily Mail was quick to call the genre a ‘sinister ‘cult’, harmful to young people while linking it to a ‘surge’ of self-harm tendencies in teenagers. They targeted a specific band, My Chemical Romance, which was branded a ‘suicide cult’.The publication also claimed the band was the reason Hannah Bond, a 13-year-old girl from Kent had committed suicide.

After these events, thousands of teens marched in London and protested against these claims. Immediately, a moral panic amongst parents arose. What were these kids listening to after all? Soon after, the band released a statement regarding their latest album at the time — The Black Parade — and the newspaper’s claims: “My Chemical are and always have been vocally anti-violence and anti-suicide. As a band, we have always made it one of our missions through our actions to provide comfort, support, and solace to our fans.”

“The message and theme of our album The Black Parade is hope and courage. Our lyrics are about finding the strength to keep living through pain and hard times. The last song on our album states: ‘I am not afraid to keep on living’ – a sentiment that embodies the band’s position on hardships we all face as human beings,” the band wrote.

A MCR gig at a festival, huge banner saying MCR and the playing on stage.

My Chemical Romance was called a ‘suicide cult’ by the Daily Mail [Flickr: Michael Spencer]

Although the genre was controversial and often demonised, most people who listened and still listen to the genre mention how the experience of listening to these bands’ songs was ‘healing’ and ‘cathartic’, especially in regards to mental health.
The communities and close friendships that were formed in online fanbases and gigs are also often brought up.

In a piece for Vice, journalist Emma Garland dived into the interconnection between the emo genre and mental health, especially amongst young female teenagers.

Dr Rosemary Lucy Hill, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leeds, spoke to Garland about why the genre was important for the healing and processing of trauma and mental health issues amongst teens. “Rather than emo being a fashion that pushes them towards feelings of desperation, into self-harming, to commit suicide, it can help fans to survive mental ill health,” she said.

Amy Forster, a Hair and Make-up student at the London College of Fashion recounts how emo shaped her teen years. From a very young age, upon finding a Paramore music video on her Youtube ‘suggested’ videos she started listening to Paramore, Tonight Alive and All Time Low. Emo rapidly became her favourite music genre.

“The genre was important to my growth mostly via the effect it had on me when I was struggling with mental health, bullying and just hard times in general. Without the messages those songs brought, I don’t know that I would be where I am today, and I owe a lot of my strength to the genre and the songs,” she says

“Emo music always felt different to me because it was a massive tight-knit community. You would go to gigs and everyone there would be so friendly  — you might only be friends for a night, but at that moment you feel like you’ve known each other for years because you can bond over the lyrics and what they mean to you,” Amy concludes.

Like Forster, many other fans of the genre have similar experiences. Freddie Cocker, the creator of the platform Vent, where primarily men and boys can be vocal about their experiences with mental illness, but everyone is encouraged to share, describes how attending concerts and listening to emo significantly impacted his mental health.

“Since its inception, emo has always been a genre for the ‘outsider’, the kids who weren’t the coolest at school and the ones who were picked on,” he told us. “The bands I would listen to channelled that. Lyrics about getting out of your hometown, not having many friends and finding an escape through music certainly in many ways saved my life or at least gave me a shred of hope to cling to that it wasn’t just me who was experiencing what I felt.”

“There’s nothing like going to see a band you love to perform the songs you love live, singing the words back to them, dancing and having fun. When I was in school, gigs were in many ways a safe-haven,” he concluded.

Amy Forster wearing a black and white paramore tshirt and smiling to the camera

Amy Forster wearing Paramore merch at a concert [Amy Forster]

The relationship between mental health and the genre is evident. Emo became a safe-haven for those going through personal struggles, its deeply intimate lyricism connected millions of teenagers who felt similar things. And a sense of companionship and understanding was born out of it.
But does music hold a therapeutical value? And, can indeed music save one’s life?

A number of studies have been made on the way music can affect the brain. One of the most significant pieces of research on the subject was conducted by Daniel Levitin, an American cognitive psychologist.

The premise was easy: patients who would undergo surgery were randomly selected to either listen to music or take anxiety drugs before the procedure. The patients’ anxiety and stress hormone (cortisol) levels would then be assessed. In the end, the patients who had listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol levels than the patients who had taken anti-anxiety tablets.

The discourse surrounding the benefits of music and its interconnection with mental health has been discussed widely within the last few years. Music therapy is now considered an important part of the NHS, and various associations which focus on this type of therapy have spread around the country. North London’s Music Therapy Center is one of them.

Marianne Rizkallah, director of the centre and head music therapist, told us how music can affect the brain: “The most important aspect of music and the music listener. Whether it’s a music listener with a mental health concern or not, is the relationship the music listener feels they have with the music they’re listening to and sometimes the people who have made that music as well.”

“When people talk about music ‘saving lives’, I think it is because there is felt to be a direct relationship with an aspect of the music. Sometimes people can feel like the certain songs are speaking to them directly, helping them to feel less alone,” she said.

“Because music can cut through language barriers and get to the emotion within someone straight away it can feel like a very powerful medium, and it’s the music therapist’s job to help make sense of the powerful emotions expressed through music making and listening in a way that is unique to the person I’m working with,” Rizkallah concludes.

Most of these bands have now evolved stylistically or even disintegrated. For example, My Chemical Romance announced their separation in 2013, after 12 long years on the road. Paramore have recently released After Laughter, an album that underpins the band member’s personal struggles with mental health and the subsequent changes to the band’s original formation, while lead singer Hayley Williams has recently been vocal about her struggles with PTSD and depression. Finally, Panic! At the Disco’s initial line-up has completely changed, and only Brendon Urie, the band’s lead singer, remains in the group.

Likewise, these bands’ fans have also evolved as time went by. The ‘Kids from Yesterday’, now in their 20s, may have ditched the tight skinny jeans and the excess of eyeliner, but they will keep the teachings and memories emo brought upon them.

It’s 2019, and now I am almost 21. The sun makes a shy comeback as I make my way to university. I have now moved to a new country, and it’s my degree’s final year. The black noise in my head is now much quieter. I no longer feel the need always to be plugged in, in a world of my own. However, whenever I need to find an inner strength I still resort to my old emo playlists. I plug my earphones and take the gentle breeze in.






If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, please contact/refer to one of these resources: Mind UK and Samaritans at 116 123 and The Listening Place at 020 3906 7676. 

Featured image by Anthony Delanoix via Unsplash CC

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