On “The True Lives of My Chemical Romance” and Stan Culture
“… when you die, what will your bullet point summary be? Will you even be deemed deserving of one at all?”
I would be a liar if I said that Tom Bryant’s The True Lives of My Chemical Romance: The Definitive Biography is an unenjoyable read. Bryant certainly has a way with words, and the time My Chemical Romance (MCR) spent as a band is presented in an engaging, riveting manner.
It’s no small feat, chronicling an entire lifespan, and for that, I commend Bryant. My hunch is that some details were glossed over for the sake of coherency, but overall, it shows the highs and lows of one my favourite bands, and for the most part, it’s very well-written. Perhaps it’s a little too dazzling a story, but then, MCR was dazzling, so it makes sense.
All in all, True Lives is a fun, satisfying read that can be judged positively on its own storytelling merits. If that was all I had to say, though, then we wouldn’t be here today.
This biography did more than give me a way to kill time during my mandatory quarantine: it led me to contemplate stan culture, and more specifically, the problematic nature of stanning non-fiction. It made me consider just how somebody’s story can be broken down, told, and sold, and whether or not it matters if the story’s truths are packaged and wrapped in a neat little bow. And, at the end of my existential crisis, it made me realize that I needed a break from the internet. So, without further ado:
What is a stan? What does it have to do with—well, anything?
Simply put, a stan is something like a super fan. The term is actually a portmanteau for “stalker fan”, and its coinage is often attributed to Eminem. These days, a stan isn’t (necessarily) a stalker—it’s just a term that has become synonymous with “fan”. To stan is to be a fan (or a fan of something). Online, it’s a word that has undergone the modern process of being turned from a noun into a verb (eg. can you sauce me a napkin), so where one used to say, “I’m a big fan of xyz”, the phrase, “I stan xyz” comes up more. It’s become associated with Twitter vernacular, though it’s a term that has reached other social media platforms as well.
As for what stans have to do with anything: I’m a stan. It’s the only reason why I got my hands on this biography at all. My being a fan of MCR started when I first heard their music in late 2010/early 2011, after Tap Tap Revenge 4 came out and I would play “Sing” on my mother’s wacky new gadget, the iPod Touch. I didn’t actually get into them until 2013, when my friend introduced me to Panic! at the Disco via a Homestuck animated music video to “Bittersweet” (yes, you read that correctly). He also introduced me to Tumblr and twenty one pilots, and I thought he was one of the coolest people at school. Inevitably, that mix dragged me into “bandom”: I was hooked on albums like Pierce the Veil’s Collide With The Sky, but the music that really got me was from what was fondly referred to as the “emo trinity”: Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and of course, My Chemical Romance, whose breakup was still making waves. These days, Panic!, twenty one pilots, and Pierce the Veil leave a bitter taste in my mouth, but they were an undeniable part of my adolescence.
Fast forward to 2020: MCR has reunited, I’ve grown up just a little, and now I’m here, making connections I wouldn’t have made in the past. Which brings me to this:
stan culture and the truth
Near the beginning of True Lives, Bryant theorizes that part of MCR’s initial allure was their mystery. I sat on the notion after finishing the book, and I think it applies to being a stan of anything: there is a certain excitement that comes with always being on the hunt for more information. Stans are like bloodhounds when it comes to truth. But whose truth do we place value in? And what does truth entail? There is always something else to uncover, so the hunt never ceases. For a phenomenon as pervasive in pop culture as MCR, something steeped in so much mystery, the truth is more valuable than the world’s eighth wonder and just as unattainable.
Having this truth—the definitive truth, as the book is titled—so neatly packaged and commodified feels disingenuous. That’s not to say it’s not appreciated; of course the fans want content. Of course we want to know all there is to know about the people we idolize. In doing so, however—in reading illuminating biographies such as True Lives—are we really learning more about them? Getting closer to the people we think we love? Or are we just adding colours and textures to the mosaic of ideas we’ve attributed to these people we’ve likely never met?
(On the flip side, what must it be like, to have such a critical part of your life condensed and presented as a story like True Lives? I can’t imagine how it feels to see your experiences thrown to the public like carrion to the vultures, summed up neatly by a close friend in a series of bullet point plot lines. A certain morbidity is attached to that sentiment: when you die, what will your bullet point summary be? Will you even be deemed deserving of one at all?)
No doubt, Bryant paints a pretty picture that’s not-so-pretty at all the appropriate times. It’s a hauntingly raw account from primary sources. It’s a good story, front to back. Moreover, it’s the story MCR gave their blessing to, so it’s as good as the truth, isn’t it? What does it matter if you’re missing details?
The answer is, as always, it depends. There is no black and white answer I can give. I’d argue that, in this particular case, it doesn’t matter. If this is the story the band members want out there, then we should do our part as courteous people and respect their wishes, and not try to dig into their private lives. Unlike other media that we’re encouraged to dig deep into and investigate, this is a band made up of real people leading real, nuanced lives that are separate from what they present to the public. They are not fictional characters onto which we should force our fantasies or demand for more than they’re willing to give.
Knowing this consciously, however, doesn’t always mesh well with how we feel or act. Biographies sell because they provide a window to lives we might not otherwise gain access to- lives that are, in the end, unrelated to ours, but lives that we nonetheless desperately want to know every detail of. That unquenchable curiousity just comes with being a stan.
To be a stan is to crave information. To be a stan is to relentlessly find ways to satisfy this craving. Whether it come in the form of pictures we’ve never seen before, or long-deleted blog posts, the very nature of a stan is to take, take, and take. Gerard Way touches upon this insatiability in “Blood”, the hidden track of The Black Parade: “I gave you blood, blood, gallons of the stuff / I gave you all that you can drink and it has never been enough”.
I don’t think there’s a nicer way to put it. Being a stan can be great because you can meet people with similar interests and explore amazing, fictional worlds—but when it comes to stanning non-fiction, stan behaviour is invasive. It’s why something like the true crime stan “community” raises so many alarms: there are actual victims of atrocities committed by wicked people, and to want to know every facet of their lives—and furthermore, claim to love these murderers despite it all—is an uncomfortable phenomenon to read about, or heaven forbid, to witness.
Though it’s to a lesser scale, stanning band members is altogether the same concept. You want to know everything about them. You want to hear their stories and their music and see their shows and meet them, things which are impossible with fiction. Then, on top of it all, there’s the added chance that these people might listen to you and respond, which has exacerbated the normalization of parasocial relationships online. Inherently, perhaps, parasocial relationships aren’t terrible for one’s health, but there’s no doubt that depending on these relationships (e.g. using these real people as crutches for mental stability) is harmful to the fan in the long run.
I feel as though I’ve been caught red-handed prying into matters that were never my business to know. As much as it went through the Hollywood treatment, True Lives still puts forth some thought-provoking ideas that keep people like me invested in lives that are far detached from my own. But the grime of that, and feeling like just another consumer of mass media, coats over any satisfaction or positivity I experienced while reading.
Perhaps the less empathetic will say otherwise. Some might even argue that, since MCR are public figures, we’re entitled to knowing about them because we give them their career and line their pockets. To that, I say, “you… do you.” That might come as a surprise, but hear me out: I can’t tell people what to do or think, or claim that I’m on some moral high ground by having examined my own behaviour—all I can really do, at least here, is briefly dissect a culture that has become a huge part of communicating online, and in doing so, perhaps lead others to self-reflect.
So, if you find yourself resonating with parts of this, maybe take it as a sign to look back on yourself a little. Or don’t. Regardless, I know I’ll be scaling it back for the foreseeable future.