In the mid-1980s, the term emo described a subgenre of hardcore punk which stemmed from the Washington, D.C. music scene. In later years, the term emocore, short for "emotional hardcore", was also used to describe the emotional performances of bands in the Washington, D.C. scene and some of the offshoot regional scenes such as Rites of Spring, Embrace or Moss Icon. In the mid-1990s, the term emo began to refer to the indie scene that followed the influences of Fugazi, which itself was an offshoot of the first wave of emo. Bands including Sunny Day Real Estate, Jimmy Eat World, and Texas Is the Reason had a more indie rock style of emo, more melodic and less chaotic.
While Jimmy Eat World had played emocore-style music early in their career, by the time of the release of their 2001 album Bleed American, the band had downplayed its emo influences, releasing more pop-oriented singles such as "The Middle" and "Sweetness". Newer bands that sounded like Jimmy Eat World (and, in some cases, like the more melodic emo bands of the late 90s) were soon included in the genre.
2003 saw the success of Chris Carrabba, the former singer of emo band Further Seems Forever, and his project Dashboard Confessional. Carraba found himself part of the emerging "popular" emo scene. Carrabba's music featured lyrics founded in deep diary-like outpourings of emotion. While certainly emotional, the new "emo" had a far greater appeal amongst adolescents than its earlier incarnations.
At the same time, use of the term "emo" expanded beyond the musical genre, which added to the confusion surrounding the term. The word "emo" became associated with open displays of strong emotion. Common fashion styles and attitudes that were becoming idiomatic of fans of similar "emo" bands also began to be referred to as "emo." As a result, bands that were loosely associated with "emo" trends or simply demonstrated emotion began to be referred to as emo.
In a strange twist, screamo, a more aggressive sub-genre of emo that began in the early 1990s, also had a reformulation of sound and has found greater popularity in recent years through bands such as Glassjaw.The difficulty in defining "emo" as a genre may have started at the very beginning.