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Remembering My Chemical Romance in 2016

It’s a mistake to think of MCR as a joke – they were a ray of light for so many teenagers across the world, but as adolescent angst changes, would they even be relevant now?

What a pity that it’s come to this. Three years after their break-up, My Chemical Romance is only permitted to be enjoyed in zones marked “nostalgia” and “irony.” They have lived on mainly in memes of varying dankness. A recurring punchline in the Citizen Kane of bad fanfiction. A self-respecting adult cannot listen to MCR in earnest or as “good music,” but only with a smirk and a sneer and a canned disclaimer involving one’s emo phase (which, bizarrely, has become a bonding ritual).

Despite critical success, MCR was never “cool.” They went from obscurity to cult status to the emblem of eyeliner-smeared brats chauffeured to Hot Topic in mom’s minivan to uncomfortable downfall to meme. Even as they received rave reviews from top music publications, as their ratings shot to 8s and 9s out of 10, audiences refused to acknowledge their status as “good music.” Not, of course, that MCR necessarily ever wanted the approval of the mainstream – that was kind of their schtick, being the voice of misfits, loners, the perennially misunderstood. But the masses have shuffled them into the same pen of easy punchlines containing Evanescence, Smash Mouth, Linkin Park, and Limp Bizkit. For many, MCR is and always will be for preteens who look like the middling stage of an emo-to-goth Animorphs cover.

Perhaps it’s because we have permanently linked MCR to teenage angst. Tinkle a few bars of “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”, and we panic, terrified we’ve reverted to the worst, most self-conscious, cringeworthy versions of ourselves. No one wants to remember when they thought Fight Club and Donnie Darko were the height of culture and wit. And it’s a rare occasion that you listen to MCR in celebration. Scenes with MCR playing in the background inevitably depict awkwardness, pain, desperation, usually of adolescent: underwhelming virginity loss, perplexing math homework, the dissolution of true love, FB-stalking marathons, shower screaming, “sick” days to avoid bullying, road trips gone bad with friend-card-revoking assholes. Since our coping mechanisms for shitstorms have improved, so, we think mistakenly, should our soundtracks.

Which does MCR a great disservice by minimising their work. Every album had the catharsis, camp, and conceptual depth of an opera or musical – it’s surprising, in fact, that they never put one of their rock operas on the stage. They mastered a doublespeak that allowed them to spin two narratives at the same time – one of the zeitgeist and one of personal struggle. They applied the theatricality and opulence of old-school rock to angst, ennui, and disillusionment and somehow made it sound utterly raw and unaffected.

More so, in fact, than the other pop-punk/alternative/emo/whatever boy-bands bouncing around at the time, who all tried very hard for rawness and unaffectedness and fell flat. MCR’s trajectory (minus the 2013 duds) is one of increasingly slick production, narrative sophistication, and stylistic flair – Danger Days compared to their first album was almost overproduced and too high-concept, and yet their feverish authenticity had stayed the same. And even more impressive than their singular ability to combine pomp and punk and make it sound like a collaboration with the listener was their energy. It seemed limitless, which it wasn’t, and it couldn’t be sustained in the end.

But it was this energy and performative sincerity that made them far superior to their contemporaries who had equally rabid fanbases and equally sordid archives of X-rated fan-fiction: Fall Out Boy (John Hughes-themed emo pageantry) and Panic! at the Disco (scene kid burlesque dancers who discovered Bret Easton Ellis). Both have aged terribly – Fall Out Boy churning out Happy Meal jingles for blockbusters that sound virtually indistinguishable, Panic! at the Disco cursed with the Sisyphean task of making self-references within self-references. These are two bands whose mid-to-late 2000s hits still have (and may retain for a very long time) that nostalgia factor, but whose music have little value beyond that. They have outstayed their welcome and are riding on the whims of an aging fanbase.

Ostensibly, MCR don’t feel like they’re going to fall into the same trap. If reunited, they could evolve, as they always have, while doing what they do best: writing a frenetic, apocalyptic, and eminently catchy rock opera about Trump, Black Lives Matter, Brexit, mass shootings, xenophobia, surveillance, Islamophobia, the increasing volume of racism and nationalism, that doubles as the diary of a teenage misfit. Many of their songs and music videos, indeed, could be retconned as exactly that (“Disenchanted” “SING” and “Skylines and Turnstiles” being just the most obvious).

“The teens who would have worshipped MCR are disappearing. Teens are cool and powerful and pre-emptively ironic now. Misfits can network with other misfits across the world, or they can commodify and weaponise their misfittery”

But perhaps that would be too on the nose — MCR has, after all, always been interested in being the anti-Banksy, aiming for realism but in a parallel-universe mythology to channel their satire or political commentary or societal unease. But what would be their Fabulous Killjoys or Black Parade in an era when cartoonishness doesn’t even begin to describe our reality? That, perhaps, explains their depressing, lethargic last release before they finalised their demise with a “best of” album.

And maybe MCR is becoming dated. Not musically per se, but the teens who would have worshipped MCR are disappearing. Teens are cool and powerful and pre-emptively ironic now. Misfits can network with other misfits across the world, or they can commodify and weaponise their misfittery, thanks to social media. If even the weirdos today are becoming Sofia Coppola-directed aesthetic-pimping sad girl art hoe diet-pill Instagrambassadors while leading political revolutions, does MCR even apply?

Perhaps MCR was too good for this world. It’s sad that their legacy is memes or nostalgia bait: although it is somewhat fitting that they have become funny, enjoyable shortcuts to instant community and distraction, they were so much more than that. Ray Toro said about The Black Parade in an interview with The Alternative Press: “The intention was to make…something that 20 or 30 years from now, parents could play for their kids and say, “This is what I was listening to when I was your age. Check it out, it’s still fucking cool.’ We wanted to make a record you could pass down.” And in 2026 or 2036, that could very well be the case. But not now. Cheesy as it is, it is a cardinal sin to end a nostalgia piece about MCR any other way. To my favorite band: So long and goodnight.