Role Models: My Chemical Romance Showed Glass Beach a Healthy Kind of Angst

The LA band pays tribute to their emo heroes.

I think we all got into My Chemical Romance in middle school or high school. My cousin went to college in another town, and she had been dating this guy who sort of got me into playing guitar. I would go over there, and the thing I loved about visiting them is they would let me stay up all night just doing whatever I wanted. And I was a kid, so I had unlimited energy. This was on the very cusp of when MTV was phasing out music videos, and I remember staying up one night and seeing a bunch of videos — I had no idea what they were called, but there was this one with a very pretty lady in a church dancing down an aisle. I later found out that was “Helena” by My Chemical Romance.

From there, I scoured YouTube for every song that I could find of theirs. I liked them, but it was my first burst of getting into them. The moment it went from, Oh, this is a really cool rock band, to, I think this might legitimately be a big influence on me for the rest of my life, was when I was 13: The Black Parade came out, and that was the same year I found out my mom had cancer. Songs like “Welcome to the Black Parade,” and another one that doesn’t get talked about as much called “Disenchanted,” were super powerful, because they were all about dealing with the process of death and grief and the idea of what you’re leaving behind. It made me think about my mom and it got me through a lot of tough shit. From that point forward, I knew My Chem was one of my favorite emo bands of all time.

There was a bit where they were definitely a guilty pleasure band for me. When I was first getting into the emo scene, the line was always, “Oh, I like emo, but not like My Chemical Romance. Like real emo.” I always liked them though, and I think recently we’ve come into an era where guilty pleasures are barely a thing, and anyone into emo is willing to listen to any kind of emo — even the mall emo stuff that was written off basically just because teenage girls liked it.

Most artists are subject to the mentality that if you don’t have stuff figured out by the time you’re 25, you’re screwed and you’ve gotta resign yourself to this life of not doing anything you dreamed of. I remember going through a phase as a teenager where I would look up, When did these guys get big? I have to get big by the time these guys did, otherwise I’m not on the right path! And My Chem started when Gerard Way was 24. By the time that “I’m Not Okay” came out, Ray Toro was almost 30. As a kid I was like, Oh, my god! I’ve got more time than I thought! It definitely helped me toward the mentality that just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you have to stop pursuing your dreams. Especially the ones that people view as childlike, which sadly I think is how music is viewed by many. Like, “Oh, you and your little band!” You mean, the thing I do for a living?

I think of the bands I liked at that time, and My Chem is the band I liked the most and never stopped liking. Part of that could be that they did take a six-year break to stop releasing music, so they never released bad music. But also, I think that there are a lot of mature themes in their music, beyond just that they talk about death. The emotions that they write from are so heavy and full — the older I get listening to it, there’s more to connect to. When you go back a look at the way My Chem started and how their music has evolved, there’s so much that you hear change as they were growing up as people.

If you listen to a song like “I’m Not Okay” and this song by Black Veil Brides called “Knives and Pens” — on the surface, they seem the same, but “I’m Not Okay” feels a whole lot more like a personal introspection rather than this get-back-at-the-world-because-you’re-an-outcast thing. It feels like, “Yeah, I’m an outcast, but I kind of just want to express that — and I don’t care if I get back at the world, I just want to be okay.” It’s a healthier way of processing it. There’s a level of depth that My Chem achieved that a lot of similar bands didn’t quite hit the right chord on. It also doesn’t seem to glorify the idea of being overtly depressed. That’s one line that I feel like some emo music had trouble with, the line between accepting and expressing real feelings of sadness and turmoil in yourself, and beginning to glorify the idea of depression.

There was this aspect of the emo subculture at the time of embracing the feminine. I think that’s a big part of why the look and the culture as a whole were so stigmatized at the time. The 2000s were a fucked up time, being involved in the Iraq war and the prevailing attitude of “being strong and getting back at the people who hurt us” — this whole culture of toxic masculinity. Emo was a reaction to that: Allowing yourself to embrace the “feminine” side and be sad about the violence going on. Allowing yourself to mourn and accept tragedy for what it is, rather than acting like the response to tragedy and death and bad things has to be a violent one.

The feminine expression probably connected to what a lot of queer youth were feeling at the time, whether they fully realized it or not. A few years ago, Gerard Way said some non-binary-y things — I’m still not entirely clear as to what extent he may identify as non-binary, but he expressed a relationship with gender that is not totally aligned with the binary, surprising no one and inspiring a lot of people. I will say, a lot of non-binary people maybe jumped on it too hard and claimed him as a non-binary icon, and saying “Gerard is using they/them pronouns,” which he never said. So there is a point to where I think people got a little too excited and took his own agency away — which is not nearly as harmful as the counter to it — but I think that just kind of speaks to those feelings of inspiring people to express their feminine sides and be more vulnerable. Being okay with having these emotional thoughts and thinking about your own emotions critically and feeling it, I think, often can lead to gender discovery.

Just being able to say “I’m not okay” was very powerful for a lot of people. Especially queer people, whether they knew it or not. Even if you have internalized homophobia, or transphobia as a trans person, that can be a powerful step towards being comfortable in your own body. If you’re raised in a very conservative household and taught your entire life that being trans is a bad thing, and you realized that you’re trans at some point, there has to be a mourning period for the way that you existed before that point.

I think The Black Parade especially hits on those feelings. They say, “Though you’re broken and defeated, your weary widow marches on” — it isn’t “I am depressed, I am sad, I regret who I am and that defeats me.” It’s “I see all of these things, I see the mistakes, I see the failure and the things that could hold me back; I accept what they are and that they do hurt me and that it is difficult, and I will then continue forward.” That kind of falls in line with the way we’ve talk about queer people forever. I feel like My Chemical Romance is a more nuanced and effective It Gets Better campaign.

I think it’s important to see your depression and negativity reflected, and feel seen in that way. The last line of “Famous Last Words” is “I’m not afraid to keep on living, I’m not afraid to walk this world alone.” Not that queer and trans people end up walking alone after coming out, but sometimes it can feel like that. It’s such a powerful message for that record to go out on — you can still live on and find joy in life even if you’re the only one left.

As told to Annie Fell.

Genreless Los Angeles-based newcomers Glass Beach wrap mathy guitar leads around catchy drum and bass grooves, then layer that base with horns, synths, and the occasional theremin, to set the perfect scene for vocalist J McClendon’s stunning vocal performances.