A Brief History Of 21st Century Pop-Punk, From MySpace To Tumblr To TikTok
The #1 single in America is a pop-punk song. With “good 4 u,” Olivia Rodrigo has become the latest in a string of artists to venture into the resurgent genre. The track marks an important point in the style’s latest mainstream comeback: Now that the biggest pop star of the moment has released a pop-punk hit, without rebranding herself as a pop-punk artist, it’s safe to say that pop-punk is pop again. (Predictably, “good 4 u” is currently all over TikTok.)
“good 4 u” is not the first pop-punk song to hit big in the last year. 24kGoldn and iann dior’s “Mood,” which combines multiple genres including pop-punk and hip-hop, posted eight nonconsecutive weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 last winter. Another pop-punk/hip-hop crossover hit was All Time Low’s “Monsters,” featuring blackbear, which spent 18 weeks at #1 on alternative radio — the best-charting track for the Baltimore band in their 18-year career. And of course, Machine Gun Kelly’s pop-punk album Tickets to My Downfall debuted atop the Billboard 200, becoming the biggest release of the former(?) rapper’s career.
The current wave of pop-punk can be broken down into a few different groups. The first is the bands that have been producing pop-punk for years, some even since the last time pop-punk was popular, like All Time Low, whose 2007 single “Dear Maria, Count Me In” has also gone viral on TikTok. There are also many younger bands, too young to cash in on pop-punk’s last boom, who are experimenting more and incorporating pop, hip-hop, and electronic influences, largely as a reaction to the rawer, more back-to-basics approach of the previous generation of pop-punk they came out of. On top of that, bands like Meet Me @ The Altar and Pinkshift have gained traction during the pandemic, presenting more straightforward takes on pop-punk while still presenting a more inclusive vision of the genre that puts women of color out front.
It’s impossible to talk about the current generation of pop-punk without Travis Barker. The blink-182 drummer is one of the major players in this wave. He’s proven particularly adept in helping artists from other genres make pop-punk music, including Machine Gun Kelly, Trippie Redd, Willow Smith, and Maggie Lindemann. He’s also helping to bring up a newer generation of acts, including KennyHoopla, POORSTACY, and jxdn.
Pop-punk has a long history that involves spikes and dips in mainstream popularity, although it has always enjoyed a dedicated core fanbase, even in its years outside of the pop spotlight. The genre has gone through eras, swinging its sound between pop and punk. Although groups like Buzzcocks and Descendents had existed since the late 1970s, pop-punk started making its way into American pop culture in the ‘90s with bands like Green Day and blink-182. It continued to spread circa Y2K via groups such as New Found Glory and Sum 41, progenitors of a pop-punk/metalcore blend that would become known as easycore. By the early 21st century, pop-punk’s culture had become inextricably linked to the platforms people were using to talk about it, which in turn shaped the music. In the social media era, the platform of the moment defined that era of pop-punk, starting with MySpace.
In the mid-2000s pop-punk and emo dominated radio stations, charts, and MTV. Bands like My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday, and Paramore blew up, influencing music lovers for generations to come. Pop-punk wasn’t niche or underground; it was part of the pop music of its era. Not only was it mainstream, but it was also heavily pop-influenced. The sound itself had expanded to encompass more genres, including emo, electronic, hip-hop, and pop. Fall Out Boy was a prime example of this; after their 2005 breakthrough From Under The Cork Tree, their releases began fitting less neatly into a particular genre.
MySpace was booming. As an early social media platform, it provided the blueprint for modern fandom and band promotion, allowing bands to interact with fans directly as well as promote their own music and tours. It also enabled fans to build a community surrounding a type of music. It was an easy way for fans to find people who enjoyed the same music they did. That same community would find iterations on later social media platforms.
MySpace also solidified scene culture. Its customizable interface lent itself to cultivating a visual aesthetic. The stereotypical “scene kid” look, comprised of bright hair, eyeliner, and sideswept bangs, was associated with rock genres like pop-punk, emo, and post-hardcore — an aesthetic that has recently been reincarnated on TikTok.
The fall of MySpace roughly coincided with pop-punk exiting the pop realm. But pop-punk music was so big during the MySpace era that a lot of the same bands have maintained popularity across these eras and platforms, like Paramore, Fall Out Boy, and especially My Chemical Romance, who were the top band on Tumblr last year and have an active TikTok fanbase. These artists have influenced everyone from their peers to emo rappers to pop stars to up-and-coming pop-punk acts. It’s hard to overstate the impact of pop-punk’s MySpace era.
There was a generation in-between which included bands like All Time Low, Mayday Parade, You Me At Six, We Are The In Crowd, and the Maine. These bands were on the rise towards the end of MySpace’s peak but never reached the same heights their predecessors did. Their fan bases would eventually find a home on Tumblr. Appropriately, their sound was a bridge between MySpace and Tumblr waves, incorporating less pop influences than the former but more than latter. Pop-punk was drifting further away from pop, which became clearer when new bands started coming up surrounding the genre’s Tumblr subculture.
At the start of the 2010s, pop-punk had fallen out of favor with mainstream audiences and went underground. As a reaction, the emerging style of pop-punk leaned away from pop and became narrower. The resulting music was rawer, rougher, less polished, and relied on only organic instrumentation. Its sound was developed first by bands like the Wonder Years and Man Overboard, originators of the iconic “Defend Pop-Punk” symbol. They were soon followed by State Champs, Neck Deep, Real Friends, Knuckle Puck and the Story So Far, a group of bands that came to be associated with the Warped Tour.
It’s fitting that this took place on Tumblr, a site which often felt like an underground community despite its widespread user base. This scene became so overpopulated with bands that it became difficult to tell whether or not certain bands were pop-punk anymore. Some fans lumped acts like Joyce Manor or Citizen into that category, and others fought against it, claiming that their sound was too dark and not generic enough. Thus continued the never-ending debate over the borderline between pop-punk and emo.
Tumblr was also really good at coming up with aesthetics for a movement of music. The pop-punk subculture of the early to mid-2010s was a take on Tumblr’s popular soft grunge aesthetic. The Tumblr pop-punk aesthetic was less of a fashion trend than the MySpace aesthetic and more of a style of fan art and decor. It involved wall flags, string lights, and darker, muted colors. Tumblr also turned lyric edits (a type of fan art which incorporates lyrics) into a trend; pop-punk edits looked very similar, often using a particular font and pictures of nature.
The mid-2010s brought on somewhat of a mini-revival of pop-punk within the scene, with this movement reaching its height. The sound and influence of this era of pop-punk is still evident in today’s bands like Meet Me @ The Altar and Pinkshift, both who have more of a rawer, easycore-style sound.
2020 kicked off a new era of pop-punk. Neck Deep, despite being one of the stalwarts of Tumblr pop-punk — so much so that they sold t-shirts and wall flags emblazoned with “Generic Pop-Punk” — released their most experimental album to date. Stand Atlantic and Boston Manor also followed suit by adding more electronic and hip hop styles to their sound. By this point, Tumblr had truly become an underground platform and a new app had already taken over.
The Tumblr era’s narrow, organic, raw interpretation of pop-punk was a reaction to the pop-ification of pop-punk in the MySpace era. The current era has responded by opening up again and embracing other genres. Perhaps not coincidentally, pop-punk is going mainstream once more, at the same time that alternative culture is going through a resurgence on TikTok.
Popularity aside, the TikTok era has a lot in common with the MySpace era, especially when it comes to the aesthetic and culture. TikTok puts niche subcultures into the spotlight, and the pop-punk subculture is one that has taken off. When e-boys and e-girls were thriving on the app in its earlier days, it was seen as an evolution of the MySpace emo aesthetic. Once again, it’s become an easily identifiable and cohesively packaged style — ripe for others to co-opt as well. This fueled some of the controversy surrounding Tramp Stamps, who went viral on TikTok for all the wrong reasons, slagged off as “industry plants” and criticized for their connection to Dr. Luke’s Prescription Songs.
One thing that TikTok does particularly well is surface songs from across time. Many of the viral pop-punk hits on the app are from the MySpace era, like Paramore’s “All I Wanted.” It’s Gen Z kids discovering the genre, but as the “it was never a phase” trend illustrates, it’s also fans from earlier eras showing their lasting love of the genre on the app. The TikTok wave of pop-punk owes a lot to nostalgia, boosting songs and artists from different eras, which didn’t happen in previous waves. The nostalgia was heightened by the pandemic, as people in their 20s returned home to their childhood bedrooms and inevitably began reflecting on their teenage years, leading them back into the rabbithole of this type of music that relies on nostalgia culture. Not all of the notable acts in this current wave owe their popularity to TikTok though, nor do they all have a noticeable TikTok presence or fanbase, meaning that this current wave is the most decentralized it’s ever been.
Unlike Tumblr and MySpace, which were not as creator-centric, TikTok has produced its own class of influencers, and many of them are launching music careers. Most are making pop music, but a few, most notably Travis Barker’s prodigy Jaden Hossler (who released music under the name jxdn), have gravitated to pop-punk. Hossler also happens to be influenced by acts like Juice WRLD, whose pioneering form of heavily melodic post-emo hip-hop is (speaking of music scenes being associated with online platforms) widely known as SoundCloud rap. Emo rap proved integral in revitalizing pop-punk and is also big on TikTok. It provided a way to combine pop-punk and hip-hop and to recontextualize the influences of the MySpace era.
The biggest difference between this era of pop-punk and previous ones is that this one is more diverse than ever before. Stand Atlantic, Doll Skin, Trash Boat, Yours Truly, and Hot Milk all have women and/or queer members in their bands. Newer bands like Pinkshift and Meet Me @ The Altar entirely comprise people of color and are fronted by women. (All of the members of Meet Me @ The Altar are women, including queer women.) Black solo artists like KennyHoopla, POORSTACY, and DE’WAYNE are also gaining traction within the genre.
Cultural shifts in the last year have resulted in more artists of color getting recognition within alternative spaces because audiences are making a conscious effort to pay attention. When the Black Lives Matter movement gained widespread support after George Floyd was killed by police, listeners began to seeking out more Black artists and artists of color. But that’s not the only factor contributing to inclusivity within the genre. It also has to do with emo rap, which showcased more diverse artists making emo and pop-punk music. This means that the communities which have always been an integral part of pop-punk fan bases are better represented within the artists now.
This current wave of pop-punk still hasn’t reached the same heights of popularity as it did in the mid-2000s, but it’s also just starting. At this point, it’s hard to tell how big pop-punk will get this time, which artists will top the charts, where the sound will go next, and whether bands like Meet Me @ The Altar or Pinkshift will enjoy the kind of success Paramore and Fall Out Boy once did. It also remains to be seen what the return of live music will do, not to mention the return of some of these older MySpace-era acts like a potential sixth Paramore album or the long-awaited My Chemical Romance reunion tour. It is evident that more artists will dabble in the genre and that pop-punk will continue to incorporate hip-hop, electronic, pop, indie, and other genres. It’s anyone’s guess how long this boom will last. And when it’s over, pop-punk will fade back underground to discover its punk roots, until something comes along and makes it go viral again.