This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, Paramore and demanding the time and space to deal with emotions that we’re shamed for expressing.
My Chemical Romance existed to save lives.
It’s hard to talk about with the uninitiated. It’s not unlike talking about faith to unbelievers: when you have to describe it out loud, you can hear how bizarre it is. A believer can hold their faith and their knowledge of their faith’s absurdity together without contradiction, but an unbeliever cannot understand that. CS Lewis wrote about faith as completely derived from reason, and sure, he was a lot more educated about theology than me, but that’s nonsense. Faith isn’t rational, and it wouldn’t matter if it was. “No one could have in a billion years of their gripping testimony or by showing me a radiant life of good deeds or through song or even the most beautiful of books brought me to Christ,” Nicole Cliffe (from The Toast, now sadly defunct) wrote about her conversion, “I had to be tapped on the shoulder.”
My Chemical Romance isn’t a religion, obviously. But there’s a necessary leap of faith, to understand why they matter. To accept what could be pretension or hyperbole as true. “My Chemical Romance is done. But it can never die. It is alive in me, in the guys, and it is alive inside all of you,” lead singer Gerard Way wrote in a letter to the fans after the band’s break-up, “I always knew that, and I think you did too. Because it is not a band – it is an idea.”
I can imagine someone else writing that, and I’d cringe. But Gerard Way believes it so earnestly that I believe it too.
Commitment to sincerity is something that animates every pop punk or pop punk-adjacent band worth their salt – at the genre’s best, it’s sincere enough to alienate everyone but those that need it the most. But MCR aren’t just sincere about their emotions, they’re sincere about their message. Their sincerity isn’t just exorcising demons – though they’re excellent at that – but something profound, something transcendent.
My Chemical Romance wanted to save your life. And they were so goddamn earnest about it, it was hard to write them off. “I even firmly believed in creating MCR, I was given a mission from God, not unlike the scene in The Blues Brothers,” Gerard Way wrote about his religious beliefs, “The mission involved helping people and battling the forces of evil, by using word and the purifying flames produced by Marshall Halfstack amplification.”
A lot of bands we cover in this series put words on your worst feelings. Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy sings, “Breaking hearts has never looked so cool / As when you wrap your car around a tree / Your makeup looks so great next to his teeth,” and it’s unmediated anger and cruelty and pain. It’s a space to allow you feel your worst feelings, to find expression for your worst impulses without hurting anyone. That space has been incredibly important to me – in secondary school, angry and sad and writing the ribbon on my wrist says “Do not open before Christmas” in my notebook like something to hold onto in the tumult; in college, lonely and alone and my earphones thrumming with I don’t blame you for being you, but you can’t blame me for hating it. A study by the University of Queensland found that angry music doesn’t cause anger, it matches the listener’s feelings and helps them process their anger. Obviously.
But that’s not what My Chemical Romance is for. It can be part of it: there are plenty of MCR songs about feeling awful, about wanting to die and wanting to kill. Their first EP was called Dreams Of Stabbing and/or Being Stabbed.
If that was all MCR was for, I would still love them. Their claim to save lives would sound a little overblown, but well-intentioned; creating a space for people to name their demons is a noble pursuit. But what made MCR so special – what made them so important – was their dedication to hope. Not as a feeling, because so much of MCR is dealing with the weight of despair, but as an ideal. Radical hope was the foundation of My Chemical Romance as a band, as an idea, everything they were and everything they wanted for you, too.
MCR were founded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Gerard Way was living in New York, working as an intern at Cartoon Network. He saw the towers fall, and it transformed something in him. “I literally said to myself, ‘Fuck art. I’ve gotta get out of the basement. I’ve gotta see the world. I’ve gotta make a difference.'” MCR’s first album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, is chaotic, the sound of screaming in pain and anguish. And when I say screaming, that’s not a metaphor. It’s New Jersey garage punk, sloppy and raw and alive, and Gerard screams out without art or artifice, just pure feeling. Policing the definition of punk is lame, but Bullets is really and truly a punk album – as Richard Hell put it, “Punk was about succeeding without any skills except honesty. Honesty isn’t easy though. That’s where the art, unironically, comes in.”
But even then, they were pointing to something greater: the first line of ‘Skylines and Turnstiles’, the first song MCR ever wrote, was “You’re not in this alone.” I’d spent enough time listening to ‘Adam’s Song’ by Blink-182 on repeat to already know that. (I’ve heard that a lot of people think ‘Adam’s Song’ is lame. They’re all idiots.) What really matters comes about thirty seconds later: “And if the world needs something better / Let’s give them one more reason.”
MCR’s first single on a major label was ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)’. It doesn’t sound much like anything else on that album: Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge is a quasi-concept album supposedly about “a man, a woman, and the corpses of a thousand evil men”, maybe the purest example of the hardcore-influenced pop punk that made it big during George Bush’s second term, catchy and polished enough to get radio play but loud and angry enough to scare your parents. But ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)’ sounds like California pop punk from the 1990s: it’s a really traditional pop song with guitars and occasional wailing in the vocals. But it doesn’t sound like a label-mandated single. It sounds like a declaration of intent. Gerard screams “I’m not o-fucking-kay”, and the first time you heard it, your heart burst in your chest. It’s a line in the sand, standing in stark contrast to its pop punk contemporaries – Simple Plan’s ‘Welcome to My Life’ or ‘I’m Just a Kid’ sound bloodless by comparison. That’s important to what MCR is: the ability to name your demons. I’m not o-fucking-kay.
But you can’t talk about ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)’ without talking about the music video. MCR were great at music videos, embracing their storytelling possibilities without ever getting so bogged down in dialogue that the song gets lost, and they’re maybe the only band I love whose music videos feel like necessary parts of the canon. The ‘I’m Not Okay’ video is particularly special, functioning as a mission statement for a band on a mission. It’s set in a private school, not unlike Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and it opens with Ray Toro and Gerard Way sitting on some steps.
“You like D&D, Audrey Hepburn, Fangoria, Harry Houdini and croquet,” Ray says, “You can’t swim, you can’t dance, and you don’t know karate. Face it, you’re never gonna make it.”
“I don’t wanna make it,” Gerard replies, “I just wanna –”
Cue the guitar.
“They left it open, left it bare. I just wanna. I can’t tell you how important that is to me, I just wanna…” Aly Seeberger wrote for One Band One Week, “Sometimes it is enough to be alive, to want in its barest, broadest sense, and to recognize that you are fucked up right now and maybe it’s permanent and maybe it’s not but it is yours and you own it and you can scream it from the rooftops anytime you want.”
Text flashes on the screen throughout: “IF YOU EVER FELT” and then a series of one-word endings, including alone, rejected, confused, anxious, wrong, angry, and ashamed. There’s also “curious”, accompanied by a boy looking at another boy in the locker room, and someday, I’m sure, I’ll write about how central gay and gender non-conforming stuff is to MCR’s whole deal. Eventually we get the rest of the sentence: “BE PREPARED TO FEEL REVENGE. FEEL THE ROMANCE.” Then another fill-in-the-blank segment: my brutal romance, my beautiful romance, my miserable romance, and then rapid-fire until it gets to My Chemical Romance.
I love that. The declaration that this is a band for people who feel bad, who feel isolated and afraid, but mostly, be prepared to feel. It’s not a shallow comfort. It’s, importantly, not you won’t feel that way anymore, or worse, you shouldn’t feel that way. My Chemical Romance don’t think there’s anything wrong with being fucked up. But they’re a force pushing in the opposite direction.
If Fall Out Boy et al. were salve for my wounds, My Chemical Romance was my armour.
My Chemical Romance was a force, something uncontainable in any person, including the band themselves. Jeremy Gordon wrote for SPIN that MCR were “the last movement of weird-ish guitar-driven bands to reach the millions of young outsiders and oddballs waiting for something to grab them by the throat.” That phrase – grab them by the throat – sticks with me. The throat is vulnerable, a bodily centre for emotion. MCR grab you tight and refuse to let go, growling you better not fucking die on me in your ear. And you knew that they meant it, because they needed to say it to themselves, too.
You’ll never take me alive
You’ll never take me alive
Do what it takes to survive
‘Cause I’m still here
MCR meant self-preservation. Not a kind that’s quiet and selfish, not the kind that’s a moral rebranding of abdicating your responsibility to help others. MCR is about refusing to let a hostile world beat you into submission. When I call MCR armour, I mean it: the world is a hard place to live in, full of misery and cruelty, demanding that you make yourself miserable and cruel in order to survive. Millions starve while a handful of people accumulate more wealth than they could ever need, and we’re meant to accept it, unblinking. We are meant to believe that the ongoing mental health epidemic is an entirely private matter, with no social causes and no social cures, with no connection to breakdowns of communities. Daring to ask for the world to be better – to question the accepted wisdom that competition and greed are human nature – is utopian and naive. Even among those who do dare for the world to be better, it becomes easy to harden your heart, to make the cause a justification for cruelty. “Alas, we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness could not ourselves be kind.”
“We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears,” David Foster Wallace wrote, “And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete.”
To refuse this, to keep your heart open, to stare into your pain and – instead of surrendering to it – hiss what else you got, to refuse society’s lie that deadening your feelings will protect you from pain, and instead scream your feelings at the top of your lungs, to not be ashamed: it takes an immense bravery. It means finding a way to protect yourself from the hostilities of the world without closing yourself off to love and beauty and meaning, even when those things can hurt, too.
My Chemical Romance wanted to save my life. Part of that was about not killing myself – and I will never shut up about how when Gerard Way said I shouldn’t kill myself he meant it, like it was the most important thing in the world to him, because it still disgusts me at a visceral level how the Daily Mail accused MCR of being a suicide cult – but it was always about not dying on the inside, either.
The Black Parade was the first MCR album I listened to, and it’s still my favourite. It’s the concept album on which the concept is clearest, the moment when the band embraces the full breadth of its influences – most particularly glam rock, Queen, and (conceptually if not musically) Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – to become an anthemic rock band ready to take over the world. But mostly it’s just the best damn thing I’ve ever heard and I can’t intellectualise it much more than that. It’s been over a decade since I heard ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ for the first time, and my ears still prick up when I hear a G-note on the piano, I still feel my chest tighten every time it gets to “Do or die / You’ll never make me / Because the world / Will never take my heart.” It’s cliché at this point to call it “our generation’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’,” but clichés become clichés for a reason. Someday, when I’m in my forties, ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ will be given its due by the critical consensus. I can’t wait.
The best song on The Black Parade might be ‘Welcome…’, because it’s one of the best songs ever written, but ‘Famous Last Words’, the album’s last real song (there’s a hidden track called ‘Blood’ after) is the one I always come back to. ‘Famous Last Words’ is a song that knows the textures of the darkest places well enough to find its way out of them. (“This hole you put me in wasn’t deep enough, and I’m climbing out right now,” Gerard had sang on Three Cheers.) The verses of ‘Famous Last Words’ are about frailty: “Well is it hard understanding / I’m incomplete / A life that’s so demanding / I get so weak.”
But the chorus. The chorus of ‘Famous Last Words’ is perfect. It might be my favourite thing MCR ever did.
I am not afraid to keep on living
I am not afraid to walk this world alone
Singing along to ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)’ is powerful: it’s staring down your demons and coming back breathing. But singing along to ‘Famous Last Words’ is something transcendent. It is, in part, staring down your demons – not just in I get so weak, but in how I am not afraid to keep on living is only meaningful if you’ve been afraid to live. But it’s more than that: it’s vanquishing your demons. Even if only for the moment, even if they’ll be resurrected when the song ends. But that’s a whole four and a half minutes where you’re free.
There’s a narrative urgency to My Chemical Romance, not just in their concept albums but in the band as a whole. It’s part of what makes “it’s not a band – it’s an idea” something real and meaningful. “Take my fucking hand,” Gerard sings on ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ from their first album, “And never be afraid again.” MCR were a band, and a great one: I defy you not to enjoy ‘Vampire Money’, the most fun song ever written about not writing a song for the Twilight movies (on their final album, Danger Days, they abruptly became a powerpop band, and it was awesome). But when I talk about MCR saving lives, it’s not – can’t be – just that the music is good. “Never be afraid again” is a command and a promise and a hope against hope and it only matters to you if you’re already afraid. The pain is an important part of it, because MCR were – are – a band for people who need them, desperately. But from that pain, MCR sings a way out.
I believe in MCR as an idea. I burn with the hope that somewhere out there right now a sad and angry kid is listening to Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge for the first time. That MCR will help them know they’re not alone in their pain and give them the strength to not let the bastards grind them down.
The story of My Chemical Romance is courage and anguish and radical hope and never let them take you alive and sing it out for the ones that’ll hate your guts and give me all your hopeless hearts and make me ill. And if that means nothing to you – well, it alienates everyone but those that need it the most.