By: Amanda McMillan
It’s been a busy year for pop-punk- a strange sentence perhaps for the year 2021.
Earlier this month, TikTok sensation Oliva Rodrigo settled a copyright lawsuit with pop-punk royalty Paramore over her song “Good 4 U”, which fans quickly noticed sounded nearly identical to the latter’s breakout 2009 hit single “Misery Business.” In July of this year, Willow (as in, Willow Smith, Will Smith’s daughter) released “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l” featuring legendary Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. Newcomers Meet Me @ The Altar also just dropped an EP on the record label Fuelled By Ramen, which sports iconic alumni like Fall Out Boy, Dashboard Confessional, and Jimmy Eat World just to name a few. Whether you like it or not, pop-punk is having a revival!
Gen Z has been coming in hot with 2000s nostalgia, so it was only a matter of time before this happened. As we start to hear this familiar sound waft into the mainstream airwaves, it feels necessary to consider the cultural context in which it’s happening and the familiar thread that weaves through it.
On the surface, the world in which teenagers exist today is vastly different from that of the 2000s (i.e technology, beauty standards, social media.) However, the world as we knew it between 1999-2009 set the stage for what today’s teenagers would feel and experience. The shattering of innocence for millennials never really healed for the next generation, who have only known the world in a climate crisis, war, and conflict. Between social media and the 24-hour news cycle, Gen Z never had much of a chance at blissful childhood naivety. It only makes sense that they would search for some sense of understanding, uncovering sounds from just before their time that would feel strangely nostalgic in a way that sounds from the 90s felt for Millennials. Through their eyes, looking back at a time that seemed simpler, quieter, and focus must be, to some extent, soothing; prove that it wasn’t always like this.
It’s easy to wax poetic about everything the early-to-mid aughts was: a time just before social media when texting costed money, and not everyone had high-speed internet; when you had phone numbers memorized, and BlackBerry was a cutting edge technology. We still listened to the radio, and MuchMusic was still on TV (shout out to The Wedge!). We burned CDs! We had MySpace! The Internet serving as a source of endless information had only just begun to penetrate the mainstream consciousness. This is the era that “Google” became a verb. This was a period of significant cultural shift, and it was an era of an incredible amount of angst. For millennials, we went from mourning the break-up of the Spice Girls to watching the Twin Towers fall on live TV. There was plenty to be afraid of, a lot to be confused about, and an abundance of information to try to understand simultaneously. All while navigating what it is to be a teenager - a lot of longing, irritability, and, for many of us, sighing. We were being inundated with catchy hooks from pop stars and hip-hop lyrics about being rich, but so many of us felt empty and alone. We were searching for something true to what we felt, something that wasn’t distracting, but confrontational.
This set the stage for pop punk to explode as a genre. Pop-punk is noisy, double kick drums, power chords, whiny vocals, and lyrics about whatever heartbreak is when you’re 18 years old. It travels a spectrum from white-hot rage to the smell of your crush’s sweatshirt as you sit next to them on the bus. Pop-punk is more than the sum of its parts; it’s the way it felt to come of age during a very specific decade span. It is the sound of feeling things that you don’t yet have words for, the sound of trying to understand complexity...it’s the sound of outgrowing your childhood.
As the saying goes, if you know you know. If you don’t or maybe you don’t remember, I encourage you to stop reading this right now and listen to the chorus of 2002’s “I Feel So” by Box Car Racer (side note: Box Car Racer was a side project of Blink 182 feat. Tom Delonge and Travis Barker, which feels important to mention). Sure, it’s pretty f****** on the nose, but that’s exactly the point. At the time, top 40 music was constantly dancing around what it was trying to say, through innuendo and clever attempts at outsmarting the FCC. Pop-punk, much like punk and old school hip-hop before it, was about making music that expressed exactly how you felt, without mincing words or making it fluffy and sellable. Ironically, because so many kids wanted this sound it, in turn, became extremely popular and, thus, sellable. But, that’s a digression. Pop-punk was bigger than any single, album, or band. It was one of the few ways an entire generation knew how to express itself; one of the few ways we felt seen both as individuals and the collective. Plus, our parents hated it.
However, it wasn’t without its flaws. The pop-punk landscape was, like most music, focussed on the experience of white dudes. Of course, there were exceptions, but for the most part, every pop-punk band looked the same: white, male, late teens or early twenties, small t-shirts, baggy jeans, skate shoes, some chains, plugs in both ears, tattoos, and genre-defining hair. We cannot overlook the hair.
As it turns out, this is very much part of the appeal of these bands, because (with the intention of sounding cis-heteronormative to prove the point) guys wanted to be them and girls wanted them to be with them. But, more than that, regardless of gender or sexuality, hoards of teenagers knew there were other people out there who felt like they did. It wasn’t that we were looking to be disciples of the new rock gods - we kind of rejected the idea of the stadium rock star at the time - it was that these bands, and this music, made us feel less alone.
If there was anything aspirational about it, it was being able to express ourselves as clearly and plainly as we could. Here we were, another generation of latchkey kids, thrust into the 24-hr news cycle of an unwinnable war, sucked into the intoxicating allure of the Internet that culminated in a growing sense of unease about the future. All of that, then, was exacerbated by Columbine and SARS and Weapons of Mass Destruction. So yes, we were angry, we were scared, and we wanted something that felt tangibly ours.
That doesn’t mean we weren’t looking to have a good time; the human experience is full of contradictions. We still wanted to party, and laugh, and have crushes. After all, how can we forget the joy that was MTV Reality TV featuring hits like The Osbournes, Jackass, and Punk’d. We were receiving our cultural cues from f****** Ashton Kutcher, and Bam Margera and Steve-O. Ultimately, what it meant to be a teenager in the aughts was about consuming super toxic sludge 24/7. Women had to be dangerously thin, and white, and naked. Men had to either be smouldering hotties on the cover of Seventeen magazine or they had to get physically injured for a living. As a result, there was a huge group of kids who felt like outsiders, all the time. Kids who felt they were too nerdy, or too weird, or too fat, or too smart, or too emotional, or too ugly, or too awkward. Enter this entire genre and subsequent sub-genres of music that was for us, the way that grunge was for the outsiders in the 90s, punk & hip hop for the outsiders in the 80s, glam rock for the outsiders in the 70s and so forth. When we look at it in this way, it’s clear that pop punk was the defining genre of counterculture in the aughts.
So, what brings this sound back to life? First off, the new bands are certainly breaking the mould. The Gen Z mindset of openness and diversity means that we’re hearing voices of women, queer folks, BIPOC folks, and a new point of view on what it means to be a teenager / young adult right now. This desire to challenge the status quo is present in nearly every new generation, but there’s something about the way Gen Z is doing it that is simply different. This is a generation that has an intrinsically critical approach to just about everything, not unlike Millennials in the early aughts. However, Gen Z criticism is innovative at its best and jaded at its worst. While the latter is where both generations collide, Millennials are jaded as a result of an unfulfilled hopefulness, and Gen Z seems to find it a raison d’être. In both cases, this deep-seated angst fuels the fire of creativity, and the desperate desire to be heard and understood. Somehow, we both gravitated to a sound that simultaneously acts as a salve and a scab to pick at.
Pop-punk lives in between that moment of savouring the tension, and needing to release it. It’s all gut-chest-throat and the paradoxical pleasure of collision. It begs you to scream when you sing because everyone and everything else is telling you to keep in it. Pop-punk will forever sound like what it is to be a teenager - a cocktail of high-intensity emotions, growing pains, and a simultaneous desire to both grow up and stay young forever. Millennials continue to gravitate toward it as a means of resisting the incessant friction that is adulthood, while Gen Z is only just beginning to scratch at the itch that is growing up. So we find ourselves here, now, meeting somewhere in the middle, still hoping that everything will be just fine and that everything, everything will be alright.