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Zoo Story: The shelf life of My Chemical Romance and Emo at Hot Topic

on March 29, 2013, 12:01am

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A sentence not really out of context from Gerard Way’s eulogy for My Chemical Romance reads, “Fiction. Friction. Creation. Destruction. Opposition. Aggression. Ambition. Heart. Hate. Courage. Spite. Beauty. Desperation. LOVE. Fear. Glamour. Weakness. Hope.” Well, Gerard, if you’re trying to refute the claim that you were what’s commonly referred to around here as an “emo band” that’s not the way to do it. But it’s not entirely your fault – and no matter what you do, there will always be the undue stigmatic qualifier “emo” around yours and many other band’s music. But maybe for us kids who grew up with you squeezing our hearts and lungs empty there’s a fine reason to still enjoy it without immediately falling into some reflexive nostalgia. I took a trip to see an old partner of emo – one who struck a Faustian bargain with the genre and changed how people came to view it forever.

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If you take Chicago’s Brown Line train all the way to its northernmost stop and transfer to the 82 bus heading further north, you’ll end up at the Lincolnwood Square Mall — home of the only Hot Topic in the greater Chicagoland area. The company doesn’t have any locations in Chicago’s downtown malls like Water Tower Place or anywhere on Michigan Ave, just out in the village of Lincolnwood, IL, where I crossed the threshold into the “Edgy music- and pop-culture- influenced apparel and accessories store for rebellious teens” for the first time in a near decade.

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This particular Hot Topic is stuck in gear between the company’s old layout and their new one. It’s fairly unadorned, like one of those transitory pop-up Halloween costume stores. There’s no spooky color scheme or abrasive music playing over the loudspeaker as was once so common for a Hot Topic store back in the turn of the century. In 2007, the chain went through a branding change in an attempt to combat declining sales, revamping (or de-vamping, as it were) the interior design into more appealing box stores with soft lights and beige paint jobs to make them “not as foreboding as they once were.”

Still present in this particular Hot Topic in Lincolnwood is the company’s symbiotic and dubious relationship with music. In 1999, when Fred Durst released his music video for “Faith” donning a pair of red Dickies, those pants were available at Hot Topics across the nation a few weeks later. From an archive of the company’s About Me page from 2000, “Barely months after Korn started wearing Puma, and Tori Amos was seen in glitter sleeves, both styles were at Hot Topic. If it’s happening in music related fashion, it is at Hot Topic. Right now.” Already hanging on the rack when I walked in were these shirts, quoting Harmony Korine’s new movie Spring Breakers. The movie has only been out for a week.

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The idea of the store in the ‘00s was to bring whatever was happening in music culture and MTV out to the suburbs. It packaged it, commodified it, marked it up, licensed it, and sold it to the same people who bought CDs at Sam Goody instead of a local record store, so of course urban traditionalists would look down their nose at the kind of wares trafficked at this pre-fab mall store. I bemoaned the 50-minute commute at the very least.

It’s a place where emo kids go to get BOGO body jewelry, goth kids go to get lace wrist-warmers, scene kids go to get patches of their favorite bands to sew on their Jansports with dental floss, and apparently somebody goes to get Hello Kitty lanyards. It’s a haven for unhip kids to feel part of something, to buy their favorite band’s shirt and wear to school to let their friends know they’re part of the larger collective cultural experience that doesn’t exist in their sub-2,000-pop town. The prime target of Hot Topic was kids whose culture center was the suburban mall because the suburban mall was all they had.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that suburbia was the breeding grounds for much of the heyday of emo. Jimmy Eat World hailed from Phoenix, The Promise Ring from Milwaukee, Braid from Champagne-Urbana, The Get-Up Kids from Kansas City. Back in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, when the emo wave was starting to crest, it was looked at as a reaction to some of what was missing in the punk and hardcore scenes of the ‘80s. The snarl and cynicism of indie rock and SST punk and Dischord Records realized that no one was singing about their own personal feelings, and maybe that came with the Gen-Y Me-Generation, but all of a sudden “emo” started to happen, and grown men were essentially, as Gerard Way put it, not okay.

Lots of nice elegies have been written about Way and his arena-goth band that broke up about one week ago — most notably by Andy Greenwald at Grantland, who literally wrote the book on emo. Surrounding the fall of My Chemical Romance are a lot distraught members of the MCRmy, people who couldn’t and will never give two cares, and myself, firmly in the camp of  “Well, I used to like them.” What does that even mean, “I used to like them?”  Why don’t I like them now and what is so embarrassing about this genre that causes people to talk in guarded terms and always reference their youth and not something they currently feel?

Greenwald talks in the opening of his book about how no band would want to classify themselves as an emo band. It’s a toxic word, originating back in the ‘80s in D.C. when de facto scene leader Ian Mackaye would refer to bands as “emocore” in the pejorative, and sort of took off from there. Bands like Rites of Spring diluted into Fugazi, who sounded like a less palatable Sunny Day Real Estate, who sounded like a heavier Jimmy Eat World, who were a less glitzy Fall Out Boy, who only slightly less histrionic than My Chemical Romance, and so on until every shirt of every band hanging on the rack at Hot Topic are just “emo bands” because, well, that’s a lot easier isn’t it? But no band, not one, would self-identify themselves as an emo band.

Of course, the argument goes, “all music is emotional,” which is true. But the kinds of emotions on display in My Chemical Romance songs were marketable – they came prepackaged with an image that fit like a long, fishnet glove on suburban teens. I would argue that MCR are worth much more than the mall-rock label so often ascribed to them, and that 2006’s The Black Parade is essentially a Queen/ELO rock opera on Sparks that is as daring and successful as any pop rock album in the 21st century. But what MCR goes down in the books as to most people is a band for teenagers.

We rightfully associate the time in our life most unaffected by cynicism and irony with our youth. All those tributaries of nostalgic feelings pour into the antebellum times before we learned about poststructuralism or heartbreak or social media or Karmin. So it’s understandable why we might associate emo bands with nostalgia, but that may be a red herring. Unlike Saturday morning cartoons, emo music at its core isn’t geared toward kids, it’s geared toward a certain socio-emotional disposition. When Karate singer Geoff Farina sang, “Let me bang my head against the wall if I want to” or Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confesional sang, “Thinking is too much to ask,” or when Gerard Way sang, “And without you is how I disappear,” they are unmeditated expressions that channel the tenets of punk and hardcore: the best way to get the message across is to be as direct as possible.

This kind of direct-current lyricism isn’t so much tied to youth, it’s tied to an idea, which surely enough is what Way considered My Chemical Romance to be, “an idea.” It’s outside the status quo, but the spines of these emo records, from the early Promise Ring records all the way up to MCR aren’t just championing nascent feelings, they’re championing the most remarkable feelings. When Conor Oberst settles for a telephone and sings “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine” into her answering machine – those aren’t necessarily youthful actions, just actions unhindered by any shade of self-regulation or irony. They are those moments that happen at all stages of life when things start happening in caps-lock, and social mores fade away in favor of impulse. These moments are private, embarrassing, and of all things, emotional, but are never just relegated to youth. It’s just more forgivable when you’re 16.

That’s what these bands did best, especially My Chemical Romance. As one of the last of the last big bands of the genre, their camp, humor, and emotional earnestness, won the hearts of those who didn’t know any better, and those who didn’t care if they looked embarrassing in comparison. Beauty. Desperation. LOVE. Fear. Glamour. Weakness. Hope. It wasn’t the music that made them juvenile — it was how it was marketed.

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“When The Black Parade came out, that was when we were pushing all kinds of My Chemical Romance merch,” the manager at Lincolnwood’s Hot Topic told me. She has a side shave with blond highlights, gauged ear-piercing with a labret, and a “snake bite” facial piercing, and has been working at Hot Topic for five years now. She was nice and helpful. “They had arm bands, dolls, patches, pins, shirts, and CDs. We sold a lot of My Chemical Romance CDs.”

I asked her if they’ve sold a lot of MCR merch lately, and she said no. “Black Veil Brides, that’s what kids are buying these days. The band has a great design team, so every few months they’ll come out with another shirt that even if kids have five Black Veil Bride shirts, they’ll want to come get a new one.”

The grid of band shirts on the Hot Topic wall remain vast and narrow, with Asking Alexandria and Avenged Sevenfold being the most common grabs. There are also plenty of Machine Gun Kelly or 2 Chainz tees and Paramore everything, all juxtaposed next to My Little Pony t-shirts, Rage Comics t-shirts, Come At Me Brony hats, and those weird fucking Hello Kitty lanyards. The wares in the store are obviously for rebellious teens, but the music sold in the store is only guilty of that demographic by association.

While Hot Topic stores collaterally associate bands with teenagers, it becomes harder to disassociate that in the eyes of the consumer. Not that I’d expect to see a My Chemical Romance shirt at Land’s End or LL Bean Outlet, but the kind of music that we “used to like”, the kind that played in our car stereos in high school, the kind we played when we got home from kissing our first crush, or the kind that we played when that crush ripped our heart out and threw it down a grassy hill – that music was not meant for kids. It was just meant for the unadulterated.

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Jeremy D. Larson is the managing editor of Consequence of Sound. His work has appeared in VICE, Time, The Classical, Noisey, Paste, and Twitter.com.

Previously on Zoo Story: For The Longest Time