This article is part of the In Defense of the Genre series. Previously, the interplay of spite and insecurity in Fall Out Boy.
When I was thirteen and fourteen, I’d go to the next town over, my mother’s hometown, to hang out with friends I’d made primarily through a common interest in the kind of contemporary alternative rock music played on music video channels like Kerrang and Scuzz: broadly punk, metal and indie rock, and specifically, in our case, nu metal, industrial rock, hardcore and, of course, pop punk. I’d get the bus in the morning, meet my friends, loiter in public spaces for however many hours, argue about whether Rammstein were selling out or something, and then go to my grandmother’s house until my mother came in to pick me up. Sometimes, I’d ditch my friends early to hang out with her longer.
My grandmother always took a genuine interest in whatever mattered to me, whether it was the pages upon pages of superheroes I’d draw in sketch books as a child or the loud, angry music that was my overwhelming passion for most of my adolescence. She shared my love of music, if not of genre: her home was filled top to bottom with shelf after shelf of cassettes and CDs, mostly country, though she wasn’t altogether averse to rock music. We talked about music a lot, and though there were occasions where we could meet in the middle – I still have a DVD she gave me of thirty years of Meat Loaf music videos – mainly each of us talked to the other about what we liked and why we liked it.
When I think of her now, my strongest memory is the late summer day I came in clutching a CD I’d just bought, Good Charlotte’s The Chronicles of Life and Death, only four years too late to help it chart in Ireland. Though I’d told my grandmother lots about the music I liked, she’d never actually heard any of it, and she insisted I put it on for her. I wasn’t altogether thrilled with the idea, but I did as I was told and played the title track. The song isn’t subtle. It opens and closes with a beeping heart monitor, it goes from cradle to grave in two verses, and the chorus climaxes with Joel Madden shouting “you come in this world / and you go out just the same”. I really liked the song and I really wanted my grandmother to like it too. When it was done playing, she turned to me and said “you’re here one day and you’re gone the next, sure isn’t that the truth”. She liked it.
I never saw my grandmother again. She died suddenly a few weeks later on September 18th, 2008.
The Chronicles of Life and Death is not a good album, but after my grandmother died, it was one of the most important albums ever made. I didn’t have high-speed broadband or my own computer, so when I needed to sit in my room and listen to sad music for a long time, it came down to just about the only three CDs I owned at the time, Chronicles and the greatest hits albums of Marilyn Manson and Blink-182. I listened to all of them on a loop for what must have been weeks, and at my lowest points, I pretty much just played “Ghost of You” by Good Charlotte, “I Miss You” by Blink-182 and Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” one after another, over and over, manually swapping out each disc, replacing it with the next and skipping past every other song to the one that wouldn’t make me feel better, not exactly, but would let me feel out the grief, at least a little.
I’ve had to grieve a lot over the past decade-and-change, and music has been a big part of it, not just as an individual, but with my family. My grandmother’s children and grandchildren together in my aunt’s kitchen, warbling along to Dr. Hook. The tearful rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” on the first day of the first year after our most recent loss. The discussions over which songs would be played as each casket was lowered into the ground. I always remember my cousin and I overhearing that and deciding to choose our songs in advance so no one would have to figure it out. He went with one of the classics, “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. I picked “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” by The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald, because I didn’t think my family would appreciate My Chemical Romance. It was a running joke between us, until it wasn’t. He passed away suddenly last year, on September 23rd. Sure enough, as my family clutched each other by his grave, Bocelli roared from the undertaker’s cheap amplifier, the speaker cracking like a sore throat, too small and brittle for the song.
Lots of music sounds like grief to me now. The funeral songs, like “Kingston Town” or “Thinking Out Loud”. Music about grief I liked anyway, like Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, that only cuts deeper year after year, offering me a glimpse at how other people have survived this. Artists I shared with those I’ve lost, like Dr. Hook or Linkin Park or Eminem, the latter of whom I associate so strongly with my cousin that I’ve cried in the shower because “Ass Like That” came on Spotify. Lots of music sounds like grief to me now, but most of it sounds like the grief I share with others. Lots of music sounds like grief, but only pop punk sounds like my grief. More and more, I don’t know how to process death any other way.
Pop punk is fundamentally a genre for teenagers, and because teenagers feel everything as urgently and viscerally as possible, pop punk has always been characterised by a melodramatic approach to emotions. Pop punk is the biggest feelings performed at a level that borders on – and sometimes tips over into – cringeworthy, sincerity and earnestness turned up to eleven until it “alienates everyone but those that need it the most”. And, for me, there’s no feeling as big or as melodramatic as grief. I dreaded reaching this point in the essay because I’ve spent nearly half my life trying to express my grief and I just can’t do it. Sometimes I manage it in bits and pieces. I wrote one of my first poems, “Slow Down”, two years after my grandmother died. While I was writing it, I looked up her obituary online and, even two years later, reading it fucked me up so much that I threw a chair at someone in school the next day because I just couldn’t bear to hear other people living their lives as if nothing had happened. Grief is the most awful feeling I’ve ever had to bear, and it simultaneously demands I express it and leaves me totally inarticulate. It’s too big to feel or speak or bury inside. It’s too much. And if there’s a genre that knows a thing or two about “too much”, it’s pop punk.
Good Charlotte and Blink-182 were my mainstays in the immediate aftermath of my grandmother’s death, and Tom DeLonge’s plaintive cries of “don’t waste your time on me / you’re already the voice inside my head” still hit some deep aching part of my heart all these years later. But in the long view of my seemingly endless grieving process, nothing has given me as much release and catharsis as My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. Their sophomore album, it’s ostensibly about a dead man who makes a deal with the devil to kill a thousand evil people in exchange for reuniting him with his love back in life, but the concept is just a thin framing device for a bombastic, histrionic exploration of grief. When Sufjan Stevens hits his breaking point on Carrie & Lowell, he drops one of just two f-bombs in his entire career – “fuck me, I’m falling apart” on “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” – but Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge is all breaking point. It starts with a couple of bars of low, almost whispered singing and then, apart from a brief interlude, it’s just loud, loud, loud.
I could point to dozens of lyrics I’ve borrowed to express my own grief, and I will, but Three Cheers is first and foremost an album that sounds like mourning. With the pointed exception of “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”, the guitars are harsh and abrasive, grinding on your ear like a dull saw in one moment and exploding like a nail bomb in the next. Gerard doesn’t so much sing as wail large sections of the album, whether it’s the gut-wrenching way he howls “she dies” in “The Ghost of You” or his screams of “I miss you / I miss you / so far” on “Cemetery Drive”. Three Cheers is the more melodic follow-up to the rough, noisy New Jersey garage punk of their debut album, but it doesn’t so much smooth out the jagged edges of their sound as create a whole new kind of jaggedness, the songs bursting open where the emotions are too big for them to contain. There’s no song on this album, apart from the instrumental one, that doesn’t sound like falling to your knees and screaming in anguish.
But anguish is only the half of it. Pop punk’s commitment to sincerity isn’t limited to pain and sorrow and heartache, it’s all-encompassing. It doesn’t exclude any emotion, however ugly or inconvenient it may be. Not rage, not disgust, not even spite. Instead it offers a space for those socially proscribed emotions – impolite feelings that no one is supposed to experience but everyone inevitably does – to be felt through, expressed and exorcised. Fall Out Boy are particularly good at this, but every pop punk band worth its salt does it. Songs where you wish a violent death on someone who’s hurt you are practically a subgenre, from Alkaline Trio’s “Radio” (“I wish you / would take my radio to bathe with you / plugged in and ready to fall”) to Brand New’s “Seventy Times 7” (“have another drink and drive yourself home / I hope there’s ice on the roads / and you can think of me when you forget your seatbelt / and again when your head goes through the windshield”). And the ugly and inconvenient truth is that sometimes grief manifests itself like this, with anger and cruelty and, well, vengefulness.
I’ve been so angry since my cousin died and now that I’m too emotionally stable to chuck furniture at people about it, music has been my crutch. At the low end of the scale, songs like The Wonder Years’ “Cul-de-Sac” give voice to the kind of ambient rage that simmers inside all the time because of what I’ve lost. Dan Campbell sings “we fucked up everything we came in contact with / just boyhood recklessness” and it’s my cousin and I smashing streetlights and sneaking drinks from the cupboard under the sink. He screams “I thought my kids would call you uncle / I thought we’d never be alone” and it’s the thought that my cousin won’t be at my wedding. The subject of “Cul-de-Sac” died of a drug overdose, whereas my cousin died accidentally, but my heart burns with the same fury and frustration when Campbell says his friend died “on some bullshit pill-bottle vision quest”. I obviously don’t blame my cousin for his death, but at my lowest points, there’s a part of me asking why. Why did you have to be there? Why couldn’t you have done something different? How dare you die when I loved you so much?
But it’s not really about the person you lost, most of the time. You latch onto them as an emblem of every unnameable thing that can’t be confronted directly, the unfairness of having to live in a world without them, the agony of facing a future they’re not in, how every second brings you closer to the time when you’ve lived longer without them than with them, the arbitrariness of who lives and who dies, and the awful, intolerable reality that, most of the time, there’s no one for you to blame. Death just happens, and it’s so infuriating that you wish it had a face for you to punch.
Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge is an album that knows that feeling intimately and revels in it. When I say that other music sounds like grief, but pop punk sounds like mine, I’m talking about “It’s Not a Fashion Statement, It’s a Deathwish”. The lyrics are directed at a vague “you” that’s inconsistently identified with a lost loved one, someone who’s wronged the singer, or no one at all. For most of the song, it could be any or all of the above, and it kind of is. It’s a revenge song, not against anyone in particular, but against the injustice of grief itself. It’s so gloriously self-righteous, even smug, a rope-a-dope in song form. Some days, I’m just floored by the weight of it all, and the idea of getting up and doing anything is barely thinkable. Grief is pinning me down and I’m not really sure why I’d even bother to put up a fight. But then I listen to this song and this hole you put me in / wasn’t deep enough / and I’m climbing out right now and I’m on my feet and ready to face down this stupid, awful, unjust fucking world. I look grief in the face and put up my fists and scream you’re running out of places / to hide from me, because this is my eleventh-hour comeback. Just when everything seems hopeless, I clock grief right in its ugly face and it’s staggered, it falls back onto the ropes, and sure it’ll make a comeback later and lay me out with an uppercut, but right now, in this moment, I’m taking back the life you stole and it feels so good, like feeling the grief is defeating it.
“Fashion Statement” is the cipher that unlocks the album’s whole approach to loss, busted up and beaten down, spitting the blood from your mouth and laughing in the face of every painful thing. Whether it’s that song’s self-righteous fury or “Thank You for the Venom”, with its enthusiastic self-sacrifice, begging others to put their burdens on you, to make you their sin-eater, suffering on their behalf. “Give me all your poison / and give me all your pills / and give me all your hopeless hearts and make me ill”. Keep it coming, I can take it. It’s the exhilarating sense of invincibility when the worst thing you can imagine has already happened to you and you’re still standing. “Grab your six-gun from your back / throttle the ignition / would I die for you?” sings Gerard on “Hang ‘Em High” because it’s not enough to imagine gunning down your pain or running it over with your car, you have to do both. The cymbals crash and the guitars shriek and there’s a smirk on your face as you imagine flooring the accelerator, the recoil of the revolver rippling up your arm.
I love lots of soft, lovely, sad songs about grief, like Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day” or The Mountain Goats’ “Pale Green Things”. I don’t need to tell you how many times I’ve listened to “Nothing Compares 2 U” over the last few months. Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” has taken on a bluntly literal significance, and it’s impossible to hear “Shadow of the Day” by Linkin Park without thinking of myself and my cousin singing along to that very song when we saw them live on the Minutes to Midnight Tour. I’ve choked on the final verse of “Spider Song”: “and you used to tell me how you’d live forever / it’s okay, that’s not what you tell me anymore”. But, for the most part, my grief is not soft and lovely and sad. It’s hysterical and overwhelming and loud, and Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge is the music that meets me at my level. And thank God, because if I’ve learned one thing from a decade of grief, it’s that even when it doesn’t pile up on top of you over and over, it never goes away. You’ll always carry around that bit of rage in your heart, that drop of spite. Grieving is forever.