You only live forever in the lights you make
When we were young we used to say
That you only hear the music when your heart begins to break
Now we are the kids from yesterday --My Chemical Romance, "The Kids from Yesterday"Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,Unfortunately a bunch of random distractions and a broken laptop kept me from getting my elegy out in as timely a fashion as I would like, but despite my tardyness, I'm going to plow ahead with this piece, because, well, when an era comes to an end you mark its passing, yeah?
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night. --Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"
And it's hard for me to imagine a moment of greater artistic upheaval than the breakup of My Chemical Romance.
I'm not really going to apologize for that statement, as absurd as it might sound to folks who only know the band casually or are part of the sometimes vocally misguided hatedom. Hell, it probably would seem pretty strange to most of my fellow scholars as well, given MCR's reputation for adolescent theatrics and emotionally-charged hysterics.
But you know what? MCR was one of the most vital and dynamic bands of my generation, and they deserve a sendoff that acknowledges the heights to which they climbed in their best moments. Even if Gerard Way, the multitalented frontman of the band, wanted the music to speak for itself, I wouldn't be doing right--I wouldn't be doing the proper observances--if I didn't say a few words.
"I'm so overcome by emotion I'm just going to languish here on this car hood, ok?"
So come one, come all to this tragic affair: let's talk about why My Chemical Romance is, was, and forever will be an incredible band.
Your Shadow Lives On Without You
Alright, so that previous statement was kind of a lie. I'm really going to only talk about one specific aspect of what makes My Chem incredible. There's just too much else to look at, so I'm going to narrow it down. I want to take a particular look, actually, at the way they grapple with mortality. The breakup drew that theme into focus for me in a striking way. Suddenly a lot of their music was recontextualized, and the blazing gun fights and dramatic deaths that conclude Danger Days, their last album, felt a lot more like a big honking metaphor for the band's existence and final blazing glory.
The thing about MCR is that their songs are about death, more often than not. Which is, like, duh, totally obvious and all that. They have a whole concept album completely about death, for goodness sake. But there's a particular treatment of the idea of mortality that I want to dig into here, and that I think explains a lot of the persistent power of the band.
See, that phrase "grapple with mortality" wasn't accidental--part of what makes the band so interesting is the fact that they confront Death and vie with it for dominance. Losing to death involves going out fighting, going out in a blaze of glory in a hail of gunfire, or sometimes even just shouting, to the last, their desire to live. They do not go gentle into that good night, as Dylan Thomas says.
And really, this is quite a tough set of steps to dance to. Most artists, in my experience, end up stumbling in one way or another, largely because we still have this dopey idea in our culture that death is something we should accept as natural.
Pictured: Gerard Way staring death in the face, here personified by comic writer Grant Morrison. Fittingly? Probably.
Look: I'm a transhumanist. I object to Death in the strongest possible terms. I can't support it politically or ethically.
But that sometimes puts me in a bit of a quandary, because if one of the functions of art is to speak to the human experience in a cathartic and consoling way, you've got to find some way artistically of easing the sheer mindbending horror that is mortality--especially for those of us who ARE doomed, who are NOT going to be part of the statistical few who manage to live long enough for medicine to advance faster than the entropy of our failing meat engines.
Luckily for us, Way is not the singer that we wanted, but a dancer--and MCR manages to dance this knife edge without stumbling, as so many artists do, into the idea that eventually we need to passively accept death--that we must, to borrow Way's own expression, become victims.
Welcome to the Black Parade is actually a great example of this; possibly the best example in the bands repertoire, when you get right down to it.
Check it out:
Now, for those who don't know, the concept here is that when a person dies, they meet a psychopomp wearing the visage of their fondest memory. In other words, they're carried off to oblivion by the thing that will most comfort them in their time of need.
What an incredible concept. I mean, really, that's an idea brilliant enough to carry a whole series of comics. If Gaiman and others could get a number of comics and graphic novels out of just the basic concept of Death anthropomorphised as a perky goth girl, surely this idea could carry the same weight.
And it's actually quite a comforting idea, I think. The prospect of ascending to the void in a triumphant parade of your greatest joy, coming to take away your final pain... yeah, for someone who has no other way out, that'd be a comfort, I think.
While the visuals depict this notion of the Black Parade coming to take you away, take you today (and it's no coincidence, folks, that the band is borrowing imagery here from the Beatles! They're literally wearing their influences on their sleeves here, and this whole album is a psychadelic journey just as much as Magical Mystery Tour or Pink Floyd's The Wall was.) the lyrics tell a somewhat different story. Here, the consolation prize offered isn't just the prospect of a nice last hallucination as your brain slowly shudders to a halt.
No, the consolation is that you fought.
Defiant to the end, you fought for your life, and in some way you met death on your own terms.
And though you're dead and gone, believe me, your memory will carry on, because you will be an example for us of someone who refused to be a victim.
I'll Tell You All How The Story Ends
The whole song is built on that triumphant framework. Hell, the whole ALBUM is built on that triumphant framework. I remember seeing someone on TV Tropes--my go-to place for misreadings--remarking that the storyline is incredibly sad if you put it in chronological order, because the last song (Famous Last Words), which signals the resolution of some of the protagonist's turmoil, seems to come directly before the final diagnosis and accompanying death sentence. And yes, it's sad in the sense of that wasted potential, but the album is set up in that order for a reason, and it's worth talking about why that order is so important.
See, the anachronistic order of the timeline allows the band to explore the character's experiences in a way that is emotionally rather than literally ordered. This technique has, of course, been used in other media quite a bit, often with the result that the work is hailed as a masterpiece. Slaughterhouse Five is a great example of this technique's use in literature, for example. I think, though, that it is a technique uniquely suited to music, which is already frequently broken into disconnected fragments. Our acceptance of that framework allows us to more readily accept the experience of our narrator's life flashing before his eyes. Each song is a snapshot of how he's feeling at a particular moment.
And at the moment the album begins, he's not feeling so swell.
The repeated question in the album's two-song opening sequence is "Did you get what you deserve?"--a not unreasonable question for someone dying young of a dumb genetic lottery. The songs are cynical and have a cabaret-esque sense of nihilistic fun. What's the point if I'm going to die? What was it all for? If life ain't just a joke, then why am I dead?
What we have, then, is someone not just on the brink of his own unmaking but on the precipice of existential despair. And it's no coincidence, I think, that we see the album's next two songs take us to a similar place further back in the character's timeline. In "The Sharpest Lives" and "This Is How I Disappear" we get a sense of a character who is undead--a vampire, a zombie, a corpse shambling around, alienated from the world by the very life of chaotic debauchery that he embraces. This undercuts the nihilism of the opening songs, because it shows that the character's existential crisis originated not with his diagnosis of heart cancer but with a more metaphorical kind of heartbreak. Importantly, here we have the first indication of what's eating our protagonist: he disappears without the presence of another person, or perhaps without the presence of a larger supporting group of friends.
And then, just as the album threatens to sink completely into despair, we come to the song's anthem: "Welcome to the Black Parade."
In the scheme of the album's timeline, Welcome is fascinating because it occupies two positions: on the one hand, it represents the character's passing into death, but on the other, it represents an event long ago in the character's childhood. What's more, it represents a kind of optimism thus far absent from the album. In fact, if we're going to look for the thesis of this album--the point the album is trying to argue--it's almost certainly this song, with it's urging to overcome both external and internal opposition ("will you/defeat them/your demons/and all the nonbelievers"--internal flaws are grouped together with external opponents as scheming enemies) in order not just to find satisfaction in your own life but in order to stand as a symbol to others.
For a band born in the trauma of the World Trade Center attack of September 11th, this is incredibly significant. I would even suggest--and we're in dangerous territory here, folks!--that this song is in some ways autobiographical. This is a band that refuses to be victimized and urges its fans to embrace the same inner strength.
Rather than going through the rest of the album point by point (since I'm sure you've heard quite enough of my blather already, and we've still got a ways to go) I'll just pick out a few highlights before speeding to the inevitable end. The two songs after "Welcome" are interesting to me because they both take some of the themes from earlier in the album and place them in a more adversarial context. "I Don't Love You" takes the heartbreak theme and adds in a new accusatory spin: "when you go/would you have the guts to say/'I don't love you like I did yesterday.'" "House of Wolves" similarly takes some of the cynicism and turns it externally on the hypocritically religious, simultaneously bringing the touchstone of damnation and the afterlife into the conversation. (Oh, and I love the way the "S I N I S I N" chant places an extra "I"--the personal pronoun--into the repeated spelling of sin. The character is surrounded by sin, quite literally. Intentional? Who cares! It's cool!)
"Teenagers" is the album's second major anthem, and it comes late in the story despite coming early in the character's life. It's another part of the progression toward a sense of survival as opposed to victimhood.
For me, though, it's not as cathartic or emotionally important as "Sleep," which is probably one of the best expressions of nightmarishly self-destructive depression I've ever come across, outside maybe of End of Evangelion. It's one of the most disturbing songs on the album, too, because it is the closest the protagonist comes to accepting death. The horror of existence is enough that he seems ready to turn willingly to annihilation.
The brilliance of this, of course, is that the album can make its argument that the acceptance of death is unnatural by putting us through the visceral despair of this song. If this is the moment where the album comes close to acceptance, acceptance doesn't look too great by association!
And finally we come to the end again, as the album grinds toward its inevitable conclusion. I find it kind of funny that the basic concept of the album is only explicitly described in the second to last song, "Disenchanted:" "And when the lights all went out/we watched our lives on the screen;/I hate the ending, myself,/but it started with an alright scene." Nice metaphor you've got there, guys. And really, it works pretty well as a closing for the album. It's got just the right amount of the cynicism from earlier, but it's now directed outward at a society that ultimately failed the protagonist in a whole host of ways.
But that bitterness ultimately gives way to the final song on the album. And given the album's setup thus far, we can assume this is meant to be the final closing thoughts of the protagonist; the notional end of the psychedelic journey through time. Where has that journey taken him? Well, listen for yourself:
I am not afraid to keep on living. Nothing you could say could stop me going home.
I will not be a victim.
The protagonist has gone through the events of his life, in anachronistic order, and come to the conclusion that even at the end of his life, even in the face of powerlessness, and hopelessness, and even pointlessness, he will not let someone else dictate to him whether he is saved or damned, whether he is worthy of life, whether he can live without another person's affirmation.
So, no, random troper, I don't think this is a downer ending at all. It's an incredibly affirming ending, one that speaks to the power of an individual to overcome external and internal doubts and stand proud even in the face of death.
He does not go gentle into that good night.
Awake And Unafraid
There's actually a movement within activist groups, and within the psychological community as well, I believe, to refer to those who have experienced abuse as not "victims" but "survivors." The idea--one that I find compelling, as a student of language--is that the word "victim" suggests passivity and helplessness while the word "survivor" suggests power, autonomy, and an ability to overcome.
It is this change in language that My Chemical Romance have captured in their music. It is why, I suspect, they have achieved such popularity, and why so many are distraught at their end as a group. They are a symbol of hope and strength in the face of adversity--sometimes even overwhelming adversity, adversity that will, in the end, be impossible to overcome.
It is for that reason that we should not despair at the end of My Chemical Romance, no matter how important the band is to us. Ultimately, if their songs do mean something to us--something more than just a sad song with nothing to say--the best homage to the band would be to integrate their ideals into our everyday life.
And for artists, I think we can take their work as a lesson: you can find a way of responding to death without falling back on old cliches, stale wisdom, and dull mantras about some cosmic plan or a passive acceptance of an end that is, for the time being, inevitable. The best art should help us come to terms with death--and pain, and suffering, and alienation, and depression, oppression, and repression, and so on--without accepting those things as somehow necessary or even desirable.
So, the lights are out and the party's over. There's more to say, but I'll leave it to someone else to say it. Way's farewell essay is a good place to start. And of course there's always the songs themselves. They probably say all of this better than a hundred essays could. That's part of what makes art so vital.
Let's raise one last glass to MCR in the great cosmic pub of the 'Net.
A toast for heroes who may be gone...
But out here in the desert, their shadow lives on without them.
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Reload the Canons!
This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.
Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.