Arts and Entertainment

Is Pop Punk Actually Punk?

The history of pop punk and why the word “punk” isn’t an accurate description of the genre.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Ori Mermelstein

Music critics have announced the revival of pop punk, the genre that gained immense popularity in the 2000s and died in the 2010s as pop artists dominated the radio. But with artists like Machine Gun Kelly and YUNGBLUD climbing the charts, claims (and fears) of pop punk’s resurgence have surfaced. New artists flirting with the pop punk sound raise questions over the genre’s titular accuracy. What is pop punk, and how punk is it, really? To be able to answer these questions in their entirety, one must first delve into the history of the genre.

The origins of pop punk date back to the ‘70s with The Ramones and The Buzzcocks, with their popularity stemming from simple, catchy songwriting. The ‘80s rolled in with hardcore taking punk by storm, and the bands Bad Religion, The Descendents, and The Misfits emerged with a more melodic approach than their fast-paced, unintelligible straight-edge counterparts. Green Day formed in the late ‘80s, and, along with Bad Religion, grew to great heights in the ‘90s. They inspired bands like The Offspring, Blink-182, Sum 41, Rancid and many others to take the commercial route and break into the mainstream. During the 2000s, pop punk evolved into emo pop with more emotional lyrics, and bands like Panic! At The Disco, Paramore, and My Chemical Romance took center stage. The fuss died down in the early 2010s, but reemerged as emo rap in the latter half of the decade, headlined by Lil Peep, Juice WRLD and XXXTentacion.

It was at this point that the genre began to go haywire. 2019 was the year people noticed pop punk’s comeback, and immediately jumped on the bandwagon. In February, YUNGBLUD collaborated with Halsey on “11 Minutes (feat. Travis Barker).” Barker used to be the drummer for Blink-182 and has since moved on to produce all types of music, including pop, rock, hip hop, and country. A few months later, Machine Gun Kelly, who was exclusively a rapper for over a decade, released “I Think I’m OKAY,” a pop punk collaboration with YUNGBLUD and Barker. The trio has since been treated as the holy trinity of the pop punk revival, despite the fact that they abandoned their musical roots to craft these new personas as a superficial attempt at imitating the pop punk hits and personalities of yore.

Considering the plastic sheen and blasé attitude matter, it is absurd to lump modern pop punk in with its influences. The pop punk of the ‘80s deserves credit for sticking to the aggression of hardcore, especially present in the drumming’s intensity. However, commercial success altered the essence of these bands and their successors; a boulder was dropped on the scales that kept the balance between pop and punk—and it is not hard to guess which side reaped the benefits. The ferocity of the electric guitar was replaced by limp, catchy choruses. Powerfully energetic drums sidestepped for smooth harmonies and melodies. Pop punk became pop music lightly dusted with just enough angst and social commentary to appeal to teenagers who wanted to feel rebellious. The artificiality of the genre only progressed as time went on. Recent music coming out of the pop punk revival reeks of unconcealed autotune and bubblegum-like electronic beats that hammer in the algorithmic enjoyability of every song. It has strayed so far from its roots that the pop punk balance scale has been broken in half, and the punk side has been thrown off the edge of a cliff. Pop punk is punk the same way the MTA is always on time: it’s not.

Unlike punk, pop punk has never had a connection to any social movement, which makes all the talk about anti-establishmentarianism sound fake and theatrical. At the core of punk is non-conformity. Whether it be in relation to music, politics, attitudes, or a combination of these, social norms are the constant target. Pop punk is the opposite. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it uses the mainstream under the guise of punk to get more attention and wealth. All of the pop punk stars today are so exaggerated in their appearance that they look like they were cast for the role of the 2000s’ teenage older brother and the costume department rapidly assembled their wardrobe from anything they could find at Spirit Halloween. Everything from their unoriginal clothing to their preposterous behavior seems staged; the presentation of a character modeled after the idea of a pop punk celebrity from 20 years ago.

The fans of pop punk do not care about the authenticity of the artists they are listening to. People do not listen to YUNGBLUD to get a taste of real punk music, nor to defend the validity of his punk persona. They simply enjoy listening to catchy songs, and who can blame them? Pop songs are meant to be listened to and enjoyed by a large audience: that’s the entire point of the genre. They’re not listening to pop punk to flip the bird at the world and take a stand against systematic oppression, they listen simply because it is fun to be angsty.

The major problem with pop punk is not with the fans, but with the word “punk” in the title. While it may have been inspired by the genre, the two have no strong ideological connection and the original chaotic aspect of punk was diluted to be more palatable for mainstream audiences. All the pop severely overpowers the smidge of punk present in any song. In brief, pop punk is barely even punk, and Machine Gun Kelly should make better music.