ZAP.C #1: The Gloomification of Pop-Punk Music
Despite many claims to the contrary, the musical genre known as “pop-punk”, once a dominant force in the pop charts during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, refuses to die. Like that old summer camp t-shirt stealthily hiding at the bottom of your drawers, the genre clings on, and - like that t-shirt - reminders of its existence always bring surprises. I, like many other millennials, went through a serious pop-punk phase during my teenage years when I could relate to the themes of sexual frustration, me-against-the-world, and all-around suburban white kid angst so prevalent in the genre. But those songs and artists you grew up listening to have changed in the new climate of post-emo, hipster-driven alternative music. As artists struggle to produce music in this new landscape, the growing (aging?) pains of the genre are apparent. Do artists cling to the past to elicit nostalgia or do they boldly move forward in new directions? How do they perform the latter while staying true to the spirit of pop-punk? To gain a better perspective on the state of pop-punk music, we’ll take a quick look back at the origins of the genre.
Generally speaking, the earliest precursor to the sound commonly associated with pop-punk was one of the first punk bands to reach incredible popularity, The Ramones. The tenants of The Ramones’ sound in the 70’s that carried over most notably into modern pop-punk were “loud and fast melodic minimalism” (Wikipedia said it perfectly; I don’t care what you think). Moving forward into the late 80’s, bands such as The Offspring and Green Day built upon the approach pioneered by The Ramones. Often characterized by simple three or four chord melodies and clear, sing-along choruses, they were the musical transition from the rougher punk acts of the 70s and 80s towards a more pop sound. Green Day took a few years to get the formula down, but after signing to a major label, 1994’s Dookie gave birth to the first modern pop-punk album and regrettable fashion choices.
After the major label interest in Green Day’s sound - and subsequent success - the floodgates opened. Many punk bands that had been forming or finding their sound in the early 90’s quickly adjusted their music to run with Green Day’s formula of snarky attitude and fast paced punk rhythms mixed in with pop sensibilities. Acts such as Blink 182, Sum 41, and New Found Glory found enormous success towards the end of the 90’s as their music and penis jokes barrel-rolled headlong into the mainstream. By the early 2000’s, pop punk had reached its commercial peak and the genre became saturated with big labels pushing their bands into more pop-driven directions. Penis jokes went out the window as All-American Rejects, Avril Lavigne, and Simple Plan released huge records with tightly produced instrumentation, sugar-coated verses, and anthemic choruses. The lyrical themes mostly centered on relationships and teenage heartbreak - a change from the decidedly more general anti-establishment themes of punk music of the 80’s and early 90’s.
After the musical genre saturated in the mid 2000’s, the collective sadness we all experienced watching Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend video break 100 million views on youtube coalesced into it’s own sub-genre of music called emo. Many acts that started in pop-punk, such as Fall Out Boy and Paramore, evolved their sound to follow suit. Blink 182 mellowed out before their hiatus, releasing a more mature record in their untitled 2003 album. The post-2008 landscape was confusing for many pop-punk artists, both old and new. As the genre faded quickly into obscurity, many of the former leaders of the musical genre expanded into new directions. Fall Out Boy experimented with glam rock and Good Charlotte released a dance album. Some bands, such as New Found Glory and Simple Plan have continued to persevere in their musical stylings (Good Charlotte also returned to pop-punk. Big mistake, Good Charlotte.). The landscape of the genre was definitely caught between relying on nostalgia and taking on new directions, but many bands did not survive this period. With much of the old guard either broken up or pursuing other musical genres, who will lead the torch for a new generation of pop-punk kids?
Whew! We’re back to the present day! Like Stevie Wonder, modern pop-punk bands have been feeling around in the dark for some years now. Most end up with the success of Helen Keller's musical career instead of Stevie Wonder's. However some, like Four Year Strong, have melded hardcore punk influences into a more melodic, “happy hardcore” sound, where you can mosh in the circle pit and cry tears of joy when someone elbows you in the neck. Still others, such as Real Friends and State Champs insist on taking the most inspiration from the pop-driven music of pop-punk’s heyday. Many other bands have been influenced by the wake of the emo explosion. These bands, such as Bay Area based Set Your Goals, have created a heavier sound that integrates more emo elements within the pop-punk structure. Screamo and in turn, crowd screaming or yelling, has developed in some of these bands’ musical stylings. Just from observing the traction of the various pop-punk artists producing music today, a trend begins to emerge. The more successful bands today are heavily emo-influenced, and for the first time in years, it seems that the genre has some leaders to spearhead a new direction.
I mentioned a band earlier, Set Your Goals, that sprinkled some early 90’s/late 80’s punk and emo toppings on top of their pop-punk cake. While their popularity rose and waned quickly (leading to their current inactive, cakeless status), their style seemed to have influenced some of the pre-imminent pop-punk bands of today. Particularly, Set Your Goals’ sound was an obvious influence on another band, The Story So Far. It is no coincidence that these two bands arose from Walnut Creek, a town just 15 minutes away from Green Day’s place of origin. Featuring similar emo influence, The Story So Far tends to sound less like The Offspring than their Walnut Creek brother band while maintaining the underlying vocal melodies and soaring choruses that are a pop-punk staple. However, their cake is considerably heavier and more layered than the simple sugar, flour, and water of Green Day, and that’s what seems to separate The Story So Far from their pop-punk peers. These deep, more complex instrumental arrangements add a layer of atmosphere and mood to the pop-punk proceedings that was never there before.
Elsewhere in the US, another band has popped up around the same time as The Story So Far. Hailing from Philadelphia, The Wonder Years has steadily risen in popularity to become one of modern pop-punk’s most critically and commercially acclaimed acts. Sharing some common instrumentation arrangements with The Story So Far, The Wonder Years have a more delicate, sensitive approach that is closer to emo than the brash punk of the former band. The tone of their instrumentation is still shared with their Walnut Creek brethren, vocal stylings aside. They still have outbursts of heartfelt emotion in their music, punctuated by driving rhythms and the occasional deep guitar breakdown that helps them retain that pop-punk mosh pit sensibility. It seems that their approach has inspired another Pennsylvania band with a similar sound, Modern Baseball. With their lead singer’s apathetic drawl, the vocals in Modern Baseball are truly a new evolution of the emo aesthetic and drive the band’s melancholy, powerful choruses. This band has an even softer sound than The Wonder Years, flirting the line towards Death Cab For Cutie-esque alternative rock. It is interesting to note modern alt-rock’s influence on bands that might consider themselves as pop-punk. Since the revitalization of folk and americana, it can be noted that many bands have eschewed power chords for more nuanced and softer guitar arrangements, but thankfully less banjo. Indeed, americana elements can be heard distinctly in some of Modern Baseball’s songs and certainly in their cousin band, The Front Bottoms. Another of the front-runners in the modern pop-punk movement, they overlap quite heavily with the aforementioned Modern Baseball. I would argue that both bands are the least punk of all the acts mentioned in this article and are the most thoroughly evolved, picking and choosing from contemporary alternative music sounds to incorporate into their own. Though each of these groups vary in subtle ways, I believe they share more commonalities than differences.
It is no surprise that this recent wave of pop-punk has developed a gloomy, darker sound. A new generation of torchbearers has grown up with the rise and fall of the genre, concurrently with the heavily intertwined emo movement. The most aesthetically interesting part of mainstream pop-punk was the juxtaposition of depressing, angry lyrics with upbeat instrumentation. This dichotomy served to highlight the overall themes of pop-punk as a movement. It was as if songs were saying “hey, everything sucks right now, but have a positive outlook because things can only get better!”. To quote Blink 182, “She found someone, there’s plenty more, girls are such a drag”. The new generation of pop-punk lacks this positive spirit and happy melodies. The instrumentation now matches the mood of the angsty lyrics and thus we see a major evolution in the genre. We can trace this mood shift of the genre to two things: the osmosis of emo elements into the pop-punk genre and also perhaps most interesting, a general feeling that the genre will fade into obscurity. I’m just speculating on that last point, but the “death” of pop-punk is certainly a theme that weighs heavily on the bands and fans of the genre. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to conjecture that this looming specter has influenced the overall tone of music that new bands are producing.
With the specter of death on its shoulder and stagnation for almost a decade, it seems that pop-punk has had the resilience to change itself. The pop-punk of today is almost unrecognizable from its inspirations in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. These changes can be observed in both the lyrical and instrumental sophistication of today’s bands. As spoken earlier, today’s pop punk bands are taking a much more layered and atmospheric approach to their guitar driven melodies. Listen to The Story So Far and then listen to The Ramones. There is almost no “minimalism” in the guitar work any more. However, the “loud and fast” remains. This is true for all of the modern pop-punk bands, each of them introducing more nuanced guitar arrangements, some louder and some quieter. No longer can the four-chords simplicity of Green Day be considered a staple of the genre, as the bands strive for more technical sophistication. As pop-punk has been cast out of the limelight, I, as fan and listener, have often had to justify myself to my peers for still listening to it. It is viewed as juvenile, crude, low art and something that should be outgrown. While I take offense to the most severe bashings of the genre, I have to admit that some criticisms are not entirely without merit. This is something that I grew up with and loved and I my immediate reaction is to become defensive about it, because "Fuck you, just because I listen to pop-punk and still play pokemon doesn't mean I'm immature!". However, after expanding my knowledge and breadth of music experiences, the lack of depth, both in lyrical content and instrumental arrangement, was a thorn in the side of mainstream pop-punk. However, it is heartening to see both of these weaknesses being addressed by modern pop-punk bands, perhaps as a response to these criticisms. Today’s pop-punk songs are more sophisticated than their predecessors, through a process of refinement and slow introduction of other genre influences. Pop-punk is certainly not dead and I hope to see the lively culture of the genre continue to mature.
Pop-punk changed a whole bunch and is now sad, but also a whole lot more technical and mature.