21 Pilots, My Chemical Romance, and the Escape from Hell

“I went to the market to realize my soul
What I need I just don’t have
First they curse, then they press me till I hurt” -The Clash

My Chemical Romance is 21 Pilots without meaning, without hope, without God. As such, there is both a wealth of similarity as from those who start from the same place, and a world of difference as from those who conclude in a vast difference. The premise for both bands (and probably a reason for much of their popularity with the angsty teenager market) is both one of strong emotional pain and psychological distress, along with a disillusioned non-conformism which has spawned a deep seated melancholy. This should not surprise us. Non-conformism is the new conformism. The tendency to celebrate oddity and individualism is both an emblem of a bored capitalistic self-obsession and a sign of the loss of a communal and traditional identity. That all the non-conforming masses are non-conforming in approximately the same way, and that the bobbles and trinkets of their individualist ecstasy are marketed by homogeneous corporate entities while their “radical ideas” are fed to them through the influence of cynical media and entertainment empires, seems to have escaped them. This over large tendency to contemplate the self, it should not be surprising, results in deep sadness in regards to the human condition. People did not realize that by making humanity the measure of all things we would find ourselves inadequate to the task. Through secular humanism the fall of man is symbolically recapitulated and humanity has created for itself a relativistic universe that is fundamentally hostile to humanity itself. As Athanasius of Alexandria said of the fall “Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense.” When this occurs our lives cease to be one with a grand over arching narrative of meaning, we cease from contemplating God, and our obsession with self instead creates splinter realities of self gratification and loneliness. In a word, hell. This is where both 21 Pilots and MCR begin, it is also in a sense where we all as citizens of modernity start. What is of interest in regards to these bands is the way in which they take this beginning seriously and the end to which they bring us in its contemplation. MCR is atheism and despair, 21 Pilots Christianity and hope.

The Necessity of Theology in Tragedy

A basic tenant of tragedy is non-tragedy. Tragedy cannot exist of itself, it is dependent on our realization that a given situation has failed to reach non-tragedy, the “happy ending” or whatever one is inclined to call it. As such, tragedy must assume an over arching telos behind the unfolding events within which the tragic event itself can be lamented as being an aberration on what should have occurred. So tragedy assumes in its very concept that a world exists where what occurs is within a real and objective narrative framework and that this framework is conducive to human flourishing. Tragedy demands divine providence as an actual force in the world, and therefore theism. What, however, occurs when this ideology is removed? When theology is ignored? There is nothing tragic for the (well informed) atheist regarding the universe. It simply is. However, the atheist must also deal with a more pressing matter than the bare fact of the universe’s existence. He must deal with his own existence. He must do something with the information coming into his brain concerning himself and his place in the universe. When, however, the information he is receiving is hostile to his flourishing, he must of his nature as a human determine the relation this puts him in with regards at least to himself and probably to the universe also, which simply is. When he does this he finds absurdism within himself, but not without. For what is without simply is. Absurdism does not claim anything about the universe at all, it exists only within the heads of those gripped by it. It is the internal realization of incompatible dispositions. The man knows he is something that thinks it ought to be living in one sort of universe, and yet finds itself in a different one. When the truth of this sets in, and when he is denied tragedy as a response, something else emerges. What emerges is parody.

Sisyphus Strikes Again

Parody is the human reaction to the realization that the universe is fundamentally hostile to us. It takes the absurdity of our existence along with the dark horror that surrounds us and reacts with an amusement with oneself. The benefit of this disposition is that it makes no claim to a teleological reality beyond humanity, rather, it says something only about the subject. Namely, that within itself human psychology is amused and horrified by the fact that humanity finds itself in an existence that is the antithesis to what humanity seems made for. The striving of humanity to be what it “ought” to be in a world that disallows it seems absurd to the human, resulting in the existence of only a lesser shadow of what the human “ought” to be. The human being, like Sisyphus, is caught within a series of meaningless and laborious tasks leading only to death. The attempt to stare one’s fate in the face, and to even create meaning from it as an Existentialist, may be noble but it is inevitably untrue as well. Camus tells us that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I, however, think that if we are to image Sisyphus happy it is only because Sisyphus knows something regarding his task that neither Camus nor My Chemical Romance is privy to. Sisyphus must know that somehow the true nature of his talks will be revealed. That what he is done is not meaningless and absurd, but rather redemptive.

21 Pilots and My Chemical Romance

My opinion is that 21 Pilots represents the tragic while MCR represents parody. 21 Pilots exhibits the Christian inclination regarding pain, that there is a basic underlying goodness to the world which we must embrace even in the midst of suffering,

“And I will say that we should take a day to break away

From all the pain our brain has made, the game is not played alone

And I will say that we should take a moment and hold it

And keep it frozen and know that life has a hopeful undertone.”

This disposition is the tragic in that we find a telos beyond ourself to which we are both reaching for and toward which we can judge the failures of life as both beautiful, meaningful, and eventually to be mended. Life can be tragic because what lies beyond life is not, as such the tragic is also meaningful. MCR has no concept of this nor can it. Pain, suffering, and any such woes are not nor can they be redemptive. Life is an absurd parody of human desires “If life ain’t just a joke, Then why are we laughing?” This general divergence concerning the nature of human pain is seen all throughout their music. In 21 Pilots, the speaker looks to himself and his moral failures lamenting “I wanted to be a better brother better son, wanted to be a better adversary to the evil I have done.” Finding that there is hope for us flawed and broken mortals the band recites these spoken lines in a lovely treatment of the gospel,

“I’m only at it again

As an addict with a pen

Who’s addicted to the wind

As it blows me back and forth

Mindless, spineless, and pretend

Of course I’ll be here again

See you tomorrow

But it’s the end of today

End of my ways

As a walking denial

My trial was filed as a crazy

Suicidal head case

But you specialize in dying

You hear me screaming, “Father, ”

And I’m lying here just crying

So wash me with your water.”

God takes unto himself the greatest suffering the world has and creates grace through it. We pass through pain, but God is there with us and it is for our redemption. This should be juxtapostioned with MCR, which knows nothing of the hope implied in tragedy. This can be seen from their treatment of the horror of the First World War,

“there’s shit that I’ve done with this fuck of a gun

You would cry out your eyes all along

We’re damned after all

Through fortune and fame we fall

And if you can stay, then I’ll show you the way

To return from the ashes you call.”

The first World War is one of the greatest horror that can be pictured before the human mind, and the most that MCR can conjure is “Mama, we all go to hell.” Even their two best songs, “Famous Last Words” and “I’m not Okay (I promise)” only achieve a genuine pathos by assuming a tragic outlook they do not have justification for. In “Famous Last Words” the speaker tries to find a reason to clutch onto to avoid suicide. All that can be mustered, however, is “Now I know, That I can’t make you stay, But where’s your heart?” But this is inadequate, for if no concrete reason can be produced concerning the value of life other than “heart,” then the project has already failed. Similarly, “I’m not okay” is a powerful expression of the rending of the soul under the absurdity of secular existence, but it fails to reach past this pain and grasp what lies beyond human existence. MCR, in a technical sense, is in hell. They exist in a world without a theistic measuring rod for human action. What is interesting is their attitude toward this truth. The band says “I’d rather go to hell, than be in a purgatory” which I think is apt, and is the primary difference between the two. As Chesterton said, there is “Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement, and the vision of failure.” If this is the case, then 21 Pilots is in purgatory and My Chemical Romance is in hell. The damned are in a state of moral failure, they have given up all hope or possibility of improvement. In their dilapidated state they can know of nothing and desire nothing beyond hell. Purgatory, like tragedy, implies heaven. A soul in purgation is passing through the fires on its way toward paradise. It is capable of realizing meaning in the suffering it undergoes, so it accepts it and continues instead of reveling in its own horror. That MCR prefers hell to purgatory with its implication of heaven is telling. Only the damned would prefer hell to heaven. As C.S. Lewis said “the gates of hell are locked on the inside.” For those in hell, hell is all that exists and they even begin to love it, to revel in it. They could never cry out “Can you save my heavy dirty soul?” like 21 Pilots for they cannot understand the difference between themselves and their sin. So their sin consumes them and they become correct in this failure. Such souls truly would rather be in hell than elsewhere, for them heaven would be a greater hell than hell and purgatory redundant. In order to reach heaven one must see more than just absurdity in one’s own existence, one must see the beauty and grace that can be saved and the evil that must be expunged. “I fought it a lot, And it seems a lot like flesh is all I got, Not anymore, flesh out the door. Swat.”

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