Song Lyrics – My Chemical Romance – Cancer

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Hello and welcome to Learn English Vocabulary. My name is Jack and I’m making this podcast for you to learn or revise English vocabulary. You can find a transcript of this podcast on LearnEnglishVocabulary.co.uk. There’s a page for this podcast with the transcript, an activity and a task for you to do in the comments section.

Today, I want to look at the lyrics to a song that was requested by a listener called Jess. Jess requested that I make a podcast about the lyrics to a song by the band My Chemical Romance called Cancer. I have another request from Ibrahim to look at the lyrics to Roadkill by The 1975 and I will make a podcast about those lyrics, but the language is more … well, advanced. 

The language I focus on in this podcast is suitable for B1 learners but will be good revision for more advanced learners as well.

I had heard of the band My Chemical Romance, but I’d never listened to their music before this podcast. The song that Jess has asked me to talk about is called Cancer and it’s well, it’s about somebody dying of cancer. I thought I’d better do a bit more research to see if I could put the song into context, to find out why the band made a song about such a sad topic. 

The song is from the album The Black Parade which is a rock opera that tells the story of the patient, a character who is dying. The album tells the story of the patient’s death and then his experiences in the afterlife. The style of the music and the music videos remind me of the band Queen at times, between passages of upbeat high-school pop-punk-rock.

The lead singer Gerard Way wrote the song Cancer. He was asked about it in an interview and said he wanted to write the darkest song ever. The word dark normally means without light – if you turn the light off at night, you will be in the dark. That’s an A2 definition. However, at C1, it also means sad and without hope. There is a film about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the second world war called Darkest Hour. I think that for a while it was also used to mean really uncaring and callous. 

I like the word callous. It’s quite an advanced adjective. It means cruel and unsympathetic or uncaring. So if you don’t care about other people and you do things that are good for you but bad for others, people might call you callous. It’s often collocated with disregard. The killer showed a callous disregard for the feelings of his victims. People who refuse to wear masks in countries with covid because they find them uncomfortable show a callous disregard for the well-being of those around them. 

Anyhow, That’s not what I was talking about. The adjective dark could be used in a similar way. Similar to callous, but more … evil. So if you tell a joke that’s really shocking and perhaps about a topic that it is not nice to joke about, people might say to you, ooh – that’s a bit dark. I’m not sure if this use is still that common, but I think it’s what Gerard Way meant when he said he wanted to write the darkest song ever. 

The song starts with a piano playing a slow melody and chords and most of the first verse is sung with this simple accompaniment. The word accompaniment means the music that backs or accompanies a singer. The song starts:

Turn away, if you could get me a drink

Of water, ’cause my lips are chapped and faded

Turn away – this is a phrasal verb that means don’t look at something. If people turn away from something, in one sense, they don’t look at something because it’s unpleasant and they don’t want to see it, but it’s also often used in a figurative way to say that people don’t face or acknowledge something. 

If your lips are chapped, then the skin is dry and broken. If you travel from a hot country to a very cold country, then sometimes your lips can dry out. My wife uses lots of moisturiser on her lips to stop the skin from drying out because then they might sort of split and get chapped. In fact, there is a special moisturiser for lips that looks like lipstick called chapstick. The song is about someone who is very sick. One of their symptoms, symptoms are the effects of an illness, is really dried and chapped lips.

Call my Aunt Marie, help her gather all my things

And bury me in all my favourite colours

I’m not sure why the singer suggests Aunt Marie. Marie or Mary is a common name in music because of the connection with Christianity, but I’m not sure if there’s a more personal reason for Gerard Way to include the name, Marie. Help her gather my things. The verb gather means to collect things or pull things together. A gathering is an event where people all come together. It comes from the same idea. You also hear gather being used with speed and momentum and you can see how it’s related. When a car starts going faster and faster, you can say that the car is gathering speed. It’s like it’s pulling more speed together. When a political party starts a new campaign, if they start getting more and more support, you could say that their campaign is gathering support or gathering momentum. The patient in the song is just asking people to help his Aunt gather his things together to bury him in all his favourite colours. This is a bit more positive, but it’s still pretty dark. He wants to be dressed in his favourite clothes when he is buried after he has died. The next part doesn’t get any better.

My sisters and my brothers, still, I will not kiss you

‘Cause the hardest part of this is leaving you

I don’t think that this language is challenging. I will point out that the word because is very commonly shortened to ‘cause. This is an informal use. It’s probably more common in American English, but I’m not sure. At the end of the verse, the rest of the band start to play. The song is still a slow ballad, but now with powerful drums and bass. A ballad originally just meant a song that tells a story, but now, I think it also implies that the song is quite slow. 

The line: the hardest part of this is leaving you I think is the main point of the song. Gerard Way said that the song is a metaphor or at least cancer and death in the song is a metaphor. Death is often used as a metaphor for the end of something and so I think this song may actually be about the end of a relationship, just dressed up in this really sad story.

In the second verse Gerard sings: 

Now turn away, ’cause I’m awful just to see

‘Cause all my hair’s abandoned all my body

Awful is an interesting word. I think that today the meaning is simple and it just means really bad. But it used to mean that something filled you with a sense of awe which means great respect mixed with fear or something like that. Awesome used to have that meaning as well, but today it just means really good. I think it’s interesting that awesome and awful used to be such powerful adjectives. Today they are still extreme adjectives and have strong meanings, but they have come to mean extremely good and extremely bad.

My hair’s abandoned my body. The verb abandon means to leave a place, person or thing or ever. There is usually something tragic about situations when we use the word abandon. For example, if a mother bird stops caring for her brood of chicks then you might say the hen abandoned her chicks. If you find a car that’s been left in the woods, perhaps following some sort of criminal venture, then you could describe it as an abandoned vehicle. If you are on a boat and it starts sinking, the captain might order everyone to ‘abandon ship’. The patient in the song has had chemotherapy and so his hair has fallen out. 

Now the song gets even more depressing.

Oh, my agony, know that I will never marry

Baby, I’m just soggy from the chemo

Agony means extreme pain. It’s a noun and we normally say that someone is in agony. You also hear people describe an unpleasant experience as agony. Usually, this is an exaggeration and the experience being described was just unpleasant, but the word is quite nice to say and the long aaa sound allows you to be very expressive. The bus ride was terrible – 12 hours with no legroom. It was agony. 

Soggy is an interesting choice of word for the song. It means really wet and soft. I think it’s most commonly used to talk about breakfast cereal. If you don’t eat your cornflakes quickly enough, then the cereal absorbs too much milk and goes soggy. You might also use the word to talk about a football pitch or field. If it’s been raining a lot and the ground has become really wet and soft you might say that the field is a bit soggy. The word is very descriptive and quite nice to say, but it’s generally used in informal light-hearted conversations so it feels a bit out of place here, to me.

The verse ends with Gerard singing:

But counting down the days to go, it just ain’t living

This is another depressing idea. A countdown is usually quite exciting. It’s used when a rocket is being launched: 10 … 9 .. 8 … and so on. If you’re counting down the days, then you are marking the calendar as the days pass and a future event gets closer. My boys use an advent calendar to count down the days to Christmas. In the song, the patient is counting down the days till they die, which is stretching the use slightly, but it means focusing on the time you have left rather than what you are doing is not living. 

The song now closes with the lines:

And I just hope you know that

if you say goodbye today 

I’d ask you to be true 

‘Cause the hardest part of this is leaving you

Well … I’m not sure how I feel about this song. On the one hand, I know that music can help people express their feelings, especially difficult and painful feelings. However, as a topic, I find this challenging because most people will lose a loved one from cancer at some point. It’s still a terrifying disease and making a song about it because you want to make a dark song seems to me, a bit callous. I know I said at the beginning, dark and callous can be used in a similar way, but I think callous is more formal and more critical. 

I did enjoy how theatrical the album is and perhaps that’s where a bigger and more important meaning lies. My Chemical Romance has taken something really serious and turned it into a rock opera – it’s dramatic and meaningful, but it’s also irreverent and a bit silly. What do you think? The next song I will look at is challenging for a different reason because the lyrics and the theme of the song is well … adult.

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If there are any topics or songs or scenes from a film that you would like me to talk about or anything else you would like to hear, I would be delighted to make a podcast for you. So please visit LearnEnglishVocabulary.co.uk and say hello.

Thanks for listening.

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