As anyone who ever chewed a hole in the sleeve of their school jumper and stuck their thumb through it will know, emo has always been a divisive subculture. Whenever the word “emo” is invoked, it’s usually with a specific image in mind – most likely, a sulky teenager with multiple face piercings listening to Fall Out Boy on the bus. It was mocked during its mainstream heyday in the 2000s; hurled as a catch-all playground insult at anyone who wore black nail varnish, and villainised as a “sinister death cult” by the British press. Bands rejected it as a genre tag, and music critics snubbed the bands. Meanwhile, younger fans would develop their own, more affectionate relationship to emo that would set the scene for its omnipresence across pop culture today. From the theatrical melodrama of the 1975 to Jules’s wardrobe in Euphoria, the emo revival is everywhere – which is partly why the announcement of a festival called When We Were Young has been trending on Twitter for several days.
To be held in Las Vegas with a line-up reaching into every corner of the large umbrella term that is mainstream emo – from My Chemical Romance and Paramore to Bright Eyes and Avril Lavigne – When We Were Young is essentially a one-day Glastonbury for people who styled their MSN name xXlike_thisXx. There are artists old and new; the names of 1990s post-hardcore bands cosying up to 2020s pop-punk revivalists, reflecting the vast cultural scope of emo as we now know it. From its 1980s origins (the term originally referred to hardcore punk bands in Washington, DC that were more melodic and weird than the rest of its traditionally masculine scene at the time), to today’s TikTok stars (see Lil Huddy, also present on the line-up), emo has been “reviving” for decades and continues to appeal to younger audiences all the time. But the driving impetus behind this festival isn’t to reflect a new wave of emo, or serve a new generation of fans – it’s pure millennial nostalgia.
With a name like “When We Were Young” and a poster that resembles my backpack in Year 8, the marketing couldn’t be clearer. TikTok may be full of teenagers listening to All Time Low and taking flip-phone selfies in homage to a social media site that fell out of favour when they were five, but this event shrieks: “Give me your ex-Limewire users, your former Myspace queens, your economically disenfranchised millennials who own nothing of value but will annually transfer their credit card debt to whichever company is offering 0 per cent interest.” Millennials are the youngest demographic with the means to transport themselves to Las Vegas for what is essentially a very expensive one-day event, and it’s millennials – the most nostalgic generation to date – who would willingly do just that for a bunch of bands they discovered on a dial-up connection. Following years of reboot culture pandering to our formative interests, from Gossip Girl to Cowboy Bebop, we have now reached the point where our adolescence is being sold back to us via $499 ticket and hotel package deals.
This isn’t the first time millennial nostalgia has been capitalised on by the music industry – you only need to look at novelty events like the Weezer cruise or the number of youth-defining album anniversary tours happening at any given time to see that. But this is perhaps the first time it’s been done so brazenly. While there are a few revered acts on the line-up that rarely perform, it’s predominantly made up of mid-level bands that have been trucking away for decades, consistently playing to regular crowds around the world. You’ll often see their names on the line-ups of broader alternative festivals like Download in the UK or Riot Fest in the US, responding to a demand that has been around almost as long as they have.
Put them all in one place, though, and what you have is an event made up almost entirely of bands most fans would already have seen play for £20, thrown together by Live Nation and tarted up to Coachella proportions (and prices). Faced with this cynicism, many music fans have responded in kind. You don’t have to scroll far on Twitter to find people referring to it as “emo Fyre Festival”. And after the fatal crowd crush at Astroworld (also promoted by Live Nation), there are lots of legitimate questions surrounding the event. Among them: what are the logistics of over 60 bands playing in the space of 12 hours? Are the non-refundable tickets that start at $299 each, during a pandemic that still spells an uncertain future for live music, just an obvious cash grab? And, most urgently of all, who had the audacity to hold a festival called When We Were Young in Las Vegas and not book the Killers?
Overwhelmingly, though, these doubts are usurped by the excitement that many people still feel for the bands on the bill (especially for Brits, whose emo nostalgia experience doesn’t often get more glamorous than booking a Travelodge in Milton Keynes after the My Chemical Romance reunion show). There are very few combinations of bands that would compel hundreds of thousands of people to travel across the country – and across the world – under such flagrantly uncertain circumstances, but that’s the stuff emo fandom has always been made of. Most mainstream emo fans will have at least one memory of waiting outside a venue in the rain from 9am, praying to run into the guitarist of a band signed to an independent label. It’s a very specific connection to a relatively niche bunch of bands that a lot of people happen to share. And while the market value of mainstream emo is finally being recognised, the fans remain largely misunderstood.
All the most common touchstones we have for emo today refer to a specific subculture and aesthetic that originated in the early 2000s and developed through the 21st century, but it’s really a catch-all term for pretty much any kind of sound, person or thing that takes an introverted view of the world and reflects it back as it feels: extreme. The bands on the When We Were Young line-up play music that is melodramatic, abrasive, almost uncomfortably earnest – and for those reasons it’s linked to an inherently teenage experience of feeling things for the first time without the ability to rationalise them in a wider context. The commitment those bands have to communicating the absolute intensity of emotion – often rooted in romance or desire – means they’re often coded as juvenile and feminine. In other words, not to be taken seriously. For all its universal themes of love and loss, emo is perhaps the only category of music besides boy bands that fans are expected to age out of. Hence the knowing slogan: “it’s not a phase, mom”.
The fact that 85,000 people might be about to pay through the nose to prove that slogan correct means we have almost certainly reached peak emo nostalgia, but I will say this for the festival: if it doesn’t go ahead, the outpouring of emotion online will make The Black Parade feel like it was written by Keir Starmer.
[See also: How Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes confounded the music press of the 1990s]