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At the end of the 1990s, the underground emo scene had almost entirely disappeared. However, the term emo was still being bandied about in mainstream media, almost always attached to the few remaining 90s emo acts, including Jimmy Eat World.

However, towards the end of the 1990s, Jimmy Eat World had begun to shift in a more mainstream direction. Where 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". As the public had become aware of the word emo and knew that Jimmy Eat World was associated with it, the band continued to be referred to as an "emo" band, despite their objections. 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. Despite musically being more aligned to the singer songwriter school, 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.

With Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World's success, major labels began seeking out similar sounding bands. Just as many bands of the early-to-mid 1990s were unwillingly lumped under the umbrella of "grunge", some record labels wanted to be able to market a new sound under the word emo.

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 an even more expanded way than in the 90s, emo has come to encompass an extremely wide variety of bands, many of whom have very little in common. The term has become so broad that it has become nearly impossible to describe what exactly qualifies as "emo".

The classification of bands as "emo" is often controversial. Fans of several of the listed bands have recoiled at the use of the "emo" tag, and have gone to great lengths to explain why they don't qualify as "emo". In many cases, the term has simply been attached to them because of musical similarities, a common fashion sense, or because of the band's popularity within the "emo" scene, not because the band adheres to emo as a music genre.

As a result of the continuing shift of "emo" over the years, a serious schism has emerged between those who relate to particular eras of "emo". Those who were closely attached to the hardcore origins recoil when another type of music is called "emo". Many involved in the independent nature of both 80s and 90s emo are upset at the perceived hijacking of the word emo to sell a new generation of major label music. Regardless, popular culture appears to have embraced the terms of "emo" far beyond its original intentions.

In a strange twist, screamo, a sub-genre of the new emo, has found greater popularity in recent years through bands such as Thrice and Glassjaw. The term screamo, however, was used to describe an entirely different genre in the early 1990s, and the new screamo bands more resemble the emo of the early 1990s. Complicating matters further is that several small scenes devoted to original screamo still exist in the underground. However, the new use of "screamo" demonstrates how the shift in terms connected to "emo" has made the varying genres difficult to categorize.

The difficulty in defining "emo" as a genre may have started at the very beginning. In a 2003 interview by Mark Prindle, Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and Rites of Spring was asked how he felt about "being the creator of the emo genre". He responded: "I don't recognize that attribution. I've never recognized 'emo' as a genre of music. I always thought it was the most retarded term ever. I know there is this generic commonplace that every band that gets labeled with that term hates it. They feel scandalized by it. But honestly, I just thought that all the bands I played in were punk rock bands. The reason I think it's so stupid is that - what, like the Bad Brains weren't emotional? What - they were robots or something? It just doesn't make any sense to me."

Fashion and stereotype
Emo is also often associated with a certain fashion. The term "emo" is sometimes stereotyped with tight jeans on males and females alike, long fringe (bangs) brushed to one side of the face or over one or both eyes, dyed black, straight hair, tight t-shirts (sometimes with short-sleves) which often bear the names of rock bands (or other designed shirts), studded belts, belt buckles, canvas sneakers or skate shoes or other black shoes (often old and beaten up) and thick, black horn-rimmed glasses. Emo fashion has changed with time. Early trends included straight, unparted hair, tightly fitting sweaters, button-down shirts, and work jackets. This fashion has at times been characterized as a fad.

In recent years the popular media has associated emo with a stereotype that includes being emotional, sensitive, shy, introverted, or angsty. It is also associated with depression, self-injury, and suicide.

As certain fashion trends and attitudes began to be associated with "emo", stereotypes emerged that created a specific target for criticism. In the early 2000s, the criticism was relatively light-hearted and self-effacing. In ensuing years, the derision increased dramatically. Male fans of emo found themselves hit with homosexual slurs, largely a reflection of the style of dress popular within the "emo scene" and the purported displays of emotion common in the scene. Complaints pointed to the histrionic manner in which the emotions were expressed. In 2008, Time Magazine reported that people the article referred to as "anti-emos" attacked groups of emo teenagers in Mexico City, Santiago de Querétaro in Mexico and Tijuana

In October of 2003, Punk Planet contributor Jessica Hopper leveled the charge that the current era of emo was sexist. Hopper argued that where bands such as Jawbox, Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate had characterized women in such a way that they were not "exclusively defined by their absence or lensed through romantic-specter", contemporary bands approached relationship issues by "damning the girl on the other side ... its woman-induced misery has gone from being descriptive to being prescriptive". Regarding the position of women listening to emo, Hopper went on to note that the music had become "just another forum where women were locked in a stasis of outside observation, observing ourselves through the eyes of others".

Critics of modern emo have argued that there is a tendency toward increasingly generic and homogenized style. Many popular bands have attempted to disassociate themselves with the "emo" tag; some have adopted the genre designation post-hardcore. Despite the criticism, the modern version of emo has maintained mainstream popularity. However, given the disfavor of the term "emo", the future of the genre remains unclear.

In September 2006, emo music was criticised by Tom Meighan lead singer of rock band Kasabian, who complained about the depressing nature of the lyrics and its lack of positives.