For those of us in our 20s there is a fair amount of nostalgia for the late nighties and the early 2000s. This was the height of American corporate imperialism: where our lives were ruled by Nickelodeon marathons, TRL countdowns and different installments of the Scary Movie franchise. The southern part of Africa may be thousands of miles from America but the cultural earthquake that was 9/11 seemed to feel like it had happened down the road; this was the age that fermented the explosion of commercial hip-hop, where electronic music was weird and distinctly European, and for the kids a little left of centre, pop-punk ruled the world.
As Maria Sherman opined in a article on the Village Voice that, while the early 90s had grunge, the late 90s and early 2000s backlashed against the bubblegum pop of Britney, NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys with the spiked-hair hellraisers of Green Day, Blink-182 and Yellowcard. The ubiquity of shirtless Southern California-raised bands on the radio charts at this time can still be felt when you see the forceful emotion with which people will sing ‘First Date’ for the fifth time in one night on a Tin Roof dancefloor.
Tin Roof, aptly, is where pop-punk came to die. Kids now are more likely to rebel with EDM than want to jump on their skateboards and strum their way out of teen angst. This is partly because of the fallacy that lay at the heart of pop-punk, and it is made obvious by its name: it was a contradiction in terms – it claimed the heritage of the anti-establishment credentials of punk but yet was undeniably mainstream, middle-class and unashamedly white and male. It was about as rebellious as an un-tucked school shirt. Despite that, for many kids who lived in comfortable and relatively stable homes it was an opiate to get them out of the boredom of the mundane suburban existence. It spoke to that shared angst of parents not understanding you, girls not loving you and how much you really wanted to write “fuck school” all over the bathroom wall.
Fast forward 10 years, the genre as we knew it has become decidedly uncool. It’s sham outsider culture exposed for what it was worth, it has become subsumed under more the palatable genres of modern garage-rock and indie rock. However there has been a movement of young bands that hark back to the accessibility of this pop-punk hay-day and speak of the same sort of angst, anxiety and indecision that those bands pedaled but not only from an exclusively male, middle-class, white and American perspective.
Here are five of the most noteworthy bands:
South Africa has a sketchy history with pop-punk. It is basically the reason why MK was able to start and exist for as long as it did (CrashCarBurn anyone?). Too many bands basically co-opted the Blink sound (and look) to horribly caricatured results. Pretoria band Make-Overs work in a much more ragged and downright interesting space. Closer in heart to garage/psych pop they are all crushed guitars; half-sung, half-shouted vocals and minimal drums. They have released seven albums and are testament to a hard working local band not willing to pander to their influences.
There is something particularly organic, unvarnished and completely refreshing about the London band, Playlounge. Operating in a fuzzier territory than pure pop-punk, they economically consist of drummer/vocalist Sam and guitarist Laurie. The set-up immediately screams Japandroids and the band are self-proclaimed fans of the Canadians. Just like their idols, they deliver short bursts of scuzzy guitar pop excellence – frayed and tattered on the edges. Their lyrics touch on longing, isolation and the hate, providing the catalyst for their own catharsis. It would be interesting to see if the band follows the epic and astral heights that Japandroids scaled but right now they are just fine thrashing their way through another minute and half of bile.
3. Aye Nako
If anyone sought to break the identity conventions of pop-punk then it is Aye Nako. The Brooklyn ‘queercore’ band is multiracial and represents a varied group of letters on the LGBTIQ spectrum. The difficulties and struggles in their songs is intrinsically linked to their distinct outsider status. Their willingness to break gender and sexuality norms is not the reason they make it on to the list but it is rather just how compelling their music is. Their grimy sound is the most closely related to the sound of early noughties pop-punk of the bands here but there is something distinctly propulsive and confident in the songs off of their 2013 debut Unleash Yourself such as ‘Molasses’ or the excellent and snarling ‘Cut It Off’. Original and outspoken, they represent the vitality of the genre and how it can affect people who need it the most.
2. Joanna Gruesome
The fantastically named Welsh band describe their music as “dissonant wimp music” and in many ways it highlights their links to noisy slackers like Dinosaur Jr, Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. However that laid back façade does not hide the obvious talent and seriousness that lies at the heart of their feedback-laden music. Fronted by the excellent vocals of Alanna McArdle, she represents the voice of an angry and disaffected young woman – a voice largely ignored in pop-punk. Formed as a tension reducing exercise in anger management classes it is clear to see the controlled manner that they direct that aggression and anxiety to their songs.
These skills are best showcased in their outstanding cover of the Galaxie 500 song, ‘Tugboat’. McArdle opens up dryly, “I don’t wanna stay at your party / I don’t wanna talk with your friends / I don’t wanna vote for your president” as the song is plunged into various levels of distortion and plays on Pixies-like quiet-loud dynamics. The tension seems to be released at the three-minute mark only to be re-injected for another round of bruising noise pop. The band arrive so fully formed and seemingly accomplished they showcase the talent in being able to take things right to the edge only to draw them right back.
If under all the guitar effects, thrash and malaise there is one talent these bands truly have, it is the ability to pump out killer hooks and write catchy pop songs at will. This was exactly the talent that sent Wavves and Japandroids to indie stardom and the latest arrival to that hallowed group are the Philadelphia thrashers, Swearin’. Fronted by guitarist/vocalist Allison Crutchfield, a frequent contributer to her twin sister Katie’s Waxahatchee project, the band has released two equally stellar albums. Songs like ‘Just’ ‘Kenosha’ or ‘Dust In The Gold Sack’ are the type of euphoric guitar-pop gems that made you appreciate music in the first place.
Pop-punk’s biggest challenge was in proving that it was music not exclusively reserved for fourteen year olds and Swearin’ succeeded in showing that those same feelings of angst and apprehension that plague teenagers only calcify and become intractable in your twenties, as Allison says on ‘Movie Star’, “no one likes you when you are as old as you”. Swearin’ prove that as long as we are insecure about ourselves there will always be a space for bands willing to wear those same feelings on their sleeves.