Punk Rock Academy 103: Pop-Punk

The third installment of Tommy Monroe's look at punk rock.

Posted on Feb 8th, 2012 in Features and Interviews / By Frankie Reeves
Punk Rock Academy 103: Pop-Punk I should probably start by mentioning that if it wasn't for pop-punk, I would never have known what punk was. As an adolescent, I didn't have the luxury of a music scene dedicated to fierce political statements and awe-inspiring spokespersons – I, and many others who spent their teenage years at the beginning of the 21st century, adopted my rebellion in the form of safe, mindless songs courtesy of the painfully clever, painfully irritating major labels. Yes, once I had a mind of my own I filled it dutifully with falling in love with girls at rock shows, being the girl all the bad guys wanted, and just generally being in too deep. I may well mock, but those songs were mine for that time, and somehow they spoke to me about something. Looking back at the incredible popularity of pop-punk in the early noughties, I can't help but wonder if the merging of punk rebellion and pop hooks has ruined the chances of political punk rock ever again reaching mainstream audiences.

We've mentioned that punk as a music genre runs the unfortunate risk of preaching to the converted as a result of its specialist nature. Punk bands have taken their music into other territories in attempts to take their messages back to certain cultural roots and, one assumes, attract further audience demographics. Others have infiltrated the system from within, Chumbawamba being one of the most interesting examples – you wouldn't even know who they were if it wasn't for their shockingly poor, commercially viable single 'Tubthumping', but now that you're singing “I get knocked down...” in your head, go listen to some of their other albums. Pop-punk was very, very different – instead of using the platform of popular culture to champion important political or social movements, pop-punk took punk's simplicity, fast tempos and distorted guitars and used these characteristics to champion infectious pop top-lines, thematics and infectious choruses – effectively pop-punk gave pop a punk edge rather than giving punk a new mainstream audience.

This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, neither was it any reason to declare these bands 'less punk' or less dedicated to the cause than others – pop-punk bands were fighting for a new cause in a new generation, no doubt influenced in part by the uprising of the melodic US post-hardcore of the late 80's that some were referring to as 'emotional hardcore' (this would lead to yet another sub-genre of commercial punk that, for whatever absurd reason, has become 'the genre that dare not speak its name'). 'Emocore', as it was then referred, combined the aggressive with the emotional, taking hardcore's speed and rhythmic detail and mixing easily-definable melodies, song structures and openly sensitive lyrics. Combine this with the melodic, relatively silly hardcore of bands like The Vandals (pictured) and the ham-fisted, questionable humour of The Queers, and it becomes clear that the new emphasis in mid-90's US punk was to create something fun. Some believed that punk musicians had restricted themselves to sincerity and political mastery for too long, that the genre was becoming overlooked by lack of mainstream presence as a stale political afterthought.

While grunge thrived in its all-American, abstract and lethargic glory, a little Californian three-piece were handing out hand-made cassettes and being turned down for gigs left, right and centre. Blink-182, then known simply as Blink, were playing fast melodic songs in a similar vein to their Emocore counterparts, but with far less skill and technique. Listening to the band's third demo Buddha, now viewed as their first commercial release, it's easy to forget that although the lyrical content leaves a little to be desired, the songs are played with the speed, sloppiness and happy-go-lucky companionship of a really exciting punk band. The songs weren't especially pop at this time either, neither did they continue to be until the arrival of Travis Barker for 1999's internationally-acclaimed Enema Of The State, but it is undeniable that the pop sentiment existed. Instead of being restricted by the harsh confines and light-speed fickleness of popular culture however, Blink-182 used pop to their advantage in these early records, using bubblegum major-chord tonality and catchy vocal hooks but retaining the raw, passionate energy of the punk genre. Although I clearly own a remixed and remastered copy of Buddha, the dirty lo-fi crunch of the guitars, the pitching imperfections in the vocals and the occasional stutter of the drums could only be remedied so far – in fact, it is these very attributes that MAKE this record, that give it its DIY flavour and remind us of the angst underlying the melodic content.

As Blink-182 progressed, their sound began quickly to change course in accordance with their signing to record label giants MCA (now part of Universal). On the back of Enema Of The State's break-through success, there was punk on MTV, 'All The Small Things' was on every radio in the world and Blink-182 were cool. In a twisted way, punk had once more invaded the adolescent psyche, but leather jackets and patches were replaced by baggy jeans and skateboards. Instead of political uproar, teenagers worldwide reacted against their own personal environments with no real sense of direction – in short, instead of becoming informed and educated in current affairs, the musical rebellion of our generation made us no more than slightly annoyed/ing for a select few years, obsessed with songs that communicated the most aggressive musical message that commercial day-time pop could possibly muster whilst actually conveying no more profound a lyrical message than the average pop song.

The most interesting thing about pop-punk was the music that followed. It could have gone two ways really: more pop or more punk, and unsurprisingly it went with the former. Now that pop music has had its history partnering with what is in many ways the most aggressive genre we know, what else is there to add? Interestingly at a similar time, pop also formed partnerships with the goth, hard rock, and metal genres, most notably in Marilyn Manson and Limp Bizkit, perhaps among the most subversive and rebellious acts that the mainstream has seen in recent years but neither of whom possessed any forward-thinking politics to speak of (granted, Manson had a political streak but it barely served any external purpose). It seems that popular culture needed a jump-start in the early 2000's, and genres that were once so distinctly separate from pop that they developed their own names and cultural identities began to merge into one to counter the bubblegum synth pop and wet girl/boy-band craze of the '90's.

Now that pop knows it has access to a strain of punk that it can use commercially and thoughtlessly, I wonder if we'll see any politically motivated punk music reaching mainstream audiences any time in the future. It comes back to the age-old question of chicken and egg: does music influence popular culture and social trends, or vice versa? It's too difficult a question to answer fleetingly, but I definitely think that, no matter how hard we can all still rock out to 'Fat Lip' and 'Anthem Pt. 2' if we put our minds to it, pop-punk, through no real fault of its own (there's no harm in success if you work for it!), pushed the notion of punk as a serious political platform to a place where it may struggle to recover from.