Punk is dead!”, cry the forlorn dad-rockers lamenting the loss of their Buzzcocks and Dead Kennedys only to be displaced by Fall Out Boy and Twenty-One Pilots. There’s no shortage of punk-rock-loving individuals nostalgically fetishising the bygone age of battered leather jackets, colourful Mohawk sand metal spikes as long as your fingers while the current fan base for the new age of ‘pop-punk’ dance around to ‘Thnks fr th Mmrs’ as though it were Taylor Swift’s latest single. Inevitably, there will be those that question whether punk is truly dead if these bands are the representatives of punk music in 2017.
Pop-punk is a heavily commercialised, well-produced, major label-driven version of the punk rock sound of the 70s/80s. The songs typically consist of ultra-compressed vocals, guitars as thick and gutsy as good custard and some of the most anthemic, festival-headliner-ready choruses ever written. For me personally, pop punk has never appealed. This is for a couple of reasons that I can aptly justify: 1) I don’t like heavily compressed rock music. It feels soulless and flat. Rock music that has more dynamic range and a grittier quality to the production is far more appealing to my ears. 2) It has always bothered me that people insist on calling the music “punk”. Pop-punk, in itself, is oxymoronic. Punk is the subculture/genre of oppressed, alienated minorities. Individuals who don’t fit in, who have something to say (either personally or politically) and who want to deliberately challenge the norms that they reject. To me, pop-punk is a sterile “up yours” to everything that the punk movement has ever represented.
pop-punk is a sterile “up yours”
Before I get crucified by the masses of pop-punk fans out there for slamming their favourite bands, I would like to clarify that my perspective is NOT simply that the music is inherently bad. I don’t like it, for sure, and I can give my reasons, but I cannot argue that pop-punks are not good musicians, songwriters or performers because that would be a cruel lie. There are even a handful of pop-punk albums I genuinely do admire, Green Day’s Dookie and Jeff Rosenstock’s Worry being examples of this. I also respect the devotion of pop-punk fans to their favourite artists. My argument, in fact, is aimed at those who look at these examples of modern ‘pop-punk’ bands and make the sweeping statement that punk as a movement or as an ethos is gone. Likewise, that too would be a cruel lie. To say that punk is ‘dead’ and cite Blink-182’s California as your only real justification is plain stupid. Pop-punk is supposed to appeal simply because it is more ‘pop’ than it is ‘punk’, and ‘pop’ isn’t even inherently a bad thing. However, the mere presence of loud guitars and shouty vocals is not what constitutes music that represents punk. In 2017, we have to look outside the limited sphere of rock music as our source of angry, politically-charged and identity-affirming music.
It must scare, it must annoy and it must be abrasive
Punk is not a rational force. It is not about logical structure, rather artistic anarchy. It is about disturbing the confines of mainstream media. Punk, regardless of genre, must be immediately obnoxious. It must scare, it must annoy and it must be abrasive. Death Grips are one of the most relevant, genuinely punk acts to be active in 2017 and yet, this is a group built on the principles of hip-hop. They use samples, rapped vocals, synthesisers, drum machines – everything indicative of a hip-hop act. However, when you listen to ‘Hot Head’ from 2016’s Bottomless Pit you’re not exactly listening to Drake. It’s an abrasive whirlwind of anger. Grinding synthesisers, screamed and shouted vocals, pummelling drums; to say it’s an easy first listen would be a brave statement. It’s freaking crazy, and fundamentally, ‘punk’. Their performances are punishingly loud, sweaty and dangerous experiences. Having had the privilege of seeing the band live, it was the most intense show I have ever witnessed. Never before have security guards look so terrified, with one poor staff member exclaiming, “why can’t people just be nice to each other?!”. To answer his rhetorical question with another: when has punk ever been about being nice?
To emulate the old-hat ideas of 70s punk rock in 2017 would yield a product wholly pastiche. While I would disagree with anyone who says modern rock music can’t be boundary pushing: that is not the only form punk music can take. It is a liberating idea to me that punk is less of a form or genre than an ethos, a subculture and a mind-set. Look outside the confines of traditional punk-rock. Look to Crystal Castles’ experimental take on dance music, Sleaford Mods’ unique spoken-word-post-punk blend, indulge in G.L.O.S.S. with their extreme, gender- political, hardcore rock sound. Punk, as an ideology, is not threatened by commercialised pop-punk. Punk is, in fact, alive and kicking.