A poet’s purified truth can cause no pain, no offense. True art is above false honor.”


— Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Some time ago, I wrote about self-help and its factually erroneous, radically conservative, and dangerously counteractive cosmovision. In the piece in question, I contrasted the emotional shallowness and blind practicality of self-help (which relies on not asking questions about the structural causes of our state, but throwing all responsibility on ourselves and nearby individuals); with the less proactive, but far more dignified redemptive function of art. But art is a product. Here, I’m referring to art crafted by artists who rely on it to pay bills and buy groceries, and a list of essential and non-essential etceteras. Art made, not by amateurs or hobbyists, but by “professional” artists, is a product. And, if a piece of art is popular enough, it will become a product of mass consumption.

In most cases, the sense of identification one has as a consumer is almost accidental, it’s isolated, it’s a spontaneous one-on-one affair: The piece speaks and it is as if one spoke, or as if one was spoken to. Sometimes, like religious art, the piece in question seems designed to create a sense of identification, or to speak to a certain member of a demographic “on a personal level”. 

If one of the traits that make a piece of art particularly valuable is that it canalizes pain in a way with which a specific demographic tends to identify, that sense of identification will work, in the eyes of those who deal with the piece in question as a product, as a unique value proposition. They will notice that there are people consuming that material because through it they can establish a less self-detrimental relationship with their own pain. This sense of identification can turn into, to put it in Peter Coffin’s terms, a cultivated identity. Coffin (whose introduction to the concept I had the pleasure of translating) defines the cultivation of identity as “the defining of people at their core and in a manner that suits an intended purpose, enacted by putting a “consumable” at/near the center of a person’s identity.”

I’m currently living through the hangover of six years of suicide attempts, during which I often found refuge in the music of My Chemical Romance, and a myriad of other smaller bands. 

My Chemical Romance was born out of a sense of senselessness. Frontman and lyricist Gerard Way decided to start a musical project, to “say something, make some kind of difference, connect with another human being”, after watching the Twin towers fall before him. At the time, he was involved in creating commercial art and was trying to pitch a show to Cartoon Network. Those involved in preproduction misunderstood it, “the cartoon was meaningless and, if [he] didn’t do something, [his] life would be meaningless too.”

My Chemical Romance was a project led by an artist who had struggled with alcoholism and was disappointed by his career. The “message” of My Chemical Romance was frank, it was genuine, and we had reasons to believe it. The relationship that the band established with their fans was spontaneous, it was sustained by the music, but it wasn’t commercially calculated to be so. If interested in understanding the story and character of this relationship, as well as the moral panic it aroused, I recommend reading an article by Rosemary Hill, titled “Emo Saved My Life: Challenging the Mainstream Discourse of Mental Illness around My Chemical Romance”. In it, she discusses the aspects of the misunderstanding of the cathartic function of emo music, that could be related to the gender of its listeners:

“…these fans are predominantly female. Girls and boys are socialised differently and the conditions of their teenage lives are somewhat dissimilar. Gaines’ and Arnett’s findings that young men use metal to cope with anger, suggests that we could similarly explore My Chemical Romance fans’ reasons for listening to the band in the context of their reported self-harming and discussions of suicide. We need to listen to what the young women have to say about their reasons for listening to My Chemical Romance…”

The pike of the post-hardcore scene was more or less contemporary with the rise of online communities of anorexic and bulimic teenagers, dedicated to justifying and glamorizing the illness, and giving each other advice on how to perform the rituals that the illness demanded. The majority of those who frequented these spaces were female, so were the consumers of post-hardcore.

While I didn’t glamorize my illness, like many of my friends, I was both a sufferer of an eating disorder and a listener of emo music. I lacked spaces in which I could talk about my feelings frankly, and the professional help I needed was inaccessible. I couldn’t get a competent psychologist, in the country with the most psychologists per capita, in the world. The idea of a band saving one’s life is the consequence of an evident lack of mental health resources.

I’ve been profoundly changed and moved by pieces of media but enshrining them, or those who made them as my saviors (like Simple Plan shamelessly and ridiculously encourage their fans to do) would be- at the very least, inconvenient. The aforelinked song, titled “This song saved my life” is a ridiculous attempt at canalizing these feelings. Reading its lyrics, the problem becomes evident: 

“…I wanna start letting you know this
Because of you my life has a purpose
You helped me be who I am today
I see myself in every word you say
Sometimes it feels like nobody gets me
Trapped in a world where everyone hates me
There’s so much that I’m going through
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you

I was broken
I was choking
I was lost
This song saved my life
I was bleeding
Stopped believing
Could have died
This song saved my life
I was down
I was drowning
But it came on just in time
This song saved my life

Sometimes I feel like you’ve known me forever
You always know how to make me feel better
Because of you my dad and me are so much closer
Than we used to be
You’re my escape when I’m stuck
In this small town
I turn you up
Whenever I feel down
You let me know like no one else
That it’s okay be myself

I was broken
I was choking
I was lost
This song saved my life
I was bleeding
Stopped believing
Could have died
This song saved my life
I was down
I was drowning
But it came on just in time
This song saved my life

You’ll never know
What it means to me
That I’m not alone
That I’ll never have to be…”

The popularity of the idea of a band “saving your life” is worrying, because it means that a considerable subsection of a demographic can only find profound solace, company, and meaning within the context of a parasocial relationship: That is, within a unilateral relationship, curated on one end, and viscerally honest on the other one. Yes, even frank, ruthlessly frank artists have a curated image, an image that differs from their private self. It might be a projection of their private selves, but it isn’t its direct, full equivalent.

Acknowledging that your listeners might feel like this regarding your music and/or that of your colleagues, and deciding to encourage it, is cultish and unethical. 

One can be “saved” by anything that allows one to have a project, to think about the future. Well- one isn’t saved. One saves oneself by picking something to project from. A child who is able to grow through their obsessive interest in a band, by making friends who share it, isn’t being saved by the band in question. The band is a passive actor if it can be considered an actor at all. 

I can’t but look back on my adolescent idols with cynicism. Though I don’t doubt the frankness and goodwill of certain artists within the emo genre, that didn’t explicitly encourage these relationships, or didn’t cause it as universally and intensely, I can’t sympathize with repugnant corporate cash grabs, such as selling wristbands that read “Wrists are for bracelets, not for cutting” to teenagers with feeble mental health. 

It was eloquently and bluntly put by the authors of that song the annoying cousin who’s taking guitar lessons admonishes us with every time he can: “Don’t put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band.” 

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