When music is turned into a commodity, music as pure expression may be more important than ever.
That’s certainly the mindset of My Chemical Romance, which has worked to stay true to its roots even as it’s been lofted onto the mainstream stage. Indeed, for the New Jersey band that has broken from the emo ranks into the headier circles of mass appeal and critical acclaim, keeping the integrity feels like a duty.
“That’s the greatest thing about music—the way it can make you feel, the way it sends shivers down your spine,” says rhythm guitarist Frank Iero. “It can make a celebration out of something you never thought would be celebratory. It’s art, and it’s open for interpretation, and that’s the greatest thing about it.”
If half a century of history proves anything, it’s that one of rock’s basic features is a perpetual tension between creativity and commercialism—between the idea of musicians as artists and musicians as acts. For decades, true-blue rockers have preached against compromising the art. But Iero recognizes that in an age overwhelmed by advertising, manipulated by marketing, purity of purpose may have an especially valuable place.
“You need that mutual respect between the artist and the fans, this trust that we’re not going to go off and start dropping product names in our songs,” says Iero. “That it’s not about just writing singles or throwing in filler to make a buck. It’s really about having something to say and creating something you’re going to be proud of forever—not just a fleeting thing.”
That’s not to say success isn’t a happy byproduct: My Chemical Romance sits firmly atop the world of modern rock two weeks after kicking off a three-month tour that will take the quintet across the globe.
In October, a quarter of a million fans snatched up copies of the band’s third album, “The Black Parade,” during its debut week, pushing it to No. 2 on Billboard’s albums chart. It was a formidable bow for an ambitious work: With “The Black Parade,” MCR unfurled the sort of full-scale concept album only hinted at on its previous outings, wielding elements from Queen and Pink Floyd amid the emo-inflected punk to tell the story of a dying cancer patient grappling with life’s higher purpose.
Many fans and reviewers have looked to the album for bigger messages—what Iero describes as “a social commentary on feelings of helplessness, on the state of affairs for young people right now.” Even if “The Black Parade” wasn’t expressly crafted with that metaphor in mind, Iero says, such interpretations make sense.
“That’s the way our generation feels—that we’re kind of the leftovers,” says Iero, 25. “There’s so much craziness, so much sorrow going on right now, it’s this feeling of, `Do I even mean anything in the grand scheme of things?’”
That quest for individual meaning is a time-tested theme of the rock concept album, sitting at the heart of work by bands ranging from the Who to Queensryche. Still, “The Black Parade” leads a procession of recent high-profile records—including releases by Green Day, the Killers and Panic! At the Disco—that signal a shift in modern rock’s reigning principles. Fifteen years after Nirvana ushered in a back-to-basics climate, the success of bands such as MCR reveals a rock audience eager to embrace grand concepts. Call it the return of rock romanticism.
Iero says his band feels artistically liberated, even empowered, because of a special understanding with its audience—a tacit agreement that sticking MCR into “some perfect little box” wouldn’t be healthy for anyone involved.
“There’s a responsibility, at least for our band, that fans expect us to be true to ourselves, do things for the right reasons, and constantly up the bar. To try new things and put our necks out there, and make everything come from the heart,” he says. “Those are the only expectations we feel. Our fans are really smart, and they understand where we’re coming from with a lot of these things.”
Iero is positioned to see that trait perhaps better than anyone. He was a 20-year-old Rutgers University student and just a fan of the band when he was invited to join, contributing to a pair of songs on MCR’s debut album before taking on full-time status alongside vocalist Gerard Way and company. Iero had watched his friends grow from a scrappy attic band into a potent musical unit, all while holding tight to the founding principles he’d glimpsed on an early demo disc.
“There were three songs on this thing that weren’t really good, weren’t really in time, no bass. But something about the urgency of the songs, the way the guitar parts worked with the vocals and the melodies, was beautiful,” he says. “It wasn’t honed at all, but there was such an honesty to it. That’s when I knew this is it; this is what I need to do. I dropped everything, got in a van and never looked back. I got crying phone calls from my parents—`You need to go back to school!’ I said, `You don’t understand. This is something I need. I need to be here.’ That’s the way I’ve felt about this band since day one.”
Iero and his band mates are a literate bunch, but the guitarist recognizes that you can talk about the music only so much. At some point, it’s all about the raw energy and release.
“If you want to experience the songs and understand what they’re all about, that’s when you need to see them live,” he says. “I’ve always felt like we’re less of a band onstage playing, and more of an occurrence or a happening. It feels like more of a healing, to tell the truth—a place where people can come and get it out, and have a place where they feel they belong.”
And that, says Iero, is the true motivation.
“For us, it’s never been about a job. It’s about this is all we know how to do,” he says. “If we can change people’s lives with our passion, with something we love, that’s the ultimate gift. And every day with this band is a gift.”
Visit the Freep, the World Wide Web site of the Detroit Free Press, at www.freep.com.