From E-Girls To Emos: Lockdown TikTok Is Taking Us Back To Our Alt Roots

During the first UK lockdown, a Spotify notification announced that I was one of My Chemical Romance's top listeners. Worldwide. This was amusing to my friends, who imagined me playing "I'm Not Okay" on a continuous loop (in the shower, through a carefully concealed earphone on work calls) but, actually, that wasn't too far from the truth. And were any of us really okay?
Since the pandemic started, I've become a lot more in tune with my punk roots. While any old pictures of my sweeping fringe and fake lip ring disappeared with MySpace, I've felt comfortable enough to log on to professional Zooms in head-to-toe Good Charlotte merch, reclaimed the full eyelid wing although totally housebound and, before salons shut up shop, I'd booked in to dye my dark brown hair moody blue. It's not just me. I'm part of a wider collective of millennials and Gen Z who feel as though the pandemic has allowed them to dial up their alternative identity.
This is particularly true for the way many of us are approaching beauty at the moment. Nationwide salon closures mean we're back to experimenting with DIY hair colours and cuts, with red and pink reigning supreme among celebrities, and messy layers everywhere you look on Instagram. At the end of 2020, Pinterest touted bleached brows as one of their most pinned beauty trends, and My Chemical Romance teamed up with beauty brand HipDot on a makeup collection inspired by their bestselling album, Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. Everything sold out in less than one minute. Add to that the announcement of Halsey's makeup brand, about-face – inspired by e-girls no less – and Avril Lavigne's long-awaited comeback (that hair!) and it's official: we're more invested in our alternative identities than ever before.
This isn't necessarily a revival; alternative culture has always been here. But during the pandemic, it has found new platforms on which to thrive. While Twitter and Instagram are among them, the most popular is arguably TikTok. From scene kids sharing their hair routines to e-girl makeup amassing thousands of hashtags and everyone doing the #emochallenge ("put a finger down if you've ever cut your own fringe"), our alt roots are loud and proud. Hair and makeup is likely the first thing you'll spot on TikTok or Instagram but this isn't merely aesthetic. To talk about alternative culture without touching on the music from which it was born wouldn't do it justice (hello, Attack Attack! comeback). But the amplification of alt imagery and identity does feel connected to this very point in history.
For writer and editor Gina Tonic, who grew up in the Welsh valleys, focusing on her emo side is a lot to do with nostalgia, especially at a time when not much is happening in our individual lives thanks to constant lockdown restrictions. "The feelings of isolation and being sat in our rooms all day has made me so reminiscent of my teenage lifestyle where I did exactly what I'm doing now: sitting at home, listening to music and being alone with my thoughts," Gina told me. "I've found myself digging up old bands I totally forgot about, as well as reaching for some of the classic albums; 'Misery Business' anyone?"
Gina says that turning her alternative side up a notch represents something deeper, pinned to the times we're living through. "Screaming along to lyrics about how shit the world is and how we feel seems more apt than ever, and representing we feel this way through beauty and fashion choices is a concept as old as beauty and fashion itself," she says. "Just recently, I went through a phase of wearing loads of yellow and orange eyeshadow à la Hayley Williams," Gina adds, and I'm sure she won't mind me saying that she went just as wild as me for the MCR x HipDot eyeshadow palette. Yes, we set alarms.
Of course, alternative identity has many facets but hair and makeup have long been distinctive markers. Personally, being at home with nothing but my own company has encouraged me to present as my most authentic self. As I scroll through the Insta feeds of my favourite beauty brands, from Beauty Bay to MAC, I notice that there is less of a focus on high glamour or conventionally 'pretty' beauty looks and more emphasis on Gerard Way-inspired red eyeshadow and all-encompassing eyeliner. R29's executive assistant, Lauren Seaton, seconds this. "I think it's about being able to be yourself without going outside and being judged," they tell me. "As an adult, I've been asked when will I grow out of it. But now, I get to be myself at home. I listen to what I want and wear what I want without people at work looking at me weird. I can literally be my big titty goth self and I don't have to give a fuck."
It's not just makeup. According to Sophia Hilton, hairstylist and founder of Not Another Salon, there has been an increase in people experimenting with their hair, too. "Crazy Color is through the roof," says Sophia, who pinpoints '90s e-girl stripes and dip dyes as popular colour trends. Like Lauren, she puts this down to a "fuck it" attitude, suggesting we aren't worrying about what others might think. While bold hair is synonymous with alternative subcultures, like cybergoth and scene, for 22-year-old Kit Dickson, TikToker and founder of jewellery brand, Kitschy, it's deeper than surface level. Like millennials, Gen Z are connecting more with their alternative selves during the pandemic and apps like TikTok are allowing them to channel it unapologetically. "I've seen lots of people starting to reconnect with their teenage identities, hobbies and interests again because of the pandemic," says Kit. "Self-expression and self-identity are hugely important values to me. Nearing the end of 2019, I had definitely lost that sense of self and found it hard to be expressive with my appearance. But 2020 completely changed that, especially after joining TikTok and being inspired by a lot of the wonderful creators on the app."
Gina isn't surprised that alternative culture, in particular emo, is resonating so much with Gen Z right now. "Gen Z are being shat upon from all angles," she says, "so if anyone deserves to scream along to MCR's 'I'm Not Okay', it's them. Lockdown is robbing them of their most formative years." If anything, alternative culture, especially the aesthetic, can feel affirming at a time when things are so uncertain. "I initially dyed my hair pink," says Kit, "then extra time spent in the house basically led to me experimenting with style, fashion, accessories and makeup more often because there wasn't much else to do. But when I started making videos on TikTok in May, I began to try new looks, similar to how I did when I was a teenager. More recently, I've started to experiment with wigs and I love how they can completely transform a look. I've personally found confidence. I've also gained inspiration from people I have seen on TikTok to amp up my own appearance."
For 21-year-old journalist and TikToker Yasmine Summan, being alone is most definitely a factor in elevating their alternative identity. "I've always been a raging emo but I haven't really had the time to sit down and reflect on the past 10 years of emo culture, music and so on," they say. "Being alone has only amplified the burning desire to wear black clothing and listen to Pierce The Veil to be totally honest." Like Gina, Yasmine has found comfort in their emo-ness. "I want to dive headfirst into that," they say. "Without the distractions of life and work, we've had time to reflect on ourselves and pursue our hobbies." While the aesthetic is a key part of alternative culture, there's a lot more to it. "Emo music has been around since the '80s and is what started the genre," says Yasmine. "The actual style trickled in around the '00s. That being said, I have a massive love for the aesthetic; it's indescribable. It's so big, bright and beautiful but so dark and depressing at the same time." And it's fair to say we're living through some pretty dark and depressing times right now.
Thanks to social media, alternative culture has taken steps (albeit small ones) towards diversity and inclusion, too. On TikTok, the #altblackgirl hashtag has 37 million views, while goth, emo and scene hair tutorials show a variety of hair types and textures. There is still a way to go, though. "As a person of colour, seeing the rise of emo on TikTok once again has been strange," says Yasmine. "Old habits die hard it seems, and it is a very white-dominated climate — music and aesthetic-wise. It's disheartening to see that most search results and the top of every hashtag on any platform is white creators, but TikTok is one platform that really pushes for diversity in every pocket of alternative culture. It feels like change is actually coming."
Alternative subcultures have also become something of a virtual support bubble thanks to TikTok, where a sense of community and acceptance is fostered through video. Both Gina and Yasmine hit home the importance of subcultural identity at a time when we're physically separated from one another. "People need something to relate to and feel included in," says Yasmine. "These times are so lonely, a subculture offers a second home to people." Kit agrees: "I grew up outside a small town and knew very few alternative folx, but after starting to post on TikTok, I've formed many online friendships," she says. "TikTok has connected people from all over the world based on personal and niche interests," she adds. "I suppose, in a way, the people you come across on the 'For You' page when you are a part of 'alt TikTok' are very similar to those you might pass by or interact with at a festival like Download or Slam Dunk, just in an online environment." Kit continues: "Alternative makeup and hairstyles are so iconic and quite literally a work of art. They kind of act as a visual code for the type of person you are and the subculture you associate with."
It's not surprising that we've dialled things up this past year. Anything that makes us feel a little more like ourselves, or part of something bigger than the four walls of our bedroom, is always going to be a good thing. And while it looks as though we might not make this year's Hella Mega Tour (thanks, COVID), it's obvious that alt identity is unwavering, and TikTok is keeping it well and truly alive.

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