Fall Out Girl: Meet the Writer Behind Seventeen’s Infamous ‘Am I Emo?’ Guide

Unless you’ve been living on some particularly sunny remote real estate lately, you know that the emo revival is a hot topic (heh) as of late. Emo-adjacent pop/punk groups like Good Charlotte, Panic! At the Disco, and Blink-182 are releasing new music (the latter just hit #1 on the Billboard albums chart). Rumors of a My Chemical Romance reunion practically broke the Internet last week. And emo-themed club nights like Washed Up Emo‘s Emo Night NYC and Los Angeles’s Taking Back Tuesday are all the rage (even if Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazzara isn’t too thrilled about the latter one).

So, obviously, it’s time to dust off your archived August 2002 issue of Seventeen and re-read the teen fashion mag’s infamous, hilarious, and occasionally educational guide to the emo lifestyle.

When Seventeen’s “Am I Emo?” came out, just as emo was infiltrating the mainstream, its uncredited author, Mara Schwartz Kuge, was hardly some Lego-haired kid with an Alternative Press subscription, LiveJournal blog, and MakeoutClub profile. She was actually a veteran thirtysomething music journalist (a former editor of L.A. scene mag Strobe and the monthly music DVD Circuit, she now works in publishing, heading up her own company, Superior Music). She was also, by her own admission, more likely to listen to indie-pop acts like the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev than anything on the Victory Records roster. Until now, she has never publicly “outed” herself as Seventeen’s “Am I Emo?” writer. But exactly 14 years after her suggestions that this nation’s girls stock up on Promise Ring CDs (good advice) and “janitor-style” keychains (not so much) hit newsstands, she’s ready to get emotional and discuss this most unique moment in young-adult journalism.

YAHOO MUSIC: All right, first question. Are you emo?

MARA SCHWARTZ KUGE: Ha! According to Seventeen in 2002, sort of. Not really now. But I do like emotional music.

Let’s go through some of the bulletpoints in this handy emo guide. What about these pickup lines? Did you ever test these lines out on MakeoutClub.com or MySpace, or were any ever used on you?

I actually like “wanna trade mixtapes?” and I have had that line used on me. Unfortunately, none of the guys ever followed through.

What’s up with your anti-blonde, pro-black-hair-dye stance?

Well, I went to high school in Orange County [California], where all the cool girls were blonde. So anyone who had their hair dyed black, I guess I would have liked.

So what is your own favorite vintage T-shirt?

Right now I have a Boz Scaggs one that I really, really like.

That’s not very emo…

No, I guess not. But in the ‘90s, everyone had vintage, ironic clothing. Everything was ironic. It was like that “Homerpalooza” episode of The Simpsons where one kid goes, “Are you being sarcastic?” and the other kid says, “I don’t even know anymore.” The entire ‘90s were that, not just emo.

It seems, looking at your fashion tips here, that looking nerdy is the fashion choice for emo — or indie music in general. Like there is a conscientious effort to not look glamorous, with “too-small sweaters,” backpacks, and “clunky shoes” with “fun socks”…

I don’t totally agree with how the backpack is styled here in Seventeen, by the way. The backpack shown is one-strapped, and I feel like by the emo era, it really should have been double-strapped for the full nerd effect.

Seventeen got the eyeglasses right, though.

Yeah, that is true. The glasses thing I like. I personally like glasses on guys, ones like the glasses that the guy is wearing in this picture. I’m actually happy that my husband is needing reading glasses now, because I think it looks cool on him. But I’m always more into the intellectual, slightly counter-cultural look than whatever the mainstream “cool” look is.

Which brings us to your recommended hipster “deep reads”…

Well, being emotional and in touch with your emotions is a trait of intelligence, and I think these are smart books that smart people would read. And also there’s always in any music scene a level of vague pretentiousness. And maybe having the slightly lesser known book reflects that somewhat.

Do you think intellectualism is not considered as desirable or attractive trait among today’s youth?

No, I think young people still want to be seen as intelligent – just not through their tastes in [pop culture] or music, necessarily.

So, did you actually own a Discman?

I think so? I remember my Walkman more vividly. By the way, before we continue, I have to admit, for the record, that I know that this whole article is ridiculous. And I knew that at the time. But Seventeen paid really well, and they asked me to do it. So I said, why not?

Did you notice, then, a major backlash when this article came out?

No, surprisingly — nothing! I didn’t hear anything about it at all. I had actually been a little bit worried that people would bash me for it — and then I’d be interviewed for jobs in the music business and it would come back to haunt me. It was only in the past few years, as people have started treating emo as kind of their teenage-retro thing, that I’ve been seeing stuff about it in Buzzfeed and places like that.

What do you think of those articles, sort of making fun of “Are You Emo?”

I think it’s hilarious and awesome. Honestly, I would have responded the same way in high school if there was an article like “Are You Death-Rock?” or “Are You Indie?” or whatever. High School Me would have thought it was silly and ridiculous, because High School Me was super-precious about the bands I liked and would not have wanted someone from Seventeen coming in and making it into a fashion scene. I would have rolled my eyes and said, “Oh, this was written by some clueless adult.” Well, I may have been a clueless adult in some areas, but not in the areas of music. I knew I might seem a bit out of touch, but I didn’t really care. I figured I’d take the assignment because Seventeen was going to write it anyway, so it might as well be written by me.

What was your opinion of the emo scene then?

I was for it, and I knew that if I had been in high school at the time that I would have been an emo kid. It would have been absolutely my scene. I just wasn’t a high school kid anymore. But I liked how sincere it was. I am always in favor of expressing emotions through music, versus not. You know, at the time [2002], there was Jennifer Lopez singing about being “Jenny From the Block” and all of her bling and stuff like that. And I felt if I were in high school, I wouldn’t want to hear about that – I’d want to hear about real, actual people feeling actual emotions. So I did feel like it was a legitimate music movement.

Do you think you may have inadvertently drilled a nail into emo’s coffin with this article?

I certainly hope not! Honestly, I don’t think anyone who was actually into emo was really reading Seventeen. But if any nail was hammered in, it was just because Seventeen wanted to cover emo, rather than the fact that I was the writer.

Would you like to see emo make a full comeback?

I’m personally not interested in seeing any old musical style recycled, but I would like to see emotional music come back, for sure. I think that’s the whole point of music. I know people love to dance and party and be hedonistic, but I think emotion is the most important part of music. And I think that worked really well with emo. Now that’s why people have a such a nostalgic response to it.

The emo era was the last time that rock music was really a dominant force in youth culture.

Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s so weird. I personally love rock music and I’ve been predicting a rock comeback for like, 10 years. But it hasn’t happened yet.

What are some rock bands that you think were the precursors to emo?

Well, in the ‘80s there were a lot of whiny bands too, you know! Like the Smiths. The Cure were emo, really. When people started using the label “emo,” it just seemed like music to me. It didn’t seem that unusual to me for high school kids, in any decade, to listen to whiny bands. There are also probably a lot female performers who would have been considered “emo” if they were male. But they were female, so instead they were considered “folk.” Alanis Morissette is a good example of that.

Sunny Day Real Estate gets a mention in your guide. I think they’re important to acknowledge.

Yeah, I do think they were a great precursor to emo. That was the pretty early ‘90s, and I feel that brought that whole loud/soft emotional thing. Though I am sure if you asked them, they’d say they were imitating the Pixies.

And then a couple Sunny Day guys went on to play in the Foo Fighters.

Yeah. Well. No one’s perfect.

By the time this article came out, 2002, emo was more poppy, like basically pop-punk. But I feel that earlier emo stuff from Sunny Day Real Estate’s era was almost prog/post-hardcore stuff.

Well, in this Seventeen spread I interviewed Bright Eyes, Thursday, Dashboard Confessional, the Rocking Horse Winner, and Jimmy Eat World. At the time I thought Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes sounded really unique, very individual. I felt they were a good cultural balance to these really hard-sounding indie bands from the ‘90s like Rocket From the Crypt and the Cows — or even the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who weren’t that hard, really, but were not at all emotional and were all about New York cool. I think emo was all about the lyrics, really. I think if Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes had played the exact same music, but the frontmen were singing about all the chicks they could get, I don’t think anyone would have been that interested. But musical trends always swing back and forth between talking about how cool you are or how much sex you have, and between how sad and lonely you are.

So you have to notice nowadays, when you walk into a Forever 21 or Topshop, that all these ‘90s and emo fashions are coming back.

I do notice. It makes me feel old. I’m not going to wear it again.

Mara Schwartz Kuge today, wearing a very circa-2002 shirt
Mara Schwartz Kuge today, wearing a very circa-2002 shirt

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