My Chemical Romance is touring again, Paramore and Jimmy Eat World are headlining a major festival this fall, and there’s a skinny, tattooed white dude with a guitar dominating the charts. In case you haven’t heard, emo is back, baby! In honor of its return to prominence—plus the 20th anniversary of the first MCR album—The Ringer is following Emo Wendy’s lead and tapping into that nostalgia. Welcome to Emo Week, where we’ll explore the scene’s roots, its evolution to the modern-day Fifth Wave, and some of the ephemera around the genre. Grab your Telecasters and Manic Panic and join us in the Black Parade.
Our story starts in New York City on September 11, 2001. It just does. Suspend your disbelief; respect his audacity. But is it really so hard to believe, and is it really so audacious, that Gerard Way—then a 24-year-old New Jersey native, NYC art school graduate, and creatively stifled Cartoon Network intern—would choose that awful, vulnerable, crushingly human moment to reimagine himself as something immortal, someone superheroic? “That felt like the end of the world,” he told Newsweek in 2019. “It felt like the apocalypse. I was surrounded by hundreds of people on a dock on the Hudson River, and we watched the buildings go down, and there was this wave of human anguish that I’ve never felt before. Since then, I’ve continued to think about what we would do at the end of the world if we knew we only had a little time left.”
Standing on that dock, what Gerard decided he would do was channel his shock and grief and newfound sense of immediacy into the ultimate rock-star origin story. “Something just clicked in my head that morning,” he told Spin magazine in 2005. “I literally said to myself, ‘Fuck art. I’ve gotta get out of the basement. I’ve gotta see the world. I’ve gotta make a difference!’” So he hooked up with a drummer friend from high school named Matt Pelissier (the first of several drummers, alas) and wrote an anguished, furious, and yet startlingly tender pop-punk song called “Skylines and Turnstiles.” It starts like this.
You’re not in this alone
Let me break this awkward silence
Let me go, go on record
Be the first to say I’m sorry
Hear me out
Gerard sang and played guitar, though he struggled to do both at once. (It’s harder than it looks.) Slowly, he found other bandmates: Ray Toro and Frank Iero on guitars, plus his own younger brother Mikey Way on bass. Thanks to his gig working at Barnes & Noble, Mikey also contributed a band name: My Chemical Romance, an improvement on the title of an Irvine Welsh book. The band signed with a tiny label called Eyeball Records and released, on July 23, 2002, their debut album, called I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, produced by New Jersey punk deity and Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly, who’d already mastered the dark art of combining the rawest possible materials into something impossibly gargantuan.
This broken city sky
Like butane on my skin
Stolen from my eyes
Hello angel, tell me
Where are you?
Tell me where we go from here
“Skylines and Turnstiles” is not, by a long shot, the highlight of MCR’s least-great album. The raw materials are there, of course: the scabrous and shimmering guitars, the breathless downhill-sprint propulsion, the throat-shredding screams to bolster the chorus and punctuate Gerard’s unguarded and brutal horror-flick lyricism. But your first song is never your best. Here, the one called “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us” is better. And the one called “Vampires Will Never Hurt You,” and the one called “Demolition Lovers,” and the one called “Drowning Lessons,” and even the one called “Cubicles.” But as an opening salvo, as the gritty first panel in a dense and ludicrously ambitious comic-book-punk saga, as an achingly sincere attempt to break the awkward silence and roll back the wave of human anguish, as a macabre but heartfelt attempt at genuine connection, Gerard Way’s first song got him where he needed to go, which was firmly on the road to leading everyone where they needed to go.
And after seeing what we saw
Can we still reclaim our innocence?
And if the world needs something better
Let’s give them one more reason, now
It’s the rousing, heartbreaking vocal harmony on the words the world needs something better that shows you what Gerard and his vampiric cohort is really about. Look beyond the eyeliner, the hair dye, the ghostly pallor, the extra-macabre marching band outfits, the wholesale mall-goth hijacking of this band’s whole look, its whole ethos. Don’t flinch at the lyrics no matter how gnarly and nihilistic they seem to get; don’t get too wrapped up in the surreal sensationalism of their flames-and-chaos music videos. Buy the album tie-in comic book or don’t. Just never forget that the closer we get to the end of the world, the tighter Gerard Way means to hold us, to make however much time we have left just that much more bearable.
I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love just celebrated its 20th birthday, and inspired some very excellent anniversary pieces despite being, well, MCR’s least-great album. Their next record was a gleaming and snarling major-label-debut colossus that crowned the fellas as Warped Tour royalty; the record after that was a hilariously overblown rock-opera funeral march and consensus masterpiece that now stands among the greatest emo albums ever born, any era, any wave; the record after that is my personal favorite. Then MCR broke up in 2013, to appropriately operatic dismay, going out as close to On Top as a youngish rock band possibly can.
There was no explicit tabloid-roiling catalyst, no real drama, except no drama is not exactly this band’s vibe. Gerard’s farewell letter, posted to Twitter three days after the news broke and titled A Vigil, On Birds and Glass, is my personal favorite Rock Band Breakup Explanation Letter, any subgenre, any era, precisely because it captures this band’s precise and fantastic combination of galactically overwrought and unabashedly intimate.
We were spectacular.
Every show I knew this, every show I felt it with or without external confirmation.
There were some clunkers, sometimes our secondhand gear broke, sometimes I had no voice- we were still great. It is this belief that made us who we were, but also many other things, all of them vital-
And all of the things that made us great were the very things that were going to end us-
Fiction. Friction. Creation. Destruction. Opposition. Aggression. Ambition. Heart. Hate. Courage. Spite. Beauty. Desperation. LOVE. Fear. Glamour. Weakness. Hope.
And then he expands on the fatalism part as a way of explaining why, exactly, this band broke up after only 11 years and four albums.
That last one is very important. My Chemical Romance had, built within its core, a fail-safe. A doomsday device, should certain events occur or cease occurring, would detonate. I shared knowledge of this “flaw” within weeks of its inception.
Personally, I embraced it because, again, it made us perfect. A perfect machine, beautiful, yet self aware of its system. Under directive to terminate before it becomes compromised. To protect the idea- at all costs. This probably sounds like something ripped from the pages of a four-color comic book, and that’s the point.
No compromise. No surrender. No fucking shit.
To me that’s rock and roll. And I believe in rock and roll.
He goes on at great length. It’s wild, it’s lovely, it’s absurd, it’s genuinely moving. The fellas found stuff to keep them busy post-breakup, and Gerard most prominently, of course: the solo album, the ongoing and relentlessly off-kilter Netflix series based on his comic book. And then, inevitably, MCR reunited—tentatively in late 2019, and full-throatedly here in 2022, headlining giant festivals and packing arenas as what certainly feels like the first rock-band reunion that anybody’s actually given a shit about in years. Put it this way: If you are a remotely young person who, like Way himself, still believes in rock and roll, My Chemical Romance is very likely why, and it’s worth ruminating on how, exactly, this profoundly strange and desperately necessary band has inspired such belief. Anybody who listened to I Brought You My Bullets in 2002 couldn’t have predicted any of this. But the guys who made it did.
My Chemical Romance staggered into the atom-bomb-bright sunlight of 2002 alongside Avril Lavigne, Taking Back Sunday, Simple Plan, the Used, and Coheed and Cambria—a fleet of vital and volatile debut albums that blazed myriad intriguing trails worth following: toward boldface pop, toward hooky and archetypically grievance-driven emo, toward kegstand-worthy pop-punk, toward wanton screamy hardcore, toward lore-heavy prog pyrotechnics. Our heroes were already trying to do all of that shit simultaneously.
The most striking song on I Brought You My Bullets—the most Gerard song, the most MCR song, The Most in general—is called “Early Sunsets Over Monroeville.” It begins as a woozy but deceptively gentle waltz but darkens by ominous degrees, and soon Gerard is wailing the line “If I had the guts / To put this to your head,” and maybe you worry for a second that this is the 200,000th uncouth and unnervingly violent post-breakup emo song. And then you find out that Monroeville is in Pennsylvania, and parts of George Romero’s 1978 zombie-flick classic Dawn of the Dead were shot there, and oh, wow, suddenly you realize this is actually a very grim, very romantic song about an inconsolable man realizing he has to kill his no-longer-human wife:
And there’s no room in this hell
There’s no room in the next
And our memories defeat us
And I’ll end this duress
Not the best song, but the most. My Chemical Romance would get truly dangerous, and truly great, when their best and their most intertwined. They signed to a major label; all the coolest kids do. Deal with it. Deal with this, while you’re at it.
“You like D&D, Audrey Hepburn, Fangoria, Harry Houdini, and croquet,” Ray Toro informs Gerard Way at the onset of “I’m Not Okay (I Promise),” one of several monster singles from their 2004 Reprise Records debut, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. “You can’t swim, you can’t dance, and you don’t know karate. Face it: You’re never gonna make it.” Cue the high-school-outcast histrionics, the cuddly arena-punk viciousness, Gerard’s destabilizing magnetism as he practically screams in your face, the vintage airbrushed-van metalhead radness of Ray’s guitar solo, and, before the final bone-crushing chorus, a truly bonkers Gerard buildup/breakdown for the ages:
But you really need to listen to me
Because I’m telling you the truth
I mean this
And, boom. There are days when this is the best song ever written. And there are other days when it’s not even the best song on Three Cheers: “Helena” has a majestic Mötley Crüe meets the Misfits chorus, the power chords ascending a stairway to hell, an infinite legion of demons pumping their fists along to every word: So long and good night / So long and good night. Or maybe the power-ballad pyrotechnics of “The Ghost of You” do it for you, the classic quiet-verse-loud-chorus dynamics, Gerard’s unapologetic controlled-screaming melodrama (“At the top of my lungs in my arms / SHE DIES”), the extra-luxe video that recreates D-Day down to the puking soldiers landing on the beach. Tell me these guys aren’t spectacular, and not driven by friction, ambition, LOVE, glamour, and fatalism.
By 2005 MCR are headlining the good ol’ Warped Tour alongside Fall Out Boy, and early-2000s third-wave emo—undaunted in its embrace of pop-punk, of the mall, of teenagers both actual and perpetual—has its very own Queen, and/or Led Zeppelin, and/or Pink Floyd. Suspend your disbelief; respect their audacity. “The main thing that we’ve always wanted to do was to save people’s lives,” Gerard informed the magazine Alternative Press in 2004. “That sounds Mother Teresa–ish and outlandish, but it really does happen. It does make a huge difference. We’ve seen it in action.”
Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, by the way, is a semi-derailed concept album involving two lovers, a man and a woman, who both seemingly die in a gunfight: The man goes to hell, is informed by the Devil that the woman is still alive, and agrees to kill 1,000 evil men in exchange for the chance to reunite with her. I say semi-derailed because during the writing process Gerard and Mikey’s beloved grandmother died—“Helena” is about her—and Gerard considered scrapping the whole thing. “When that happened, I was like, ‘Fuck. Oh, God. How am I going to deal with this story? Does it even matter anymore? Is it just fucking pretentious? Is it bullshit?’” he told Alternative Press. “And then I came to grips with it and said, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to write the songs that I want.’” Even the song called “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison” has a certain funereal poignancy to it.
Even for a band already operating at this scale in terms of both ungodly rock-star bombast and naked emotional intimacy—Gerard has gotten increasingly forthright in interviews about his struggles with mental health and substance misuse in this era—My Chemical Romance’s third and biggest and most extravagantly beloved album, 2006’s The Black Parade, struck like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky. There is an awful lot to absorb here; the marching-band outfits are as good a place to start as any.
The Black Parade is a classic leveling-up record, the fairly conventional tale of a young, ferocious rock band hitting its commercial peak (the album debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard album chart, behind a Hannah Montana soundtrack) with the help of some new big-shot collaborators. It was produced by Rob Cavallo, who probably also produced your favorite Green Day album; the screaming-and-fire video for “Famous Last Words” was directed by Samuel Bayer, who also directed your favorite Nirvana video. (I’m just assuming your favorite Nirvana video is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) Several members of the band got severely injured while shooting this, by the way, and somehow you can just tell.
The Black Parade is also an unprecedented and not-at-all-conventional narrative flex credibly described by The New York Times as “a stricken tour de force about coming of age in the post-9/11 era.” It’s a not-at-all-derailed concept album about a man (“The Patient”) dying of cancer while wracked by fear and regret; Gerard decided to add to the verisimilitude by cutting his hair short and dying it a stark silver. (“I wanted to appear white and deathlike and gaunt and sick-looking,” he cheerfully told the NYT.) Liza Minnelli (“I love those guys”) drops by to portray a grieving mother; musically, the klezmer parts somehow hit harder than the heavy metal parts. Influences range from David Bowie to KISS to the Beatles; there is also, as the marching-band uniforms might suggest, a marching band. The scale of this, in every sense, is nearly overwhelming, so if you’re new to it all maybe start out by just putting the caustically hilarious goth-blues anthem “Teenagers” on repeat for six hours.
They said, “All teenagers scare the livin’ shit out of me”
They could care less as long as someone’ll bleed
So darken your clothes, or strike a violent pose
Maybe they’ll leave you alone, but not me
Even five years ago, this record was an easy fan favorite but not necessarily an agreed-upon, era-defining masterwork. “The Black Parade, though well-reviewed at the time, hasn’t accrued the same reputation as other classic albums,” the critic Jeremy Gordon wrote in 2016 in a 10th-anniversary piece for Spin. “It was almost entirely ignored in lists of the best albums of the ’00s run by tastemakers and canon-formers like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Billboard, Paste, Complex, NME, and, yes, Spin.” By this record’s 20th anniversary, however, it might be universally hailed as the pop-punk Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: In 2020, when Rolling Stone unveiled its updated list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, there was The Black Parade at no. 361, not quite as good as Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, but just a little better than Luther Vandross’s Never Too Much.
You could argue that rock critics ruin everything. You could regard The Black Parade’s steady ascent on lists like this as proof that something essential—a life-affirming secret shared only between MCR and their Day One fans—is being lost. As a Late Pass–holder myself, out of respect/trepidation, I have decided not to argue that the band’s fourth and last album, 2010’s Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, is actually their best album, even though I love it profoundly for both the reliable audacity of its concept (now MCR are Mad Max–esque rebels battling an evil corporation in postapocalyptic California, with the Gerard-penned comic book to prove it) and the chaotic scope of the songs themselves. Get acclimated by putting the song “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” on repeat this time.
Danger Days probably includes one too many songs that blatantly reach for Coldplay-style arena-rock uplifting grandeur, but what I will say is that this record’s final attempt at volcanic sentimentality, “The Kids From Yesterday,” totally works, and the album ends with an extra-caustic and extra-hilarious trashing punk tirade called “Vampire Money,” in which Gerard politely declines to contribute a song to the soundtrack of a Twilight movie.
(Come on!) When you wanna be a movie star
(Come on!) Play the game and take the band real far
(Come on!) Play it right and drive a Volvo car
Pick a fight at an airport bar
The kids don’t care if you’re alright, honey
Pills don’t help, but it sure is funny
Give me give me some of that vampire money, come on!
“Originally, what we did was take goth and put it with punk and turn it into something dangerous and sexy,” Gerard explained to the NME. “Back then nobody in the normal punk world was wearing black clothes and eyeliner. We did it because we had one mission: to polarize, to irritate, to contaminate. But then that image gets romanticized and then it gets commoditized.”
This is all delightfully but decidedly rude: There’s an excellent argument that the Twilight universe is every bit as vital and inclusive and life-affirming as any of the rock bands it attempted to romanticize and/or commoditize. But I will laugh at the line Pick a fight at an airport bar forever.
As for MCR’s breakup, and the failsafe doomsday device that triggered it, within a few years Gerard was opening up about it: In 2014 he told the NME that he’d relapsed into alcoholism after Danger Days, and worried that his daughter would grow up without a father; the choice, he concluded, was “Break the band or break me.”
The band first reunited for a single show in 2019 in Los Angeles: “That was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had playing on stage with My Chemical Romance, for sure,” Gerard told the NME, adding that “to me, the new version of My Chemical Romance and the way I want to go about it is exercising less control.” (The NME loves this guy.) The band’s festival-headliner status now is in part a reflection of pop-punk’s bizarrely ascending reputation in the past five years as both a commercial and critical proposition, from Olivia Rodrigo to Machine Gun Kelly to Juice WRLD. But however many sonic and stylistic precedents there might be, there has never been a rock band quite this courageous, spiteful, beautiful, desperate, glamorous, hopeful.
I believe Gerard when he says that this band’s original mission was “to polarize, to irritate, to contaminate,” but that was never their only mission. MCR was born in an apocalypse, and designed to help us all survive it. Us meaning actual teenagers, not critics, but we caught on eventually. We are all bandwagoners on the Black Parade now. Meanwhile, the apocalypse is closer than ever, but at least we can all huddle together in the glow.