Backstage at The Underworld in Camden, Frank Iero was joking with London friends among the usual accoutrements of pizza boxes, leather jackets, and untouched water bottles. It was late 2014—just as the first traces of mental health awareness and modern masculinity "stiff upper lip!" conversations were about to enter British public consciousness—and I was there to interview the ex-My Chemical Romance guitarist for a zine about men's mental health. A group of fans swelled around the back door as he told me about the last time he cried. "You can't control how things affect you emotionally," he explained. "When people say 'man up' I think that statement in itself is bullshit: it really that goes back to what do you define a man as. Is he an emotionless strong animal? Is it a brute force kinda thing? Or is it a person that cares and does for your family?"
My Chemical Romance treated their fanbase like a family; with their galvanizing and melodramatic music, the previous decade had been theirs. At the height of their powers in 2013, frontman Gerard Way announced that the emo(tional) band was over.
But despite their absence, MCR dominated rock this decade. Between bookending the decade with two of the biggest rock news moments of the last ten years—the 2013 split and the frantic Halloween 2019 return—they have become progressively more popular, almost aggressively remained in the rock music news cycle, and have been elevated to the highest stratum of the genre's canon.
When they broke up, emo kids everywhere mourned. They grieved in a public manner that would only be beaten by the collective reaction to One Direction's split three years later. As I wrote in a chapter on My Chemical Romance in my book Fangirls, tweens and teens joined the fandom in significant numbers despite there having been no active band. The same things pulled them in as their predecessors: depression, punk theatrics, enormous stadium rock, fully-formed universes. Scroll down any of their videos on YouTube and you'll see reams of comments along the lines of "I'll never watch my favorite band play" and "I was born in the wrong decade." This often-derided band didn’t need to release anything for years but in a period of dormancy, they became more wildly influential and ridiculously beloved.
Hardly a week went by without MCR being featured in some way by the rock press, with retrospectives, listicles, or features celebrating various anniversaries. Each member had reasonably successful musical projects in the interim—Frank Iero, in particular, with various iterations of a very good idiosyncratic punk rock solo project; Gerard Way with a Brit-pop inspired solo album; Ray Toro with an alternative rock album; and Mikey Way with his band Electric Century—so blogs hummed along with headlines for years regarding one constant question: when would MCR return, if at all? Even VICE wondered if their return would be enough to make Glastonbury happen on its "off" year and explored what new superfans thought of a possible revival. When I spoke to MCR superfan and Alternative Press journalist Cassie Whitt about this content drive, she told me, "I consider myself an archivist of MCR information—or MCRchivist, as I call it—and I was seeing more random fluff about MCR in these past few years than I had during their active years. It was like an ever-piling sandwich filling between the two major announcements."
The conspiracy theories stacked up quickly. Here are a few of the best ones: final album Danger Days was set in a post-apocalyptic California, 2019 so they'd return in 2019; the band broke up when it was 12 years old, so, nodding to the adolescent-fearing single "Teenagers," they'd return in 2019 or 2021 when the group would be either 18 or 20 years old and therefore adults; that they would return in unison with the The Smashing Pumpkins timeline; that all four albums had come out the year of an installment of the Shrek franchise and so they'd return with the release of Shrek 5, and, the most convincing of all, that their return was always written, since their final song was called "Fake Your Death."
Crucially, MCR appeared to die in conjunction with rock's strange decade, which says as much about an entire genre as it does the band. Warped Tour ended, and the rock music itself felt regenerative, not evolutionary. Many new rock artists—and some of MCR’s contemporaries—leaned heavily into the populist demands of BBC radio and the Spotify playlist model, leading to a years-long trend of mild and amorphous rock-pop. The big hitters on the Billboard mainstream rock chart tended to be artists born of previous eras, especially the 00s: Panic! At the Disco, Paramore, Fall Out Boy, and Slipknot, while Twenty One Pilots, the biggest (and perplexingly average) crossover rock band of the decade, were more reggae, rap, and piano-pop than rock. At the time of writing, the top track on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart is Panic!'s "High Hopes," which came out in 2018 and has spent a staggering 42 weeks at No. 1.
Throughout the 2010s it became less clear what actually constituted "rock" anymore. Bloggers debating that rock was "dead" probed the notion of a "real rockstar" and searched for traces of relevant guitars. By the second half of the decade, it was obvious the 2010s had been a golden age of rap and R&B as much as it belonged to solo female pop stars.
But less critical engagement with rock made space for revisionist thinking on the decade before. What was once disparaged as "Hot Topic mall rock" or "Warped Tour kiddy-emo," even from within rock journalism, was reconsidered and celebrated by a generation whose entire formative music taste and frame of reference was shaped by this era. It's been just long enough for millennial nostalgia to take hold and reshape the narrative. Across culture, this decade has been marked with poptimism and the end of a staunch definition of what is highbrow or lowbrow. The idea of "proper" culture was always going to collapse when young people were able to cherry-pick from subcultures by total osmosis. This has resulted in musicians that are directly influenced by MCR and mall rock, including artists as disparate as late emo-rapper Lil Peep to the baffling pop-punk singer Yungblud to retrospective English punk rockers Creeper to Tumblr-born alt-pop luminary Halsey.
When the mainstream public grew out of Myspace emo, it was patently with a cringe: it was a musical movement so fundamentally teenage in its look and earnestness and self-obsession. As we roll into the 2020s, there's a sense we've accepted how fun and absurd and camp and impassioned and dark and performative it was, and My Chemical Romance are the figureheads of that.
Along with their cult-like family of young followers, they untangled answers to questions before the rest of the world did: What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean in the modern day to have mental suffering? What is the relationship between misery and music? And of course, the eternal one, all conscious beings and band have had to grapple with: what does it mean to die?
This article originally appeared on VICE US.