"The World's Hottest Band." That's how British metal mag Kerrang! recently described My Chemical Romance. Hyperbole? If so, Kerrang! isn't the only publication guilty of it. Blender called their latest release, The Black Parade, "a rock 'n' roll masterpiece … a grandiose epic that just might make them the biggest band in the world." As the New Jersey act's fan base has grown, so has the number of teen letters asking us, "What's your opinion of My Chemical Romance?"
Led by the brooding Gerard Way, this flamboyant pop-punk quintet brandishes an arsenal of hooks and harmonies that recalls infectious '70s and '80s anthems—the kind of songs you get in your head and just can't get out (think Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"). That's by design. Guitarist Ray Toro said, "Our intention was to make something that was classic, something timeless, 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.'" Such a statement might be dismissed as bravado if not for all the critical praise. The disc has been favorably compared to work by The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Queen, all of which served as models for MCR's ambitious, complex and morbid concept album about the inevitability of death.
Grim Musings of a Disenfranchised Teen
Way struggled as an outsider during adolescence, finding outlets in graphic novels and horror movies. Those interests eventually led to a job in the comic book industry. But 9/11 altered Way's trajectory, inspiring him to "do something" with his life. When he invited little brother Mikey to play bass in his new band, the younger Way contributed the act's moniker, appropriated from Irvine Welsh's book Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance.
MCR's first two CDs focus on macabre themes. I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love features darkly ironic song titles such as "Vampires Will Never Hurt You" and "Demolition Lovers." Internet buzz paved the way for a major-label follow-up, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, which Way described as a "pseudo concept [album about] two lovers who die in the desert in a gunfight. The guy goes to hell and meets the devil, who tells the guy he can only be reunited with his lover if he brings the devil the souls of 1,000 men." That Stephen King-like narrative connected with its audience, eventually reaching platinum status.
Parade's New Marching Orders
Death takes center stage again on The Black Parade, though this disc doesn't deal much with demons and murderers. Instead, it revolves around a terminally ill young man known as The Patient. Toro said of the plot, "It starts out with a patient dying in a hospital. We kinda like to think that, when you die, death comes to you in a form that is comforting for you. … For this character, it takes the form of a parade. His fondest memory was of his father taking him to see this parade in the city when he was young. So the character goes on a kind of journey, reviewing his life."
That journey is an emotional roller coaster, twisting and turning through themes of hope and denial, anger and acceptance, cynicism and determination. One moment the band sarcastically celebrates fatalism ("The End" melodramatically instructs, "Now come one, come all to this tragic affair/Wipe off that makeup, what's in is despair"), the next they're exhorting people struggling to deal with death to keep on marching ("Welcome to the Black Parade" insists, "We'll carry on … though you're dead and gone").
Virtually every track explores this tense relationship between the frightening reality of death and our innate desire to survive and leave a legacy. Along the way, MCR touches on significant topics such as heaven and hell, sin and innocence, war and suicide. Given band members' ambivalence about death and uncertainty regarding what follows, however, it's not surprising when their anger and sarcasm boils over in unhealthy ways. Harsh profanity. Drunkenness. An illicit sexual relationship. Also, a disturbing lyric describes a high school student on the verge of exacting violent retribution on cruel classmates.
Way isn't afraid to tackle tough questions about the meaning of life. But despite the presence of some biblical imagery on the album, he isn't interested in the answers that Christianity offers. "I was raised Catholic," Way explained, "which translates to saying I'm not Catholic anymore. Yeah, there was a lot of fear, a lot of fire and brimstone. My death obsession came from being raised Catholic. I found church pretty scary."
Consequently, Way's rejection of religious faith leaves the band pondering mortality with nothing but fear and feelings to guide the exploration. Still, he's not shy about inviting fans to trust in him. If Way believes in anything, it's how much teens need something to hang onto. He told one interviewer, "Remember the first time you went to a show and saw your favorite band? You wore their shirt and sang every word. You didn't know anything. … All you knew was that this music made you feel different. … Someone finally understood you. This is what music is about."
At one time Way was uncomfortable with the idea of being idolized. That is until Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong told him, "You give [fans] something to look up to. That's what being a rock star is, and there's nothing wrong with it. You give kids something to believe in, and that gives them hope."
From that lofty platform, MCR poses two critical questions: What are we to make of death? and Where do we find hope? Sadly, popularity doesn't translate into solid answers here, though we're reminded that if we don't help teens grapple with these issues, someone else will. Given MCR's aspirations to influence a generation, we should prepare for the tough questions young people are asking and show them that Jesus offers hope My Chemical Romance can never provide.