Pop Punk's Rebellious Peace
We’ve been driving for nine hours. Finally, the intense Arizona sun is beginning to set, leaving the horizon before us to suddenly swell with hues of purples and pinks. I look over at the iPod Classic docked on the dashboard – our road-trip playlist has just ended. We listened to hundreds of carefully chosen songs, all of which we had compiled in weekly ritual phone calls over the course of the year leading up to the trip. My brother, Noel, reaches over and absently fumbles with the iPod. He sets it on shuffle and an abandoned melody quickly begins to sweep over us. The notes ring out in a simple acoustic pattern as we look over at each other, a familiar grin of nostalgia plastered across our faces. We start laughing like crazy, sharing the realization that we hadn’t included this band, My Chemical Romance, even once in our playlist. While we jokingly scream and blame each other, the song surges forward with the crash of drums. Still laughing, we find ourselves head banging and screaming the lyrics louder than we have for any other song yet. In that moment, our past rushes forward, suddenly meeting us as we speed along Route 66.
I look over at my big brother, now a grown man. As the song dies down, I see Noel again as an awkward eighteen-year-old in baggy clothes. I’m taken back to a time when I was an even more awkward seven-year-old, one who wore her unruly curls in obnoxious pigtails, loved to wear bright neon tie-dye, but nonetheless loved pop-punk with all her heart. Given our eleven-year age difference, there wasn’t anything that my brother and I shared in common. Of course, he took it upon himself to change that. He created a common ground for us in the form of music, spending hours introducing me to bands like New Found Glory, Say Anything, Panic! at the Disco, Simple Plan, and of course, My Chemical Romance. I cherished those few hours every day, finding myself totally enraptured by the cacophony of guitars, the clash of drums, and the unapologetic springy angst and passion that spewed from the voices of these artists. I can see the two of us clearly, blasting these bands and jumping around like maniacs in our tiny apartment. Noel used to pick me over his shoulders, telling me to scream as loud as I could. “Just let it all out, kiddo! Sing away the pain and anger like these guys do!” he’d shout over the music, urging me to embrace rebellion and peace all at once.
But what could a seven-year-old possibly be angry about? Apparently, a great deal. This music was the closest thing I had to comfort at a very tumultuous time in my life. Our dad had just lost his business, spiraling my brother and me into a disillusioned frenzy of apartment-hopping, constant cheap Chinese takeout, and late nights waiting for our parents to get home from new jobs that they hated. Things had changed so suddenly and I didn’t quite know how to deal with that. My weekends were no longer filled with the sound of salsa and merengue echoing from the living room, and the image of my parents dancing together became a distant memory. Rather, our apartment grew painfully silent and devoid of joy. The only occasional sound was of the hushed arguments that my parents were beginning to share.
There was no comfort outside of my home, either. I came to realize that my friends at school shared nothing in common with me, with their well-adjusted lives and upper-class standing. The lunchroom was filled with the sound of children singing obnoxiously happy Disney songs. Instead of joining in, my immediate response was an incredibly unnerving desire to crush their skulls in. Clearly, I was filled with an intensely uncharacteristic rage at such a young age. I felt alienated and betrayed by life. My thoughts prematurely developed into those of a teenager, being forced to understand a financial crisis and divorce while some kids around me were still wetting the bed. I couldn’t accept that I was surrounded by so much childhood innocence when I was face-to-face every day with the harsh reality of life. Yet, even I realized I needed to find a way to channel my anger. More than anything, I wanted an escape from the constant resentment that was bubbling away inside of me.
Pop punk was the escape that set me free. Introduced to me by my brother and subsequently shared with him, I found a home in a kind of music that had just the right balance between aggression and hope. It was also the kind of music that embraced difference, a notion that I struggled with for years to come. For as far back as I could remember in my young life, I felt as though I was constantly floating between cultures, friendships, and interests. As I grew older, I realized that I was the Latina girl that wasn’t quite Latina enough – I could understand Spanish, but I couldn’t speak it – disconnecting me entirely from the world of music that my parents loved. My friends at school were all white, and to them, I was an honorary fake white girl. After all, I shared their Upper West Side vocabulary, mannerisms, and style. Yet, I couldn’t ever quite bring myself to share their same intense love for Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift.
Instead, I often found myself tuning out the world with Gerard Way’s voice. It was one that embraced this same difference that I felt was so strongly a part of who I was deep down. His voice was whiny, throaty, and so charmingly strange. With it, the lead singer of My Chemical Romance weaved together a realm that paradoxically embraced serenity, suffering, and optimism all at once. Every song felt cinematic and captured a universal pain. However, each album listened through in its entirety managed to conclude with a message of hope and self-acceptance. I not only found my secret way to let go of the anger that I held onto from my childhood – this music also allowed me to move forward with a newfound sense that things would turn out okay. I’d pop my headphones in every afternoon on the subway home from school, knowing that my daily dose of MCR would prepare me for whatever I ended up coming home to.
Years passed. My brother moved far out to New Mexico, leaving me to revel in the pop punk legacy he’d bestowed upon me. I continued listening to MCR and all the others like them, especially because they reminded me of my brother. But despite all that these bands did for me, I was never anything more than a listener and lover of their sound. I didn’t identify with the Emo image that appeared synonymously among online forums that talked about pop punk. I wasn’t ever interested in dying my hair bright red, wearing raccoon eyeliner, decking my face out with piercings, or walking around in clothes that suggested Hot Topic threw up on me. No, I was just a girl who wore her (now slightly less unruly) curls loose, sported high-waisted skinny jeans, and talked to anyone who would listen about her beloved pet lizard. I was still pretty weird, but I would soon learn that I wasn’t the same kind of weird that seemed to comprise the pop punk fanbase around me.
In the spring of 2012, my brother surprised me with tickets to Bamboozle in Jersey. The festival’s lineup was entirely made up of all the artists we obsessed over during and beyond our youth. From the looks of it, we were going to have a damn near spiritual encounter with our deepest and longest loves. However, things felt painfully off. We arrived at the festival, totally blissed out and riding on a seemingly never-ending wave of excitement that we’d carried with us all the way from New York City. But all around us, people were dressed in their band tees and there wasn’t a single person not wearing vans, studded belts, and dark skinny jeans. Except for me and my brother, of course. We looked around, suddenly forgetting our excitement and realizing that we looked like we were crashing a party that we really shouldn’t have invited ourselves to. Noel, now twenty-five and bearded, resembled a pedophile because he was toting around his kid sister. I couldn’t focus at all on the distant sound of music coming from beyond the parking lot. Instead, I was beating myself up over the fact that we weren’t fitting in with the music scene we loved so much.
Despite this overall feeling of being an outsider, Bamboozle ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. For the first time, I was able to witness My Chemical Romance performing live. Unknowingly at the time, I was also witnessing their final concert performance ever. For me, the concert acted as a vessel through which time suddenly collided – my past and future were inextricably linked even for just a moment. As the song “Famous Last Words” echoed around me, I found myself jumping and screaming just as I did with my brother in our living room all those years ago. We forgot about how different we were from these people around us. Once again, we forged our own identity, a bubble of music whose meaning was strictly specific to us. The song’s most popular lyrics “I am not afraid to keep on living, I am not afraid to walk this world alone” hit me harder than ever this time around, even though I had listened to them thousands of times before. Perhaps it was because I was seeing the passion with which they were singing directly before me; perhaps it was because I was now a lost and confused teenager entering the scary world of young adulthood. Maybe it was just that I was experiencing a special, rare musical moment with my brother again.
Either way, I found myself basking in the anger, pain, and later joy of my youth all over again. Except for this time, I was now simultaneously looking toward the future with a sense of closure. It was fitting, then, that My Chemical Romance announced their breakup a year later. By that point, my music interests had already started to drift to everything far and between. I was letting myself listen to anything, just as long as whatever it was felt even a little angry, a little hurt, or a little hopeful. Just like the band, I was already moving on.
Yet, here I was three years later in my brother’s car, falling right back into the shameless love of a band whose music shaped my youth. Listening to it doesn’t feel heavy or full of hope anymore. I don’t feel the alienating pressure to dress a certain way in order to fit in with a group. I don’t even find myself caring about what other people around the world still think of My Chemical Romance. Rather, the music feels beautiful in a totally new, yet vaguely familiar way. Just like embracing an old loved one that you haven’t seen in years, you realize that you suddenly miss them way more than you thought. You see how much they were once a part of your life, not being able to understand how you’ve been living so long without them. So you vow to keep them close, never pushing them completely away again.