One evening in January, just before midnight, more than 300 people—most in old band T-shirts and ripped, black jeans—stood in line outside a bar in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. Empty Bud Light cans littered the sidewalk, and The Anthem by Good Charlotte thumped softly from speakers inside. “What’s everyone waiting for?” a passerby asked. “Hamilton!” a girl with purple lipstick shouted back, snickering. She moved ahead in line and swept her bangs under her hat, which read, in big, bold letters, “Make Emo Great Again.”
They were actually waiting to get into Emo Night BK, a semiregular series of DJ nights. It’s held mostly in Brooklyn but occasionally goes on tour to cities such as Denver, Detroit, and Las Vegas. Emo—short for “emotive hardcore music”—is a loosely defined subgenre of rock characterized by pop-punk hooks and sentimentally fraught lyrics. In other words, it’s hardly the soundtrack of a Trump rally. “This is for everyone who wants to relive their high school years”—specifically the late ’90s and early 2000s, emo’s peak—“when they didn’t have a care in the world,” says Ethan Maccoby, 26, one of Emo Night BK’s founders. He and Alex Badanes, 27, who host the parties, started throwing them while undergraduates at Tufts University and Berklee College of Music, respectively. Their original goal was simply to chill with friends and listen to great music, but since they graduated and moved to New York, the shindig has evolved into the largest emo night on the East Coast, with as many as a dozen parties a month.
Emo Night BK routinely sells out midsize concert spaces, including New York’s Irving Plaza and Brooklyn Bowl, whose talent buyer, Lucas Sacks, was one of the first to approach Maccoby and Badanes for a major venue. Sacks learned about Emo Night BK from a friend who attended one of the early events in 2015, at a small basement bar in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. “They had to turn people away within 30 minutes,” he says. “As soon as I heard that, my promoter brain kicked in.”
Other cities have their own, unrelated events; there’s Emo Night Nashville and Emo Nite LA, which celebrated its two-year anniversary in December with a birthday bash that featured 20 guest acts, including the All-American Rejects and an emo-playing marching band. A livestream of the event reached 100,000 people. Last year, Emo Nite LA spun off Emo Nite Bawltimore, its first regional offshoot.
Tickets to most emo nights are just $10, allowing fans to reexperience old bands, songs, and youthful emotions for cheap. “People like the nostalgia appeal,” says Andrew Mumm, a talent buyer at the Bell House in Brooklyn, which often hosts the Sons & Heirs, a popular tribute band to ’80s alt rockers the Smiths, considered emo predecessors by some. “We get a lot of 25- to 40-year-olds coming out,” he says. “These shows give them a shared interest and a way to express themselves.”
Maccoby and Badanes always DJ the opening set of Emo Night BK, but they also frequently invite emo celebrities like Yellowcard frontman Ryan Key to man the tables and draw the crowds. “We don’t want to admit we’re getting older, but we are,” says Key, 37. After two decades, Yellowcard is playing its last concert on March 25. “I don’t know if I’ll be looking for a record deal or touring again,” he says, “but this has been a way to connect with fans like I never have before.”
At Emo Night BK, the partygoers typically stay late—usually past 4 a.m.—and return often, according to Maccoby, who’s started to recognize familiar faces. Friends Emanuel Natera, a construction project coordinator, and Tess Smith, a hairstylist, both 31, met at an Emo Night BK and have missed only a few shows since 2015. “You meet people from all walks of life,” Natera says, “from fresh undergrads all the way down to couples with kids.” For Smith, the events are a way to revisit her youthful freedom. “Sometimes I meet people my own age with kids,” she says. “I could be a mom, but at emo night, I get to listen to music and drink beer instead. That’s the dream.”