Gen Z Is Bringing Emo Back, But This Time It’s Not Just A Bunch Of White Dudes
Gen Z is bringing back the angsty sounds of millennials’ youth — but this time around, the artists are more diverse in every sense of the word.
Pop-punk has come a long way since the days when angsty teens got in their feelings to the tune of Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and Avril Lavigne. Now, amid a global pandemic and political unrest, the genre has seen a resurgence and is resonating in a big way with Gen Z.
Tunes from the 2000s are now popular on TikTok, with the app filled with videos of teenagers dancing to a soundtrack of Paramore and Green Day. In fact, the 2007 pop-punk hit “Dear Maria, Count Me In” by All Time Low has become so cool, it went double platinum in March. The band, riding this new wave of success, has announced a tour and album, as has the iconic group My Chemical Romance.
Mainstream Gen Z artists are also getting in on the trend. At the beginning of 2020, genre-bending rapper Machine Gun Kelly announced that his latest project would be a pop-punk album. Sounding like it's straight out of an older brother’s closed bedroom door, Tickets to My Downfall earned the musician his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200.
TikTok stars also got in the action, most notably e-boy Chase Hudson, known on the app as Lil Huddy. The teen has released music in the past year that is very reminiscent of early 2000s alternative, with the music videos for the singles “The Eulogy of You and Me” and “21st Century Vampire” looking like they could have been filmed in 2002.
Along with a new appreciation for 2000s bands and songs, young new wave pop-punk artists are coming onto the scene. While these new artists’ music may evoke teenage nostalgia for many millennials, this crop of pop-punk artists has evolved. This time around, the artists are more diverse in every sense of the word and are more reflective of the alternative community at large.
As Ashrita Kumar, the lead singer of the pop-punk band Pinkshift, told BuzzFeed News, Gen Z is ready to embrace their feelings.
“We’re not slowing down when it comes to angst,” she said.
When lockdown began, Gen Z got emo. At least that’s what, Yasmine Summan, an emo digital content creator from the UK, told BuzzFeed News they observed.
Most identifiable by their ever-changing two-tone pink and black hair, and eyebrows to match, Summan has been a part of the alternative community since the day they stumbled upon “Bulls in the Bronx” by Pierce the Veil on YouTube at the age of 13.
According to Summan, the alternative scenes never went away in the UK, but America was a different story. After the initial wave of mainstream pop-punk, rock, and emo that the early 2000s brought about, they said the community went online and underground. For fans like Summan circa 2013, the American alternative community could be found mostly on the internet and largely disconnected from Billboard charts and radio hits.
“I watched and listened to them (Pierce the Veil) and then I found Sleeping With Sirens and then I went on Tumblr and FanFic.net and loads of places like that, and I just found my community of people,” Summan said.
Now, young people are following the same path, they said. Summan has found a following on TikTok as an emo fan guru and historian, posting videos featuring comedic emo nostalgia, alternative makeup inspiration, and music takes that have garnered over 4.4 million likes.
One big distinction between the genre then and the genre now, though, is inclusivity, they said.
“Having this online space, a platform where anybody can join and say what the fuck they want to say, is really great because it just shows more representation and more people are being seen and validated,” said Summan.
As members of Gen Z immerse themselves deeper into emo culture, new alternative bands that reflect the diversity of their audience have become more and more popular. One is Fever 333, best known for their radical politics and imagery largely influenced by the Black Panther Party. The group hit the scene in 2017 with their first single “We’re Coming In.”
In the song, lead singer Jason Aalon Butler screams “we’re coming in, motherfucker” on repeat, the song serving as a warning to anyone building fences around the genre. Butler remains clear in his, and the band’s, mission to tear down barriers in the alternative community.
“I want to make sure that our fans understand that no matter what they look like, no matter who they are, there is an open invitation for them to join,” Butler said, “for them to become patrons of Fever 333 activity and music and messaging.”
An Inglewood, California, native, Butler has been a part of the alternative community since his childhood. He got into the music scene thanks to his time as a skateboarder. Butler reminisced on the days when all he and his friends had was the music. There was no safety net for them, like there may have been for other, more privileged fans.
“We created our own space,” he said.
Butler and his crew were “alt alt,” still on the fringe of the more popular or mainstream pop-punk scenes in his youth, but he’s adamant that the community has always been this beautifully diverse.
“So for me personally, it’s all about representing (Black) culture in this alternative music but also trying to represent the culture as it is because rock music is Black music. … It started with Black people,” Butler said.
Butler labels fans and artists like himself “alternative by design.” They don’t fit the mainstream (white, cis, straight) mold that the alternative community has come to be understood as, which is something he tries to express during each performance.
“It’s a refresher course every time I step into the booth or get onstage. It’s to remind people rock music is Black music,” he said. “We’ve been here.”
When Myron Houngbedji saw flyers around campus that a pop-punk band was looking for a drummer, he actively ignored them, assuming the band was just a bunch of white dudes. When lead singer Kumar and guitarist Paul Vallejo showed up to the band room on campus instead, he couldn’t say no. They were later joined by bassist Erich Weinroth.
Now, Pinkshift is just one of many woman-fronted bands hitting the alternative music scene. The four-piece collective has been called the future of alternative music by Chris Barker of Anti-Flag and countless music journalists.
Pinkshift caught fans’ attention on Reddit with their single “I’m Gonna Tell My Therapist on You.” In August 2020, they released a music video for the song on their YouTube channel, garnering over 75,000 views. “We were able to find a community a lot easier online, I think, just because of the universality of being on the internet,” Kumar said.
The Baltimore band hasn’t fully processed that the music they make is returning to the mainstream.
“It’s been weird just because it’s like, Oh damn, our band could actually be popular if we work really hard,” Kumar said. “I think that when you start a rock band you don’t really think that.”
For artists who have been on the scene for a while, the genre’s comeback is exciting. Kellin Quinn, lead singer of the early 2010s pop-punk band Sleeping With Sirens, never quite saw the style of music explode during the height of his own band’s popularity. He’s been thrilled to watch the innovation and evolution of the style.
“I’m excited for the new generation to come up and just be a fan of those artists and help them along,” he said.
While Sleeping With Sirens plans on sticking with their nostalgic sound, Quinn is thrilled to see the genre-bending and unique melodies taking over the alternative community. Quinn recently hopped on Machine Gun Kelly’s single “Love Race” and SoundCloud rapper 1996Montana’s track “The Reason.”
“I think that cross-pollination, like MGK having Travis Barker playing pop-punk tunes and having somebody like Blackbear on a track, like, that’s where the genre is really starting to explode,” Quinn said.
As the genre continues to skyrocket to the top of the charts and the trending page on TikTok, it’s hard to say exactly what the future holds. “There’s a lot of like amazing talented young artists blending hip-hop, alternative, heavy rock, like, all that stuff, and I think that blend is where alternative is going,” Quinn said.
Today’s alternative fans and artists, for the most part, welcome this evolution. In the past, gatekeeping hindered the genre’s ability to experiment with its own style and audience. According to fans like Summan, the younger alternative community is growing out of those bad habits.
“I think that gatekeeper mentality is slowly dying,” Summan said. “It’s definitely there, and there’s going to be some rebuttal, but a lot of us in the alternative community grew up seeing people like that and we’re sick of it. I’m sick of it.”
Genre fluidity and internet accessibility has also helped dismantle the barriers to enter the scene. Today, the alternative invitation has been extended to everyone far and wide, favoring the genre’s longevity this time around.
When asked where the genre is going next, Butler had a clear vision of the future.
“I think it’s gonna look a lot less homogenized,” he said. “A lot more celebration of people that do not fit into any sort of gender norms or racial expectations.”