OWhen My Chemical Romance announced their reunion tour in early 2020 – the band’s first long spell on the road in almost a decade – they quickly sold out three nights this month at Milton Keynes Stadium (30,000 seats) and moved 228,000 tickets for their North American tour in less than seven hours. It’s not an unusual situation: before their split in 2013, the American quartet often made headlines in arenas and festivals. The difference is that back then they were unlikely superstars, misfits who inadvertently seeped into the mainstream – now they’re returning to a pop cultural landscape they helped define.
Led by vocalist Gerard Way, a talented comic artist who grew up listening to punk, metal and Britpop, they began scrapping through the early 2000s basement hardcore circuit alongside bands such as Thursday. Their music took a darker turn on 2004’s breakthrough Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, an album influenced by the darker moments of The Cure and the goth-tinged punk fury of Misfits and the Damned. Following the success of this album, My Chemical Romance (MCR) quickly shifted gears once again. Spurred on by the UK’s No. 1 hit Welcome to the Black Parade, a multi-part epic in the spirit of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the band embraced Bowie-caliber shapeshifting, Pink Floyd grandeur and hammering riffs. of glam rock on 2006’s The Black Parade. MCR’s final album to date, 2010’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, was yet another departure, drawing inspiration from the bratty punk, swagger rock of the 80s and colorful new wave keyboards.
To the shock of many, the band called it quits in 2013. In the years since, Way has been open about the difficulty of navigating stardom, describing it as “extremely traumatic”, and stressed the importance of therapy for his well-being. “I needed the last seven or eight years to process that experience,” he said last year. MCR also faced unique pressures in addition to the cost of visibility: as the most prominent emo group in the world, they were often misunderstood at best, if not dangerously misinterpreted, and became the subject of a moral panic worthy of the time of Mary Whitehouse.
Way’s emotionally vulnerable and often raw lyrics made no secret of the tough times. “The triumph of the human spirit over darkness was something that was kind of built into the band’s DNA from the start,” Way said last year. But part of the media has scapegoated this side of the group as the cause, not a symptom, of a burgeoning youth mental health crisis. In 2008, MCR was linked in the news to Hannah Bond, a 13-year-old girl from Kent, a fan who died by suicide. Coverage of his death focused on his love of emo music; a Mail Online headline shouted “Why no child is safe from the sinister emo cult”, while another article on the same site called MCR a “suicide cult” group. In his inquest into Bond’s death, Coroner Roger Sykes concluded: “the emo overtones regarding the death and associating it with glamour, I find very disturbing”.
It can be said that the defamation of the genre has put the fans in danger. In 2007, hard rock and MCR fan Sophie Lancaster was beaten to death by a mob of strangers in Bacup, Lancashire, targeted, according to police, for dressing in goth style. The following year, violence against emo fans spread to Mexico, where three teenagers were severely beaten in Querétaro, north of Mexico City. Speaking to NPR, journalist Ioan Grillo attributed the conflict to class differences and homophobia. “When you saw the steps, a lot of people were very clearly shouting the Mexican words or the slurs that people use for gay people,” Grillo said.
The emo-blaming reaction from the media sparked outrage and sparked protests from fans as well as a tough response from the band. “We have always made it one of our missions through our actions to bring comfort, support and consolation to our fans,” they wrote at the time, while noting that they were “anti-violence and anti-suicide”. . They said The Black Parade in particular had “hope and courage” as its message. “Our lyrics are about finding the strength to carry on through pain and difficult times. The final song on our album declares, “I’m not afraid to live on” – a sentiment that embodies the band’s stance on the difficulties we all face as human beings.
Not civilization saboteurs, MCR directly addressed the feelings of depression and alienation felt by large numbers of young people. Their endurance in the face of smear campaigns speaks to the urgency with which they understood their fans. And despite their melodramatic styles, the group were no schlock dealers: they originally emerged as the horrified emotional response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “This broken city sky / Like butane on my skin,” Way sings in the first song Skylines and Turnstiles.
From these origins, MCR has made lethality and radical honesty about uncomfortable topics part of its DNA. Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge’s first track, Helena, references the late grandmother of Gerard and his brother Mikey Way against a backdrop of guilt and self-recrimination, while I’m Not Okay (I Promise) is marked by a crumbling facade of bravado: their idea of punk rebellion was to admit that your brave front is actually a mirage. The Black Parade is a concept album about a person dying of cancer and reminiscing about his life in flashbacks. Though earnest, the album has moments of levity — like in Teenagers, a very appropriate song that parodies how adults fear teenagers — that speak to the highs and lows of grief. Meanwhile, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys confronts capitalism and oppression.
Musically, too, the band was more complex than the ’emo’ tag suggested: MCRs were classics putting a contemporary spin on influences such as Queen, Alice Cooper, Bowie and Smashing Pumpkins. They also made explicit the flirtations of these acts with gender boundaries. Way was inspired by the early 80s looks of Duran Duran, the vampiric pallor of Dave Vanian of The Damned and the androgyny of Brian Molko of Placebo. He often sported severe black raccoon eyes or myxomatosis red shadow, a platinum crop reminiscent of ’70s Lou Reed shades or a cartoonish shock of tomato red hair. During the era of The Black Parade, band members wore black marching band uniforms which were formal and severe, yet also country.
For Way, these theatrical gestures were a way to push the boundaries of his identity. “I’ve always identified with the female gender and at some point in MCR I started expressing it through my looks and my performance style,” he said. He named the likes of Freddie Mercury, Bowie, Iggy Pop and T-Rex, adding, “For me, masculinity always made me feel like it wasn’t good for me.”
Displaying heteronormative stereotypes was another thing that made MCR an easy target for harassment. Once again, they have used this unenviable position to advocate for those who are hardest hit by these prejudices. While on tour in support of his 2014 solo album, Hesitant Alien, Way voiced his support for trans and non-binary people during onstage speeches. “I identify a lot with trans people and women because I was a girl to a lot of people growing up,” he later told Boy Zine. Expressing her femininity through MCR gave her hope, he said. “I want to make sure women and men and everyone else feels safe and empowered.” In 2015, guitarist Ray Toro dedicated his solo song For the Lost and Brave to Leelah Alcorn, a 15-year-old American transgender teenager who took her own life and left a heartbreaking note. “Yet another young life gone because it wasn’t heard, wasn’t understood and wasn’t loved unconditionally for who it truly was,” Toro wrote on his website.
During the band’s absence, their stature and impact have grown tremendously, not least because popular culture has caught up with their ethos of emotional vulnerability and boundary-breaking self-expression. Today, MCR returns to a world where being emo is so common that rapper Machine Gun Kelly released a song called Emo Girl and collaborated with Bring Me the Horizon, while Grammy-winning sensation Olivia Rodrigo channels Paramore. and collaborates with Dan Nigro, singer-guitarist of the indie-emo band of the 2000s As Tall as Lions.
This may all be a passing fad – but the realm of alternative rock left behind by MCR has grown in their image: it’s a place where greater honesty, empathy and a willingness to understand mental health difficulties, and in which gender and gender boundaries dissolve. The late rappers Lil Peep and Juice Wrld continue to have large followings thanks to their deeply vulnerable personal lyrics. After more than two years of the pandemic, a group of songwriters known to be outspoken about mental health — such as Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Soccer Mommy and Japanese Breakfast — have high profiles.
Today, MCR’s legacy is arguably comparable to that of Nirvana, another group of underdogs who proudly identify as outcasts. Both bands drew on underground punk influences for inspiration and spoke to the marginalized; both became cultural forces by accident. Like Kurt Cobain, Way is a outspoken feminist (and riot grrrl fan). These parallels did not escape him. “I found myself in a position where I obviously wasn’t at Kurt’s level, but I was talking to a younger generation of people,” he told GQ last year. “It doesn’t mean you have to play the fame game or the red carpet game or anything like that…Nirvana inspired us to reject those things.”
The decline in fame and refusal to back down in the face of mass media vilification allowed MCR to establish its own powerful position, which resonated strongly with admirers who also existed outside of what was considered marketable. and acceptable to the general public. Not only has the world become kinder to the “emo teens” of the world in the years since the band’s split, but being an outsider has also become highly sought after as a marker of cultural cachet. The victory lap is theirs: three cheers for sweet revenge.