The beauty of emo music is that it provides a canvas for our own emotional projections. The lyrical narratives, even when relatively specific, often have just enough ambiguity that we can relate them in some sense to our unique circumstances.
With that said, knowing the backstories of our favorite songs can elevate them to a whole new level. We’re no longer left to fill in the blanks with personal connections. Rather, we’re given a brief window to gaze in on a specific and visceral human experience. Of course, when we’re talking about emo music, those glimpses are going to be sad as hell.
Here are 10 emo songs that become much more depressing when you know the meaning behind them.
“Four Become One” – Hawthorne Heights
Hawthorne Heights have been tugging at heartstrings since their inception. Despite their early anthem “Ohio Is For Lovers” carrying on as an emo staple for years, their objectively saddest tracks come from their 2008 album, Fragile Future. The release was the first following the tragic death of their rhythm guitarist Casey Calvert in 2007. The record boasts two songs in response to the loss: “Sugar In The Engine” and “Four Become One.” However, the latter is characterized by subdued but visceral energy that will well up inside your chest as soon as you recognize the profound meaning behind it. It’s a challenge not to tear up upon hearing the first verse alone: “And you will live on/Our hearts will beat stronger as we remain as one/We will last just a little while longer.”
“Prevent This Tragedy” – Alkaline Trio
Unless you’re listening particularly closely, Alkaline Trio‘s “Prevent This Tragedy” could be mistaken as just another showcase of dark-laced emo edge. Once you home in on the line “West Memphis please, I’m begging you to stop praying for me,” though, the true narrative starts to reveal itself. The song was written regarding the wrongful convictions of the then-still-imprisoned West Memphis Three.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted for the alleged murder of three children in 1993. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life, while Echols received the death penalty. The verdict stirred up significant controversy for years due to a lack of adequate evidence. It’s widely suspected that police had coerced false confessions from the teens, who therefore wrongly lost their free lives to the system.
Fortunately, the heartbreaking story resolved to some extent in 2011. The three walked free from prison following an Alford plea. However, they’ve yet to be formally exonerated. Knowing this, the song hits us right in the feels. Just imagine spending nearly two decades of your young life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit…
“Sing For Me” – Yellowcard
Ryan Key never held back on delivering emotional narratives via Yellowcard. The backstory behind “Sing For Me” really guts us, though. The song puts forth the perspective of Stephanie, Key’s aunt and a staunch supporter of his endeavors, following her terminal cancer diagnosis. Though Stephanie had a life expectancy of only a year, she pulled through for two. She ultimately passed away in October 2011, after the song’s release on When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes.
“Hello” – Evanescence
Evanescence are notably poignant, even in the absence of traumatic backstories. So when Amy Lee addresses her deceased younger sister in lyrical form, we can’t help but choke up. “Hello” is a highly emotional portrayal of the loss Lee experienced at age 6 when her 3-year-old sister succumbed to an unknown illness. It’s not difficult to isolate the narrative, but the line “Has no one told you she’s not breathing?” is particularly indicative of the haunting context.
“King Park” – La Dispute
This one is truly difficult to think about. The narrative of La Dispute‘s “King Park” extensively covers an innocent casualty of gang violence and its gutting aftermath. Unfortunately, it’s all based on a true story that came out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, circa 2008. 16-year-old David Witherspoon fell victim to gang violence while walking home with some friends who had targets on their backs. Though he had no gang affiliations himself, Witherspoon was the sole fatality. His shooter Kyle Keenan died by suicide four days later. The incident hit particularly close to home for vocalist Jordan Dreyer as he worked with a family friend of Witherspoon’s at the time.
“Helena” – My Chemical Romance
The front-facing narrative of My Chemical Romance‘s “Helena” is brutal enough. Factor in a true backstory of loss, though, and it becomes much harder to listen to. Vocalist Gerard Way describes the song as an “open letter” to himself in light of losing his grandmother, Elena. Way dealt with a lot of self-directed anger regarding his absence in her final stages of life. So, the critical tone of the song is actually inward-looking, rather than projected onto a late lover like the music video indicates.
“All That I’ve Got” – The Used
We knew that the Used were addressing some form of loss in “All That I’ve Got.” Still, the specific nature of the backstory is a serious gut punch. Vocalist Bert McCracken wrote the song in response to the death of his dog, David Bowie. McCracken had reportedly intended to bring the pup with him while recording In Love And Death. Unfortunately, a planning mishap meant that he had to leave his companion behind until his friend could fly out a couple of days later. Unfortunately, a car hit his dog, and he died the day after McCracken left. We’re never going to be able to listen to this one without feeling compelled to hug our furry best friends.
“Hear You Me” – Jimmy Eat World
There exists a commonality between Jimmy Eat World and Weezer in the story behind “Hear You Me.” The song is a tribute to Mykel and Carli Allan, two well-known figures in the Weezer fandom who died in a car accident while returning home from one of their shows. The sisters were early supporters-turned-friends of Jimmy and had even opened up their Portland home to the band. Hence the opening line of the song, “There’s no one in town I know/You gave us someplace to go.” Weezer also paid them tribute in their aptly titled song “Mykel And Carli.”
“Morning Sadness” – Madina Lake
The theme of grief is ever-present in Madina Lake‘s “Morning Sadness.” Once you know where it’s grounded, though, you’ll have no choice but to fight back tears whenever you hear it. The song details the tragic and unexpected death of the Leone brothers’ mother when they were 12 years old. While such a profound loss will cut deep at any age, the thought of the song from a child’s perspective makes it hard to stomach.
“Make It Stop (September’s Children)” – Rise Against
Upon casual listening, Rise Against‘s “Make It Stop (September’s Children)” may just seem like another display of emo-punk angst. It’s much more profound, though. The song is a response to a string of nine teenage suicides that occurred in September 2010 as a result of LGBTQ+-targeted bullying. At the 3:04 mark, you can hear Tim McIlrath reading off five of the names and ages of the deceased. The backstory gives a somber context to lines such as, “I’m born free, but still they hate/I’m born me, no, I can’t change.”
What are the saddest backstories to emo songs that you know of? Tell us about them in the comments!