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Can Pop Punk Age Gracefully?

If pop punk is inherently this juvenile, is it meant to graduate into adulthood?
May 31, 2013, 4:45pm

If you’re over the age of 21 and have never read The Catcher in the Rye, don’t bother. First of all, what the fuck? You’ve never read The Catcher in the Rye? Really? Not that it’s the greatest book ever written, but it’s been required reading for every high school freshman on the planet for the last 50 years. It practically comes pre-installed with puberty along with patches of oily pimples and a thicket of pubes. But anyway, don’t bother reading it because you missed your chance. That was the time period when you were supposed to read it: when you were a bumbling mess of pimples and pubes. And while the book is some mind-melting shit for high school kids, it’ll probably just bore the hell out of you, a full-grown adult person.

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Pop punk is the same way. It goes down smooth in high school, which makes sense considering everything about it is rudimentary. Musically, if you can string three chords together for two minutes, congratulations, you are a pop punk virtuoso. And lyrically, all pop punk requires is a basic grasp of the concept of rhyming and a misguided understanding of how relationships work. Want a taste of the good stuff? “She's got a couple of pony kegs/ Her arms are bigger than my legs/ And when she holds me, I can't breathe / That's why I love her.” That is not only an actual lyric from a pop punk song, but it’s a pretty famous one at that. But if pop punk is inherently this juvenile, is it meant to graduate into adulthood?

That above lyric was a line from a NOFX song, one released earlier on in their 30-year career as juvenile delinquents. In that time, Fat Mike and the rest of the band, who are in their mid-40s now, haven’t just not grown up, they’ve actually doubled down on their stupidity. And even though their most recent albums have taken on big boy issues like politics, they’ve run them through a pun factory of dick jokes (see: 2003’s War on Errorism). And unlike, say, The Rolling Stones (if the Nobel Prize people are reading this, please note NOFX was just likened to The Rolling Stones), who have acquired fans of all ages in their long career, NOFX’s fanbase is perpetually 16 years old. You never meet a 40-year-old whose favorite band is NOFX. That’s because people’s tastes age with them. NOFX is a gateway band to other types of music. After NOFX, you discover bands like Bad Religion and Lagwagon. Then you find hardcore, then post-punk, then indie rock, and then by the time you hit 30, you debate with yourself about listening to music or just enjoying an NPR podcast with some chamomile tea. But unlike their fans, NOFX haven’t shown many signs of maturing.

The members of Blink-182 have been slowly maturing over the last few years to their disadvantage. It started a few years ago, when the band was on hiatus. Guitarist Tom Delonge announced he was working on a new project called Angels & Airwaves and billed it as a combination of Pink Floyd and U2. But after it became overwhelmingly evident that no one wants to see a guy who once sang about fucking a dog in the ass suddenly getting all artsy, Delonge quickly retreated back into the fart joke cocoon that is Blink-182. In their heyday, blink practically held a monopoly on immaturity. The band’s albums used to be so jam-packed with goofiness that it even spilled over into the album titles like Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and Enema of the State. But ever since their reunion in 2009, they’ve dropped the slapstick act in place of more serious material, like their stale 2011 album, Neighborhoods, which was totally devoid of dick jokes. It’s sad, really. Blink-182 could actually play dopey pop punk songs forever. Mainly because they are kabillionaires. Being so rich that you have zero financial responsibility is about as close to recreating the experience of living with your parents as it gets. As long as they keep spiking their hair up and wearing Hurley shorts, they can get away with singing about jacking off into socks for as long as they want. They’ll look ridiculous, but kids will pay to see it.

On the other end of the pop punk spectrum is Ben Weasel. Despite being one of the most notable icons of the genre, the Screeching Weasel frontman is nowhere near as financially stable as Blink-182. In fact, it’s safe to say Mark Hoppus probably spends Weasel’s entire net worth every single day on Wayfarers alone. Pop punk is not aging well on Weasel. In the 80s and 90s, Weasel was a prolific punk machine, churning out songs like “Hey Suburbia” and “I Wanna Be A Homosexual.” But these days, his hobbies include spewing conservative rants on Facebook and discovering Catholicism. He managed to creep back into relevance in 2011 when he famously punched two women on stage at SXSW. It was a sobering moment, not just for Weasel, who picked a terrible time to realize that he can’t fight, but for the entire pop punk community. It was like the lights suddenly went on at the party and everyone sobered up and realized they had their dicks out.

There are exceptions to the rule that says pop punkers can’t age gracefully. Frank Portman (a.k.a. Dr. Frank) of The Mr. T Experience has enjoyed a long career in pop punk that has been relatively free of embarrassment, unless you count calling yourself “Doctor” despite holding no medical degree as embarrassing. Portman has managed to sustain a 30-year career as a musician and now uses his understanding of the juvenile mindset to write acclaimed young adult novels like King Dork.

But making a career out of pop punk is not an easy thing. Every year a pop punk band carries on is a year they grow farther from the material they wrote. Then, one day, they’re standing on stage and they look less like rock icons and more like dads chaperoning a high school dance. It’s a strange thing to see a song outlast the band who wrote it. But that’s OK. Maybe pop punk was never meant to grow old in the first place.

J.D. Salinger was 91 when he died, almost 60 years after he wrote The Catcher In The Rye. Who knows, maybe he hated the book in his later years. Maybe, in hindsight, he was embarrassed about his musings on adolescence. Unfortunately, he was a notoriously reclusive weirdo so we’ll never know. But still, don’t bother reading it.

Dan Ozzi has a site called Jaded Punk and it pretty much rules. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi