I don’t fully understand music criticism. When I read (good) criticism about a book or a film, I feel like I learn something – either about the book or film itself, or books or films in general, or about politics or culture or the world. Most of the music criticism I’ve read either validates my opinions without helping me learn anything about them, or else it makes me feel stupid. A huge amount of music criticism is underpinned by a dichotomy between what is Good and Okay to Like and what is Dumb and Bad that Only Dumb and Bad People Like. What falls into each category is supposed to be obvious to the reader, because it’s never explained. (Robert Christgau is one of the most acclaimed music critics in America, and he operates on a bizarre and complicated system combining letter grades and emojis.) Declaring something good or bad is the critic’s job, of course, but even when I disagree with a film critic, they’ll still be interesting to read if they’re any good. Roger Ebert was wrong about Midnight Cowboy, but he was wrong in a way that made me think more deeply about the film.
Quentin Tarantino said that there are two ways to love film: people who love the films they like, and people who love films. Maybe that’s part of the problem – I love films, and I love books, but I only love the music I like. I love lots of different kinds of music, but I don’t love music in the generalised, abstracted way I can love films and books. Music feels too big to care about that way, in more than the small chunks I can consume. But there are genres that are small enough to love in that way, small enough to grasp in my hands.
I love pop punk. I’ve loved it wholeheartedly since I was twelve and heard ‘Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down’ for the first time, though there were times when I pretended not to, either for the approval of peers or to pretend at being grown up. Pop punk is not the type of stuff that critics like. It’s not the type of stuff that grown-ups like. “[T]here are certain things you just grow out of,” Vice declares, “Pop-punk should be one of those things.” Even in concept, pop punk is a dangerous alchemy: if punk was meant to be so ugly and angry that it would “go beyond what capitalism and bourgeois society could swallow… be untouchable, undesirable, unmanageable,” than fusing it with pop is not just impossible, it’s perverse. It’s cleaning punk up and selling it to the Man. As a genre, pop punk is almost as much of a punching bag as nu-metal. Pop punk is the disposable, corporate nonsense of pop without the shame not to posture at rebellion.
But pop music is great. I love hooks. Everybody does, even if the hellscape of the current top 40 claims otherwise. Pop punk is the fun and joy of pop papered over the hardness and ugliness and rawness of punk, even if it’s emotions rather than politics – singing about pain and self-loathing and heartbreak over sunny-sounding upbeat guitars, just like the Smiths or the Beach Boys. “Pop-punk remains a readily dismissed, ostensibly disposable form of music—the kind of high-fructose junk that adulthood is supposed to spurn,” the AV Club writes, “But the sweet tooth lingers.”
I was twelve when I heard ‘Sugar We’re Goin’ Down,’ and pretty soon I was a fully-fledged emo kid, wearing lots of black and trying to find a studded belt to wear asymmetrically, even if that meant it no longer functioned as a belt. I loved pop punk with an intensity that’s hard to explain to an adult. Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Panic! at the Disco, Paramore, Say Anything, Taking Back Sunday, and to an extent older bands like Green Day and Blink-182 – they put words on feelings I’d never been able to name before, a hurt and a sadness that I just couldn’t shake. ‘I’m Not Okay (I Promise)’ by My Chemical Romance embodies everything people don’t like about this type of music, and so it embodies so much of what makes it great: “I’m not okay, and it’s not bowed, it’s not beaten, it’s a scream. It’s defiant. I’m not o-fucking-kay and there is no apology. […] It’s cathartic. It is an exorcism. Name your demons. I’m not okay.”
At the time of these bands’ peak popularity, mainstream discourse included a moral panic spearheaded by the Daily Mail about My Chemical Romance being a cult that encouraged self-harm and suicide – because nothing sells papers like making parents fear for their children’s lives – as well as coverage in magazines for teenagers or about rock music. Hardly anyone took pop punk seriously as art; it would have been weird if they did. If something is overwhelmingly liked by often very young teenagers, it’s not going to be given serious consideration by the adults who write for magazines, and that’s less a reflection on anything or anyone that it’s a simple matter of demographics. It’s easy to see it in the all the hand-wringing about Harry Styles breaking away from his boyband past, as if ‘Sign of the Times’ is poles apart from the kind of music One Direction were making at the end of their run. John Green once said that one of the things he likes most about writing young adult fiction is that no-one will take you seriously, and so you never have to worry about getting on the list of the top authors under 40 or whatever, and similarly, the lack of critical scrutiny allowed pop punk to become a much richer, more varied genre than outsiders often notice.
A decade later, the teenagers who took pop punk seriously are adults, but the quality of writing about pop punk hasn’t massively improved – although accusations of satanic death cults have mercifully declined. When online publications write about these bands, it’s more often than not in that most dreaded of forms, the listicle. ‘36 Pop Punk Albums You Need To Hear Before You F—-ing Die’ (their own censoring). ‘23 Songs Every Former Emo Kid Will Never Forget.’ ‘49 Phenomenally Angsty Pop-Punk Songs From The 2000s You Forgot Existed.’ These have a lot of arbitrary problems, like poorly defining time periods and genres and inconsistent tone – nobody seems to really know what the difference between pop punk and emo or emo pop is, but for some reason no one thinks that’s a good enough reason to collapse the genres into one, and no one ever mentions any music recorded after Barack Obama was elected, even stuff that’s thousands of times better than whatever crap Good Charlotte song is inevitably included. BuzzFeed’s list of pop punk albums you need to listen to doesn’t include My Chemical Romance or Panic! at the Disco, and it can’t be by reason of quality because its endorsement of Yellowcard’s Ocean Avenue reads in its entirety: “‘Ocean Avenue’ is a good song; the rest of the album is whatever.” But mostly, these articles are incredibly boring. A huge number of them are designed to traffic in nostalgia, and mostly fail even at this modest goal. No-one who doesn’t know the songs you’re going to list will read the article, and someone who does know the songs on the list won’t get anything out of it. The commentary typically ranges from quoting the chorus lyric to sneering at the silly behaviour of the reader’s youth, in a way that is probably supposed to self-deprecating fun but often comes across as quite mean, especially when the implication is that listening to this music is inextricable from that silly behaviour.
Even seemingly serious attempts to write about the pop punk of the mid-2000s often ends up being reductive. This Nylon article says some really interesting things about pop punk and emo as a space for young, closeted LGBT people to “see some version of themselves in the media [which] inspired personal exploration,” but then reverts to talking about the science of nostalgia or something. The AV Club primer on pop punk skips over the mainstream popularity of the mid-2000s but not quite wholly enough to be purposeful – it has some very nice words for Motion City Soundtrack, which is all the stranger when “songs whose bright melodies don’t mask the despair and self-loathing lurking beneath them” describes their sometime collaborator Fall Out Boy just as well.
Nobody takes pop punk seriously, and there’s something wonderful in that. It’s the world’s most effective buffer against elitism and pretension – when you’re an adult whose favourite band in the world is Fall Out Boy, nobody is going to accuse you of just trying to be cool. To quote an excellent Tumblr post, “Being an MCR fan is all fun and games until you have to tell someone in real life that your favorite band is My Chemical Romance.” It’s an embarrassing declaration of earnestness, to love a band that everybody else stopped listening to the day they turned fifteen.
According to Vice, adults who listen to pop punk are “stunted, [and] immature” because most people replace the sense of belonging that pop punk provided “with things like friendship and getting laid.” The tone is especially snotty, but the viewpoint isn’t especially unusual. Teenagers like pop punk. That’s who it’s for. Anyone who cares a little bit about it as an adult is doing it as a semi-ironic, semi-nostalgia thing.
Because pop punk is for teenagers. I don’t want to sound like GOB Bluth and the Alliance of Magicians with a sign saying We Demand To Be Taken Seriously. Pop punk should be silly, and fun, and hyper-sincere in a way that can make adults uncomfortable. But the push against people listening to pop punk into adulthood is the same push that devalues it when teenagers listen to it.
There’s a lyrical uniformity that people assume of pop punk that doesn’t really exist: I love my friends and I hate this town, I like this girl, and no one understands me. There’s some pop punk like that, but it’s certainly not ubiquitous – or not in that kind of simplistic way. But there’s some truth to it. Pop punk is the pains and joys of growing up. Pop punk is the sound of a small suburban town that you love and hate and long to escape from (it’s no coincidence that so many pop punk bands come from nowhere towns no one’s ever heard of on the outskirts of major music cities – Wilmette IL, Summit NJ, Franklin TN). Being a teenager is painful and hard. You want desperately to be older and are terrified by it, and it makes you feel like you’re going to explode out of your skin. A thirteen-year-old lives in a state of civil war.
Enter pop punk, all pop hooks, gang vocals and melancholy. “What came first? The music or the misery?” High Fidelity famously asks, and when it comes to pop punk, the assumption is that, because the listenership is so young, the misery couldn’t predate the music. That the music was teaching young teenagers to be sad. Because this music is a “phase” (which is a bizarre way to dismiss young people’s feelings – how is a state of being any less real because it isn’t permanent?), pop punk and emo is talked about almost as something that involuntarily takes over a child for a few years before they go back to normal, like something in between a full-body rash and an ill-advised reboot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
But teenagers became attached to pop punk in the first place because it speaks to a kind of dark, tumultuous heart in the teenage experience. When you’re a teenager, you feel like you have six million decisions to make – choices about who you want to be and what you want to do, how you want to present yourself, who you want to friends with. None of those decisions matter, it turns out, because nobody remembers who you were when you were thirteen and they certainly wouldn’t care if they did, but it all feels incredibly urgent when you’ve never really had to make those kinds of decisions before.
Then My Chemical Romance tell you the world is going to try and clean you up, but you’re going to tell them you want to stay ugly. That the things in you that the world says are broken are beautiful and you shouldn’t be ashamed. Not in a way that glamorises misery or cruelty – in a way that makes you brave enough to not let the world make you hard and cold, in a way that gives you the strength to stay alive. Screaming “I am not afraid to keep on living” at the top of your lungs is either the most cathartic, wonderful thing in the world, or it’s not, and if it’s not, then you can only understand it by imagining being a person for whom it is.
RP Cohen, an assistant director on The Breakfast Club, said about John Hughes’s films, “There is an agony that the white kids of suburbia carry around with them that is very much their own.” Hughes tapped into that agony in a meaningful way, and in a way that adults at the time didn’t always understand. Pop punk captures that agony, and it’s no coincidence that pop punk bands – especially Fall Out Boy, who came from the kind of Chicago suburb where so much of Hughes’s work is set – make frequent reference to eighties teen films (or to The Catcher in the Rye).
John Hughes made films for teenagers, but there are plenty of adults that like them. Pop punk has a particular and intense significance to teenagers. Pop punk takes teenagers seriously, and they return the favour. But that’s no reason to write it off; quite the opposite.
There are pop punk albums about being depressed in university and about becoming a parent and about fighting an evil corporation in post-apocalyptic California. There’s pop punk with keyboards and with violins and pop punk that sounds like the sixties. There’s pop punk featuring Robert Smith, Elton John and Liza Minnelli. There’s pop punk that’s cerebral and there’s pop punk that’s just jokes about masturbating. There’s pop punk that acts as an outlet for your worst impulses, and pop punk that makes you want to be better than them.
Because when you become an adult, you don’t lose that agony, not completely. The anxiety of your small suburban town follows you after you leave, even if it trails by ten paces. You just learn to deal with it as best you can. Your sweet tooth lingers. You don’t stop growing up, or having your heart broken. You don’t stop wanting a hand to hold. You don’t stop needing to name your demons. You don’t stop needing catharsis. You don’t stop needing the courage to not let the world make you hard and cold.
This is the first article in a series entitled In Defense of the Genre. Future instalments will be found here.