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.
This year I entered a truly unprecedented third emo phase. My first was the usual one, in my early teens, sad and lonely and ready to burst out of my skin. My second was in college, an instinctive reaction to a mental health crisis that had me climbing out windows so I wouldn’t have to see my roommates. It’s odd, then, that my third came this year, when – despite living in the apocalypse – things have mostly been fine for me. The overwhelming panic that would have me hiding in bathrooms, the worry worry fluttering in my stomach that made it so hard to speak, has, if not subsided, then become something I can cope with.
But I listened to more pop punk than I have in years. I listened to all of All Time Low, a band with a consistently mixed discography who finally fulfilled their promise with 2020’s Wake Up, Sunshine. I had my triennial Blink-182 hyperfixation, so deep that I happily watched livestreams of Mark Hoppus doing the Sunday crossword. I got into Modern Baseball, Stand Atlantic and Something Corporate. I listened to this one Good Charlotte song five million times.
It wasn’t the lightning strike epiphany moment I had back in 2012: after pop punk got me through my first year at college, I don’t think I could ever turn my back on it the way I did in the back half of secondary school. It felt like “it’s not a phase, mom” had finally reached the fullness of truth. It felt like it was pointless still delineating waves in the face of the tide.
I found The Summer Set the same way everyone found their favorite band in 2007: on MySpace. Coincidentally, it was also MySpace that would lead to the formation of The Summer Set.
Formed in Scottsdale, Arizona, The Summer Set was born from remnants of Last Call for Camden. After releasing one album, Last Call for Camden disbanded and drummer Jess Bowen, bassist Stephen Gomez, and guitarist John Gomez put an ad on MySpace for a lead singer. Enter Brian Dales. Together with guitarist Josh Montgomery, they formed the lineup of The Summer Set from 2007 to when they took a hiatus in 2017.
Most of the time when talking about the heavy hitters of pop punk, The Summer Set aren’t included in the conversation. They have spent their entire career trying to bridge the gap between the two worlds. Sure they were staples on Warped Tour for a few years, but they were also crowned the winner of Macy’s iHeartRadio Rising Star Award. It was a combination that didn’t make much sense. One day, they’d be sharing a stage with Sleeping With Sirens or All Time Low and the next, they’d be opening for The Backstreet Boys.
They were both pop punk, but they summed it up best in “Figure Me Out” with the opening lines: “I’m a bit too pop for the punk kids / but I’m too punk for the pop kids / I don’t know just where I fit in / ‘cause when I open my mouth / I know nobody’s listening / to the words of a prophet / who still can’t turn a profit.”
It’s frustrating to be in that position of not fully existing in either world. Part of this conflicting pop punk personality comes from their plethora of musical inspirations. They would list off New Found Glory, Blink 182, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, The Last Five Years Broadway musical, Sarah Bareilles, Bright Eyes, Green Day, A Goofy Movie soundtrack, Something Corporate, Taylor Swift…and somehow all of that came together into their ultimate style of ‘80s-twinged arena anthems with pop punk energy. As someone who grew up loving ‘80s power ballads and pop punk, The Summer Set felt they were made especially for me.
“To get a little academic for a second, the primary emergency of gay history in its first decades was to uncover and to restore histories of gay movements and of gay heroes. And while the culture of academic research has certainly moved on from that, the public conversation really hasn’t.”
Say Anything are a strange band in the history of pop punk, not least because, well, are they a band? Max Bemis, lead singer and sole constant member, wrote all their lyrics and most of their music, and his work is, if not autobiographical exactly, then certainly confessional, in a way that reminds me alternately of Sylvia Plath and Eminem. He mentions people in his life by name in his songs a lot, particularly his wife and children in his later career, and usually without bothering to explain who they are for the unfamiliar listener. But other members of Say Anything have co-written music on most of their records, and many of them just credit Say Anything, rather than breaking down who did what. On the sliding scale between a solo project with a band name and a regular band with a primary songwriter, I tend to file Max Bemis and Say Anything in the same folder as Robert Smith and The Cure, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails or John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats: bands that consist of one person and whoever they’re making music with at the time, too collaborative to be solo projects, but too mercurial to feel like a regular band.
Their sophomore album …Is a Real Boy is widely acclaimed as one of the best pop punk albums of all time and particularly regarded as one of the crown jewels of Bush-era emo, but they’ve pretty much never had a major hit. Not even …Is a Real Boy, which didn’t chart in a year when Blink-182, Green Day, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, New Found Glory, Taking Back Sunday and even The Offspring (on their seventh album!) made the Billboard Year-End 200. Good Charlotte had two albums on it, and Green Day moved from #86 in 2004 to #2 in 2005 as the worldwide success of American Idiot turned it into one of the best-selling albums ever. My Chemical Romance released their sophomore album, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, in 2004 too, and also missed the year-end chart, but in 2005, they joined Green Day in the top 200 with Fall Out Boy, Simple Plan, Good Charlotte, Bowling for Soup and Jimmy Eat World. Say Anything had no such luck.
…Is a Real Boy had by far the biggest single of Say Anything’s career, “Alive with the Glory of Love”, a staple of alternative rock radio then and of alternative rock playlists now, but not a song that caused much of a ripple in the zeitgeist: it peaked at #28 on the alternative chart. Every subsequent Say Anything album has charted, but every subsequent Say Anything album except In Defense of the Genre, their sprawling double album full of collaborations with other pop punk and emo artists, also sold fewer copies than …Is a Real Boy. Almost twenty years later, …Is a Real Boy is still the album they’re primarily or even exclusively known for. They’ve had two other singles chart – “Baby Girl, I’m a Blur” and “Hate Everyone” – but “Alive with the Glory of Love” is still the closest they’ve come to a hit song. It’s not an uncommon story, really, but it just feels kind of ridiculous that a band this influential and iconic within the genre, who’ve collaborated with Gerard Way, Hayley Williams, Tom DeLonge, Matt Skiba and dozens of other beloved pop punk, emo and indie artists, have never really been that popular. It’s not like they’re critical darlings either: the reception for most of their albums after …Is a Real Boy skews positive, but it’s usually mixed and frequently polarised. I guess they’re kind of a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but even Marmite sells, for God’s sake.
…Is a Real Boy is a masterpiece, possibly the best pop punk album ever, and certainly my favourite, but it’s also been a bit of an albatross around Bemis’s neck. A lot of the band’s later experimentation is a fairly transparent effort to escape the shadow of …Is a Real Boy by refusing to even have a core sound. The second verse of “Judas Decapitation”, from their 2014 album Hebrews, is a screed aimed directly at the archetypal bad Say Anything fan who venerates …Is a Real Boy and hates the work the band has done since Bemis became happier, healthier and met his wife, Sherri DuPree of Eisley: “I hate that dude! / now that he’s married / he’s got a baby on the way / Poor Sherri!” Bemis is open about suffering from bipolar disorder and famously experienced a severe manic episode from the stress of making …Is a Real Boy, so there’s always been a dark undercurrent to the idea he needs to “go back” to making albums like it, as if he can’t make good music unless he’s untreated. You can hear the venom in his voice as he spits out the last lines of that verse: “be nineteen with a joint in hand / never change the band / never ever be a dot dot dot real man”, with the “dot dot dot” in the wrong place, just to piss them off even more. It was a bit of a surprise, then, when Bemis announced a sequel.
Oliver Appropriate, released in 2019, is the band’s presumptive final album, released a few months after a lengthy statement in which Bemis came out as queer, revealed he was retiring from touring for health reasons and announced the end of Say Anything as a recording project (though the third paragraph promises they’ll “return one day to play festivals and scoff at our career”.) Like many concept albums, the concept “lore” is almost entirely secondary to the experience – I’ve never read the liner notes of any concept album ever – but unlike, say, The Black Parade or the concept albums of Cursive (one of Bemis’s more transparent non-pop punk influences), it has a fairly clear narrative, even clearer than pop punk’s definitive concept album, American Idiot. Oliver is a washed-up, single, middle-aged, ex-punk rocker punching the clock at a marketing job and spending all his free time and money on drink and drugs, drifting from bar to bar, club to club, party to party, falling into bed at the end of the night with whatever woman will have him.
Then he sees Karl at a bar, and it’s like a bolt of lightning right into the darkest part of his heart, the secret place he’s been hiding his attraction to men from himself and everyone else. It’s a beautiful album about the misery of alienation, the agony of the closet and the thrill of first love. It’s also a very dark horror story: the album ends with Oliver drowning himself in the San Francisco Bay with Karl’s body.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re just getting started. And so we’re relaunching the series with a look at some of our favourite pop punk albums, running the gamut from the genre’s biggest stars to obscure indie kids, spanning from the genre’s Big Bang in 1994 through to just before The Sundae came into being. We’ve renamed the series In Defense of the Genre, in tribute to the greatest pop punk scholar of our time, Max Bemis. We only hope to contribute as much to the cause.
Panic! at the Disco were one of my favourite bands during the mid-2000s emo heyday, and for the first time since then, they’re having mainstream pop success. They’ve always maintained a large and dedicated following, but suddenly I was hearing Brendon Urie’s voice on the radio again. In 2018, ‘High Hopes’ became their highest ever charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, beating out their 2006 breakout single ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’. This year, Urie appeared on ‘ME!’, the lead single for Taylor Swift’s latest album, which is the kind of thing I couldn’t have imagined ever happening right up the moment it did.
And I hate it. I hate it I hate it I hate it.
‘High Hopes’ is a monstrosity. It’s horrible. It hurts my ears. It’s not that it’s a straight pop song, it’s that it sounds like it was written to appear in ads. It’s not that it was written by other songwriters and given to Urie, it’s that it is so obviously not written for Urie in particular: I found out the song’s hook was conceived as being for a rap song, and everything snapped into focus. The lyrics about starting from the bottom but having the drive to succeed – “Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing / Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision” – are pretty generic for hip hop, but bizarre from Urie, who recorded a triple-platinum album a month after he graduated high school. The whole thing is somehow both cloying and bland.
Urie’s appearance on ‘ME!’ is even more bizarre, if slightly less difficult to listen to, spelling/marching band breakdown aside. I don’t know why Swift wanted Urie to appear on this song – she’s the biggest pop star in the world, she doesn’t need anybody to appear on her songs – but for Urie, it represents a pivotal moment in his journey towards selling out. When I say that, I don’t mean “going pop”, because Panic! were always, in some basic way, a pop band. And I don’t think getting more pop is an inherently questionable artistic choice. But, as Todd in the Shadows points out, Urie is essentially turning into Adam Levine. Like Maroon 5, Panic! has shed members until it has become a strangely named solo project; like Maroon 5, Panic! has finally shed any shred of a distinguishable sound to mould itself into ads and Spotify playlists; like Maroon 5, Panic! fucking sucks now.
But it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, Panic! at the Disco didn’t consist of Brendon Urie and a revolving door. It was a band, with songs written primarily by Ryan Ross. They recorded two albums – 2005’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out and 2008’s Pretty. Odd. – before splitting, with Ross and bassist Jon Walker (briefly) forming The Young Veins. No matter how much the act currently recording as Panic! at the Disco suck, those two albums are still special to me. And I would hate to think of some sad teenager never finding them because, I mean, they know who Panic! at the Disco are, and they suck.
When I was thirteen and fourteen, I’d go to the next town over, my mother’s hometown, to hang out with friends I’d made primarily through a common interest in the kind of contemporary alternative rock music played on music video channels like Kerrang and Scuzz: broadly punk, metal and indie rock, and specifically, in our case, nu metal, industrial rock, hardcore and, of course, pop punk. I’d get the bus in the morning, meet my friends, loiter in public spaces for however many hours, argue about whether Rammstein were selling out or something, and then go to my grandmother’s house until my mother came in to pick me up. Sometimes, I’d ditch my friends early to hang out with her longer.
My grandmother always took a genuine interest in whatever mattered to me, whether it was the pages upon pages of superheroes I’d draw in sketch books as a child or the loud, angry music that was my overwhelming passion for most of my adolescence. She shared my love of music, if not of genre: her home was filled top to bottom with shelf after shelf of cassettes and CDs, mostly country, though she wasn’t altogether averse to rock music. We talked about music a lot, and though there were occasions where we could meet in the middle – I still have a DVD she gave me of thirty years of Meat Loaf music videos – mainly each of us talked to the other about what we liked and why we liked it.
When I think of her now, my strongest memory is the late summer day I came in clutching a CD I’d just bought, Good Charlotte’s The Chronicles of Life and Death, only four years too late to help it chart in Ireland. Though I’d told my grandmother lots about the music I liked, she’d never actually heard any of it, and she insisted I put it on for her. I wasn’t altogether thrilled with the idea, but I did as I was told and played the title track. The song isn’t subtle. It opens and closes with a beeping heart monitor, it goes from cradle to grave in two verses, and the chorus climaxes with Joel Madden shouting “you come in this world / and you go out just the same”. I really liked the song and I really wanted my grandmother to like it too. When it was done playing, she turned to me and said “you’re here one day and you’re gone the next, sure isn’t that the truth”. She liked it.
I never saw my grandmother again. She died suddenly a few weeks later on September 18th, 2008.
Fall Out Boy are (for me, and precisely no-one else) a band uniquely burdened by history. There isn’t a band I’ve written about more – in MySpace bulletins and Tumblr text posts and diaries that I inevitably abandoned and destroyed – and there isn’t a band I find harder to write about. I can’t be objective: I mean, I don’t really believe in looking at music “objectively”, because art is about subjectivity, but to the extent that objectivity is a possible and desirable thing in criticism, here I have none. Every time I listen to a Fall Out Boy song, it’s the hundreds of times I’ve listened to it before – on the CD player in my childhood bedroom, on MP3 players and iPods and phones, on my laptop in the apartment where I lived in my first year of college – compounded.
Nothing sounds like being thirteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like being eighteen like Fall Out Boy. Nothing sounds like right now like Fall Out Boy.
That second car is very important to the story of cars in American popular culture because they were the cars of older teenagers, or at least ones they could borrow. Most US states then, and now, issue driver’s licenses from the age of sixteen, and the car presented teenagers with a rare opportunity for independence and autonomy. Even if it was just for a few hours, they could decide where to go and what to do, and could take their friends, or their date, with them. They were free from the supervision and surveillance of their parents, able to put more space between them and their family in less time than on foot. They could explore their little piece of the world, stray off the beaten path and find secret places all their own.
Teenagers were obsessed with cars, and pop culture reflected it. Archie and the Gang in his rickety old jalopy, Wally buying his first car on Leave It to Beaver, the Beach Boys cruising up and down the coast. Tom Wolfe describes the saturation of car culture in his seminal essay “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…”: “Thousands of kids are getting hold of cars and either hopping them up for speed or customizing them to some extent, usually a little of both. Before they get married they pour all their money into this…Even the kids who aren’t full-time car nuts themselves will be influenced by which car is considered ‘boss.’”
The picture is very different nowadays. The rate of teen licensing in the US has plummeted over the past few decades and become ever more stratified along class lines. The AAA Foundation found in 2012 that while, overall, seventy percent of 18-to-20-year-olds had a license, less than fifty percent of those with a household income under $20,000 had one, compared to almost ninety percent of those with $100,000 or more.
But the decline in licensing and car ownership among teens hasn’t eliminated the car from teen pop culture, just changed it. Cars are one of the most common and prominent lyrical motifs in pop punk, that most teen of genres, even though pop punk rose precisely as the decline began. I’m fascinated by pop punk’s use of car imagery for a whole host of reasons, particularly how it is deeply embedded in the history of popular music and yet also develops an approach to cars that is very much its own. Not different exactly, but unique in how it joins two warring tendencies in the portrayal of cars in popular music: cars as a source of freedom and cars as a source of tragedy.
In Defense of the Genre is about celebrating a much-maligned genre, which frequently takes the shape of in-depth personal reflections on songs, albums or bands. But we also want to zoom out a bit every so often, and take a more sweeping look at this music that means so much to us. So here are some of our favourite works in pop punk, ranging from concept-driven rock operas to gag songs about masturbating. This isn’t a list of the best pop punk albums ever, or a primer on getting into pop punk, or even a list of our definitive favourites. But it is a list of albums that we love and wholeheartedly recommend.