The Black Parade is Dead!: 2022 is the year pop punk returns
by MERCY FERRARS
“Every night I try my best to dream/
Tomorrow makes it better/
Then I wake up to the cold reality/
And not a thing is changed”
Paramore — Last Hope
The year is 2022. Avril Lavigne and Papa Roach are about to release new records, Paramore are back in their studio working on new music and somebody created a MySpace rip-off. Former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker is on a pop punk quest through the musical landscape on collabs with new and old artists like WILLOW, The Used, YUNGBLUD and others. A community of #elderemos and #sceniorcitizens comes together on a discord server I help moderating, titled We Are The Culture. I am listening to a recently created Spotify playlist I made: “Things don’t have to suck” definitely borrows its name from TDH2S by Magnolia Park, a new and rising pop punk band which got me through a tough December. I’m buying cheap black eyeshadow and nail polish at my local drugstore and feel like the world just doesn’t get me. All the while, my TikTok’s For You page is filled with thirty-somethings in now much despised skinny jeans reminiscing over the good old days of listening to MCR and Secondhand Serenade on a ripped CD, tirelessly rotating on a battery powered Walkman. An unimaginably packed emo nostalgia festival appears on the horizon and crowns it all: When We Were Young Fest hit social media like a bomb in the third week of January; trending within the first 24 hours of the announcement on all social apps. Headlined by MCR and Paramore, the festival sets up an emo nostalgia dream of unprecedented magnitude: Bring me the Horizon, The Used, Taking Back Sunday, Dashboard Confessional, Dance Gavin Dance, The All American Rejects, A Day to Remember, Avril Lavigne, Neck Deep, Mayday Parade, Hawthorne Heights and others are on the line-up.
When We Were Young confirms that teenage angst is officially back in our thirty-something millennial lives. A pop punk reawakening is upon us. Let’s look into it and talk pandemic angst, Gen Z and pop punk’s issue with racism.
The Big Millennial Turn: hitting 30 in a pandemic triggers teenage angst
For a long time I’ve wondered what caused a genre and subculture that significantly shaped the 2010s but has since dropped into obscurity to return to our lives as millennials approach and/or navigate their thirties. Shaped by teenage angst and big feels, pop punk made sense when we were teenagers ourselves, caught in the roller coaster ride of rebellion, estrangement, life-defining experiences and untamed emotions. But now our generation turns thirty and with that come an additional fifteen years of real-life experience, degrees, full time jobs and monthly bills. We are now the ones we used to rebel against, fully immersed in that same old 9 to 5 deadening routine we swore we’d never let our lives devolve to. How does the sudden return to our angsty roots on the verge of entering our dirty thirties make any sense?
On the one hand, we’ve been through two years of a global pandemic. That was a historical first for us as millennials. There’s something about the pandemic years that set off a change, a turning point in our lives. In 2020, a decade of toxic friendships and relationships ended for me, and it ruptured my life in ways previously unimagined. It was like a cleanse, and I started into 2021 with a feeling of having both lost and won. I knew the days of rebuilding my life would come, but the stagnating, slow days of being locked down for months, both because of Covid restrictions and the new chapter the pandemic years presented to my mental health, made it feel like life had come to a stop. I was still nursing the leftover sadness of one sided friendships while also dealing with increasing chronic pain and severe anxiety towards the future. What carried me through that time was a sudden, intimate immersion in Paramore’s music.
It might sound ridiculous, or it might make perfect sense to you reading this, but Hayley Williams’ voice in my ears carried me from moment to moment, and the ecstatic, nostalgic and deeply emotional sound of bands like Paramore allowed me to escape to a different place, where I could forget my real-life sorrows whenever I needed to. Sounds familiar? My 16 year old self would agree.
Like a chain reaction, pop punk came back to me. Slowly at first. Around December 2021, it hit me with full force, which was also when I noticed lots and lots of other people returning to this same part of their lives. I suppose in the end we are still rebelling against the expectations of growing up, even at thirty years old. I for my part constantly feel like I have no foundations to build on as time presses forward. I am no longer tossed back and forth between unprecedented feelings of love and hate as I was at 16, but my anxiety and depression run much deeper now. Most days, I feel clueless. How do you pilot life as a millennial? I truly have no answer. To say it in Hayley’s words, “I don’t even know myself at all / I thought I would be happy by now”.
Millennials, face it: The stuff we grew up on is now “old people music”
I somehow thought that what had been happening to me and my Spotify stats was just my individual experience, but then I ended up on Pop Punk TikTok. New and rising pop punk bands kept showing up in my feed. Along with them came a community, a whole world of millennials whose teenage angst had returned to them over the course of the past two years. Events like When We Were Young Fest and the sudden drops of new albums from established pop punk artists confirmed to me that the return to teenage angst was also manifesting itself in the music industry and popular culture as a whole. One of the reasons behind that has nothing to do with millennials at all, but instead with their successors, to whom emo and pop punk is basically ‘old people music’: Gen Z.
Popular things come back in waves. I had no problem with that when my generation appropriated 80s style and fashion, but Gen Z’s discovery of pop punk leaves me sceptical. When I was a teenager, I heavily rejected flared pants. You’d force your body into skinny jeans whether it fit your body type or not. I remember turning up on the first day of 9th grade in yellow skinny jeans, smudged kajal around my eyes and pink highlights in my hair, having blasted HIM’s Razorblade Romance literally all summer, the CD turning and turning in my portable discman. The stereo in my room played a “Best of Skater Hits 2007” CD I had ripped from the local library’s copy, and I rocked out to The Used and My Chemical Romance when nobody could see me. I started taking selfies on an old Aldi digital camera I found in our house from the signature top down angle, staring thoughtfully and emotionally into empty space. Emo culture was built around music and attire. I never really looked like the emo kids that hung out in our local train station, with their signature scene hair, colourful jewellery and torn tights. Now, at thirty, I look at Gen Z kids rocking the looks that were popular when my parents were teens and watch while they slowly tilt into the 2000s emo aesthetics. And although I’ve seen other decade’s trends return and vanish, like 80s music and fashion, or 50s rockabilly culture, I never thought it would happen to the subculture that dominated my own teenage years. To watch Gen Z kids stumble upon Avril Lavigne songs in 2022 and pitch the “old underground music” to their peers is the oddest feeling I could fathom, something I never expected to witness this year, or really ever. I wish I could write this article staring at the corner of my old room that had been wallpapered with Avril posters.
2000s pop punk culture is greatly gatekept by millennials. After all, it’s the sentiment of our generation and only hesitantly do we acknowledge Gen Z’s sudden interest in it. It aches to reference Paramore to a Gen Z kid, just for them to shrug their shoulders and say they’ve never heard of them. Keep in mind that I had discovered Paramore myself through the Twilight OST all those years ago and had my big fangirl phase only last year. It reminds me that while emo/pop punk culture arose from the idea of a space of belonging for outsiders, it was also elitist af. Either you were cool enough to listen to the right bands and fit the alternative beauty standard of pale, skinny and expressively bold, or you were barely accepted into the larger community. So why are we doing the same thing to kids now, when we should be happy that we can pass on a part of our lives? Whether we love or hate their sudden interest in pop punk culture, Gen Z might be a catalyst for the sudden return of pop punk in 2022. Personally, I’ll take any excuse to whip out the black nail polish and manifest an increase in facial metal back into my life.
Pop Punk in 2022 re-emerges within conscious culture: Of BIPoC Alt kids and the diversity issue the genre faces
Denied Identities and gatekeeping music
In the 2000s, the bands we listened to were for the most part white and male, with but a few female leads and even less bands with BIPoC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) members. Whether PoC have to defend against the charge of “acting white” — a slur resulting from African-American history, dating all the way back to slavery and racial segregation1 — or whether they are being told that they can’t make alternative music because they are not white, some of pop punk’s gatekept whiteness is outright racist. At the time, as whiteness defined what an alternative musician or person looked like, it consequently also shoved PoC towards premade clusters of non-white identities. These were — and to some degree still are — in the realm of hip hop or reggae, jazz or rhythm and blues. The fact that these musical styles did not just inspire rock itself but also influenced subgenres emerging from it, for example nu metal or Jamaican ska, was often overlooked or ignored in the strategic exclusion of non-white youth from self-proclaimed “inclusive” alt spaces. Instead, whiteness continues to segregate between white and black identity clusters, while reproducing truisms that can be refuted with a single instance of research. But pop punk does not stand alone in this, as the same issue permeates goth, punk and metal subcultures. Think Dolls Kill’s “Goth is white” 2016 collection.
It all ties back to a strategic labelling of rock’n’roll as “white people music”, when artists such as Elvis Presley appropriated sounds and moves originally pioneered by Black musicians. I have searched for an answer as to how and why this happened, but it seems little founded reason supports the rebranding of rock’n’roll as “white culture”, except that white men just could. White men have been wrecking the world since the dawn of humanity without ever really facing consequences. They simply could. And so they did.
In 1950s America, with segregation and Jim Crow laws still in full bloom, there is little surprise in the fact that Black artists were not just pushed to the edge of the genre — with very few rising to world renowned fame, like Jimi Hendrix — but that African American influence on the genre of rock has also been written out of the official narratives. We have the press to thank for the latter, especially so-called “rock critics”. Perhaps the last couple decades of segregation also seeped into the era’s art and polluted rock’n’roll with the same festering, obscene delusion that segregation did not mean inequality. With such a strategic push into whiteness and the overwriting of Black influence on the mother genre, we can perhaps get an idea why alternative subcultures have naturally adopted and reproduced a similar attitude. As a result, black and brown teens face overt racism in certain music communities. “No matter how many lengthy Fall Out Boy song titles I committed to memory, MSN screen names I created or posters I layered over walls, there were no black faces looking back at me, reassuring me that I could belong,” confesses author Jenessa Williams in an article on gal-dem. Even when segregation was abollished step by step with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, decades of racist ideologies, race riots, the lynching of Black citizens and a police and justice system suffused with racist motivations did not fade over night. And neither did the cancers of segregation inherited by rock’n’roll’s descendants, perhaps fostered by ignorance and a lack of transparency and discourse.
Invisible white-washing and subtle micro aggressions in a culture speaking out against fascism
“Racism isn’t just violent aggressions, brutality and blatant slurs. It’s the uncomfortable, unspoken normalcy of whiteness, which is perpetuated through alternative beauty conventions,” clarifies Yasmine Summan in her article “Am I Too Brown To Be Emo? How Alternative Beauty Favours Whiteness”. Black influence on genres emerging from rock music doesn’t just disappear, but the violent transgressive usurpation of the genre by white artists sets whiteness as both the default criterion for being able to play pop punk or other alternative music, and also for being able to listen to it and to look like it.
Anyone who is active in an alternative subculture modeled from rock music will know that they are explicitly outspoken against discrimination. Actually, rock concerts are considered implicitly leftist spaces where racism, sexism, homophobia and ableist attitudes have no place. These values are particularly strong in punk culture due to its heavy political substructure. However, all subcultures rage against the mainstream society’s deafening norms. And yet it seems that they are so busy looking outward that they overlook what is happening on the inside. Problematically, racism is woven into alternative subcultures so subtly and covertly that it may only reveal itself to those it affects.
Why does the alternative beauty standard revolve not just around whiteness but Eurocentric features? Even if newer pop punk bands are assembled more diversely, why do they have to prove themselves so much harder? Not just musically and technically, but much more originally, they first have to prove that they qualify to participate in alternative subcultures at all. Content creator and influencer Gary K. Washington (known as @emo_unclephil on TikTok) recollects:
“When the emo/scene subculture as we know it today rose, I was seen as an oddity. I had no real clique to call my own. I was too “white” to hang out with black kids and too black to hang out with the white kids. I just did my own thing and vibed. I constantly had to prove myself that I wasn’t just following a fade, that I really liked the music and culture. Getting spontaneous tattoos, straightening my hair. You name it, just to fit in. It made me feel like a loser. No one else had to prove themselves this much. It was ridiculous. If I didn’t look the part, just by being black no one would even know I liked the music. I had to go all in.”
PoC bands are viewed with greater scepticism, and they have to excel at what they do disproportionately to the scene’s status quo in order to get any recognition at all. And so do the people, continuously having to prove themselves worthy of being alternative. Off the top of our heads, can we even name three truly influential pop punk bands with people of colour?
Beauty standards in alternative scenes
Emo and pop punk culture was one of the first subcultures that branched out into the then-new-ish internet and social networks, the effect of which was clearly notable. Online, one could be anonymous. Author Jenessa Williams (“My Chemical Relaxer: what it’s like to grow up black and emo”) recollects, “[Online], nobody really knew who I was or what I looked like — I could assimilate just by how I wrote. My contributions were as valid as anybody else’s.” For Williams, this meant that she could belong despite pop punk’s obsession with whiteness, pale skin and Eurocentric features.
On the other hand, social media promotes posturing, the online-exclusive expression of yourself through pics and captions. Often, this expression is more intense than the irl version, perhaps especially so when you grew up a socially shy depressed teenager who spent half their youth online as a digitally native millennial who hardly left the house. Social networks come with tools that let you edit yourself however you want. “I’d lighten my selfies in paint (a rudimentary “drawing” tool that preceded the likes of Photoshop), or else take advantage of the trend for the high exposure imagery that was du jour in the early noughties. I didn’t realise the disturbing and problematic nature of this at the time — that subconsciously, I had deemed my own blackness “unfashionable”, rejecting that side of my genetic make-up completely,” Jenessa writes. These tools existed during the days of MySpace and they exist now. They aid in assimilating to others in a composite still-life moment, but they also illuminate the correlation between alternative beauty standards and the whitewashing of their musical origins.
Fast forward in 2022. Times must have changed, or do the laws of physics not apply to music scenes? Pop punk is still heavily dominated by whiteness, many bands are still around from the first wave, and alternative beauty standards still rest on eurocentric body features, some androgyny, and thinness. Now, the androgyny we love, but, frankly, the rest can go. In a sense, the white-washing of rock and any subculture that emerges from it reproduces a pattern of behaviour long established in the white world: the extraction of certain congenial features from non-white cultures and their establishment or appropriation in common “white” culture, while the remaining portions of non-white culture are ignored or downright repressed. Pop punk’s issue with systemic racism illustrates the consequences of this behaviour. But “take their best, then make them leave” can’t be left unchallenged this time around. What’s more: the charge of “acting white” against alternative PoC is still pronounced to this day. It is frequently seen on @emo_unclephil’s but also other Black creators’ accounts, specifically on TikTok. When I interviewed Gary and asked how often white people call alt genres “white people music“, he did not hesitate: “Pretty often, even still today through TikTok. It’s a stupid argument considering the fact that rock music wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for black influence. I personally believe that the reason gatekeepers are the way they are is because they may be scared that we’ll do it better … like everything else.” Pop punk cannot avoid bursting the bubble and facing the challenge of meeting its own demands for inclusivity and the rejection of ‑isms of any kind.
Screaming our hearts out to old sounds and new values: The new era of Pop Punk must be an inclusive one.
I like what is happening in the music scene at the current moment, and in a weird way, finding my way back into the pop punk community at thirty is so much easier and so much more fun than it was at fifteen. But we’re not just older, times have also changed and we ought not forget the younger generation getting into the scene. Pop punk needs to tackle its diversity issue and let go of its inherent double standards regarding race and gender. With many new and diverse bands on the emo horizon, like Meet Me @ the Altar or Action/Adventure, I genuinely hope the genre lets go of its white-washing and its outdated, ever obsolete beauty standards. Behind the scene(s), a beautiful new community is forming.
1 Christie, Ron. Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
Photo: Hayley Williams, lead vocalist of the American rock band Paramore, at Rock im Park 2013 in Nuremberg, Germany / Wiki Commons
EDITED BY LARA HELENA.
Mercy Ferrars is a MA graduate in philosophy and writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction essays. She is madly in love with Scotland, dogs and Bojack Horseman.