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The (Anti) Cult of Music Fandom

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If you were an overlooked, angst-fueled teenager sometime within the last fifteen years, you were probably a fan of My Chemical Romance. You likely remember the black general jackets and fluorescent dyed hair, the intricate album covers and signature G note that sends anyone familiar into a frenzy. The band spoke the language of “the beaten and the damned,” moving past mere Hot Topic merch and towards the honorary title of an entire subculture’s voice. Six years after their heart wrenching breakup, My Chemical Romance has finally returned, kicking off the decade with plans for the biggest tour of their career. For fans—who call themselves killjoys—this is monumental. The eyeliner is going back on and the t-shirts are being dug out of the closet. Though ticket prices are rising well into the thousands, multiple tour dates are already sold out. People are celebrating as if MCR never left. They’ve held out hope all this time, returning with more ferocity and devotion than ever before.

This kind of behavior isn’t unique for fans. Whether it’s the hordes of people thrashing to Gerard Way’s long-awaited vocals at MCR’s recent LA show, the ever present ‘armies’ attached to KPOP groups, or the diehards still buying tickets for the Rolling Stones, it is hard to find a band or artist today that doesn’t have a loyal following. As many have said before, music is the universal language; it is what speaks for us when we don’t have the words, what fills the empty parts of ourselves with meaning. It is what births the Directioners and Beatlemaniacs of the world, the devotees that will camp out for days ahead of a show, the people who track down every bootleg or unreleased demo because they just can’t get enough. It is something that everybody has surely witnessed—or been a part of—at some point in their life.

And yet, music fandom’s bad reputation still persists.  

Comparing fandom to cults is nothing new. Maybe it is the fact that songs reach some unknown part of our brains—that we are receptive to music without having any control over it—but music fandom is something entirely different in and of itself. Historically speaking, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, music became the youth’s religion, rock n’ roll being a particular catalyst for devotion. Fans followed the Grateful Dead like wandering disciples, uprooting their entire lives to see their band in every city they could. Led Zeppelin were banned in Boston when their crowd’s adoration became too much for authorities to handle. 

Harmless devotion can quickly turn intense, though. Following a rumor that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car accident, Beatles fans attempted to find subliminal messages about his “death” by playing their records backward, the conspiracy still raging over fifty years later. Infamous cult leader Charles Manson is often associated with the band as well; lyrics from “Helter Skelter” were found painted in blood at the site of the Tate-LaBianca murders, and Manson claimed that the 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour “expressed the essence of his own philosophy.” Today, there are the Beliebers who started self-harming as protest to get the young singer to stop smoking weed, the infamous Bjork stalker who attempted to kill the artist he loved, and the Selena fan/business partner who actually did. 

These extreme examples of fandom have often led to the whole notion of fandom to be viewed cautiously. Artists like Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest have gone through lawsuits for allegedly promoting suicide through their music, fans succeptible to the power of their lyrics. My Chemical Romance has its own history with similar accusations. In 2008, The Daily Mail faced backlash after publishing an article blaming the band and emo subculture for a young fan’s suicide. They deemed MCR leaders of the so-called “sinister cult of emo,” describing fans from an eerily anthropological lens, as if they were dangerous to be around. Instead of addressing the aspects of mental health that could have led to certain actions, fans are at fault for following these artists. They are the ones being deemed over-obsessive and creepy, the ones who are shamed and ostracized for their taste. The meaning—what draws people to these bands and keeps them there—is ignored. 

There is validity to music fandom that is often overlooked. What various news outlets and individuals fail to understand is how much this music—and being part of a fandom—may help people. It is a way of feeling less alone. You are surrounded by people who understand you; a kind of solidarity in art. Music serves as comfort when all else fails, and what pushes us to better ourselves and keep moving forward. Expressing that love is a cathartic, rewarding experience. A comment by user Tom McMorrow on a YouTube video for a recent MCR show seems to say enough:  “I’m sitting here with tears streaming down my face. To see the band that was so instrumental in my life...who has unknowingly seen me through the tough stuff. It may have taken 15 years, but I can finally say it. I am okay.” 

As My Chemical Romance rises from the ashes and ignites their revolution, an outsider could look on begrudgingly, only seeing people reverting to their past selves or throwing their money away. One thing is certain, though: being a fan of music is a different experience entirely. When you find that song, album, or artist that speaks to your soul, it sticks. It may result in buying those overpriced tickets or baring your soul with merch. It might be a casual affair; simply listening to a record from the comfort of your room. The feeling is still the same. It stems from an appreciation that transcends words; the kind that only music can fuel. We are all fans of someone. Sometimes it means being there for artists as much as they are there for us.


written by
Carly Tagen-Dye
April 7, 2020