Anyone who spent their teenagedom in a black hooded sweatshirt was served a nice piece of attention bait last year in the form of a TikTok phenomenon known as the “emo test.” In it, users listened to snippets of songs by such artists as Panic! At the Disco and Paramore to see how many tunes they recognized. If you got eight to 10 songs right, you were certified “emo.” If you got more than that, then congrats—you were “broken.”
The meme now feels like an omen for what would unfold in pop music in 2021, when many a top-tier artist had a whiff of emo—a label that evolved from the 1980s punk scene but has come to envelop all manner of anguished music designed to smudge eyeliner. Olivia Rodrigo sent masses moshing with a Paramore update, “Good 4 U.” Lil Nas X’s debut album spiced his technicolor raps with tender rock. TikTok heartthrobs and onetime child stars collaborated on raging pop-punk with the Blink-182 legend Travis Barker. The year’s breakout newbie, the Australian singer/rapper The Kid Laroi, groaned and moaned his way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
People have argued for decades over what emo really means, and 2021’s wave might seem to stretch the word to definitional incoherence. Rodrigo’s sing-along diaries don’t sound much like Lil Huddy’s goth blustering, and neither much resembles canonical emo bands such as The Get Up Kids. Partly the new wave is just the coronation for distinct musical subcultures that have been burbling online for years. Partly it reflects nostalgia for the 2000s (Linkin Park made it into a version of the emo test despite being, as anyone who remembers the George W. Bush years knows, nu metal). But the trend also reflects our era in deep-seated ways. Emo is not only the music of sadness—it is the music of change, uncertainty, and desperate, joyful connection.
If any single factor unites what gets labeled “emo,” it is voice. Although the past decade of pop didn’t lack for vulnerable singing, it usually came in the form of R&B silkiness (The Weeknd, Drake, SZA) or “indie girl” breathiness (Lorde, Halsey, Ellie Goulding). But many of this past year’s stars sang in ways that recalled punk rock. Their tones were shredded rather than smooth. They sang around, rather than always neatly on, the notes of their melodies. They alternated rat-a-tat bursts of syllables with sustained wails that slid dramatically, nauseously, from heights to depths and back again. To sing emo is, basically, to waver.
It also means to be relatable. In his 2003 book Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, Andy Greenwald argued that “emo isn’t a genre” but rather “a particular relationship between a fan and a band … the desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue,” reflecting a “specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centered need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you.” His book analyzed the young suburbanites who worshipped then-trending bands such as Dashboard Confessional, and it was presciently written around the time that the internet was beginning to enable the mass interactivity that defines music fandom today.
Watching TikTokers lip-synch to, duet to, and remix their favorite songs makes it glaring why emo might be big right now: Hyper-identifying with a song is easy when singing along is partly a matter of affecting a certain tone of voice. It is also easy when the lyrics are concrete, self-centered, cinematic, and human. As Rodrigo stormed the charts early in the year with “Drivers License,” a tale of one teenager’s road-related heartbreak, listeners treated the lyrics like Mad Libs by plugging in their own words without changing an iota of the emotional content. The range of musical styles that have lately been called “emo” also confirms that the term doesn’t refer to a genre so much as a sensibility—one that plays well in the streaming economy where pop seems ever more defined not only by popularity but also by listener passion.
The emo test’s joke that to ace it is to be “broken” has a dark, telling implication. Look to the career of the rapper Juice Wrld, who died at age 21 of a drug overdose in December 2019. By the time of his death, he’d become the superstar face of the so-called SoundCloud-rap movement that included the emo rappers Lil Peep and XXXtentacion, both of whom also died untimely deaths. SoundCloud rap is the most important predecessor to this current emo-pop moment, and to dig into its music is to be bombarded with blearily sung accounts of extreme emotional torment.
A new, posthumous Juice Wrld album (Fighting Demons) and an HBO documentary (Juice Wrld: Into the Abyss) demonstrate the reality of the struggles that underline much of modern pop. In Into the Abyss, the director Tommy Oliver splices together a bounty of tour and studio footage showing the rapper born Jarad Anthony Higgins as a bright-eyed savant who was more or less constantly rapping. Beautiful, heaving melodies popped into Juice Wrld’s head as readily as ominous, lacerating lyrics about death and despair did. He was also, it appears, constantly and openly taking drugs—sipping lean, snorting powders—which is exactly what his songs say he was doing.
History is filled with artists who faced addiction, yet there is something eerily timely about the demons Juice Wrld faced. In one Into the Abyss scene, at a dirt lot where Juice Wrld is firing guns for fun, he tells the camera that his journey with drugs began with him being medicated for ADD in fifth grade (“That shit didn’t have me feeling right, bro. Like, I should write a book about that.”). His drugs of choice later in life were opioids, such as oxycodone. In interviews, he spoke frankly about anxiety, depression, and the stigmas that made it harder to fight those things. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that such dependencies and disorders were on the surface of his songs that became hits in a country undergoing an addiction and mental-health crisis.
A real sense of pain also radiates from Juice Wrld’s most direct successor, The Kid Laroi, who, as Into the Abyss informs viewers, was on the same private flight where Juice Wrld suffered his fatal seizure. Across the Australian 18-year-old’s multi-release F*ck Love project, he uses his Kurt Cobain–esque yowl to deliver straightforward lyrics about traitorous exes. But he also describes a youth of poverty and references his mother doing drugs. As a blond-haired teen whose big hits involve collaboration with Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, Laroi is sometimes discussed as being the milquetoast, music-industry-anointed pretender to the legacy of Juice Wrld and Lil Peep—but in any case, it is a sign of the times that the public craves a voice this ragged.
The term emo shouldn’t be used to oversimplify recent trends: Laroi draws most overtly from grunge and hip-hop; Rodrigo, from Taylor Swift; Juice Wrld, from mixtape rappers. But each artist’s trembling voice turns vulnerability into a participatory party, united less by bad vibes than by the vertigo created by life’s turbulence. On Fighting Demons, the standout track is a fatalistic anthem called “Rockstar in His Prime.” As Juice Wrld sings, in a plaintive gasp, “I’m a rockstar in his prime,” an Auto-Tune-like effect pulls him higher and higher. Should it be any surprise that much of this era’s most powerful pop is about expecting, but temporarily avoiding, a fall?