This article is part of In Defense of the Genre, a series of critical and personal essays in praise of pop punk. Previously, Ciara wrote about listening to ‘December’ by Neck Deep on repeat and thinking about ex-friends.
The history of pop punk is something this series frequently gestures towards but has never really sketched out in any detail. Partly this is because discussing pop punk’s relationship to punk itself is usually aimed at dismissing pop punk as punk’s poser kid brother, and the founding concept of this series is taking pop punk seriously when no-one else will. Partly it’s because – even if Green Day’s ‘Basket Case’ is as old as I am – pop punk still feels like a baby of a genre, so that it kind of takes me by surprise that it has history enough to be worth explaining. Partly it’s because it never occurs to you whether someone might need or want a map to your hometown. Isn’t everyone born knowing those particular twists and bends, the shortcut to the cinema and the best place to cross the street?
We are in the midst of an improbable pop punk revival. It’s incredibly exciting. But too many people who try to write about that revival don’t have that bone-deep sense of the genre’s history and themes and conventions. “Today’s pop punks go to therapy,” The Guardian writes in the latest of their triennial articles on how a new generation of pop punkers break new ground by writing songs about feeling shitty. It makes me feel insane. It betrays a depth of knowledge that doesn’t extend to the biggest bands’ biggest singles. Today’s pop punks might go to therapy, but pop punk has always been about being depressed.
So: I’ve invented seven eras of pop punk from whole cloth and made playlists for each of them. I hope they can guide you through the history of the genre, but as more of a sketch map than a satellite photograph. Each playlist is somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours long, and, hopefully, acts as a launching pad, and at the very least, a fun listen. These are my playlists, so are informed by my own blind spots, biases, and tastes. So, you know: sorry to Bowling for Soup for not including you, maybe try sucking less next time.
I don’t want to grow up
the blueprint: 0-1993
There are a couple of ways you can tell the story of how pop punk came to be: the short version is a straight line from California punk – a sound best defined as “what if punks were obsessed with the Beach Boys” and exemplified by the Ramones – to Green Day. That’s a true account, but I’ve taken a more circuitous route: through surf rock and the Ramones, sure, but also the British Invasion, new wave, and grunge, the Mick Jonesiest Clash songs and the Johnny Marriest Smiths. What pop punk band worth their salt aren’t obsessed with The Cure?
This squiggly line through music history is very clear to me, because it’s the route I took as a teenager – albeit in the opposite direction. When I was thirteen, my best friend burned me two CDs: one was Blink-182’s Dude Ranch, and the other was a compilation she put together in the interests of my musical education. That second CD didn’t resemble this playlist much at all, but they are certainly kindred spirits, making connections that, intuitive or not, are as obvious to me as breathing.
The breadth of this context, I hope, gives the lie to pop punk’s reputation as punk’s dorky little brother, a cleaned-up corporatised version of punk’s sincere rebellion. Pop punk emerged directly from California punk, but from its emergence as a distinct genre in the early nineties up to now, pop punk has fed off a much wider swathe of genres and styles than it gets credit for. A lot of inclusions here I could load with citations, point to cover versions, lyrical allusions and interview name-drops, but a lot of it is something harder to define. The feeling you get watching your favourite teen movie. A viciousness you probably can’t follow through on. A taste for melodrama and a longing to get out of this town. Most people – including pop punk fans – don’t think of Bruce Springsteen having literally any influence on pop punk, but then you listen to him sing “who am I to ask you to lick my sores” and he might as well have ghost-written for My Chemical Romance.
If pop punk is music born from the agony of suburbia, this playlist is the music those suburban kids blasted on their stereo before they decided to pick up a guitar. Generations of teens who all feel, somehow, like the first ones to exist. These long and winding paths could take you in a lot of directions, but for our purposes all roads lead to Rome: Dookie, Smash, and pop punk proper.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In a grave error, this playlist originally did not include any songs by The Cars. We apologise to all our readers for any distress caused, and have updated it to include ‘My Best Friend’s Girl’.
I’m not growing up, I’m just burning out
the big bang: 1994-1999
1994 is still the most important year in pop punk history. This playlist opens with a one-two punch as to why: ‘Burnout’, the electrifying slacker anthem that opens Green Day’s breakthrough international superhit album Dookie, and ‘Come Out and Play’, the big single from The Offspring’s Smash and one of the most danceable songs ever written about gun violence. Pop punk existed already, but 1994 marks the point where it is undeniably a distinct genre of its own – even if Billy Joe Armstrong would, for some reason, rather be considered a punk sellout than a pop punk trailblazer. That question of being punk or not remains a thorny one for a couple of… decades, because punk’s definition is so porous and so many pop punk bands emerge from some punk scene or another. Jawbreaker put it best in the opening line of ‘Boxcar’, included on this playlist: “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone!”
But if you take mid-90s pop punk on its own terms, it becomes obvious that from its infancy, pop punk was a more musically diverse and emotionally complex genre than it’s stereotyped as. Today’s pop punks go to therapy, but Dookie is a whole album about being a depressed bisexual stoner, so fuck you.
The playlist closes with the opening track from Blink-182’s Enema of the State, the best album of all time, which did as much to define pop punk at the opposite end of this era. Its negotiation between puerile humour and emotional vulnerability parallels its negotiation between slick, polished pop production and a rough-and-tumble punk sound: they exist in tandem, the former alternately disguising the latter and revealing it.
In between, we run the gamut from major hit-making stars (Green Day, Weezer) to mid-tier independents (The Get Up Kids, Alkaline Trio) to then-obscure but subsequently influential bands (Lifetime). To the joy of Mark Hoppus’s fantasy girlfriend in ‘Josie’, there’s tracks from Unwritten Law and Dance Hall Crashers. Old hands like Bad Religion or Descendants roll up their sleeves and show the young bucks how it’s done, even younger bucks like New Found Glory release their first records, and the emo sound that would come to dominate 2000s pop punk quietly establishes itself.
I was a little kid during this era, but it’s one of my favourite periods of pop punk, filling me with a nostalgia for a time I don’t remember. There’s an incredible sense of fun to nineties pop punk: not, I don’t know, Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, but the genre as a whole has a real levity and exuberance to it, even when writing songs about being mentally ill. It’s the closest that pop punk would be again to punk itself – and now that the sands of time have settled the “punk or not” question, that proximity sparks a thrill up your spine. The moment the kid decides to get out of his big brother’s shadow and strike out on his own.
I’m just a kid (my life is a nightmare)
It’s a new millennium. Pop punk is in a transitionary period in its history. This playlist is, I think, the most representative of what pop punk is as a whole, of what it can be. There’s a frisson of shiny lightweight bands having hits – the kind of teenaged pop songs that the stereotypes of pop punk are built on – that would never make a list of best pop punk bands but crafted some of the genre’s best tracks. I rarely have a desire to sit down and listen to a New Found Glory, Simple Plan or Good Charlotte album, but I am never not hyped as fuck for the triple threat of ‘Better Off Dead’, ‘I’m Just a Kid’ and ‘WaldorfWorldwide’ that opens this playlist.
The legends and soon-to-be legends of the big bang spent this era alternately phoning it in and taking bold, experimental steps forward: Blink-182 recorded Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, which is certainly a collection of songs, and the untitled album, which pushed the genre into new directions that pop punk bands would spend a decade running with. Pop punk is distilled to its essence somewhere between Yellowcard’s ‘Ocean Avenue’ and Good Charlotte’s ‘The Anthem’, and reaches its popified conclusion when Avril Lavigne shows up in dickies and a necktie.
And bubbling up, you can see what will be the next generation. My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Say Anything, Taking Back Sunday, Brand New and Motion City Soundtrack all debut. If the dominant strain of pop punk in this era was the genre at its poppiest, the developing sound was frequently pop punk at its harshest. ‘Vampires Will Never Hurt You’ by My Chemical Romance is dark, anguished and screamy, while the closing section of ‘Saturday’ by Fall Out Boy juxtaposes Pete’s hardcore screams and Patrick’s falsetto. The Used’s ‘The Taste of Ink’ is all snotty, whiny punk vocals singing about how you maybe shouldn’t kill yourself after all.
We close with ‘Still Waiting’ by Sum 41, a song that presages the development of pop punk in multiple ways. Its heavier, darker sound instantly sets it apart from All Killer No Filler, the most emblematic pop punk album of this era. And it’s an anti-George Bush song two years before American Idiot.
a stitch/scar away from making it/falling apart
fuck the Daily Mail: 2004-2008
I know I said only moments ago that 1994 is undoubtedly the most important year in pop punk history, but also, is 2004 the most important year in pop punk history? It certainly seems, in hindsight, like the most transformational. Like Amy Heckerling reinventing the teen movie with Clueless a generation after inventing it with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Green Day changed the game all over again with American Idiot, a political epic of a big stomping concept album. “Would My Chemical Romance have put out a multifaceted concept album about a cancer patient (2006’s The Black Parade) if American Idiot hadn’t established there was an appetite for that sort of complex, intelligent rock music?” Mark Sutherland wrote for Kerrang! in 2014, “Would Fall Out Boy’s wit, Panic! at the Disco’s old school showmanship or Paramore’s heartfelt passion have connected in quite the same way if American Idiot hadn’t blazed the trail for such qualities?”
But alongside American Idiot, 2004 gave us My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge – on which slicker production focuses the anguished screams of their previous work into a sound designed to save the world – and Say Anything’s …Is a Real Boy, still one of the wittiest, most self-reflexive records in the genre. It feels like a firm line has been drawn in the sand. Simple Plan released Still Not Getting Any… and just two years after their debut they feel hopelessly trapped in the wrong time.
If the pre-9/11 wave of pop punk had a frequently laddish vibe – combining juvenile humour and frequently flagrant misogyny – the emo era had a distinctly androgynous, queer sensibility. Shorts and spikey hair were out; in their place, skinny jeans, flat-ironed dyed black hair and plenty of eyeliner. This didn’t come out of nowhere: there has always been a queer undercurrent in pop punk, from Green Day writing songs about coming out and cross-dressing to Blink’s barely concealed homoeroticism. But in this era, that undercurrent came to the forefront, in lyrics, aesthetics and performance. As Mark Hoppus assumes his rightful place as the genre’s designated dad, his legion of bisexual children take over the world.
This is, of course, very much my time, a full-fledged emo kid in a sideways studded belt: I fell in love, over and over and over. With people, with books, and more than anything, with bands. Make what you will of closing the playlist with New Found Glory’s ‘All Downhill From Here’.
melt your headaches, call it home
welcome to the new administration: 2008-2012
The subtitle of this playlist might sound like a reference to the 2008 US presidential election, but actually, it’s a reference to Fall Out Boy referencing the 2008 presidential election. After spending the Clinton and Bush years as a major force in the mainstream charts, the arc of Obama’s first term is pop punk’s retreat. A transitionary period, but largely a transition into obscurity. A smattering of residual hits for bands with existing fanbases, but for the most part, the world had turned and left pop punk – left rock music, let’s be honest – behind. My arc, too, was a drift away from pop punk, attempting to reinvent myself as someone less embarrassing. And then closing the era with a mental health crisis that made me remember what I got out of pop punk in the first place.
There is a sense in so many records of this time of it being the last hurrah. This is not least because of how many were a band’s last outing before a hiatus, break-up or major line-up change: Panic! at the Disco’s baroque pop cosplay Pretty. Odd., Paramore fully coming into their own with Brand New Eyes, My Chemical Romance’s post-apocalyptic power pop album Danger Days, Fall Out Boy’s Folie a Deux, which practically announces itself as a bittersweet goodbye. These albums are all fantastic, some of the very best to come out of the scene. But in the case of Fall Out Boy and Panic!, they weren’t properly appreciated on release by a fanbase that wanted more of the same. We did get more of the same with Green Day’s American Idiot follow-up 21st Century Breakdown, but as it turns out, we didn’t really want that either. A new generation of pop punkers nevertheless sprouted, destined to never have the star power of a My Chem or a Paramore. Notably, they’re primarily millennials: there had been millennials in pop punk before, but the new bands of this era feel different. Modern Baseball casually referencing Motion City Soundtrack in one breath and anxiety-scrolling Twitter in the next just cuts closer, somehow. And nothing cuts closer than The Wonder Years, who released the first two parts of their suburban trilogy in this period. The Wonder Years have an ultra-personally-specific lyrical style that feels like a natural evolution from the work of Say Anything – filtered through the resolutely not pop punk Mountain Goats – that approaches a near-universal transcendence through that specificity. A part of me thinks if The Wonder Years had been born a couple of years earlier they could have broken out hugely, but another part of me wouldn’t give up having them as the soundtrack to being a depressed small town twenty-something for anything.
too pop for the punk kids/too punk for the pop kids
silent film stars: 2013-2018
Pop punk is over. It’s done. Kaput. And yet.
If 2008-2012 was the slow fade, this era is a persistent operation just under the radar. “Silent film stars stuck in talking cinema light,” Fall Out Boy put it on Save Rock and Roll, the album that ended their hiatus. The landscape of pop punk in this period ranges from deeply traditional turns – the FOB or Blink-esque romantic-angst sugar rush of Seaway’s ‘Sabrina the Teenage Bitch’, say, or the classically Bush-era emo of ‘Dial Tones’ by AS IT IS – to radical experimentation that upends ideas of what pop punk even is, as stalwarts Say Anything release an album without guitars and a self-described hip hop album. If getting out of California once seemed like the genre expanding its horizons, this era has major acts from Wales (Neck Deep) and Australia (Stand Atlantic). The Wonder Years finished their suburbia trilogy and went on to new pastures. Blink-182, having briefly reunited, split up so Tom DeLonge could look for aliens, but decided to continue with Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio in his place – roughly the pop punk equivalent to if The Beatles reunited, John quit, and they decided to replace him with Ray Davies and keep going. Paramore return sans Farros, and what they lose in chart success they end up gaining in respect: establishing themselves not only as true legends of the genre, but quietly becoming the most influential band of their generation. And Panic! at the Disco return sans Ryan Ross and suck dog dick.
That bit of distance provided by pop punk’s apparent death sharpened perspectives. It allowed, I think, for pop punk to be embraced in a way it never had been. That’s not – or not just – the shape my relationship to the genre took, but a real thing borne out in the actual world. From Green Day to Simple Plan, pop punk had always been a label to resist, to shrug off, to feel smothered by. But with pop punk’s disappearance, it became a mantle worth claiming. The genre finally climbed out from under the question of being really punk when its history became… history. Fall Out Boy and Say Anything actively described themselves as pop punk even as their sound had never been further from what we think pop punk is supposed to sound like. Newer bands – pop punkers raised on the genre, whose very existence in this era was an embarrassing declaration of earnestness – went further. Man Overboard adopted the motto “Defend Pop Punk”, which, in keeping with the genre, is both a joke and totally sincere.1 There are great bands of this era who didn’t survive to see the revival, from the careers that buzzed with potential but were over before they began (Chumped) to the dearly departed already great (Modern Baseball). But there are also great bands and artists of this era who would make it to the promised land, for whom maybe, just maybe, a rising tide would lift all boats.
pop punk is dead, long live pop punk
after warped tour: 2019-present
Pop punk is back, baby! And, improbably, its leading lights are a Disney kid, Will Smith’s daughter, and a white rapper who got body-slammed so thoroughly by a middle-aged Eminem that he left hip hop forever. It’s slightly disorientating for guys like me, whose pop punkers were Chicago hardcore kids and Jersey garage punks and high schoolers signed to Fuelled By Ramen. Some ingrained bias about “authenticity” had me wringing my hands about including Avril Lavigne as part of pop punk history, a worry which, looking at zoomer pop punk, makes me feel like an alien.
I’m not sure why pop punk is having a revival – some combo of nostalgia cycles and Tik Tok algorithms, I guess – but what’s fascinating to me is that these pop punkers, raised on Paramore and Fall Out Boy, have not learned to feel ashamed. I said that the 2013-2018 era was defined in part by an embrace of pop punk, as a label and as a genre, but there was a defensiveness to it – defend pop punk was literally a motto. But gen z pop punks aren’t defending pop punk, they’re just doing it. They’re highly literate in genre conventions without being tied to them. Olivia Rodrigo’s first hit was a song about being a sad teenager driving around the suburbs, which is like five different pop punk tropes in one, but that context really became clear with ‘good 4 u’. Paramore are such a huge influence on her, wonderfully, but it’s the tiny details that thrill me: the swapped structure of a lyric like “your apathy is like a wound in salt” is a more Pete Wentz lyric than Pete Wentz has written in quite a while.
Pop punk is nostalgia now – but not just nostalgia for people like me, happily revisiting the soundtrack to their teens. It’s “I wish I could have been there” nostalgia, the way 1990s guys wanted to be mods. Machine Gun Kelly is legitimately offended by the idea that he’s not really emo. There’s a case to be made that it’s pop punk pastiche more than the thing itself – or there would be, if it wasn’t for all the great pop punk emerging from places that feel more familiar to an old fart like me. Travis Barker is, somehow, sort of a super producer now. Say Anything released their last and possibly best album, a queer horror sequel to 2004’s …Is a Real Boy. Mark Hoppus pulled himself out of one of his depressive cycles by forming a delightful “trash pop” duo with All Time Low’s Alex Gaskarth, and All Time Low finally fulfilled close to two decades of frustrated promise with Wake Up, Sunshine, a legitimately great album. Avril Lavigne is on a redemption tour to make it up to me after recording ‘Girlfriend’ a decade or two ago. And I love the new kids. Love some of them in ways I haven’t loved a pop punk band in quite a while. After decades of being male-dominated, loads of – maybe even most – pop punk is now made by women, another sign of Paramore’s influence. Manchester duo Hot Milk combine emo and power pop in fresh ways, drawing from the sources instead of mimicking those who’ve mixed those genres before. Alex Lahey crafts pop hooks with the best of ‘em. Stand Atlantic may legitimately be my favourite current band. And the incomparable Olivia Rodrigo, who, despite being property of the Walt Disney Corporation, released the best album of 2021: SOUR is the lodestar of the pop punk revival, forging a new path the way that Dookie or Enema of the State or The Black Parade did a hundred years ago. And this time around, the reins are in the hands of the person they were always going to end up in: a teenage girl, singing hooky songs about how her ex can go fuck themselves (but also I’m really sad inside).
outro: bouquet of clumsy words, a simple melody
Pop punk’s current resurgence has a shelf life. Whether it’ll be a substantial force in this decade’s popular music or a short-lived fad, blinking out of mainstream existence as quickly as it appeared, remains to be seen. I am not under the impression we can make it 1997 again through science or magic. But I am certain pop punk will endure, in whatever form. Part of pop punk’s revival is that it is particularly suited to expressing certain emotions: big melodramatic ones kicking out at the world, heartbreak and self-loathing and growing up and frustrated, barely-directed longing. Everything buried under your skin not just coming to the surface, but coming out swinging. Unabashed sincerity combined with dick jokes and hating the Bush administration. (Or, I guess, whoever is president now.)
Here’s something I’ve said many times, but usually with some jokey, ironic distance: ‘Going Away to College’ by Blink-182 is my favourite song of all time. It’s a beautiful, beautiful track, lovesick and aching, saturated with that particular pathos Mark Hoppus nailed before it became a standard part of the genre. The lack of self-worth expressed in, say, The Offspring’s ‘Self Esteem’, but combined with enough hope to make it painful. I might be worthless, but maybe you could love me anyway – I hope you do.
It’s literally about those feelings in the context of being separated from your high school girlfriend when you leave for college – “Ditch my lecture to watch the girls play soccer / Is my picture still hanging in her locker?” – but it’s not like those feelings disappear when you get older. Its embeddedness in that specificity lends it universality. “I haven’t been this scared in a long time,” Hoppus sings on the chorus, and it cuts as fresh as the first time I heard it, every time. The bald vulnerability of it. But it’s not a song about heartbreak – or, not precisely. It’s a love song. It’s a valentine. It is, sincerely, the most romantic song in the world: all the more so because it takes that time to be honest and vulnerable. Bouquet of clumsy words, a simple melody. The honesty is where the art comes in.
“Don’t depend on me to ever follow through on / Anything, but I’d go through hell for you,” Hoppus sings, and my heart bursts right out of my chest.
‘Going Away to College’ embodies, I think, so much of what I love about pop punk. Of what pop punk is capable of being. I’ve done that ironic distancing about it for years: make a joke that as a full-grown adult a Blink album track called ‘Going Away to College’ genuinely moves me. I hope that the pop punk revival marks the end of all that, allows pop punk to be treated as legitimately as any other genre, no more worthy of cringe. For its fullness to be appreciated, across its disparate styles and tones and eras.
Please don’t fuck it up by saying a new generation are reinventing pop punk by being depressed.
1. Even if, like the world’s foremost pop punk scholar Max Bemis, I was ultimately left “waiting for those defend pop punk kids to give me the next blink or, like, yellowcard? ataris even?”