My Chemical Romance Wore Themselves Out, and It Was Glorious

Restless, angsty, pop-punk energy made them great—and is probably what ended them.
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AP Photo/dapd, Nigel Treblin

Their first show in Ewing, New Jersey, weeks after they formed, My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way and guitarist Ray Toro began to kick at each other onstage, thrilled by the music they were making. Toro, recalling the moment, told Kerrang! in 2011, "I'm a quiet dude but that music made me want to let everything out. My Chem felt different: We were making music I had never heard before. There was this kinetic energy."

On Sunday, My Chemical Romance broke up, unceremoniously, relegating the announcement even to the penultimate sentence of a blog post. There were clear signals of decline. They hadn't released an album in almost three years. The energy had slipped away. Their final release, 2013's Conventional Weapons, can now be seen as a way of cleaning house: It's composed entirely of songs recorded and scrapped just before 2010's Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.

But Conventional Weapons also encapsulated what made the band great—greater than a lot of people realized, whether turned off by Way's eyeliner or his voice like creaking leather, or repelled by the band's teenage fanbase. The record was the kind of return to rawness that's too self-conscious to ever achieve a raw quality, and ends up settling elsewhere, between bare-bones punk and the amplified theater of glam: imagine a lineup of The Damned where every member is David Bowie and Mick Ronson. That mixture was the core of My Chemical Romance's appeal, even as the band reinvented itself time and again, album after album, demolishing the conventions of the two genres and building pop songs out of the rubble.

Their best songs are just insane piles of melodies; they're generous. "Thank You for the Venom," from their second record, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, runs through what seems like four choruses. They build off of each other, so that when the song shifts into the actual chorus it's as delirious and cathartic as a cliff dive.

Three Cheers was released in 2004, a year before Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Goin Down" reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, the clearest sign yet that emo had invaded radio, completing its journey from local scenes to the mainstream. "Helena," the third single from Three Cheers, eventually peaked at No. 33 on the Hot 100. Both My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy were critically respected and nominally popular, but there was a strange curve to their success, shaped heavily by backlash. At the 2006 Reading Festival, the band performed after Slayer, and bottles were pitched in their direction. Way leaned into the hostility, inviting the crowd to toss more bottles and fruit, saying, "We might be outsiders today, but we represent every outsider out there."

One can watch the "Helena" video and come away with the idea that this music is uncomplicated angst dressed in goth hand-me-downs. But it was their playfulness that mattered.

Those outsiders' reigns weren't all that long-lived. My Chemical Romance, Panic! at the Disco, and the like were modern rock radio fixtures from 2005 to 2008, but things seemed to be shifting by 2009, when Fall Out Boy's Folie a Deux was released to dispiriting sales. The blowback from the sentimentality of emo may have had something to do with this. Pop thrives on a kind of impulsive, visceral love from the listener; emo functions on the visceral level, but lyrically it's too self-involved to provide that total release. It swims in embarrassing, personal detail.

My Chemical Romance didn't help themselves on this front. One can watch the "Helena" video and come away with the idea that this music is uncomplicated angst dressed in goth hand-me-downs. There's an extreme self-seriousness to Way's lyrics—in the Kerrang! interview he says the words to Three Cheers include "all the fucking anger, the spite, the beef with God, the angst, aggression and the fucking venom—every emotion you go through when you're grieving." But when it came to the actual performance of these songs, it was their playfulness that convinced: the wildness of theater breathed fun into Way's ludicrously pitched emotions. Just look at the "Helena" video. It depicts a funeral, but an elaborately choreographed one. Mourners dance and weave their umbrellas through the rain.

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Brad Nelson is a New York-based writer who has written for The Village VoicePopdust, and The Awl. He is on Tumblr at unbornwhiskey.tumblr.com.

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