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Is There Really A Difference Between Pop-Punk Bands and Boybands?

5 Seconds Of Summer are the blink-182 of Generation Y.
Emma Garland
London, GB

There is a current phenomenon called 5 Seconds Of Summer - a group of four Australian teenagers who went from being a YouTube covers band to having their debut EP peak at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, selling 143,000 copies in its first week. The problem with 5SOS is that they toe the line between punk band and boy band so well that everybody from Alternative Press to the Guardian is arguing about which they actually are. Why is it so difficult to call a band that play guitars loudly and were voted best international newcomer by rock magazine Kerrang!, a punk band? The answer lies somewhere in the late 90s.

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We recall the 90s for being overwhelmingly “alt”. Every romanticised throwback is dressed in plaid, listening to Fugazi in vegan co-operatives and listing Rayanne Graff as their spirit animal. The Peabody-award winning show Portlandia even opened with a sketch about how alt the 90s was. But what we tend to forget is how all those things were the underground influence for a dominant culture that was far more commercial.

By the late 90s, youth culture en masse had decided its identity and it was: “Teenage Dirtbag”. Hollywood was obsessed with a guy who was so unlucky in love that he stuck his dick in a pie, Jackass made celebrities of tattooed stoners who put bees down their pants for lolz, the best-selling video game was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and the critically acclaimed musicians were the ones who wanted to be the minority and trashed their own house parties because nobody came. The climate of pop culture had shifted towards an increasingly hypermediated age in which three losers wearing Dickies could be 5x platinum icons and the idea of Fred Durst dating Britney Spears was entirely plausible. All of a sudden, it was cool to be uncool.

By the year 2000, all the kids who used to pick on me for wearing baggy jeans as a tween started listening to the bands I liked. Suddenly, kids from all different social circles were united by a love for kale green corduroy Quiksilver rucksacks. This transition was the result of various forces, but if I had to pinpoint one of them it would be the release of blink-182’s breakthrough album Enema Of The State. There have been a plethora of retrospective articles waxing lyrical about how it is the most influential pop-punk album ever made, but the significance it carried even at the time was inescapable.

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Taking musical structures from their godfathers The Vandals, Descendents and Bad Religion and combining it with the commercial formula of boybands that dominated the charts throughout the 90s, blink-182 became a veritable goldmine of commercial viability. They took punk’s favourite subject of alienation and tackled it with of-the-time college humour. They embraced the universal awkwardness of puberty by being constantly naked, and ridiculed the archetypal image of the “sports guy” by using typical “sports guy” jokes until everyone was on the same level. It didn’t matter if you played bass or football after school: everyone was kicking each other in the balls. In the space of a few years Mark, Tom and Travis graduated from employees at Gary’s Chicken And Ribs to poster-boys of the Jackass Generation. They found a way to make mainstream pop music, while still appearing alternative. Once they’d worked it out, everyone followed suit.

Blink-182 hadn’t always wanted to be more pop than punk. They started out recording 8-tracks, releasing lo-fi demos and practising in basements like every other skate punk band coming out of Southern California at the time. But once they stumbled upon the algorithm for successfully selling punk’s anti-establishment stance back to itself (a group of good-looking boys who could play power chords and harmonise) they never went back. At the same time came the rise of Sum 41, Jimmy Eat World, All-American Rejects followed by the brief, but amazingly lucrative, rise of nu metal which won Evanescence two Grammy’s and helped Hybrid Theory become the best-selling debut album of the 21st century.

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The members of 5 Seconds of Summer were, on average, 5 years old when this was happening – not too far off how old members of Blink 182 would have been when Descendents released Milo Goes To College. The boys of 5SOS grew up with dreams of being a band like blink-182 or Green Day, but by the time they were old enough, they realised the charts were dominated by commercial pop. With well-oiled boyband machines like One Direction and Union J on one end of the spectrum and solo powerhouses like Taylor Swift on the other, 2014 has no room for another wave of pop-punk similar to that of the early 00s to sweep in and take over. The rise of the loser already happened, transformed, and became as universally accepted as everything it became famous for hating in the first place. That golden era of studded belts and enormous shorts is unquestionably dead: Green Day have a broadway musical, the Madden brothers completed their circle of self-hatred by hooking up with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, and the teenage punk power-couple that was Avril Lavigne and Derek Whibley broke up. The commercial success of those artists created a gap in the market for similar acts to break through after them, but nobody quite managed to pull it off. Until 5 Seconds Of Summer.

5SOS are exactly the kind of perfectly-quaffed teenagers that other teenagers can fetishize as "rebellious" on account of the fact that they tie their shirts around their waists, but also introduce to their parents without being accused of going "off the rails". They rolled up after commercial pop-punk settled in and made most people feel comfortable with the fact that that having green hair doesn't automatically mean you spend the weekends huffing paint in a carpark. But they are also a product of values that came hand-in-hand with the rise of social media. They are blink-182 with immaculate PR; Abercrombie with an eyebrow piercing. But does the fact that they share a manager with One Direction make them any less legit as a band? They still play their own instruments. They still write their own songs about crushing on girls, being yourself and how it's not important to conform to stereotypes and all that other stuff blink-182 became synonymous with. And they followed the same trajectory of basment practise to arena tour in the space of a year, thanks to major label interest. Even in their videos, the similarities are impossible to ignore.

The thing is, pop-punk bands will always end up embroiled in a debate about authenticity, because all strains of punk have a notoriously low tolerance for “poseurs” and “selling out”. Fans will always be protective over the integrity of their “scene” and that usually involves sacking off anybody who starts making any real money. If you want to listen to “real” pop-punk (that is to say, bands your parents won’t have heard of) then look to The Story So Far, The Wonder Years, Modern Baseball or Gnarwolves who are, in relative terms, like the Fenix TX’s of 2014. But I don’t see the point in begrudging a band like 5SOS being described as “pop-punk” when all they’ve done is update a formula that propelled blink-182 to such great heights and made “Swing, Swing” literally everybody’s favourite song.

But regardless of who is making the most money out of it, most pop-punk from Home Grown to All Time Low has one overriding theme: having a giggle. And, considering 5SOS released a cassette single for Record Store Day this year and put a 31-second beatdown track called “Pizza” as the B-Side, isn’t that exactly what they’re doing? Essentially, 5SOS look back to blink-182 the same way blink-182 looked back to Descendents, and they take from One Direction just as blink-182 took from the Backstreet Boys. If Tom Delonge was 19 again, he'd be doing exactly what they're doing.

Follow Emma on Twitter: @emmaggarland