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What is Midwest Emo, and Why Is Everyone Obsessed With It?

"Hell yeah ,man, put that sad shit back on."

For some reason, I’ve had a lot of emo friends throughout most of my life. I really couldn’t tell you why, considering that I absolutely hated emo (and emo-adjacent) music and fashion in my teens. I know, I know, crucify me—it just wasn’t my thing. I chalk it up to being raised by an Asian woman who made a hobby out of making fun of “weeny stuff.” Yet because of who my friends were, I was at least passably fluent in the genre.

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Hence why, about a year ago, I was clued into a seeming uptick of interest in a specific subgenre of emo music: “Midwest Emo.” This particular branch of the genre is distinct from the heavier, more intense emo subgenres because it has a softer, indie-ish tone, elevated by chord progressions and melodies that are analogous to “math-rock”-isms. Think bands like Cursive, Braid, and The Promise Ring. The name itself comes from the geographical origins of the subgenre, although the style has since spread everywhere. Perhaps the most prominent example to share here is American Football, with this song in particular:

Somehow, Midwest Emo has become something of a meme. I’ve seen it played alongside a number of scenarios, with the punchline always seeming to be something along the lines of, “Ha ha! Emotions.” Sketches will show guitarists getting ready to jam, up until the homie starts playing a midwest riff and everyone gives up on him. Others will play on the genre’s tendency to use samples, usually at the beginning of a song; they’ll sample everything from sad scenes in movies and cartoons to voicemails and recordings of things in their lives. Yes, I have seen people loop riffs over audio of their parents fighting, and yes, it’s as morose as it sounds.

Now, it might seem surprising to people that the genre has taken off as much as it has, considering it’s not exactly what I’d call “conventional” easy-listening. But honestly, I’m not that surprised. There are a lot of factors that are going into this genre making such a comeback.

For one thing, millennials on social media are very open with their nostalgia, and it’s proven to be an easy thing to capitalize on. This is especially true for anyone who ever grew up in a suburb, where the Disney-to-emo pipeline was a common adolescent lynchpin. These millennials go gaga over returning to their emo roots. For another thing, the Teens ™ of this generation really love to model past trends, and emo is something that’s always been accessible to melancholic kids. Just like how other genres and styles are being revived on social media, emo being revitalized by today’s kids makes total sense to me.

As for the music itself, even I have to admit that it’s a very pretty genre. I think a great amount of care and talent goes into how these songs are built, and the vulnerability in the lyrics is fairly darling. Unlike other emo genres, which can be a little too on-the-nose, Midwest Emo tends to be more down to earth. It’s actually only recently occurred to me that bands I used to listen to technically count as Midwest Emo; I’d always written them off as plain indie rock. One such example is Mom Jeans (who, while not from the Midwest, still emulates the style):

What do you think of Midwest Emo? Did you grow up with it, or are you just getting into it? Feel free to share your thoughts!

(featured image: Cartoon Network)

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Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).