EMO: Welcome to the Black Parade

It's the youth movement that has Middle England on the run. The 'Daily Mail' labels it sinister and accuses it of romanticising death. But as its adherents prepare to march on the 'Mail's' Kensington HQ in protest, is there really anything to be frightened of? Jonathan Brown reports

Friday 23 May 2008 00:00 BST

"A world that sends you reeling from decimated dreams/ Your misery and hate will kill us all/ So paint it black and take it back/ Let's shout it loud and clear/ defiant to the end we hear the call/ To carry on." (From: "Welcome to the Black Parade" by My Chemical Romance.)

Welcome to the Black Parade – a place, depending on which side of the age/outrage divide you are standing on, is either a shadowy Shangri La for young suicide victims to pass the rest of eternity with fellow outcast kids who dig the same music, or, more prosaically, merely the infectious title track of one of the more engaging rock albums of the past few years.

Concern in Middle England has been mounting in recent days over the threat to the nation's youth posed by emo, a not-so-new fangled musical fashion that has spawned a loyal and growing tribe of followers, one instantly recognisable to even the most casual of observers for its shared attachment to skinny jeans, long black fringes and apparently permanently downcast expressions.

According to the Daily Mail, emo is a "sinister teenage craze that romanticises death", with bands such as My Chemical Romance (MCR), the New Jersey, Grammy-nominated five-piece whose Black Parade album was one of the most compelling releases of 2006, providing the musical soundtrack to what it sees as the worryingly depressing lifestyles of the nation's current crop of youngsters.

A Kent coroner's comments over the suicide of 13-year-old Hannah Bond, in which he expressed concern over the dead girl's passion for emo music, spawned a glut of lurid headlines earlier this month. But it was the Daily Mail that decided to delve deeper into the craze – prompting one of the unlikeliest protests London has seen for some time.

Next Saturday, fans of MCR will descend on the Mail's Kensington headquarters in west London to vent their rage at what they claim is "badly researched journalism in danger of promoting irresponsible stereotyping". It is a remarkably polite and measured response for a group supposedly in thrall to a mind-bending cult.

Click below to listen to My Chemical Romance's 'Teenagers'

According to one of the organisers, Anni Smith, 16, from Hampshire, festering anger that has been simmering below the surface for some time has finally spilt over. Some 300 people have already logged on to the protest site, www.whatthefrank.co.uk, expressing their desire to take part.

She believes the numbers determined to march eventually on the Mail HQ could be much higher and today organisers will meet representatives of the Metropolitan Police to discuss tactics for the demonstration and a possible transfer to nearby Hyde Park to avoid any trouble. Ms Smith, who has seen MCR four times, said that far from being advocates of mass suicide, the band are passionate opponents of self harm – as evidenced in the lyrics to their most famous song with its defiant message "to carry on". "I love their passion and the way they believe in what they do," she said. "They are amazing people. They want everyone to be OK, healthy and happy. A lot of people are affected by depression and a lot of MCR fans are too. This article was careless and badly researched journalism which really surprised us. They are the complete opposite of a suicide cult.

"The band has always been adamant that if you have problems you should get help and not give in."

The backlash has been growing apace. Internet chatrooms are clogged with comments from fans furious at what they say is breathtaking ignorance being displayed from across the generation divide by a people happier crooning along to Jim Morrison's "Soft Parade" than the later, darker assembly.

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"Society constantly looks for something to point a finger at when things don't go right," wrote one fan to the NME this week. "It's time to face facts that being a young person today is tough."

According to Conor McNicholas, the magazine's editor, the furore has generated the NME's biggest postbag this year. "The reaction of the right-wing press is fairly moronic, knee-jerk stuff," he said. "Genuine music fans who know the way these things work are not afraid of speaking out and saying this is wrong.

"They sell papers on the basis of fear and the more frightened parents are the more sales there are for the Daily Mail. They are setting parents against their children which might sell papers but is incredibly destructive of family relations in the long term. If you want to alienate young people the best way to make them feel disaffected is to take away the music and culture they love."

Emo can trace its origins to the live music scene of Washington DC in the mid-1980s. The term referred to the emotional performance of artists such as Fire Party and Thursday, though the thrashy, hardcore sound would be largely unrecognisable to modern-day disciples who seek out a poppier, more mainstream style – from bands such as Wheezer and Jimmy Eat World to American Idiot-era Green Day and Fall Out Boy.

My Chemical Romance, according to the band's folklore, was formed in the grim, soul-searching weeks following 11 September 2001. So haunted was the front man, Gerard Way, by the image of the planes smashing into the Twin Towers that he wrote "Skylines and Turnstiles".

Today's generation of emo fans are a gentle bunch – evidence next week's demonstration where organisers are going to extraordinary pains to minimise the chance of young people falling foul of the law. Protesters are reminded to bring money and food, plus "anything else you may need for the day", but warned against packing signs that are on a wooden stick. Instead they are being asked to hang slogans around their necks saying "MCR Save Lives" and "I am Not Afraid to Keep On Living". Nowadays emos fashion their angst based on the writings of bedroom miserabilists such as Morrisey: it is all about the twisted emotions of adolescence. Critics say emo followers are predominately female, middle class, self-obsessed, internet-obsessed and in the thrall of a plethora of pretty boy bands. Dangerous they are not. In fact being an emo is a pursuit increasingly fraught with danger. Earlier this year emo fans were attacked in North America and in Mexico where commentators accused the males of flouting macho Mexican culture. Internet blogs and callers to music TV shows urged anti-emos to "take back" public spaces from groups of long-haired, skateboarding fans while others, more insanely, whipped up direct emo-bashing hysteria.

Sophie Brown, 14, an emo fan from Llandybie in Wales, was among the first to begin fighting back. Suicide is a sensitive issue in the principality in the wake of the media coverage of an apparent spate of deaths among young people in the Bridgend area of South Wales. Newspapers talked about a cult and police and charities begged the media to tone down the coverage for fear that it might lead to more suicides. Sophie says it is much too easy to scapegoat the music. "People make their own choices and would not simply do something of that magnitude because a song told them to. Suicide is a serious decision. It may even be an insult to victims to say their death was due to the music they listen to," she said.

She says she has friends who have self-harmed. "But those are the ones who have had bad family lives," she added.

Her mother, Diane, a 44-year-old Daily Mail-reading housewife, agrees and has even taken her daughter to an MCR concert. "My husband and I are big fans but we are not emos. We went to the concert and from our view it was wonderful. People were hugging – it was lovely. In my day we were told not to listen to Judas Priest because of the devil but it never did us any harm."

But Paul Kelly, whose son killed himself and who is a trustee of the charity Papyrus, which campaigns against youth suicide, still thinks parents should be aware if young people develop an unhealthy interest in death and begin to appear depressed. "There is some evidence to suggest that people have taken their own lives after being becoming connected with such interests. But we do know that suicide is a very complicated thing. There are a multiplicity of factors at play and it is difficult to blame one particular factor."

Some 1,800 young people aged under 35 take their lives each year. But Mr Kelly says talk of suicide cults is unhelpful though internet sites which provide technical details on how to take one's own life should be banned. He is also concerned about sites such as Mydeathspace which commemorate suicide victims.

"Pictures of young, attractive people and eulogies to them runs the danger of glorifying suicide. You see these people getting worldwide attention and you might think, 'why don't I go out in a blaze of glory?'" he said. "It is difficult with young people because they want to go their own way but the worst thing you can do is tell them stop doing it – it has the opposite effect."

Anyone worried that a young person they know is feeling suicidal should ring Papyrus's Hopeline UK: 08000 684141

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