Research says age 14 marks a sweet spot in our cognitive development when the pop culture we gravitate towards—movies, books, fashion, and especially music—informs our taste into adulthood. Songs and hormones dovetail in the grey matter, soundtracking our adolescence and shaping our sense of self in the process.
My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way was 14 in 1991 when Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the lead single off of the band’s sophomore album Nevermind. Its music video, hazy and thumping, played around the clock on MTV that fall; Way caught it one afternoon watching television after school, and it cracked open his budding interest in punk and performing. Kids who dreamed of forming bands of their own went to pawn shops to find beat-up guitars like Kurt Cobain’s.
A decade later, in 2001, Way cofounded My Chemical Romance—and if Nirvana had been a response to the hair bands of the ’80s, then My Chem was a response to, as he tells me over the phone from Los Angeles in October, “the T-shirt and jeans” alternative era of the late ’90s and early aughts. They were a standout in the MySpace age: macabre, glamorous, rollicking. Way, now 44, believes that taste is cyclical; that, essentially, what’s in goes back and forth from “hippie to punk, hippie to punk, over and over again,” he says. “You never know what is going to connect with people, who they’re going to gravitate towards, who they’re going to look to to be a voice for them.” The pendulum keeps swinging, and you can see threads of Nirvana and My Chem in the Soundcloud sing-rap and bedroom pop generation currently ascendant. You can see the thread in acts from Post Malone to Lil Peep to PinkPantheress. Same goes for their style; Kid Cudi wore dresses in homage to Kurt twice this year.
These days, My Chem is slated to kick off a reunion world tour in the spring; Way is also an executive producer of the Netflix show based on his comic book series The Umbrella Academy, whose third season is due out next year. And he and his wife Lindsey—otherwise known as Lyn-Z, the bassist for Mindless Self Indulgence—are close friends with Kurt and Courtney Love’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain; in 2019, she referred to Gerard and Lindsey as her “adoptive parents.”
Speaking of cycles: Fender is reviving the Kurt Cobain Jag-Stang—a guitar Kurt dreamed up in 1994 that combines his favorite elements of Fender’s Jaguar and Mustang models, which he favored during the Nevermind era. As part of the festivities, Way chatted about Nirvana’s legacy, why we’re hearing guitars in pop again, and what made him want to dress like a vampire.
GQ: Tell me a bit about your introduction to Nirvana and Kurt, and his impact on you by way of both music and style.
Gerard Way: My first real music that I got into was hair metal in the ’80s, Cinderella and Poison and all that stuff. Somebody showed me Iron Maiden, and that changed everything for me. I was very much a full metalhead until middle school, when a really cool friend showed me all kinds of really cool music that I had never heard before, like Sonic Youth, and I learned about tons of punk bands like Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. But I remember sitting upstairs in my grandparents’—we lived in a duplex, my grandparents lived upstairs—and I was sitting in my grandfather’s chair watching TV after school before he came home from work, and I saw “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. I was really blown away, like, “Wow! This is kind of like the stuff I’ve been listening to, but it’s been funneled through or altered in a different way.” I was on board with Nirvana right away. I think I asked for it for Christmas that year.