2013 In Review: Pop-Punk and the Problem with the Word "Revival"

2013 In Review: Pop-Punk and the Problem with the Word

Nothing gets a music blog rarin’ and tearin’ like digging deep into a tag. Around here we like to slice open some genres-- American Primitive, dance, and new age are all fine by us-- and do some poking and prodding. Pop ‘em open and let those babies curdle in the sun. While it’s all well and good to put genre under the microscope, it seems that a couple popular alternatives have taken hold. For one, it tickles some writers to bemoan the “death rattle” of a given label, delivering eulogies to an allegedly bygone sound and saluting it onward to greener pastures. Others take the opposite route, high-fiving over the revival of a genre that seemed to have gone into hibernation. Here’s looking at you, emo.

This year I’ve been thinking a lot about pop-punk. And for better or for worse, I’ve found myself sidling up to the latter category of genre users and abusers. My 2013 has been heavily soundtracked by a rotating roster of artists: Swearin’, All Dogs, Potty Mouth, Joanna Gruesome, and Radiator Hospital, to name a few. All of these had material out this year, which I’ve written about just a bit. These bands and their contemporaries all seemed to bubble up around the same time, each capturing key elements of what I understood to be pop-punk. The resulting tunes were charged with relentless melodicism, an unabashed love of power chords, and a drop of youthful catharsis. Furthermore, some bands have had no problem with hoisting up the good pop-punk name. On All Dogs’ Tumblr, for example, they describe themselves as “punks making pop music.” And it couldn’t be a coincidence that not one but two punk bands I went to see this year preceded their sets by playing Mandy Moore’s “Candy” on the monitors. Or could it?

This led me to one inexorable and finite truth: pop-punk was experiencing a renaissance. Why combat this opinion? The Green Day-lovin’, Jawbreaker-diggin’, Doug Martsch-obsessin’ kid inside of me was giddy to return to a world of simple chord changes and syrupy melodies. Those were simpler times, after all. And since the late-'90s, pop-punk seemed to have been in a lull, resulting in a deluge of poppy cock rock like Blink-182 and Sum 41 in the early-aughts, Who am I kidding, though? I love “What’s My Age Again?.”

In The L Magazine's piece on Potty Mouth this fall, Jeff Klingman wrote of a “new wave of bands emerging, young kids who've been deeply shaped by a formative love of late-'90s pop-punk.” Klingman wasn't the only writer who kept his ear to the ground this year; the term "pop-punk" has been a low-key buzzword among music sites and tastemakers alike. Nitsuh Abebe wrote that these burgeoning bands all sound like they hailed from a “mid-90s college-radio indie-rock bin.”  Sure, pop-punk's prominence has been more innocuous than other subjects, such as the aforementioned pressure cooker that is the emo debacle-- whether or not emo is truly experiencing a revival seems to have people going at each other's throats, releasing a torrent of pro-emo proclamations unto the blogosphere-- but pop-punk as an identifier has been increasingly relevant.

When dealing with any genre, however, "renaissance" is a dangerous word. In the case of pop-punk, I've learned that it is an unsavory byproduct of inflated nineties-talgia. But there is something to be said for pop-anything figuring so large into the D.I.Y. equation. To some, pop may be a put-off, stirring bad memories of Top 40 misadventures. Let’s not forget, however, that this is a hyphenate we’re dealing with. Pairing pop with punk may resulted in the greatest duo since pizza and beer.

It’s significant, then, to view pop-punk not as an unchanging genre, but as one whose parts are constantly in conversation with one another. In trying to assess pop-punk as a genre and figure out whether or not “renaissance” was a viable term, I contacted some label heads to hash out some things. Dan Goldwin, head of Exploding In Sound Records, is keenly aware of this relationship. With a roster that includes Ovlov, Porches., Pile, and Bad History Month, Exploding In Sound has proven to be a master of combining careening guitar work and distortion with a pop sensibility (and has, not coincidentally, had the best year ever). “Good songwriting will always carry elements of pop music in it-- that's part of what makes songs memorable,” noted Goldin in an email. “But sometimes those syrupy hooks just need to be buried under noise and chaotic distortion.”   

On the one hand, then, pop-punk’s appeal is largely aesthetic. It allows the listener to indulge in all the melodicism of a good pop song without compromising the grit and moshability of punk. Ultimately, pop-punk is not about having to reconcile two seemingly disparate genres. It’s about having the chutzpah to precede your set with Mandy Moore and then delve into a raucous punk set.

On the other hand, I would argue that burgeoning pop-punk bands are appealing not only on an aesthetic level, but a cerebral one as well. The type of pop-punk that overwhelmed the American Pie soundtrack gave the genre a bad rap nearly fifteen years ago. The lyrics that surfaced from that were often crass and dominated by boyishness (peep literally everything from Enema of the State for further proof). But this year, we have encountered a much more intelligent pop-punk, one with lyrical complexity and raw emotionalism at the forefront. This is due in large part to the women that make up a large portion of today’s scene. Whether it’s Katie Crutchfield’s unabashedly melancholic confessions or the frank wails of Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Grave from their arresting and invigorating debut in April, performers display a vulnerability and an intensity that makes for thought-provoking listening. These dual elements of pop-punk have made for a slew of refreshing releases this year, not a slog of '90s pastiche.

It's clear that 2013 saw a new guard of musicians gain more exposure than ever, often through combining melodic sensibility with smart, emotionally confident lyrics. But that's not to say that there has been a deficiency of solid acts until now. Joe Steinhardt heads Don Giovanni Records out of New Brunswick, NJ. The ten-year-old label is home to acts like Screaming Females, Waxahatchee, Tenement, Upset, Worriers, Shellshag, California X, and a host of other bands across the punk spectrum. Steinhardt was quick to point to several bands that have kept the pop-punk torch burning over the past ten years. “I think there was a bit of an underground pop-punk renaissance six or seven years ago spearheaded by bands like The Ergs!, The Copyrights, Dopamines, Steinways, etc," he told me. However, he also pointed out that “there is a more mainstream renaissance that seems to be going on now.” 

Salinas Records impresario Marco Oreste more resolutely disagrees with the renaissance theory. Like Don Giovanni, Salinas’ back catalogue is a good starting point for those digging into some meat and potatoes pop-punk, having had released albums by All Dogs, Swearin’, Radiator Hospital, The Ambulars, Delay, and more. But this is nothing new. “Over the last 15 years, I’ve seen fantastic bands like Allergic to Bullshit, Sexy, and Toys That Kill put out great records, book their own tours and play really cool DIY spaces,” he says. Oreste suggested that newer bands are likely indebted to a larger pop-punk narrative and network of musicians. Even if pop-punk is garnering more attention these days, it is still ingrained in the same DIY aesthetic that has kept the genre, even one stamped with the pop insignia, going for over a decade. 

What we can ultimately learn about pop-punk can be gleaned from examining any genre or tag. Genres don't balloon up in a flurry of bands, deflate, and then rise from the ashes. Rather, genres vacillate. They kick around and pop up in different circles at different times. In 2013, it just seemed to pop up a little harder. Dan Goldin said it best. “Bands playing good honest rock music with loud instruments and catchy melodies never went anywhere; the mainstream culture just stopped paying attention for a while.”

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