There are a few albums that I feel helped shaped me as a person in my years of adolescence and helped me get through some of the tougher times. One of those is definitely My Chemical Romance’s 2006 album, “The Black Parade”. Sometimes I hear music that I once loved in my middle school years and I literally cringe. Levitin says that “as adults, we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it’s “our” music” (2006, p. 230), referring to music we heard in our teenage years, and this is definitely the case for MCR and I. Although I don’t listen to “The Black Parade” every day like I once did, it actually sounds better than I ever remembered as I listen to it now. As I’ve grown older I understand the lyrics more, I can connect with them on a deeper level, and I can appreciate the musical genius that is Gerard Way and the rest of MCR. One of those songs that I can connect on a deeper level than before is the song “Cancer”. In the following paragraphs, I will be comparing MCR’s version of “Cancer” to a more recent version of the song performed by Twenty One Pilots.
When analyzing any song from “The Black Parade”, I find it necessary to provide background on the album. “The Black Parade” is a rock opera taking the listener on a journey of ”the patient” in the hospital who eventually dies, and death approaches him in this theatrical parade-like manner, hence “The Black Parade”. “The Black Parade” became the alter ego of the band, as they toured in the same black and white marching band style costumes during every show. The eighth track, “Cancer” is a 2:23 song that I remember enjoying as a kid, but not nearly as much as the more upbeat in-your-face songs on the album. As I listen to the track now, there’s absolutely no way that I truly understood what was going in this song, (or the album in general) at this time of my life. It is now one of my favorite songs on the album and actually gives me the chills when I hear it. This song is extremely powerful and crucial to the story, as we are provided with the cause of “the patient’s” inevitable death, which is cancer. The song is a narrative of “the patient,” as he speaks to his family members, and possibly a significant other before dying. The lyrics are brutally tragic. When asked about the song, Gerard Way said, “It’s not a poetic track. It’s very direct, very brutal, but that’s the way disease is” (Way, 2006). The song captures the feelings of a defeated man who has accepted death and has a depressed outlook on what is to come.
The song starts off with some depressing piano chords. The lyrics start with, “Turn away”, as he doesn’t want to be seen by anyone. “If you could get me a drink / of water cause my lips are chapped and faded”, here he states the physical toll that his cancer has taken on him, and so desperately asks for a glass of water. “Call my aunt Marie / help her gather all my things / and bury me in all my favorite colors”. Here he acknowledges his inevitable death and asks his significant other to help his family prepare for the funeral. “My sisters and my brothers, still / I will not kiss you / cause the hardest part of this is leaving you”. To me, this is one of the saddest parts of the song. It’s not that he doesn’t want to kiss his loved ones. It’s actually quite the opposite. He loves them so much that he just can’t kiss them because it will make leaving them so much harder. By avoiding the kiss, he believes this will make leaving easier.
Up until this point, the song consists of piano and Gerard Way’s voice. In the next verse, the drums and violin are gracefully implemented. In the lyrics, he asks his family to turn away once again, “Now turn away / cause I’m awful just to see / cause all my hairs abandoned all my body”, I think here he truly doesn’t want his family to see him in this state; he wants them to remember him before the cancer. The lyrics provide a visual, with the loss of hair as the result of chemo. “Oh my agony / know that I will never marry / baby, I’m just soggy from the chemo”. This line really gives me the chills. At this point, he is feeling sorry for himself that he will not experience some of the joys in life that he once hoped. He then says sorry for the sadness but that the chemo has taken a lot out of him. “But counting down the days to go / it just ain’t living”. Here he’s ready to die. The way that he is barely hanging on at this moment, doesn’t even feel like he’s alive. “And I just hope you know / that if you say / good-bye today / I’d ask you to be true / cause the hardest part of this is leaving you / cause the hardest part of this is leaving you”. Here he feels that he is really close to death, and asks for a true good-bye, as it is probably the last. He says this two times to deliver the importance, that saying goodbye is truly the worst part of dying. In this last verse, each line is repeated in a higher pitch, such as “that if you say (if you say), good-bye today (good-bye today) / I’d ask you to be true (I’d ask you to be true)”. This adds another layer of sadness to the song as it indicates the song, and “the patient’s” life, are coming to an end.
The other day I was online and saw something that made me feel really old – “The Black Parade” had turned ten years old. In celebration of the album, thirteen different bands all covered a different song on the album, which will be released as a compilation cover album next month. I noticed that one of my favorite bands, Twenty One Pilots, would be covering “Cancer”, and come to find out, this track has already been released as a promo for the rest of the album.
I think it is amazing that Twenty One Pilots covered a My Chemical Romance song for many reasons. Twenty One Pilots, the duo of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dunn, is one of the most unique acts in the industry right now. Though I’ve never really heard anything similar to Twenty One Pilots, they have many similarities to MCR, which I had never noticed before. They have signature costumes: ski masks, dyed hair, skeletons, and an overall dark theme. And though their music captures different genres, they both have dark, emotional lyrics about death, uncertainty, stress, and mental health, and their albums seem to follow the same structure of a rock opera that bounces all over the place, but at the same time tells a story. I would even argue that Twenty One Pilots would not be in the position they are in today if MCR hadn’t paved the way.
One might say that both of these versions are the same song, and while I find many similarities in the two versions, I notice many differences that set the two versions apart. The most significant similarity is that the lyrics remain the same in both versions (well, for the most part). Twenty One Pilots use all of the same lyrics that are used in the original song, and they don’t add any lyrics of their own, but they do recycle some of the lyrics and layer them over one another in a way that MCR did not. The recycled lyrics are one of the reasons why Twenty One Pilots’ version is a minute and a half longer than MCR’s. The lyrics remain the same as the MCR version until the end of the second verse. The lyrics say “It just ain’t living / and I just hope you know”. In the MCR version, this lyric is followed by “that if you say goodbye today”, but Twenty One Pilots change up the structure at this point. Rather than using this lyric, they sing, “I will not kiss you”. Though the original song is not structured this way, I feel that this structure of lyrics still conveys the message of the song. In reference to this lyric, Tyler Joseph said, “The one thing that stood out to me was the lyric, ‘I will not kiss you.’ It’s such a pure lyric, because that person’s talking about their family members, like their mom and their brothers. When I first heard the song that was the line that hit me the hardest and stayed with me. So that’s why I was excited to approach the song in a new way. It made me feel that I could highlight one of my favorite lyrics and then it became kind of a chorus, in a sense” (Joseph, 2016). The layering does not stop after this lyric. After this he sings, “Lips are chapped and faded (faded) / call my / turn away / kiss you”. Here he tampers with the original lyrics again and begins to throw them in an order that is different from the original song. This is really effective because he is taking some of the most powerful lyrics in the song and layering them upon each other with an echo. The biggest difference in the two versions is that, in the MCR version the band didn’t follow the traditional song structure, making it hard to distinguish a verse from a chorus or a bridge, where Twenty One Pilots created a chorus, giving the song a more traditional structure.
Both bands do a great job at displaying the devastating emotion of this song. Both versions of the song give me the chills because of this. Gerard Way displays this emotion by singing only over a piano and conveying a whiny, weakening manner in his vocals as if he’s actually the patient. Tyler Joseph displays this same emotion but through a different manner. He starts off the song in almost a whisper and his voice sounds extremely somber and delicate as a cancer patient would. From the starting lyric “Turn away” you can hear the emotion in Tyler’s low, somber voice. On the line “I will not kiss you” he uses a much higher pitch than the original and allows cracks of emotion in his voice.
The songs also differ greatly with the instrumentation used in each version. As I mentioned, MCR’s version contains a piano and vocals for the first minute of the song. The drums slowly enter with a single kick drum, followed by a drum fill, and a violin is layered in shortly after. In the Twenty One Pilots version, the song starts of with a static sound and a futuristic, outer space-like synth and the classic Josh Dunn electronic sounding drums. The piano comes in shortly after, with Tyler’s soft vocals. On Twenty One Pilots’ last album “Blurryface,” they used a low voice, serving as a voice in one’s head. This voice appeared on nearly every song on the album. They incorporated this voice in the cover of “Cancer,” as you can hear it reciting the lyrics in the background. I see this not only as a way to make the song their own, but I feel this dark voice in one’s head actually fits this song perfectly. The way I interpret this cover is that upon telling his family about his agony, he also has sporadic thoughts about death and love running through his head, which is just brilliant. The song fades off with the combination of phrases from the song and as it fades, the voice becomes deeper and deeper. It ends with “I will not kiss you” echoing “kiss you”, “Lips are chapped and faded, call my”, echoing “call my”, “Lips are chapped and faded”, echoing “faded”, then echoing “kiss you”, and it comes to a final end with “faded” being repeated until it dies out, which, I interpret as the death of the patient.
Depending on the context, both versions of this song may cause the audience to experience different feelings. In one way, it’s a devastating story of a man who is about to lose his life far too early. In another sense the song is a beautiful love song, as he shows that amidst all the pain and suffering he’s been through with cancer, saying goodbye to those he loves will by far be the hardest. I see this song from both aspects, which may be why I love it so much. This song can also be interpreted as a metaphor rather than a straightforward story of a cancer patient coming to grips with death. One could also interpret cancer is a metaphorical way, rather than cancer as the disease, but in reference to something else that is slowly killing them like addiction, substance abuse, another disease, depression, or really anything else that causes deep pain. For me, the song takes on a new meaning now that I’m older. When I had first heard the song, cancer had not affected my family. Now ten years later, cancer has affected my family and the song takes on a whole new meaning to me, and automatically makes me think my family. I would assume that anyone could relate to this song, whether cancer had an affect on him or her or not. There is pain in the world, and nobody is exempt from experiencing it. Songs like “Cancer”, either version, can help one cope with this pain.
There is a lot than can be learned from the versions of these two songs. One of the first things I noticed was how genre isn’t what necessarily allows for the emotion of a song to be displayed. Both the MCR version and the Twenty One Pilots version portrayed a depressingly tragic account of a dying patient. Both songs gave me the chills and allowed me to experience the same level of sadness. I would say that the songs are extremely different in regards to genre though. MCR’s version appears as a slow ballad, while Twenty One Pilots’ version is in the form of a synth-filled, drum heavy, electronic-infused song. While the instrumentation is important when dealing with emotion, this shows how crucial lyrics can be in portraying a certain feeling. The original song is a tragic, truthful masterpiece of love and death, and I think that Twenty One Pilots did a phenomenal job in covering it. Within seconds of hearing Tyler’s voice as he sang, “Turn away”, I got the chills that the original song once gave me. It’s easy to cover a song and follow the exact same structure, but Twenty One Pilots took this song, made it their own, and put a new spin to the story. Tyler Joseph made a comment about this and said, in reference to covering the song, “I was really excited about it. But I was also kind of nervous about changing something that felt so right and was so simple. Hopefully, we did the song justice” (2016). They definitely changed the structure of the song and moved the lyrics around and I imagine that MCR appreciated their take on this so very personal song.
Bryar, B., Iero, F., Toro, R., Way, G., Way, M. (2006). Cancer. [Recorded by My Chemical Romance). The Black Parade. [Digital Download]. Reprise.
Bryar, B., Iero, F., Toro, R., Way, G., Way, M. (2006). Cancer. [Recorded by Twenty One Pilots). (2016). Rock Sound Presents: The Black Parade. [Digital Download]. Warner Bros.
Joseph, T. (2016). [Interview]. Rock Sound Magazine, (218).
Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York, NY: Dutton.
Way, G. (2006). My Chemical Romance defend ‘Cancer’ track [Interview by A. Byhawski]. In NME.