Pop-punk’s not dead! Investigating 2021’s biggest genre revival
Vans shoes and Dickies at the ready: a new wave of social media-savvy artists have brought the style back – and the scene's much more inclusive this time, too.
Late last year, TikTok star Jaden Hossler turned to his record label boss and mentor Travis Barker and told him that pop-punk was becoming cool again.
On TikTok, ‘00s classics of the genre like All Time Low’s Dear Maria and Paramore’s All I Wanted were blowing up, alongside the phrase “it was never a phase, it’s a lifestyle”, while e‑boy/e‑girl fashion (think Vans sneakers, dyed hair, long-sleeve tee under short-sleeve tee) was borrowing heavily from skate culture and pop-punk styles. It looked like 2002 again.
But this resurgence isn’t just about reliving the scene’s greatest hits. 2021’s biggest new pop star, Olivia Rodrigo, has channelled angsty teenage energy on debut album Sour, which has fans and critics detecting a Green Day influence on tracks like Brutal, Good 4 U and Jealousy, Jealousy. Machine Gun Kelly’s love letter to guitar-driven frustration, Tickets To My Downfall, crashed into the Billboard 200 at number 1 (the first rock album to do so in over a year) while brilliant new bands like Meet Me @ The Altar and Pinkshift are racking up 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify with only an EP or two to their name.
“Don’t get it twisted,” was Barker’s apparent reply to Hossler. “Punk’s always been cool.”
Sure, pop-punk never completely died out. But it definitely lost its ability to inspire sometime in the early 2010s, when a new generation of rappers and electronic music producers became the soundtrack to a new generation’s coming-of-age. In the new era defined by streaming and social media, pop-punk desperately clung to the past. Allegations of sexism, abuse and a complete lack of diversity within the scene certainly didn’t help things either.
If you want to get technical, the roots of the genre – known for its hyperactive pace, catchy melodies and relatable lyrics – can be traced back to The Ramones’ three-chord power-pop anthems or the adolescent alienation tackled by the Descendants but really, pop-punk as we know it took shape in the ’90s.
Released in 1994, Green Day’s Dookie tackled teenage frustrations, sexuality and anxiety before going on to sell close to 20 million copies, while in 1999, blink 182’s Enema of The State saw three regular dudes become bigger than the boy bands they were mocking in the video for All The Small Things.
With the travelling ‘Punk Rock Summer Camp’ that was Warped Tour making the music as accessible as possible pre-streaming (as well as deliberately low ticket prices, it visited over 40 cities often overlooked by other tours like Boise, Idaho and Barrie, Ontario) there were an explosion of pop punk bands throughout the 00’s – Sum 41, Avril Lavigne, Good Charlotte – before a second wave of bands like Fall Out Boy, Paramore and Panic! At The Disco took the genre in new directions later in the decade. The likes of Hayley Williams and Pete Wentz become tabloid fodder in the process, with rumours about relationships, breakups and leaked photos regularly making the headlines. Wentz even snogged Kim Kardashian in the music video for Fall Out Boy’s Thnks Fr Th Mmmrs like it was no big deal.
And then, like most genres that reach that level of cultural and commercial dominance, the bubble burst.
Baltimore’s All Time Low formed in 2003, a time when they were surrounded by bands that “proved you could make an impact in a huge way as a result of playing music in your basement, getting a van and going on tour.” They eventually broke through in 2007 with the bratty album So Wrong, It’s Right. By 2012 though, vocalist Alex Gaskarth had noticed a shift as bands tried to distance themselves from labels like pop-punk or emo.
“It felt like the biggest champions of the scene were turning away from it. That’s when the genre became an underground thing again,” says Gaskarth, listing groups like State Champs, Waterparks and The Story So Far as newer bands continuing pop punk’s legacy. “But there wasn’t the same mainstream outlet for it.” Warped Tour bands like 3OH!3 started embracing EDM (calling their interpretation of it ‘crunkcore’), Hayley Williams provided vocals for tracks by producer Zedd and rapper B.O.B., while Panic! At The Disco basically became a pop band.
But All Time Low stuck with pop-punk. Last year they released the boisterous Monsters from their eighth album Wake up, Sunshine and it became the bands most commercially successful track to date. “That says something,” says Gaskarth. “The world is ready for some rock and roll again.” But why is pop-punk back in such a big way in 2021?
As much as this revival follows the trend for fashion and genres coming back around every twenty years or so, it’s been accelerated by lockdown-induced nostalgia, with people seeking comfort by escaping to the past at a time when everything feels uncertain. It’s deeper than another Covid fad like sea shanties though.
The beginnings of the revival can be traced back to SoundCloud rappers. Lil Uzi Vert, whose biggest songwriting inspiration is Hayley Williams (“She’s just the best,” he said in an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music) is arguably a key influence here. Known to blend the alt-rock star aesthetic with rap fashion, his huge 2017 anthem XO Tour Llif3 is a prime example of incorporating melodramatic lyricism and catchy melodies which wouldn’t feel out place on a pop-punk record (as it happens, Uzi is expected to appear on blink’s next album).
Elsewhere Lil Peep would regularly sample the likes of Pierce The Veil or Real Friends, while Yellowcard thought Juice WRLD’s 2018 breakout hit Lucid Dreams was so similar to their 2006 track Holly Wood Died, they sued for $15million (they later dropped the case following his death in 2019).
Teaming up with Yorkshire’s radio-friendly rock-rapper Yungblud and Travis Barker in 2019, Machine Gun Kelly (who once pitched himself as Eminem’s rival and potential successor) took things one step further with the angst-rock anthem I Think I’m Okay. It paved the way for Tickets To My Downfall (a whole album of pop-punk ragers) and Downfalls High, his Warped Tour-meets-Grease musical starring Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney alongside next-gen pop-punkers Lil Huddy and JXDN.
MGK, Lil Peep and Juice WRLD had all grown up on pop-punk and wanted to bring it to a new audience. It’s a feeling actor/musician Tyler Posey knows well. The 29-year-old Californian discovered blink-182 when he was a kid and fell in love with the contagious energy, the scrappy passion and their goofy, unapologetic personalities. While he was starring in MTV’s supernatural teen drama Teen Wolf (which ran from 2011 to 2017, pop punk’s uncool years) he started a YouTube channel called Music For Your Ears To Bleed To, to introduce his young fanbase to the genre.
“There’s this perfect balance where it’s goofy and silly but also really deep, emotional and intense,” he says. “Onstage I can talk about mental health or tell fart jokes. It allows space for both worlds to collide.” After fronting pop-punk bands With Lost In Kostko, PVMNTS and Five North, Posey’s now gone solo but still makes boisterous angst-ridden anthems. Posey thinks his collaborator Travis Barker might have something to do with its mainstream resurgence.
Working with everyone from Machine Gun Kelly and Willow (who’s just launched a new pop-punk era) to new artists like JXDN and KennyHoopla, Barker is very much pop punk’s renaissance man. “Having Travis at the forefront of everything really helps because he’s an inspiration. People look up to him and he’s really been a catalyst,” says Posey.
Not just the drummer for blink-182, Barker has a long history of bridging the gap between rap and pop punk, forming rap-rock hybrid band The Transplants with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and working with everyone from Lil Wayne and Pharrell Williams to Snoop Dogg and Kid Cudi.
One person who knows about Barker’s impact more than most is Jaden Hossler. Starting his career on social media, he was part of TikTok collective Sway House until he released his debut single as JXDN in early 2020. His producer passed the Busted-esque Comatose onto Barker at the same time as Barker’s 16-year-old son Landon told his dad to check it out. Barker took that as a sign and JXDN became the first artist signed to his label, DTA Records. Next month he’ll release his Taking Back Sunday-inspired debut album before appearances at Reading & Leeds Festivals and a tour with Machine Gun Kelly.
“I never really listened to punk music growing up,” says Hossler, who was obsessed with Juice WRLD. The first pop punk song he really got into was blink-182’s 2019 song Darkside, which saw kids flossing instead of moshing, but after working closely with Barker, JXDN considers himself a punk kid. “I haven’t felt this comfortable in my own skin in a minute. I’m really coming to terms with who I am as a person. I have a lot of issues with mental health and when I make this sort of music, it feels like I can finally breathe.”
Like MTV, Myspace and YouTube before it, TikTok is completely revolutionising the music industry. With songs designed to be as catchy and viral as possible, of course pop punk has found a home on the platform.
“Everybody has a really short attention span but hearing one really great pop punk chorus can bring a kid into the entire genre,” says UK musician and vlogger NOAHFINNCE. “In a world where nobody has any patience, pop punk is exactly what kids need.”
Hossler knows people will question how authentic acts like Lil Huddy (AKA Chase Hudson, who founded TikTok collective Hype House), Disney actress Olivia Rodrigo and himself really are but he’s not bothered. “Punk’s been around for a minute and we’re doing things differently, so of course people will get defensive.”
He believes the genre is connecting with a new generation because it allows “kids to express themselves.” With angst-ridden lyrics typically exploring teenage frustrations, sexuality and identity, “pop-punk gives you that opportunity to be vulnerable and that’s an attractive thing for people my age.”
“The alternative scene has always been queer and has always been incredibly diverse but the people we’ve had to look up to haven’t been,” says NOAHFINNCE who also runs a YouTube channel documenting his transition. The artists breaking through 15 years ago were almost exclusively straight, white and male. A big chunk of blink-182’s live set was taken up by frat boy-friendly dick jokes and a lot of the anger in songs by the likes of New Found Glory was directed at ex-girlfriends. It created a toxic environment that only really valued the experiences of heterosexual men.
But the new wave of pop-punk artists are eager to make the scene a safe space. “Ten years ago it would have been a lot more difficult for a trans person to get big in the scene just because the acceptance really wasn’t there,” NOAHFINNCE says. “It’s still not there, but I definitely think now is the time for it to happen. There’s this feeling of ‘we can do this’. I want people to see me doing whatever makes me happy and want to chase the same thing.”
Edith Johnson grew up feeling angry and alienated at the complete lack of Black, female vocalists in the scene “but instead of that knocking me down, I took it as an invitation.” Before lockdown and before the pop-punk revival was in full swing, her band Meet Me @ The Altar (who formed in 2015) were very much a local band with just a handful of small tours to their name. “Our scene wasn’t very good to us because it was dominated by white men who had a real gatekeeper mentality,” says guitarist Téa Campbell.
Now, following the viral success of posi-punk tracks like Garden, Meet Me @ The Altar are signed to Fueled By Ramen (Paramore, Twenty One Pilots) and have a national tour with All Time Low in the diary.
“Pop punk is meant to be a safe place for people of all walks to come together and lose their minds to loud, fast music,” says Alex Gaskarth. “The scene did need a few years of self-correcting and stuff being addressed publicly.”
A lot of this new generation of artists are making what Gaskarth calls pop-punk by numbers. But he knows it’s early days. “Give them a shot, let them write a bunch of songs and go on tour. Some of them will define themselves as great artists.”
JXDN is aware that older generations of pop-punkers will accuse artists like him of hopping on a trend or going viral before paying their dues. “The difference between my journey is that I’ve been put in the spotlight from the very beginning,” he says. “I learnt quickly that if I’m going to do this, I have to do it for myself and the people that are going to be affected by my music in a positive way.”
Funnily enough, it’s that attitude that Gaskarth believes is the biggest reason pop-punk is back. “There’s this new generation of artists stepping up, doing things for themselves and putting their shit out into the world.”
It might come via TikTok rather than a gruelling two months on Warped Tour, but “it’s connecting because people see the real in it,” Gaskarth argues. “We’re seeing a resurgence because it’s authentic. And people buy into that.”