Pop-Punk’s ‘Alternative’ Problem: An Overview of a Stagnant Genre

So Avril Lavigne recently came out with her new album Love Sux, and…it’s fine. So much has been made of it in the lead-up as her ‘return to pop-punk’, the style that broke her out in the first place and, despite having largely abandoned it in her later work, is still inextricably tied to her as a musical presence. As such, there’s a degree of sense about how Love Sux goes about its business, being somewhat presented as an update to the brash, bratty 17-year-old who released Let Go, now with the modern concessions that have come to dominate how pop-punk is currently viewed. Of course Travis Barker is involved, both as her current label head and one of her producers, thus feeding Avril through the usual motions that have characterised almost every single one of his pet projects over the last couple of years, and have affected pop-punk for the worse. It’d be wrong to suggest that Love Sux plumbs the same depths as some of the jetsam before it—it’s almost overwhelmingly mid at times, which is probably a compliment given much of the company it’s keeping—but it’s also the latest in a long line of pop-punk pivots that feel devoid of greater purpose other than the pivot. Avril’s return to her musical roots has been celebrated, but dig below even the thinnest layer of topsoil, and the serendipity of choosing now to do so, when artists moonlighting within the sound are its biggest money-spinners, doesn’t feel like a coincidence in the slightest. If anything, it’s just more finery on a question that’s been hanging around for what’s going on two years now—in this current pop-punk ‘renaissance’, what’s the endgame? Or, to put it more specifically, when the genre’s current most high-profile acts will systematically erode any sort of individuality, or even identifiability, between themselves, what exactly is this the alternative to anymore?

To try and answer that (emphasis on ‘try’, given how there’s been no easy way to parse out the lineage of this movement), it’s worth starting with Barker himself, the de facto figurehead and enabler that’s given so many of these artists the impetus to go ahead. It’s what makes it no real surprise that a lot of rappers have made the move to pop-punk; Barker has regularly been recruited to lend some rock credentials to the likes of Yelawolf or XXXTENTACION, but the most noteworthy shift came in his relationship with Machine Gun Kelly. He’s another figure standing at the wave’s year zero, a former rapper of less-than-reputable standing who has historically made his appreciation for rock music known. The real jump came on I Think I’m OKAY, a collaboration with Barker and Yungblud in 2019 that got those floodgates creaking open, a deviation into pop-punk that was at odds with literally everything else on the album it came from, and the ideal jumping-off point for a rebrand after Eminem ousted MGK’s career as a rapper with Killshot. Thus came Tickets To My Downfall, by far MGK’s most successful venture to date, and the coagulation of a long-standing creative partnership between him and Barker that’s stood as the centrepiece for the current pop-punk movement, namely ripping off blink-182 in such shameless fashion, and being endorsed in doing so. Because as much as MGK might be the easiest target alive, Tickets To My Downfall could still be interpreted as a semi-natural career move given where his interests have laid in the past; most of what’s followed, meanwhile, has felt like an overextension to keep the leeched successes of other artists ticking over for as long as possible.

Remove any rock context or dressing from MGK’s career, and the potted story is a rapper crossing over to pop-punk, and on the basis of sheer numbers, being embraced for it with open arms. Who wouldn’t want that, especially if you’re a rapper who’s struggling to break through in that medium, or, say, a TikTok star with a prebuilt audience and an awareness of how ephemeral such ‘fame’ is, and the willingness to jump onto the quickest trend to prolong it? Therefore, the image of pop-punk has become that of the easy crossover genre, where alternative clout is being doled out by the fistful, and you don’t even need to be that creative or remotely alienating to claim it. That’s probably why the trap cadences and production elements will still sneak through, as a thinly-veiled attempt to court a notion of ‘creative expansion’ from both sides, or why artists like Sueco will undertake full-blown rebrands that’ll feel so premeditated and superficial, and still get rewarded for it with their biggest lot of mainstream exposure to date. There’s really no doubt that a lot of these artists will have grown up with this music—as recent as they still may seem, there’s been a whole generation that’s arisen since the likes of blink-182 or All Time Low were at their peak—but they’re showing that with the laziest workarounds. There’s little building upon what those bands brought, just cheap replication that’s already trickled down into copy-of-a-copy banality. It’s honestly no wonder that Travis Barker has ingratiated himself within the new wave’s inner circle then, presumably as a respected mentor figure that can shape the direction of the scene to his liking, namely by implanting the same creative beats on almost everyone he works with, and making the scene so much more boring as a result. And when that serves as a fast-track to success, that isn’t a good thing in the slightest. It’s akin to what went on with emo-rap and SoundCloud rap before it, a glut of artists trying to ride the coattails of Lil Peep or his more mainstream counterparts, and bottlenecking the scene to where it’s borderline impossible for anything new to break through. At least then there was a voice behind it though, even with its rampant commercialisation; pop-punk artists simply feel comfortable with getting by and going through the motions to repeat past glories, so why change?

Somewhat off to the side of that, there’s the influence that pop-punk is also currently having on pop, which taken as a whole, doesn’t feel like a coincidence. Olivia Rodrigo’s good 4 u is still one of the biggest songs around; WILLOW had her biggest hit in years with t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l; Tate McRae is currently embarking on her own sizable push for she’s all i wanna be; the resonance of pop-punk isn’t just making up isolated examples. And that’s to be expected, given how music always has been cyclical, and with the 2000s dead set in the view of the nostalgia cycle right now, acts picking up and rewiring those sounds for a modern context is natural. The difference on the pop end, though, is twofold; a) pop and pop-punk are much closer in catchment than an for an influx of rappers and influencers just handily deciding at once to make the jump, and b) these pop hits pay much more appreciation than just surface-level lip service. There’s always going to be an element of the same opportunism there—with Tate McRae especially, she’s practically built her career on that—but when so much of it comes with a throughline to Paramore in particular, a band who’ve hugely transcended pop-punk as a medium to do so much more, that creativity is a lot more grabbable. Olivia Rodrigo has far more competent and detailled songwriting than the latest 30-year-old’s commodification of teen angst, and while WILLOW can get dangerously close to stooping to that level, the resurgence of her track Meet Me At Our Spot with The Anxiety shows an alternative bent originating way before this wave caught fire. Add onto that someone like Pinkpantheress, whose influence from Hayley Williams has been well documented but has it as just one component for a greater hyperpop context, and it shows that there is a way to pull from that well effectively, even now. It’s why it’s such a shame that it allows other artists to be signal-boosted by proxy, the ones who’ll pick up on the mainstream presence and nothing else, and carve out the cheapest, easiest approximation for a slice of the pie. And thus, it’s a lose-lose situation—the chancers wind up getting away with it under the thin veil of pop disposability ready to be cycled out, and the genuine creatives are tarred with the same brush.

And then comes the fallout, where the acts trying to break through via more traditional means have an even steeper climb than usual. There’s already enough of an echo chamber created within the genre to prop that notion up now, as the more established names that’ll get the clicks and views rise to the top by birthright, leaving everyone else in the lurch to pick at whatever scraps they can get. A band like Meet Me @ The Altar is probably an exception—considering the current climate, they’ve been doing remarkably well and, given what they’ve been putting out, deservedly so—but it’s not hard to think they’d be even bigger on the same trajectory just a couple of years ago. But then there’s the countless others who’ll organically plug away and see comparatively little payoff, when a kid with millions of TikTok followers already can knock out a song buoyed entirely on their connections, and steamroll that effort in no time flat. Ultimately, none of this feels alternative to anything; it’s just another take on the stereotypical pop machine, churning out pre-built ‘stars’ for the sole purpose of catering to the masses. Some may rest of the pretense of a rockstar persona to feign legitimacy—we all remember the herniated cringe of MGK wriggling across the table at the label meeting in that heinous video—but this is not ‘punk’, not even close. You don’t become a Henry Rollins or an Ian McKaye when your primary creative impetus is based on TikTok followers and million-dollar Hype Houses. As extreme an extrapolation as that may be, it still generally tracks; this is all being sold as the exciting new direction of punk, when in reality it couldn’t be further in ethos, execution or ideas, and has nothing to otherwise back itself up besides an industry-mandated label grafted onto it.

Then, of course, there’s the biggest issue of all that’s been danced around until now—most of the music itself just outright sucks. At best, you’ll get the odd riff and chunky production touch that was originally fine on whatever blink song it was jacked from. At worst, there’s someone like jxdn, an entirely talentless ‘artist’ whose album Tell Me About Tomorrow was the worst of last year, for being seemingly unaware that punk needs to have some kind of passion or drive behind it. It’s frankly bewildering how many artists don’t seem to understand that, such is the influx of dead-eyed regurgitators who make what could be genuine thoughts and examinations of themselves feel like workmanlike script. Of all the artists who’ve wound up taking this career path, not one has managed to sound convincing or gripping in the ideas they’re selling, such is the consequence of so blatantly trading the same ideas and themes with miniscule variations between each other, to where any rote phrasing of the ‘next genre step’ already feels contradictory. Especially from the older ones (because this pop-punk movement seems to be exclusively populated either by children or people in their mid-30s), it feels deliberately targeted to kids who mightn’t know better, and that just doesn’t sit right at all. MGK is already coming dangerously close to self-parody on emo girl, which shows he has no clue of how to sustain his longevity outside of playing to hackneyed stereotypes he should’ve outgrown at least a decade ago, especially when he’s always seemed bereft of the self-awareness to know how embarrassing all of this really is. Even Avril, who could’ve once been seen as something of an outfield collaborator when she appeared on MOD SUN’s album last year, has now sunken to a position within the meat grinder of the scene that leaves her in the same unbreakable eddy as everyone else. That’s clearly something they’re all fine with though; if ever anyone’s in need of a collaborator, the same names will be called, tightening the echo chamber even further, and indulging in rampantly narrow cross-pollination that only further betrays how limited and lacking in ideas the whole scene is. It smacks of laziness and shallowness through and through; where any number of interesting, leftfield options could be called in, the fact that hangers-on like blackbear and iann dior are typically always on call—two artists who are on the brink of making their full-blown tip into pop-punk but don’t have the creative fortitude for even that—makes this feel even more like a facade engineered specifically for crossover appeal.

So, to circle back to the initial question, where is all this going? The short answer is, probably nowhere, honestly. If any of these artists are considering branching out, they themselves have created a state where that’s near impossible, when they’ve strip-mined and limited the genre so thoroughly that there’s really no avenues open for them to take. Say what you want about how monopolised The Story So Far’s style was in the 2010s, there was at least intent that left more options open, whether that was parlaying into punk, emo, hardcore or even something poppier. Even going back to the 2000s, the only real motion was to go further towards pop or lighter climes, but at least there was a few flavours to choose from; even Boys Like Girls made a pivot to country that wasn’t very good, but it was something! This current wave is so locked in place from the jump that any artistic growth is nigh on impossible. That is, of course, to suggest that ‘artistic growth’ is on the docket to start with, which for some of the more blatant offenders, most likely isn’t the case. There’s no need to when the allure of airtime and brand recognition is too great to ignore, both from stans looking to keep their artists afloat, and from outlets who can’t resist the promise of clicks and will masquerade that as excitement. It feels enabling and profit-driven as all hell, but at the end of the day, it’s still the fault of artists at the centre of it. There’s a promise of ‘celebrity’ propagated by MGK and Travis Barker that’s being touted as the goal above any artistic statement. After all, “you’re not dating Megan Fox or Kourtney Kardashian, or seeing your streams rack up at a ridiculous rate, so why not play the game? What have you got to lose?” Well, dignity and integrity for a start, which evidently isn’t much a blow for some, but from the outside looking in, from a perspective that’s seen trends come and go with exactly this voracity, it couldn’t seem more fake. It’s just another means of buying in to the hype-beast culture that’s shaping the mainstream around itself, easier to embrace than to ignore, and already feeling so off-puttingly tired. With all honesty, it’s hard to think of a movement within alternative music as deeply, profoundly loathable as this one, and while any long-term damage remains to be seen, right now, it basically feels irredeemable.

Words by Luke Nuttall

5 thoughts

  1. I can see where you’re coming from. Certain elements of the revival seem cynical but I don’t think the whole scene is worth writing off. You seem unwilling to entertain the idea that ‘good’ artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Pinkpantheress, might have some longevity as that would work against your argument that the scene itself is worthless and destined to be short lived. These musicians might continue to make decent music, or even retain a solid fan base in pop punk after MGK has been forgotten. This is, after all, how musical movements tend to function – lot’s of artists get churned out and the ones who innovate get more longevity (you remember Blink-182. Simple Plan? Not so much). Assuming that happens this time, wouldn’t that mean that something worthwhile came from this “profoundly loathable” scene? Your point about these artists coming up through platforms like Tik-Tok, rather than ‘natural’ means shows complete ignorance of how the pop-cultural landscape has changed. There will be far more artists who need to rely on social media, as its the primary way young people engage with music. Emma Blackery is an internet persona who put out quite a decent album last year, as did Left at London. Are they ‘authentic’ enough? This feeds into your other point about the people who enjoy this music are kids who “don’t know better” which is quite patronising, assuming that because they like Willow, they won’t like MCR. Your parents probably thought the same thing of the music you liked to listen to as a kid. Lastly, a point about Avril – she came about in the early 2000’s, and wrote some classic pop-punk anthems. However, the fact that the scene collapsed before she was in her mid-20’s means she didn’t get same legacy status as other acts. Oddly, despite pop-Avril not being exactly great, the same people who criticised her for trying to be serious, are the same ones who are now calling her new album ‘immature’. If anyone deserves a place in the pop punk revival its her, surely?

  2. Ludicrously heavy focus on the ‘pop’ part of pop-punk here. I grew up on the likes of Sum 41 and there are plenty of excellent bands around now that follow the same template, if you put some effort in – you just have to widen your scope to include Bandcamp, recommendations on forums/Reddit and so on. If you think the best of the genre is whatever Spotify tells you it is, well that explains the rise of this worthless imbecile Machine Gun Kelly I suppose, and the fact that anyone cares even faintly about the return of Avril Lavigne. ‘Best’ does not equal ‘Most popular, which is one of many reasons Spotify is for mugs.

  3. i completely agree with you! pop-punk seems to be being “pop-ified”, which would be fine IF it wasn’t being soullessly commodified by desperate tiktokers and rich white kids. many of us who are ACTUALLY in the alternative scene (classic punks, goths, metalheads, even some emo kids) loathe the likes of mgk and yungblud – but we’re called ‘posers’ if we dare criticise any of them. it’s mainly clueless children and cash-grabbing mainstream publications (nme and loudwire in particular) who are giving these artists popularity. it makes me feel sorry for REAL talent in the new scene like willow and kennyhoopla lol

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