Pop Punk: Willow, Olivia Rodrigo and the Genre's Long Weird Legacy - Rolling Stone
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Willow, Olivia Rodrigo and Pop Punk’s Long, Weird Legacy

The genre is thriving and (mostly) grown up. How the hell did this happen?

SAMUEL GEHRKE

“Nobody likes you when you’re 23,” as Blink-182 used to sing on MTV — 23 summers ago. But all these years later, pop punk isn’t merely all grown-up. In 2022, pop punk is back from the dead, more popular and influential than ever — suddenly, it’s the Teenager of the Year. It’s a massive resurgence for the music style that always fetishized the ideal of permanent adolescence, turning a bratty sneer into a way of life. But now, pop punk is downright respectable. How the hell did this happen?

It’s beautifully bizarre, since pop punk was never about aiming for cultural significance. The whole artistic goal was encouraging listeners to take off their pants and jacket. But nobody could have predicted this music’s weird legacy, whether that means Avril Lavigne making her comeback as the ultimate scene queen, or Travis Barker ascending to the showbiz throne of America’s Drummer. Olivia Rodrigo is even covering Avril’s “Complicated” on her debut tour — a true passing of the torch.

Pop punk has evolved into a ubiquitous music language, especially as female audiences and performers have claimed this voice as their own. No other pop noise does a perfect job of snarling the timeless question “Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” There’s Paramore inspiring a whole generation. Willow teaming up with Travis and Avril to vent her teen angst. Olivia scoring an instant-classic Number One hit with “Good 4 U,” a sociopath-bashing rager that could pass for Paramore, X-Ray Spex, the Buzzcocks, Fastbacks, or countless other beloved bands. Scene moms all over America are raiding their closets for this fall’s When We Were Young Festival, with a slew of pop-punk and emo legends — a festival that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Machine Gun Kelly is a whole story in himself, dropping his new guitar-crazed Mainstream Sellout and getting engaged to Megan Fox with a thorn-covered ring that causes pain if you try to take it off. (Such a pop-punk thing to do.) People love to argue over whether he’s “real” pop punk or not, a debate that would have seemed absurd back in the day — who ever thought this genre would have purists? But the controversy is part of the appeal. “I read a headline that said the age of the rock star is dead,” MGK announced at the American Music Awards. “Looks pretty alive to me!”

Pop punk hit a peak of cultural saturation in the early 2000s. When I think of that moment, I’ll always think of the night I went to see a Knicks game with Sum 41 — their label boss wasn’t using his courtside seats that evening. These spike-haired Canadian dudes didn’t exactly fit in with the rest of the crowd, but they raised eyebrows and made people smile -everywhere we went. The elderly security guard waved and said, “Hey, what’s my age again!” (Wrong band, dude, but you sure get points for trying.)

The story goes all the way back to the Ramones, who helped define punk rock yelling “1-2-3-4!” in the sweaty, druggy CBGB days of the mid-Seventies. But it’s important to keep in mind that they were always inspired by bubblegum teen pop in the first place, like the ultimate 1970s boy band, the Bay City Rollers. When the Ramones wrote “Blitzkrieg Bop,” their template was the Rollers, who got kids around the world to chant, “S-A-T-U-R! D-A-Y! Night!” The Ramones cheerfully admitted with that “Hey, ho, let’s go” they were trying to copy the Rollers — and they sincerely believed they were writing a Number One pop hit. But they saw themselves as a boy band from the git-go. And let the record show that Avril scored her first Number One hit with “Girlfriend,” a self-conscious tribute to the Ramones’ classic “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.”

When Australia’s 5 Seconds of Summer made their huge breakthrough back in 2014, they permanently trashed the boundaries between boy bands and pop punk. They rocked stadiums in their Green Day and Nirvana T-shirts, playing pop-punk guitar riffs under a “Mixtape ’94” banner, while on tour opening for One Direction. I chatted with them backstage at a stadium show that summer — we were all sipping chocolate milk. The 5SoS guys laughed hysterically at the idea of “purists,” who wanted to argue whether they were “real” or not. “It’s fun when you’re confusing people,” drummer Ashton Irwin told me. “I’ll look online and see some 30-year-old dude saying, ‘They’re not rock! Bullet for My Valentine for life!’ But his daughter probably likes our band. And she’ll start her own band.”

Those words turned out to be prophetic, since a key reason for the revival is that pop punk is a language that pop girls have claimed to express themselves, making the music more diverse and inclusive than ever. Paramore came to define the genre more than anyone, and every time Hayley Williams got onstage to sing, she left new aspiring rockers behind. At this point, everybody’s now just trying to take care of Hayley’s unfinished misery business.

The arguments rage on about what’s “authentic” or “original” in pop punk, whether that means young artists like Jxdn copping the sound or Blink-182’s Vegas residency. On some levels, it’s comical to think of this genre, of literally all genres, having gatekeepers and authenticity cops. Now, we live in a world where artists can be accused of degrading and demeaning the artistic dignity of the All-American Rejects. But that’s part of the pop-punk story, as it keeps evolving and mutating into the future. Nobody would have guessed this music would age so well, just getting more important and influential through the years. But I guess this is growing up.

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