Emo emerged from the hardcore scene in 1980s Washington, D.C., initially as "emocore", used as a term to describe bands who favored expressive vocals over the more common abrasive, barking style. The style was pioneered by bands Rites of Spring and Embrace, the last formed by Ian MacKaye, whose Dischord Records became a major centre for the emerging D.C. emo scene, releasing work by Rites of Spring,Dag Nasty, Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi. Fugazi emerged as the definitive early emo band, gaining a fanbase among alternative rock followers, not least for their overtly anti-commercial stance. The early emo scene operated as an underground, with short-lived bands releasing small-run vinyl records on tiny independent labels.
The mid-'90s sound of emo was defined by bands like Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate who incorporated elements of grunge and more melodic rock. Only after the breakthrough of grunge and pop punk into the mainstream did emo come to wider attention with the success of Weezer's Pinkerton (1996) album, which utilised pop punk. Late 1990s bands drew on the work of Fugazi, SDRE, Jawbreaker and Weezer, including The Promise Ring, Get Up Kids, Braid, Texas Is the Reason,Joan of Arc, Jets to Brazil and most successfully Jimmy Eat World, and by the end of the millennium it was one of the more popular indie styles in the US.

Emo broke into mainstream culture in the early 2000s with the platinum-selling success of Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American (2001) andDashboard Confessional's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (2003). The new emo had a much more mainstream sound then in the 90s and a far greater appeal amongst adolescents than its earlier incarnations. At the same time, use of the term emo expanded beyond the musical genre, becoming associated with fashion, a hairstyle and any music that expressed emotion. The term emo has been applied by critics and journalists to a variety of artists, including multi-platinum acts such as Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance and disparate groups such as Paramore and Panic at the Disco, even when they protest the label.

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