Now that it’s common for music websites to review Justin Timberlake alongside Robert Pollard without irony, the furor raised over pop punk in the ’90s deserves fresh contemplation. Because punk began as a strident reaction to insipid pop music of the ’70s, the idea that pop and punk could be reconciled was once about as plausible as reconciling day and night. But the rise of bands like Blink 182 — yes, Blink 182, the band running around naked in that video — challenged that easy dichotomy, forcing us to reconsider what music we consider acceptable and why.
People tend to think in terms of polar opposites, as anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss famously observed. He argued that our worldviews are structured in terms of opposites that organize our experience. But the poststructuralists who came after him pointed out that seeing the world in black and white is overly simplistic. The practice of deconstruction reveals that these dichotomies are actually also affinities, that the opposites rely on each other in order to mean anything at all.
By that criteria, whatever we examine in pop culture will reflect the set of opposing categories that we impose on the world in order to make sense of it. The practice of deconstruction is the act of exposing the contradictions of the stories we tell ourselves. Whether or not we actively deconstruct our texts, Jacques Derrida wrote, deconstruction is always already happening.
This has an obvious bearing on the genesis of punk rock. Early punks regarded the reigning popular culture with contempt. Punk defined itself by rejecting pop and basing its aesthetic and message on what the mainstream would find offensive. This imagined a set of apparently stable polar opposites, but at the same time made punk a kind of reaction to the pop world rather than an authentically organic movement of its own. This tension between the stated opposition to pop and its essential dependence on it destined punk for its inevitable dissolution into any number of incoherencies, hypocrisies, and contradictions.
That punk and pop actually belong on a continuum rather than on opposite sides of an unbridgeable gulf is evidenced by early punk’s borrowing from pop forms. Proto-punk glam rockers the New York Dolls bit the Shirelles, Gang of Four worked disco into their music, and the Ramones borrowed surf-rock song structures. But Blink 182, which sold 40 million albums worldwide, and other similar bands from the ’90s tested a new premise, that of pop bands borrowing explicitly from punk. The band’s popularity signaled a critical moment for punk; the deconstruction implicit in its inception began to show more effulgent fruit.
On Blink 182’s “All the Small Things”, from 1999’s Enema of the State the punk elements, though diluted, were there. The vocals were a bit whiny but drew upon the traditional punk sneer pioneered by Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop. The melody was laid over three distorted power chords. In the video, Blink prominently displayed their piercings and tattoos. The video parodied boy bands, continuing in the punk vein of deriding pop.
But of course, there was also plenty of pop in Blink’s melange. The tempo was moderate, the vocals were intelligible and free of swear words, the production was clean, and the melody was catchy. While punk was originally meant to offend pop sensibilities, Blink 182 seemed to intentionally steer clear of its most unpalatable elements so it could enjoy more widespread appeal. For the casual observer, the band had cleaned up punk’s disdain for the mainstream and brought it into the mainstream, thus undercutting “authentic” punk’s position.
Johnny Rotten himself summed up the old-school punk position on pop punk in his dismissal of Green Day: “They jumped on a bandwagon that was all clearly laid out for them, forgetting all the bands that did the groundwork, putting together a punk movement. They came in and said, ‘Yes, we can wear these clothes and have our hair like this, wear those boots and play music that way, and we’ll call ourselves punk.'”
Rotten believed that pop-punk bands like Green Day and Blink 182 had cashed in on a style without accepting its substance or properly acknowledging its pioneers. It was empty commercialism, a mockery of what punk had originally stood for. But if this interpretation held true, if Blink 182 were wolves in sheep’s clothing, mere pop music masquerading as punk, its detractors would have killed it and pop and punk would have gone back to their respective trenches. The enigma of pop’s current respected place in the minds of punk’s heirs in the indie world doesn’t allow us to accept this so easily.
Pop punk is not a version of either pop or punk, but an entirely new creature. The pop culture that punk railed against, upon which it depended upon for its own coherence, has now disappeared and in its place exists a new popular culture where the punk notions of rebellion and subversion are prized. If we accept that Blink 182 used the punk aesthetic to break onto the charts, how do we account for the punk aesthetic’s marketability? How did punk morph from an underground movement to, in Johnny Rotten’s words, a “bandwagon?” How do we explain a Hollywood movie about cheerleading, Bring It On, in which Kirsten Dunst falls for the kid who wears a Ramones T-shirt? Or Christina Aguilera paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for work from the graffiti artist Banksy? The new mainstream had mutinied the old, ditching it en masse for punk culture.
The rise of pop punk was not so much a watering down of punk rock as a marker of its obsolescence. Punk based itself on pop’s animosity, supposing a mutual contempt, but the rise of pop punk subverted the traditional punk notion of a rigid, closed-minded pop culture. The MTV set was open to the likes of Green Day and Blink 182, while this time it was the punks such as Johnny Rotten preaching fire and brimstone.
Interestingly enough, Rotten’s presumption of Green Day’s capitalist motives mirrors the criticism the Sex Pistols received at a hearing regarding the offensiveness of Never Mind the Bollocks: “My colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company.” The values are decidedly different, but the charge is the same. Before Blink 182, the Sex Pistols were the sell-outs.
The core of Rotten’s and others’ resentment of pop punk was in the new prominence of the punk aesthetic in pop culture. The backlash against Blink 182 was the last throes of an identity crisis, a desperate attempt to keep the purity of the old categories by denying the punkness of something popular. But denouncements of pop punk didn’t kill it. Appeals to the virtues of the original punk mentality fell largely on deaf ears.
While punk had nailed down its ethos quite stably, the cultural context had shifted to the point where punk became an anachronism; the general cultural landscape had developed a healthy regard for the once marginalized punk ethic. The old narratives of “punk” — as philosophically impossible as all narratives, even in its inception — could no longer hold together in light of a radically new culture. The old pop/punk opposition no longer fit, and pop punk, the manifestation of pop culture’s deconstruction, left the constraining categories behind. Blink 182 may be able to do the same for you.