In Defense of the Aughts’ Pop Punk Boom

All right. I have a confession. It’s worse than liking Train or owning not one, but two (two!) Hanson records. It’s worse than refusing to throw away a Nickelback tour-date shirt an ex-girlfriend once gave me (yikes, I felt a little bit of my soul die, just typing that). It’s worse than gleefully admitting that I’ve seen the movie Leap Year multiple times and currently own it on DVD. Shoot. It’s even worse than knowing I once accompanied a group of friends to a concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that featured the following three acts in this order, from opener to headliner: Staind. Kid Rock. Limp Bizkit. 

OK. Well, maybe it’s not as bad as that last one. 

Either way, here goes: I was a Sucker (with a capital S) for the pop-punk/emo movement that began in the early ’00s and gripped the world by its studded belts for approximately three-and-a-half hours before the Internet really happened and it became the norm for uber-cool websites to set tastes and ridicule those who don’t understand why Bon Iver is so great. Seriously. It’s not something I like to share openly, of course (appearances, appearances), but just like those obnoxiously enthusiastic, spiked-hair fraternity bros who we can only assume wasted countless hours arguing who the true maestro of Fall Out Boy was over games of beer pong and weight lifting, I bought into the whole thing, hook, line and sinker. 

Now, let’s not get out of hand here — this was never my favorite music, you know. A lifelong passion for R&B, both contemporary and classic, has forever super-seeded any trend that might come and go in popular culture. Plus, the older I grow and the more pretentious I become, I find myself exploring the depths of jazz as a complete and utter novice, trying to consume all I can in an attempt to make up for the lost years I spent worrying about overlapping vocals filled with more teenage angst than a Pac Sun and countless silly haircuts best seen at Warped Tour stops. Still, make no mistake: Among the crowds of angry, tortured youth convinced they were so much smarter than they actually were because they appreciated a song title like “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom And Suicide Is Press Coverage” was me, some dude secretly organizing Punchline records alongside his Anthony Hamilton and Jill Scott collections.

I was reminded of this last week when a friend had an extra ticket to see Taking Back Sunday in Baltimore, Maryland, and asked me if I’d be interested in going. It was a weeknight, which made the question a tough sell for me, knowing I would be getting to bed far later than my typical 8 or 9PM retirement. Still, after some thought, I made an exception, despite the fact that I’ve always been more of a Brand New guy. It was a free show for us. I was in desperate need of a fun time. And, maybe most importantly, I remembered what it was like to see Taking Back Sunday years ago, back in the days when guitarists John Nolan had Shaun Cooper were on the outs (we miss you, Straylight Run!) and there was a tiny bit of inherent extra drama added to the already theatric verses singer Adam Lazzara penned. 

Little did I know that what I would see last week was somewhat astounding, if not profoundly enlightening: A sold-out crowd in 2013 for a band at the head of a movement that’s been so easily derided for nearly a decade now. In fact, there were even some of those bearded, flannel-wearing hip-cats who I would assume often take jabs at the New Found Glorys of the world, singing along to every lyric and stomping their forester boots to sounds of kick drums and stubborn shouts with both glee and anticipation. The scene itself was almost baffling in nature — standing tall with ’70s disco, ’80s hair metal and ’90s pop rock as embarrassing, now-ironically loved trends, has been the Aughts’ pop-punk boom. I mean, it’s become the kind of stuff so dismissed that all we need now is for Everclear to pen “Sirius Radio” and release shirts that say, “I hate Hawthorne Heights” in 10 years.

“Tick Tock. Hear that? It’s the sound of time ticking away. 1440 minutes in one day. You know what that means? Life is too damn short to spend it being happy listening to pop punk,” Henry Rollins once said in a cartoon that has made the rounds over the past couple years. “Men and women are out in the frontlines fighting in illegal wars for our so called freedom while these sissy boys write namby pamby songs about losing girls they never had in the first place. “Listen to real music,” he eventually says. “Listen to Slayer.” (“Henry Rollins: Why I Hate Pop Punk and You Should Too” Laughing Squid)

Oh, you see, but that’s the thing, Almighty Rollins: The rise and fall of everybody from My Chemical Romance to the Startling Line had nothing to do with overbearing masculinity or perceived coolness. Instead, all those gang vocals and wallet chains were the product of a subculture looking for ways to express outrage without having to depend on meaty arms, wristbands, sleeveless shirts and scowling demeanors from listeners just as obsessed with image and unwritten rules as anybody who’s ever even as much as sang along to a Blink 182 chorus (from their later years, of course).

Hypocrisy is an overwhelming plague in popular music, anyway, and judgments based almost exclusively on taste run far more rampant nowadays than they ever should. But the type of bad rap that the ’00s pop-punk serge continues to receive as of this writing is sort of ridiculous, don’t you think? Much like any other subset of art that happens to catch on within a large amount of people, there were reasons those bands existed, reasons those bands thrived. It wasn’t just a product of hyper-literate teenagers looking for a way to connect with other hyper-literate teenagers; it was a movement that helped define the parameters of a generation that transcended what popular culture always knew generations to be.  

For better or for worse, the type of proactive, quick-working, innovative-centric attitude that accompanied the uber-sensitive subset of those commonly attached to the generation in question helped shape what we now know as the Brave New World. Take Myspace. As synonymous with these musical acts as anything else that came with tight shirts and men wearing women’s jeans, the tool ushered in the social media, tiny-world craze to which this world will forever now be beholden.

How about the DIY aesthetic? For almost the entire history of popular music, the punk rock, do-it-yourself attitude could only take artists so far before they ended up having to be part of the Big Industrial Machine of intertwining record companies that would inevitably force change in style, approach or value. These days, the notion of all-controlling big business labels are a thing of the past as more and more independent artists break through into the mainstream without major radio push or MTV airplay. It’s a drastically more individualistic system in today’s climate. 

My point is this: For as whiny and superficial and formulaic and simple and boring as the pop-punk, angst-filled, bogged-down trend eventually became, you can’t argue the mark it left on an entire business model when you consider where the industry has gone in the wake of both its rise and fall. 

Like it or not, the subliminally repressed, over-thinking, desperate-to-impress maxim that this subculture helped cultivate led, in part, to the change of an entire generation’s approach toward both the definition and pursuit of success. It encouraged innovation and acceptance. It helped redefine the macho, just-suck-it-up mindsets so many felt so detached from for so long. This stuff gave sympathy and empowerment to those who never thought they would receive either of those things from anyone or anything.

In short, the pop-punk musical mini-burst allowed paths for growth within a subsection of popular culture that was impossibly confused about questions regarding limitation, convention, transformation, modernization and imperfection. I’m not saying they were the first to field those feelings and redefine the answers, of course. I’m merely saying that theirs is the definition by which this world currently subscribes.

“As a teenager, I didn’t spend my time in front of afternoon teen dramas or face down in books that would teach me about life,” Absolute Punk’s Adam Pfleider wrote for Alter The Press during a series of vignettes recalling what pop-punk means to its fans. “Everything I needed to learn about heartbreak, dealing with parents, dealing with ‘the system’ and overcoming — for lack of a better word — I found the answers in pop-punk, ska and straight ass-kicking punk music… As I look back on the bands and records that got me through those ‘tough times’ and ‘bright days’ of my youth and trying to ‘figure myself out’ or ‘who I was,’ I can still look back at those bands and records ten years later and find solace in them. The … bands and albums within the ‘scene’ — as it’s generalized — were there giving me the best answers when there aren’t many around to be found.” (“What Pop Punk Means to Me”)

Precisely. For as unfashionable and downright embarrassing some view the Aughts’ pop-punk popularity, there is much to be valued in the Yellowcards and Paramores of the universe. If nothing else, they at least serve as all-too-personal reminders of our past and the many differences between who we once were and what we’ve become today. Some of us can look back on those times in shame, conflict or guilt, doing all we can to divorce ourselves from tastes now deemed too second-rate to admit openly among other popular music enthusiasts. Others can utilize the warm feeling of nostalgia that comes along with remembering what it was like to be 19 years old and shouting the final refrain of Brand New’s “Soco Amaretto Lime” after drinking cheap beer for hours on end, whining about girls and plotting to start side projects to bands that weren’t even formed yet.

Or, for those who were willing to sacrifice a few hours of sleep on an unseasonably warm Baltimore Wednesday in November, you could actually take an hour or so to come as close to reliving it all as anyone with a black, zip-up hoodie could hope to find. Looking around the club, seeing other late-20-somethings scream words loud enough to at times overpower Lazzara’s squeaky croon, I had to smile. Because for all the flak that the genre continues to receive today, and for all judgments made on the people who still take solace in some of those bands, some of those records, some of those songs, some of those artists, I found myself in a place that was, to reference an album as predictable as this final line will undoubtedly be perceived, where I wanted to be. 

And naturally, I wanted to tell all my friends.