‘Emo’ is the first genre that I considered to be mine. I don’t mean this in the sense of exclusivity – that I was trying to keep others out of the genre in some misguided quest of gatekeeping – but rather that it was the first time I identified with a particular subgenre instead of just liking a few bands. As much as I loved, say, Nine Inch Nails or Cradle Of Filth, I never identified with industrial or black metal in the way that my teenage self did with emo. And I suppose at this point, it’s important to clarify what I mean by ‘emo’, because what it meant then is very different to what it means now.
My first introduction to emo was from a mix of classic DC Revolution Summer bands – Rites Of Spring and Embrace most notably – and ’90s classics like Indian Summer and Heroin. It was the first time that a genre felt bigger than just music, with the political nature of Revolution Summer and the DIY spirit of labels like Gravity Records striking a real chord with my late-teen self. Add to that the lyrical nature of emo – a genre unafraid to confront and examine its own feelings at a time when I needed to hear exactly that – and the fact that so much of the music is genuinely exciting, passionate, and, in some cases, genuinely challenging (consider the jump from listening to the Misfits at 16 to something like Pageninetynine’s Document #5 a year or two later and you’ll see what I mean), and it all added up to something that hit at the right place and right time.
As such, when around 2003 a few new friends started talking about emo being the next big thing in punk, it was simultaneously exciting and confusing. The emo I knew was rooted firmly in hardcore both in sound and DIY attitude, so the idea that a band like City Of Caterpillar or Yaphet Kotto were somehow breaking big was laughable. So, you can probably imagine by confusion when they showed me Jimmy Eat World and My Chemical Romance and referred to them as ‘emo’. This wasn’t what I expected at all and had almost nothing to do with the emo I knew and loved. All I heard was a marriage of pop-punk and indie rock.
Given how important emo had become to me, it felt incredibly disappointing when the genre came to be talked of in the music press in this sense as something I didn’t recognise, that had almost nothing in common with the music I loved and was so important to me. It’s little surprise that the term ‘skramz’ arose around this time on the internet, to distinguish between what had formerly been known as emo and what the mainstream press and fans were now calling emo (after all, you can’t seriously expect anyone to think that Dashboard Confessional belongs to the same genre as, say, Angel Hair).
To make a comparison, imagine being a rabid fan of mid-’90s black metal, only to have people keep trying to push Deafheaven’s Sunbather on you. A negative reaction may have been childish, but perhaps this background helps explain why, for so long, I’ve had such a negative opinion of these particular bands (not helped by taking my younger sister to see Jimmy Eat World at the height of their fame, and the band putting on the dullest show I have ever seen). But maybe my older, hopefully wiser self will think differently? Well. There’s only one way to find out, so I listened to every My Chemical Romance album in release order. Here’s what I thought…
I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love (2002)
I don’t hate this. It’s over-dramatic, walking an uneasy line between teenage angst and parody, and I’m not sure it gets it right. There’s as much pop-punk in here as anything else, and certainly little of what I associate with post-hardcore – it lacks the sense of adventure that I associate with that genre. But beyond whatever nuances of genre we may want to discuss, the feeling persists that there is something incredibly teenage about the album, a sense of longing and fear and also – and I don’t mean this as an insult – immaturity. It taps into that teenage feeling of everything being absolutely huge, of emotions being amplified beyond any sense of reason or proportionality. Will I listen to it again? Probably not. But then, I’m hardly the target audience for this. Several listens on, and it’s not doing much for me beyond a vague “this is fine”. I don’t hate it – really, I don’t feel much of anything towards it. But I want my music to be more than fine. More than anything else, it makes me want to listen to other bands of the time that crossed the lines between punk, post-hardcore, and emo that I actually liked – Hot Cross or Hot Water Music or AFI or Planes Mistaken For Stars.
Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge (2004)
This is much better. It’s a more flowing album, the band seem more technically proficient and more comfortable exploring different textures and ambitious movements (for the genre, anyway – there’s only so much you can do within the realms of this kind of pop-punk without becoming something else). ‘Helena’ is a great single, and the first half of the album is strong – even ‘I’m Not Okay’, which I absolutely fucking despised as a single upon release sounds good here in its proper context. It starts to run out of energy after the mid-point interlude track though, and by the end of the album my attention has completely wandered off. The lyrics still tread the same ground as before though, and don’t always land as well as they intend to, but the music that accompanies them is undeniably stronger. I doubt my 19-year-old self, scouring eBay for Pageninetynine records that I could actually afford and only wanting to play in a band if it could sound like Heroin, would have been able to overcome their misguided, elitist prejudices to listen to this with an open mind; but 35 year-old me thinks this is okay.
The Black Parade (2006)
A rock opera, about someone dying with cancer and their experiences in the afterlife? I can think of few things I am less enthusiastic at the prospect of listening to. Such albums are usually all over the place musically and thematically, and that’s exactly the case here. I’d always thought the single ‘Welcome To The Black Parade’ sounded like a pop-punk band looking at the success of American Idiot and thinking, “we can do that”, whilst also wanting to be Queen, and the album as a whole only reinforces that. There’s no faulting the ambition MCR had for this album, but the execution is… well. It somehow combines the worst elements of mainstream prog (think: Pink Floyd’s The Wall) with the worst bits of pop-punk, filtered through a Tim Burton film. I do not think I have the words to adequately express how little I enjoyed listening to this album. It was an endurance test beyond anything Merzbow could dream up. This album clearly means a lot to a lot of people, including people who I would consider my peers, and I can kind of understand why – if this album hit at just right the point in your life, then it could clearly be something huge. There’s a few decent moments, but overall, I’m sorry. I fucking hate this.
Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys (2010)
I gave myself some time off after The Black Parade, to give myself some distance and try to go into the final MCR album with an open mind once more – one I knew almost nothing about. And now I’ve done so, I find myself asking: what did I do to deserve this? If I’d known, when I volunteered for this article, that the last two MCR records would be, well, what they are, then I’d have stopped myself. But that’s the whole point of this, I suppose. I had a gap in my knowledge. I volunteered to fill it and write some words about the journey. And here I am, regretting every moment of it. Whereas with previous albums I at least knew one song to give me at least some indication of what they’d sound like, with Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys I didn’t think I knew anything. Well, turns out I did – only, I thought ‘Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)’ was from a children’s show or something, not a band who started their career in the same kind of circles as Thursday or Shai Hulud. Gone are the hints of prog, replaced instead by power-pop and the worst aspects of glam rock; but the prog pretension is still there in the narrative of the album, with the band adopting superhero personas as they fight some evil mega-corporation via the medium of annoying catches and disjointed ideas. It’s incredible how something can be so high-minded and dumb at the same time, which I suppose is an achievement in itself.
Whatever positive feelings I had towards their previous records have been swept away by association from how repulsive I find this record. I don’t enjoy writing about how much I dislike something – all too often it serves no purpose beyond a writer saying, “look how mean I can be!”. But Christ, I can’t stand this. I want to pick out a moment or two to highlight what I don’t like, but I feel I might as well just point at the whole album and say “this!” instead. But let’s pick out the point where Gerard Way is singing “I don’t believe in god / I don’t believe in love / I don’t believe in you / I just believe in the enemy” during ‘DESTROYA’ whilst making some strange “uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh” sound as the absolute nadir, where every elitist thought I had been trying to repress for some 20 years came flooding out in a tide of absolute revulsion. This is something only reinforced by reading about the album, specifically closer ‘Vampire Money’ – where the band portrayed themselves in the press as underground heroes fighting against the mainstream co-option of goth by refusing to contribute to the Twilight soundtrack.
I have no words. Fuck. What a soulless, disheartening experience this has been.
Words: Stuart Wain