Pop-Punk: Dead Or Not? (Depends On Your Definition)

Mar 21st, 2008 // 16 Comments

896715_356x237.jpgIn the current climate of ruthless blog scrutiny, good records can easily disappear with little or no press and supposedly major albums are forgotten within weeks of release. With that in mind, we bring you Second Spin, where we’ll take a look at records that have either slipped between the hype cracks or re-evaluate albums after the press cycle has left them for dead. (The occasional just-released rave may sneak in there, too.) This time a compilation provides a look at the current crop of “pop-punk” bands escaping the attention of both the radio and the blogosphere.

Recently, I wrote a piece attempting to link various poppy, punkish bands like Be Your Own Pet and Times New Viking into some kind of subaltern united front for 2008. After finishing, I realized I had unconsciously slighted a large swathe of underground-ish pop-punk that’s already all but been written off by my music hack peers, that I snubbed an entire scene to focus on a few semi-pop faves with a decent press push. I should have known better. Somewhere, 16-year-old Jess was drumming his fingers on a study hall desk in irritation that his grown self had seemingly forgotten these catchy, sweetly sardonic, seven-inch-friendly songs about girls, boys, and the dumb things they routinely do to one another, songs that made high school tolerable for many bespectacled kids left cursing the fates come prom time.

You know, the kind of bands that base their entire aesthetic on a three-album collision involving Rocket To Russia, Singles Going Steady, and The Incredible Shrinking Dickies. The kind that will never get the blogs tripping or win the kind of “Best New Whatever” write-ups that send digital sales spiking because they don’t tart up their ancient two-chords and unchangeable walking basslines with snatches of folk, pasted-on electronics, or goofy Animal Collective voices. The sort that used to write cutesy diatribes about Green Day’s success fucking up the scene. The kind that could have earned a begrudging, smudgy Maximumrockandroll interview where “Gilman St.” would be used as an adjective.

“Do they even still make that stuff?” I hear some of you asking, and if it wasn’t my teenage bread and butter, I doubt I’d know either. But as my 30th birthday has come and gone and my critical peers continue to cosign the worst hippie crud (whether neo- or retro-) when they’re not venerating Bono in the name of indie stadium bombast, I’ve found my tolerance for soft rock and prog pomp tested beyond all reason, and I’ve regressed back to high school punk rock rules in the face of mellow gold madness (both the rock and dance varieties) and various Canadian scourges.

Yet despite my lingering affection for punk at its most doctrinaire, anyone sporting liberty spikes who took a look at my 2007 “Most Played” playlist would probably cry foul. Despite some of the best “punk” bands going using iPods for a rhythm section or piling distorted noise-boy keyboards on top of one another or swiping from Max Martin’s fakebook, the genre’s hardliners officially remains as intractable as the auto industry when it comes to hybridizing. For those who lost some of their faith when they discovered life beyond the early Lookout! catalog, finding good punk these days still means digging into the genre’s weirdo fringe and its digitally-compressed crossover kiddies. After all, it’s not as if we’ve been hurting for catchy punk records, whether made in lofts or Disney-owned studios, records that you have to prefix with either art- or mall-. In some ways, it’s a golden age. (In other ways, it’s an unmanageable glut, but I’m trying to stay positive.)

And yet, and yet: one of my highlights last year was rediscovering those classicist VFW hall dudes, whether old or new, still spit-shining that same basement show shtick. (For instance, perhaps you knew that Ben Weasel put out a pretty good album last year; I didn’t until the calendar had almost flipped. Again, my adolescent self was a little miffed–this stuff sounds much better in top-down June than hoodies-up December.) Early in 2007 a compilation was released, titled (with gentle sarcasm) Pop Punk’s Not Dead, a 30-track recent scene overview that acted as my investigatory jump-off.

(Even by Second Spin’s after-the-fact-analysis standards this one’s been on the racks for a while, but it’s my column and I’ll do what I want.)

Only some of the names were familiar. (Who knew the Queers could continue to afford Converse and cheese dogs peddling the same surfin’ safari kitsch after so many decades?) Whether I knew the bands or not, a lot of it rumbled pleasantly enough–nothing sent me plugging my ears or regretting my trip down memory lane–but with little personalized pizzazz to differentiate yet another trio of head-bopping boys awkwardly kitted-out in another generation’s leather jackets and a moniker riffing on the Ramones.

On the one hand, this is precisely why this side of the sub-genre gets glossed by those not in the cult, year after year. Like all willfully formalist pop, theses bands live or die when it comes to winning new fans on the memorability of a cuddly fuzzed guitar tone, la-la quasi-hook, and/or snotty personality elevating one tune above another from the same rack. Further exploration proved that some of these bands really do stand out from their peers, though it’s almost always by degrees: Guff have cringeworthy design sense but enjoyably crank up the tempo to springloaded Lifetime-esque hardcore; the Five O’s peddle prickly power-pop riffage over melodic bass rumble, plus harmonies that suggest they’re not totally opposed to a future on the radio if they invest a little beer money in cleaning up the murky production and godawful snare sound that’s plagued these bands since before I could drive; ditto Teenage Bottlerocket, who possess the broadest range on the evidence, from straight CBGB’s-circa-’76 jacking to second-stage Warped Tour sing-alongs; the Unknown just have a knack for writing the kind of compressed, fist-pumping chorus that actually makes a minute-long tune stick in the brain; and the prolific, witty Ergs are probably the best next-gen pop-punk act currently touring, certainly the first to (rightly) suggest that getting sauced and listening to The Royal Scam would make for a good date night.

But for many of the bands captured on Pop Punk’s Not Dead differentiating themselves feels almost besides the point. (Which makes me feel less guilty over my initial snub.) As with plenty of insular communities built around a throwback sound, the generic-ness promises fans 30 instant hits of a known quantity, while unintentionally alienating those not immediately won over enough to bother judging one group against another when they all sound so frustratingly similar. (Did the Spazzys and the Unlovables stand out ‘cuz of tunecraft or because hearing a female voice was such a balm after all those adenoidal-unto-irritating dudes? For the record, the latter definitely passed on their own bouncy merits.) There’s also something faintly uncomfortable for a lot of pop critics about music that plants two sneakers in a given era and refuses to “evolve,” even subtly; blogtime demands (for the worse) a rate of novelty turnover that this stuff stopped satisfying decades ago.

But to hell with novelty: I’m glad to have reconnected, and I don’t think that stems from simple nostalgia, even if I can’t really argue for this stuff with a straight face if you don’t come to it with a bit of preexisting pubescent affection for the interchangeable second string of the genre’s hopeless romantics, their sloppy songwriting and déjà vu riffs. (Pete Shelley and Blake Schwarzenbach don’t have to worry about any of these kids knocking them out of the genre’s first rank; Hayley Williams and Gerard Way don’t either, for that matter.) But though it might not be “alive” enough to satisfy the needs of trendwatchers or Jonas Brothers fans, the zombie genre has provided me enough minute-and-change thrills over the last 18 months to suggest that anyone who harbors fond memories of the pre-Blink/emo era, anyone who ever owned a Mr. T Experience T-shirt but since lost the plot (I know you’re out there), would do well to start poking MySpace until a few 21st-century pop-punk gems shake loose.

  1. SneakingThroughTheAlleyWithLalley

    What is, “I hope so.” I’ll take more obvious answers to unimportant questions for 600 Alex.

  2. heyzeus

    The Exploding Hearts were a pretty damned good band and example of pop punk not being dead. Until, well, they died.

  3. futurehorse

    @heyzeus: Yeah, basically everything from Dirtnap/Green Noise is about as poppy and as punky as it comes, and it’s all great.

    The Ergs are ridiculously good. And I definitely think the Estranged are about to blow up, very Mission of Burma-esque, and VERY Northwest. In terms of pop-punk though, they’re no Samiam, but really, who is?

  4. Charles A. Hohman

    What a fantastic essay about an underexposed movement. Superb points throughout. I’m definitely gonna check out some of these bands after I leave the office today. The Ergs sound particularly promising.

  5. SuperUnison

    I think this article came at the right time for me. I was listening to Brand New and Saves the Day all afternoon on Monday and, even though some of it sounds like cheeze, I still fucking love that stuff. Say what you will about it, but it still comes from a way more real place than fucking “Oxford Comma.”

    @Charles A. Hohman: I second being psyched about The Ergs.

  6. themeparkexperience

    I still think highly of pop-punk, even though I don’t listen to it everyday. There was a time about ten years ago when I listened to it all the time. And it wasn’t just Screeching Weasel, Rancid, NOFX and Bad Religion. I’m talking Welt, Automatic 7, Blount and the Parasites.

    For me, hearing the songs on this comp reminds me of what I still like about this stuff: genuinely melodic music with harmonies to boot. These bands aren’t trying to be cute or funny. Better yet, there’s very little or no irony. It’s fun and sincere.

    However, from what I’ve encountered, people who’ve never really liked punk beyond the pioneering bands roll their eyes at this stuff. Maybe it’s the fast beats. Maybe it’s the thought that this is only for “kids.” Well, in my mind, good tunes are good tunes at any speed . . . and can be enjoyed at any age.

  7. Lapinot

    Do Plastiscines and Les Shades count as pop-punk? Have a listen and decide.

  8. Captain Wrong

    @SneakingThroughTheAlleyWithLalley: *snicker*

    I’d have an easier time with pop-punk if a large portion of the local bands here weren’t still feeding themselves at it’s rancid trough. (That is, those who haven’t gone into ska-core or Alice In Chains-esque alterna-rock.)

  9. Lucas Jensen

    Might I be a little self-serving and throw Lemuria into all this? Great band.

  10. manyjars

    The Marked Men are (to my ears) the very definition of “a three-album collision involving Rocket To Russia, Singles Going Steady, and The Incredible Shrinking Dickies.” Two albums on Dirtnap, one on Swami, all three are fantastic.

  11. SneakingThroughTheAlleyWithLalley

    @Captain Wrong: Hey, let them keep trying to be Layne Staley. I dont mind listening. Maybe somethin quasi-decent will emerge.

  12. Anonymous

    @noliebro: the pop in pop punk actually more refers to the traditional sense of “pop” music, as opposed to “popular” culture. of course, these terms evolve, but i think jess is referring to the days when pop-punk meant poppy punk music, like the queers, etc.

  13. noliebro

    I think that for it truly to be POP-punk it has to be fairly mainstream in pop culture, such as NOFX and Bad Religion, Rancid were…the bands currently I can think of that are loosly attatched to pop/punk are names like Sum 41 and Paramore which are a huge change from bands like Rancid

  14. noliebro

    @arsetothat: Understood, I was just trying to show that pop-punk has seemed to turn from the meaning of “poppy” sounding punk music to what is now “popular” punk music..not a lot of bands around like the queers anymore, at least not with the following of the queers

  15. MrStarhead

    You missed the craziest thing about that Ben Weasel solo album: it was produced and financed by one of the All-American Rejects (who put it out on his own boutique label).

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