My Chemical Romance: how the vilified band turned antipathy into triumph | Music
When My Chemical Romance announced their reunion tour in early 2020 – the band’s first extended spell on the road in nearly a decade – they promptly sold out three nights this month at Milton Keynes Stadium (30,000 seats) and shifted 228,000 tickets for their North American tour in less than seven hours. It’s not an unusual state of affairs: before their 2013 breakup, the US four-piece frequently headlined arenas and festivals. The difference is that back then, they were unlikely superstars, misfits who inadvertently infiltrated the mainstream – now, they return to a pop cultural landscape they helped to define.
Led by vocalist Gerard Way, a talented comic artist who grew up listening to punk, metal and Britpop, they started off scrapping in New Jersey’s early 00s basement-venue 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 Cure’s gloomiest moments and the gothic-tinged punk fury of Misfits and the Damned. In the wake of that album’s success, My Chemical Romance (MCR) swiftly shifted gear once again. Driven by the UK No 1 hit Welcome to the Black Parade, a multi-part epic in the spirit of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the band embraced Bowie-calibre shapeshifting, Pink Floyd’s grandeur and glam rock’s sledgehammer riffs 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, which drew on bratty punk, swaggering 80s rock and new wave’s colourful keyboards.
To the shock of many, the group called it quits in 2013. In the years since, Way has been open about how difficult fame was for him to navigate, describing it as “extremely traumatic”, and has stressed the importance of therapy to his wellbeing. “I needed the last seven or eight years to process that experience,” he said last year. MCR also faced unique pressures on top of the toll of visibility: as the world’s highest profile emo band, they were at best frequently misunderstood, even dangerously misconstrued, and became the subject of a moral panic worthy of the days of Mary Whitehouse.
Way’s emotionally vulnerable, often raw lyrics made no secret of tough times. “The triumph of the human spirit over darkness was something that was kind of built into the DNA of the band from the beginning,” Way said last year. But parts of the media scapegoated this side of the band as the cause, not a symptom, of a burgeoning youth mental health crisis. In 2008, MCR were linked in the news to 13-year-old Kent girl Hannah Bond, a fan who died by suicide. Coverage of her death zeroed in on her love of emo music; one Mail Online headline screamed “Why no child is safe from the sinister cult of emo”, while another article on the same site called MCR a “suicide cult” band. In his inquest into Bond’s death, the coroner Roger Sykes concluded: “the emo overtones concerning death and associating it with glamour I find very disturbing”.
Arguably, the vilification of the genre put fans at risk. In 2007, hard rock and MCR fan Sophie Lancaster was beaten to death by a mob of strangers in Bacup, Lancashire, targeted, police said, because she was dressed in a gothic style. The following year, violence against emo fans spilled over into Mexico, where three teenagers were severely beaten in Queretaro, north of Mexico City. Speaking to NPR, journalist Ioan Grillo attributed the conflict to class differences and homophobia. “When you saw the marches, a lot of people were shouting very clearly the Mexican words or insults people use for gay,” Grillo said.
The emo-blaming reaction of the media drew outrage, and spawned protests from fans as well as a firm response from the band. “We have always made it one of our missions through our actions to provide comfort, support, and solace to our fans,” they wrote at the time, while noting they were “anti-violence and anti-suicide”. They said that The Black Parade in particular had “hope and courage” as a message. “Our lyrics are about finding the strength to keep living through pain and hard times. The last song on our album states: ‘I am not afraid to keep on living’ – a sentiment that embodies the band’s position on hardships we all face as human beings.”
No wreckers of civilisation, MCR spoke directly to the feelings of depression and alienation experienced by vast numbers of young people. Their endurance in the face of smear campaigns speaks to how urgently they understood their fans. And despite their melodramatic stylings, the band weren’t schlock merchants: 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 early song Skylines and Turnstiles.
From these origins, MCR made mortality and radical honesty about uncomfortable topics part of their DNA. The first track on Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, Helena, references Gerard and his brother Mikey Way’s late grandmother amid 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 someone dying from cancer, and reminiscing about their life in flashbacks. Although serious, the album has moments of levity – as in Teenagers, a very apt song spoofing the way adults fear adolescents – that speak to the ups and downs of grief. Meanwhile, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys confronts capitalism and oppression.
Musically, too, the band were more complex than the “emo” tag suggested: MCR were classicists putting a contemporary spin on influences such as Queen, Alice Cooper, Bowie and Smashing Pumpkins. They also made explicit those acts’ flirtations with gender boundaries. Way drew on the early 80s looks of Duran Duran, the vampiric pallor of the Damned’s Dave Vanian and the androgyny of Placebo’s Brian Molko. He often sported severe black raccoon eyes or myxomatosis-red shadow, a platinum crop conjuring shades of 70s Lou Reed, or a cartoonish shock of tomato-red hair. Around the time of The Black Parade, the band members dressed in black marching band uniforms that were formal and stern, yet camp, too.
For Way, these theatrical gestures were a way to expand the limits of his identity. “I have always identified a fair amount with the female gender, and began at a certain point in MCR to express this through my look and performance style,” he said. He namechecked figures such as Freddie Mercury, Bowie, Iggy Pop and T-Rex, adding: “Masculinity to me has always made me feel like it wasn’t right for me.”
Flaunting heteronormative stereotypes was yet another thing that made MCR an easy target for harassment. Once again, they used this unenviable position to advocate for those at the sharp end of such prejudice. On a tour supporting his 2014 solo album, Hesitant Alien, Way expressed his support for trans and non-binary people during onstage speeches. “I identify with trans people and women a lot because I was a girl to a lot of people growing up,” he later told Boy Zine. Expressing his femininity through MCR gave him hope, he said. “I want to make sure women and men and everyone in between feel safe and empowered.” In 2015, guitarist Ray Toro dedicated his solo song For the Lost and Brave to Leelah Alcorn, a 15-year-old transgender teen from the US who died by suicide and left behind a wrenching note. “Yet another young life gone because of not being heard, not being understood, and not being unconditionally loved for who they truly were,” Toro wrote on his website.
During the band’s absence, their stature and impact grew significantly – not least because popular culture caught up to their ethos of emotional vulnerability and boundary-breaking self-expression. Today, MCR are returning to a world where being emo is so mainstream that rapper Machine Gun Kelly released a song called Emo Girl and collaborated with Bring Me the Horizon, while Grammy-winning sensation Olivia Rodrigo is channelling Paramore and collaborating with Dan Nigro, vocalist-guitarist for 00s indie-emo band As Tall as Lions.
All of this may be a passing fad – but the alternative rock realm MCR left behind has expanded in their image: it’s a place where greater honesty, empathy and a willingness to understand mental health difficulties are flourishing, and in which boundaries of gender and genre are dissolving. The late rappers Lil Peep and Juice Wrld continue to have large followings thanks to their deeply vulnerable, personal lyrics. After two years plus of the pandemic, a crop of songwriters known for talking frankly about mental health – such as Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Soccer Mommy and Japanese Breakfast – have elevated profiles.
Today, MCR’s legacy is arguably comparable to that of Nirvana, another group of scrappy underdogs who proudly identified with the outcasts. Both bands drew on underground punk influences for inspiration and spoke to the marginalised; both became cultural forces by accident. Like Kurt Cobain, Way is an outspoken feminist (and fan of riot grrrl). These parallels weren’t lost on him. “I found myself in a position where I was obviously not nearly at the level that Kurt was, but I was speaking to a young 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.”
Declining celebrity and refusing to back down in the face of mass-media vilification allowed MCR to establish their own powerful stance, which resonated loudly with admirers who also existed outside what was considered marketable and acceptable by the mainstream. Not only has the world got kinder to the “emo teens” of the worid in the years since the band split, but being an outsider has also become highly sought after as a marker of cultural cachet. The victory lap is theirs to take: three cheers for sweet revenge.