I did not have a huge variety of music played in my house when I was growing up. It was mostly classical: my father is a talented pianist and has been playing ever since I can remember, he himself falling in love with Chopin and Beethoven at a young age. I used to take the piss out of him for listening to recordings of HIS OWN piano playing in the car, but now I totally understand that impulse; how lovely to listen to recordings of your own take on somebody else’s beloved work of art, a moment otherwise exclusively irretrievable through memory, something that fades over time?
I enjoyed classical music as a child, but the first time I remember feeling profoundly moved was when I listened to Dido’s album No Angel. I was five or six; Dido worked in my father’s office so my mum said that it was only fair we give her album a listen. I listened to that album, and Life for Rent, into my early teens; and even now for me they capture an innocent longing. I had the dimmest sense of what love and heartbreak were, but even then, my heart swelled with emotion at certain lyrics. These lyrics from her song Life for Rent were the ones I sang to myself most often when I was little:
I haven’t ever really found a place that I call home
I never stick around quite long enough to make it
I apologize once again I’m not in love
But it’s not as if I mind
that your heart ain’t exactly breaking
It’s just a thought, only a thought
But if my life is for rent and I don’t learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cos nothing I have is truly mine
Looking back, it figures that as a child I sought this freedom, this independence: yes mum and dad were always right, and I shouldn’t cross roads without them or eat tooooo much cake, but the longing for personal autonomy is something that I feel is natural to us even at a young age. Thence Dido.
But possibly the most important musical epiphany I had was this one. I was in the car, driving up and down some hills in the Brecon Beacons with my mum and my dad and my sister, listening through my headphones to Bulletproof Heart, from My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days: the True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys. I felt the warmth of elation in my veins as I listened to the lyrics:
Don’t mean too much to me
I’m who I’ve got to be
These pigs are after me, after you
Run away, like it was yesterday
And we could run away, if we could run away
Run away from here
I was 14. There was nothing in my life that I had a particular desire to flee from. Or was there?
I didn’t think about anything apart from My Chemical Romance for the entirety of the next two years. I wasn’t really interested in starting relationships with the young boys growing into men around me. I didn’t think deeply about my appearance, about what people thought of me, about sex, which seemed like a hazy but exciting promise waiting for me in my latter teenage years. Other musicians entranced me at this time, sure. The purity and honesty of Taylor Swift’s voice; Paramore, Green Day, Beyonce, Shakira, Eminem. But they were nothing on this band, who I felt I knew as deeply if not more deeply than the people around me.
Things changed for me a little bit when I managed to get my heart broken twice during the summer after I finished my GCSE’s. I won’t pretend it didn’t hurt, like fuck. I won’t pretend there wasn’t a lot of crying, that I didn’t focus on all of the things I thought were wrong with my mind and with my body for the next five years and, on some level, blame the failures of every romance and relationship I embarked on upon them. There was a lot of loss, that summer, and in the next two years. But during that time, and for years to come, MCR’s song Cancer from The Black Parade constituted the catharsis I needed. The first verse goes like this:
If you could get me a drink of water
Cause my lips are chapped and faded
Call my Aunt Marie
Help her gather up my things and bury me
In all my favourite colours,
My sisters and my brothers still
I will not kiss you
Cause the hardest part of this is leaving you
The you here was at once my beloved school, myself, every one of my closest girlfriends, the boy who hurt me so casually that summer, and indeed every boy who had let me down up until the age of 16.
I remember thinking that summer, mere hours after having my heart broken, listening to music alone, that nothing could truly harm me if I always had my music to soothe me and express the anger and hurt I felt in a nonviolent way. Yes I was angry. But I had no blueprint for the expression of anger that could be damaging to other people; it bled out safely through my headphones, when I was alone, or dancing around in my friends, or at the top of the 210 on the way up to the places where I spent my teenage years.
My Chemical Romance broke up on March 23rd, 2013. I cried solidly for six hours. I’d loved every song on every one of their five albums and the knowledge that the people I felt so close to had decided that they needed not to make music anymore broke my heart more deeply than any breakup I’d had up until that point. I still think of that awful rainy day as the end of my childhood.
But somewhere I understood. If they no longer wanted to make music as a group, it didn’t feel true to them, they had every right to withdraw, every right to end that artistic union. What was special about MCR was that when you listen to the music you can feel how deeply they have all been in pain and the strength with which they have fought and are fighting that, and learn something yourself about the sheer resilience learnt through suffering.
As I get older, I feel more and more resistant to the term ‘pop music.’ Pop – short for popular – comes from the Latin populus, meaning simply ‘the people’, as opposed to the non-elite. At its root meaning, all it means is the music of the people. Something to embrace, rather than something to look down upon. I think the difference between, say, the supposedly ‘popular’ Taylor Swift’s earliest albums and MCR is simply the nuance of emotion. Or perhaps the intention with which (some, not all) modern pop music is created; to make money, a starting point that is inevitably liable to tarnishing artistic integrity.
We hear millions of lovesongs and breakup songs. Yeah okay, love is painful and hard and you’re always afraid of losing it. I have needed these songs very badly in my time. But I have also needed to feel anger, sadness, envy, resentment, joy, fear, in all their different and infinite combinations, and that’s what MCR gave me, and that’s what I take from Frank Turner, Lana Del Rey, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn, Bon Iver, Jeff Buckley, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Vivaldi, Chopin, Debussy and even the genuinely glorious and life affirming piece of art that is the La La Land soundtrack. Part of me is always gently pissed off when someone comments on my musical choices with anything but absolute respect. I think it’s clear why. Own what you love. My Chemical Romance was never cool. That’s what made it so cool.