A Love Letter To My Chemical Romance And The Emo Kids We Used To Be

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If you grew up in the 2000s, there’s a chance you look back on the term “emo” with a certain fondness. “If you didn’t have an emo phase, I don’t trust you,” modern memes joke today. It was a period of time in adolescent life that seemed almost universal—that is, unless you were one of those people who seemed just a little too well-adjusted. That’s why it’s no real surprise that when My Chemical Romance announced their reunion tour, it sold out in a matter of minutes. In some ways, we are still just a generation of emo kids.

I, for one, threw myself fully into the label. At 13, I wore nothing but ripped jeans, exclusively black band t-shirts, and studded belts so worn through that they threatened to break in half. I let my hair grow into my face and begged my mom to let me dye it black, but she resisted, afraid that my red hair would never grow back the same. I wanted so badly to look like the girls I saw online, with their black nails, thick layers of eyeliner, and teased hair. No matter how hard I tried, I never felt like I belonged.

But I did have one thing going for me: music. When all else failed, I had my favorite bands on my side. My music tastes were beyond just an aesthetic—I genuinely loved my growing iTunes collection. There was Dashboard Confessional and Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco. There was Hawthorn Heights and Death Cab For Cutie and Avenged Sevenfold. But most importantly, there was My Chemical Romance.

My cousin tells me he still remembers the first time he listened to The Black Parade, the way it made him feel so awake. Unfortunately, my own memory of that moment fails me, but I’ll never forget playing the album on repeat, screaming along with the lyrics in my childhood bedroom. The songs were full of the same restlessness, the same pain, the same rebelliousness that I felt so full of, unsure of what else to do with them. Screaming them out with Gerard Way felt like untying the end of a balloon—they rushed out of me all at once in perfect release. It seemed much less messy than the alternative.

Much to my mother’s dismay, I spent all my money on any MCR merch I could get my hands on. I hung a poster of Mikey Way on my wall and vowed I would marry him someday. I doodled their lyrics on everything I could find—my notebooks, the top of my dresser, my arms, the soles of my shoes. During family reunions, my cousins and I would sneak away to one of our parents’ cars to listen to their music on full blast, cycling through each CD. We would headbang along to the music and scream over the wailing guitars whenever one of us had a stray observation we wanted to share with the others. We were bonded in our love for the band and their ability to say the things we could not yet put into words.

I reached the pinnacle of my love for MCR in eighth grade, when I attended The Black Parade World Tour. It was my first ever concert, and I couldn’t contain my excitement (even though I tried very hard not to let the adults in my life see it). I had seats along the railing of one of the top balconies beside my twin cousins, who shared my obsessive love for the band. Our fathers sat in the row behind us, quietly rolling their eyes at our enthusiasm, but we pretended they weren’t there—not that that was very difficult. Because once the lights dimmed and the band appeared on stage, the rest of the world didn’t matter.

I wish I could remember that concert with more clarity. Unfortunately, time has taken its toll. My clearest memory is watching my cousin headbang beside me, only to bash his head into the steel bar above his head, worrying the rest of us that he might be concussed. (He just went on headbanging, less concerned about the possibility of brain damage than the fact that he was witnessing his heroes play in person.) But there’s another moment I remember clearly: When Gerard Way called for the audience to take out their lighters and cell phones to wave them along to the music.

I pulled my ancient flip phone out of my pocket, ecstatic that it was finally useful for something other than calling my parents when I needed a ride from school. I flipped it open and winced as its brightness cut through the dark music hall, but when my eyes adjusted, I watched as the venue filled with flickering lights. There was something electric in the air, something so alive yet so surreal. Even when the concert was done and I was back home in my own bed, struggling to fall asleep, I was buzzing from it. That feeling would go on to live inside of me for a long, long time.

That was the magic of My Chemical Romance.

***

My Chemical Romance’s songs became the anthems of my generation. I’m Not Okay (I Promise) felt like a battle cry. Teenagers only confirmed the way the world perceived us and strengthened our resolve. Welcome To The Black Parade gave us the hope we needed—the hope most of us were desperately searching for. Other songs took on deeper, more personal meanings for me. The band released Cancer the same year that my mother was diagnosed with the disease. Sleep sounded like an ode to my own undiagnosed depression. When I struggled with insomnia and would lie awake late at night, I’d slip on my earphones and listen to Kill All Your Friends on repeat. Over time, the band’s discography began to feel like my own diary.

Perhaps that’s why I abandoned them after a certain age. Despite being my favorite band for years, I stopped listening to them altogether. At the time, I told myself I’d just grown out of them, but I think the truth is that their music carried too many associations, too much pain I was trying hard to leave behind. Listening to it ripped the bandages off of wounds I was desperate to heal. And so I threw out every CD and donated every t-shirt, belt, and accessory that had anything to do with them. My mother, pleased that it seemed I was moving on from what she nervously called “my darker phase,” helped me stuff them into trash bags we would later give to my cousins. I cleaned my life of My Chemical Romance completely. Admittedly, it did make it seem easier to leave the rest behind.

People tell me now that they have a hard time believing I was ever that girl. While I still love leather jackets and combat boots, my personality seems drastically different. Where I was once painted black, I am now full of color. I am optimistic and resilient, sometimes sad but quick to snap out of it. I am all the things I once feared I would never again be. Since then, I have turned that 13-year-old emo girl into a caricature, a myth. That life felt far behind me.

That is, until last year, when I met my friend’s 13-year-old cousin for the first time. She was wearing all black and was so preoccupied with doodling lyrics into her notebook that she didn’t even look up when I approached her. Watching her, I felt a strong sense of deja vu—not just because she looked so similar to how I’m sure I did at her age, but because of the words she was writing.

“Hey, that’s My Chemical Romance,” I said.

That finally caught her attention. She looked up, surprised. “You know them?”

I wanted to laugh. Did I know them? How could I even begin to explain what they’d once meant to me?

Instead, I asked, “You’re a fan, then?”

She looked at me as if nothing in the world was more obvious. And to her, it probably was. But it seemed strange to me that a full decade after my own self-proclaimed emo phase (and six years after the band’s disbandment), my friend’s 13-year-old cousin relied on the same music I once did to maneuver through the choppy, uncertain waters that is teenagerdom. In the years since I’d left that period of my life behind, had nothing changed at all?

Of course, we know that’s not true. In the past decade, a lot has changed. The way teenagers connect via technology is different (RIP AIM). The threat of gun violence is always looming over their heads. Teenagers are rising up and taking a stand in a way my generation never had a chance to—in a way most people still don’t. But perhaps one thing will never change, not now and not back then: There is a certain heaviness to growing up. 

When you’re 13, your emotions seem to hold more weight. You feel like it’s you against the world, and in some ways, maybe it is—it’s so easy to feel alone when people are so quick to belittle you or downplay your experiences because of your age. You’re too young to have real problems. You’re too young to understand true pain. You’re too young to understand, period. It’s as if people are so disconnected from what it felt like to be a teenager that they forget how suffocating it can be, how completely unfair it often is.

But then again, am I any different? Though I’d once swore to myself that I’d never forget what it felt like to be a teenager, I had abandoned that 13-year-old version of me a long, long time ago. I had done everything I could to stifle the memories and reinvent myself as someone new. It was easier that way, less painful. Sometimes even I forgot what it felt like to lie in bed and scream my favorite lyrics at the top of my lungs in hopes of releasing all those complicated feelings festering deep inside me. 

But it wasn’t my friend’s cousin’s emotions that surprised me—it was that she found solace in the same place I once did. What I had never considered was that even as I turned away from My Chemical Romance, they still functioned for others as they had once functioned for me: as an escape, or as a diary, or as a friend. Ten years later, they were still making 13-year-old girls feel seen.

***

The next time I listened to My Chemical Romance, I was in my twenties. I was sitting in my friend’s car in the driveway of her house, but we didn’t want to go in yet, so we went through her Spotify and played all our favorite songs from when we were young. We sang along to the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears and The Killers. And then she put on Famous Last Words.

When I was younger, it had been my favorite song on The Black Parade. Now I could hardly remember it. But as the song played on, I found myself singing along to the lyrics word-for-word, as if it were my body’s automatic response, as instinctive as breating. As hard as I’d tried to leave MCR behind, their music was still ingrained in me. More than that, it was a part of me.

As easy as it was to fall back into MCR’s music, I can’t deny that things had changed. The emotional strings that once wrapped me into their songs were no longer attached. They were no longer my diary or my escape, and I didn’t need them to be. I could now listen to them without feeling the heaviness that had weighed me down during my teenage years. But there was one thing that never changed: Their music made me feel alive, awake, like walking out of that concert in the eighth grade, still buzzing with electricity.

A few months ago, my cousins and I decided to visit our family for the first time in years. We were all so much older by then, so different from the emo kids who used to hide in their parents’ cars, listening to their music on full blast. We had different ways to bond with each other now. But as we all piled into my car and prepared for the road trip, one suggested that we listen to MCR for old time’s sake.

Once upon a time I might have declined. It would have been too hard; I would have said I just wasn’t interested anymore. But now the idea excited me, so we put their discography on shuffle and listened to it for the whole three hour drive. At first, we all screamed along to the songs, as if we were those 13 year old kids again, the same but so, so different. But after a while, as we drove through hours of farmland, we were lulled into a contemplative silence. We listened as Gerard Way crooned through the speakers of my Honda Civic, as the guitars wailed just for us. For a long time, no one spoke.

“Whenever I listen to their music now, it just hits me,” one of my cousins said eventually. “It’s this feeling deep in my chest, like nostalgia and excitement and, I don’t know, something else. Something I can’t explain. You know?”

Of course I did. It’s a feeling I can’t escape either.

Yes, this is the magic of My Chemical Romance. It is not just being a teenager screaming the lyrics alone in your room or walking out of a concert feeling like you’ve just witnessed something otherworldly. It’s not just about feeling edgy or cool. It’s a sense of belongingness. When I was 13, that meant finding something that I finally felt like I belonged to, a band that truly made me feel seen. And now, at 25, as I contemplate the many ways one single band has left a mark on who I am, it means having something that feels like it truly belongs to me.