Like many other people who entered high school in the early 2000s, I once had a brief and rollicking relationship with emo music. It was 9th grade. A friend’s older brother, who was a senior and cool and dated girls with interesting haircuts, girls who would never even dream of talking to me, he gave me a ride someplace, I forget now, but in the car he threw on a burned CD of Saves the Day’s EP, I’m Sorry, I’m Leaving. That was it, for me at least. For the next two years I was a skinny, pubescent whirling dervish of emotions, of screams to the night sky, of Planes Mistaken for Stars and Ataris and Get Up Kids.
I had a couple friends who dug the same music. Well, just two, really — Zack and Christian — two guys who I remain friends with to this day. Zack, Christian and I always preferred the more acoustic vein of emo music…we thought Saves the Day’s later albums “sold out,” whatever that means, and lamented when bands made big albums with loud guitars. We thought big hooks and drama somehow undercut the true spirit of emo music. To pour your heart out properly you just needed a few chords, an old acoustic guitar, and a voice that was an octave higher than it should have been. Anything else was just window dressing.
Another way of putting this? We loved Dashboard Confessional. (A quote from “Hands Down” was on my AIM profile for the better part of freshman year.) We thought AFI were a bunch of talentless hacks.
(For those of you wondering which quote was on my AIM profile, yes, it was: “My hopes are so high that your kiss might kill me, so won’t you kill me? So I die happy.” I was fourteen, OK? Leave me alone.)
When I first heard My Chemical Romance, who broke up this past Friday in a simple message posted to their website, I knew they were a band that Christian and Zack, my two friends in emo-appreciation, would frown upon. They were too big, too dramatic. They wore makeup and had huge guitar riffs and screamed their big hook-y choruses, all things that violated our more Puritan/New England understanding of emo music. (We grew up 20 minutes north of Boston.) I knew My Chemical Romance was part of the Dark Side of emo, something to be laughed away, frowned upon, simplistic music for simplistic people who didn’t understand music with the depth/range that we did.
On top of all this, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge came out in 2004, when I was in my junior year of high school, and coming down from that emo stage. Zack, Christian and I still listened to the music, but we also had discovered The Velvet Underground and The Kinks and Kanye West and a lot of other music that was “cooler,” and to be totally honest all the jokes from other people about us listening to “sad bastard music” were getting old, and our love for emo had dimmed.
All this made it so that my love of My Chemical Romance was mostly conducted in secret. This seems impossible now, with Spotify blasting out every song you listen to on social media, but there was a time when you could love a band secretly. My Chemical Romance was my secret band.
Why did I need to love them secretly? Well, they were just a little too open. Obvious. They were big. They were dramatic. They had style. I remember the first time I saw the music video for “Helena” on Total Request Live, at 4:15 pm on a Tuesday, me sitting with a bowl of Apple Jacks on my couch, my mom calling in from the other room that I needed to start my homework soon. My jaw dropped. I spit out my Apple Jacks. This was the antithesis of the solo acoustic emo yelp. This was theater. This was a band that was making a statement–not just about internal strife (though MAN did they have internal strife), but about life and death, about our rituals, about the way we honor the dead. They imagined a new way. This was not the quiet lamenting of a fallen soul…this video showed a world where we screamed our goodbyes in choreographed dance, where the band was the shepherd and we were its flock.
My Chemical Romance was not about a lonely guy expressing his sadness in a quiet room. It was a movement, more or less, and it didn’t matter if that movement was self-imagined by the band. They took the tenets of emo music–introspection, grief, confession — and made a collective out of it. (Edward Sharp did a similar thing with folk music, recently.) The music became less about what one guy felt and instead became about what we ALL felt. The audience became a part of the show.
There’s something a little hokey and embarrassing about a band that makes it clear they want you to sing along. Music snobs are trained to resist this. We like our music hard-boiled and fiercely introspective and personal…think of the collective nut the music-crit world busted when Bon Iver released For Emma, Forever Ago. He recorded it alone! In the woods in Wisconsin! We get to see his personal feelings! It was REAL!!!
(For the record, I love that album.)
But a band that lays it all out there? That wants you to know all the words, and sing and dance and scream? That makes us nervous. It feels wrong, and populist, and easy. I could tell all this, even at 17, and it’s a big reason why my love for My Chemical Romance was a private, secret one.
But now that the band is broken up, dead and gone, I want to come clean. I wish I could celebrate their death as it should be celebrated–with a 10,000 piece orchestra and a squadron of choreographed dancers wearing WAY too much eye makeup–but instead I can only remember them here, and confess that yes, I too was a member of their flock, in my own secret little way. I can still raise my fist and yell along to their songs, “The Ghost of You” and “The Black Parade” and, my own favorite, “Helena.” Sorry for keeping it hidden all these years, guys. You will be missed. So long and good night.