The most popular and debated subgenre of punk rock music is also the one most likely to last: pop punk. It is this manifestation of the form that is currently enjoying the most success amidst recent waves of punk and post-punk revivals. Stars previously aligned with pop (or pop-rap)—such as Machine Gun Kelly, Willow, and Olivia Rodrigo—are increasingly seeking credibility for their commercial endeavors by excavating the riches of the pop punk hybrid. Alerted to their interests and influences, critics have been quick to repeat their name-dropping of forerunners like Green Day, Blink-182, and Avril Lavigne as the root purveyors of the form, in the process short-changing a history that includes significant prior innovators and developments.
Although beloved by millions, pop punk may also be punk’s most hated form, at least if one were soliciting the opinions of rock critics and punk purists. Charged with being—among other things—too soft, too fake, too derivative, and too corporate, many see pop punk as betraying so many punk principles that it is undeserving of being recognized as punk. Yet, manifestations of sound and personality comparable with the pop punk of today can be found in the very foundations of punk, even in its founding fathers, the Ramones, and those that subsequently followed their aesthetic template.
The Ramones derived much of their sound and song structures from studying the music of the Monkees, Shangri-Las, and Bay City Rollers, and it was these bands’ pop rather than rock skills they were learning. As youth scholar Bill Osgerby opines, “it is the ‘pop sensibility’ in the history of American punk that requires deeper scrutiny.” In the Ramones, that pop component is apparent in both music and lyrics; their songs are populated with stock activities and images from rebel teen life, like fighting, sniffing glue, and boredom. These interests came from growing up in middle-class suburbia, as the Ramones boys did in Forest Hills, New York.
Punks are often stereotyped as either working-class inner-city dwellers or bohemian art school students. However, Osgerby highlights the significance of those “fuck art, let’s rock” suburban punks like the Ramones that reveled in—and sometimes reviled—the detritus of a life lived as the average adolescent. It is this often-ignored teen world that inspired subsequent pop punk.
The band’s musical appeals were equally elemental. Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day says of the Ramones, “They had songs that just stuck in your head, just like a hammer they banged right into your brain” (Myers). Therein lies the essence of pop punk: pop catchiness enforced with the hammer blows of punk’s sonic assault. The distance is short between the Bay City Rollers’ opening chant to “Saturday Night” (1973) and the Ramones’ one to “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976). Furthermore, if one imagines away the buzzsaw guitars that grind throughout the Ramones’ eponymous debut album, the pop melodies of the Beach Boys and girl groups from the ‘60s are revealed.
Of course, it is those guitars that give the songs their punk identity, making the band what Osgerby calls “a nightmare vision of a bubble-gum band”. Nevertheless, when producer Tommy Ramone recalls, “We used the wall of sound as a melodic rather than a riff form,” he is explaining how Johnny’s distortion-driven chords did not just provide a counterpoint to Joey’s nursery rhyme melodies; they established and cultivated more melody (Heylin). Co-engineer Craig Leon reports that both he and the band thought The Ramones would be a huge hit, as they saw it as having more in common with the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits than with the burgeoning proto-punk underground.
The Ramones’ pop personality is neither negated nor diminished by their bad-boy look of leather jackets, scruffy T-shirts, ripped jeans, and shaggy hair. This gang identity, capped by each member adopting the “Ramone” surname, suggests an “us against the world” mentality. It also alludes to the group character of immediate pop predecessors like the Osmonds, Jackson Five, and Partridge Family, who promoted their brand via familial identities and uniform looks. What gave the Ramones their punk distinction was that their common image was as freaks, losers, and rebels rather than wholesome stars.
By aligning with the pop rather than rock world, the Ramones implicitly fulfilled other pop expectations of simplicity, brevity, light-heartedness, and melody, all of which contrasted with the serious pseudo-intellectual indulgences normalized by the classic and progressive rock of the era. Moreover, by playfully inverting or parodying the pop tropes they drew from, the band maintained an outsider rebel stance in relation to that pop world. A song like “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” (1977) is illustrative. The “Gimme Gimme” invites us to expect the kind of teen topic one might find in a song by 1910 Fruitgum Company or the Archies, but rather than candy or kisses, we are given “Shock Treatment”. Sweet love and romance may inhabit the minds of adolescents, but in the Ramones’ punk suburban reality, so do sniffing glue, beating up brats, and being bored in the basement.
Contemporaries and proto-pop punk compatriots to the Ramones were The Dickies. Hailing from L.A. County’s San Fernando Valley, the Dickies were suburbanites, too, and they brought a similar sensibility to the emerging punk genre. However, whereas the Ramones’ faux dumb persona functioned as a mask for their clever irony, the Dickies reveled in childishness with an abandon later aped by many pop punkers.
When punk first came to his attention in 1977, front-man Leonard Graves Phillips perceived its iterations in two different camps. Earnest social commentary was represented by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, while a more fun(ny) and free-spirited expression came from the Ramones and the Damned. Feeling more at home with the latter, the Dickies doubled down on these bands’ every-boy hedonism and adolescent antics, establishing goofy comedy as a staple of future pop punk.
Reflecting upon this other strain, British journalist and punk poet Steven Wells reminds us that “punk was just as much about taking the piss as it was about smashing the system.” The Dickies foreshadowed the youthful exuberance later found in the bands on Lookout! and Fat Wreck Records by performing wacky physical comedy that catered to the playground. Their biggest hit, “Banana Splits (Tra La La Song)” (1979), was a revved-up, guitar-driven version of a children’s television show theme song. When the band performed it on Top of the Pops, their use of banana microphones contributed to the fun and frivolity while also mocking the show’s requirement that all performers mime through their songs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMLNQV-F8lU. The teenybopper constituency of British punk’s barmy army responded by sending the song to number seven on the national charts.
British punk has always had a pop sensibility. Lacking the vast audiences or supportive college radio network afforded the US underground, those UK acts aspiring to make a day job out of their music found it necessary to skew in more mass-accessible directions. Even when US punk first arrived on British shores, it was the more pop-oriented bands like Blondie and Talking Heads—rather than avant-garde ones like Suicide and Television—that made the biggest splash. When the Ramones played their legendary London shows in July 1976, many would-be young punk performers were in attendance.
Thereafter, Punk 101 classes mostly consisted of non-musicians learning their instruments and songwriting by repeatedly playing along with the eponymous album from the Forest Hills boys. Within a year of their visit, Ramonic punk with cockney accents dominated London’s small but vibrant club circuit. The Clash, the Damned, Generation X, the Lurkers, and the Adverts were just a handful of the early British punk groups that mastered the art of down-strumming their guitars with accelerated speed and overlaying their three chords riffs with simple vocal melodies punctuated by chants and rallying cries.
Britain’s most renowned and revered pop punk group was the Buzzcocks. By the time they could afford the equipment needed to recreate that buzzsaw sound, the Buzzcocks had reshaped Ramones pop into their own. Their mutation ushered in many idiosyncrasies that would be exported back to the US years later. Most notable amongst these was the band’s interest in matters of the heart, a terrain much ignored, rejected, and detested by the ideological and intellectual wings of the punk movement. Those factions felt that if the project of punk was to reject the clichés of rock and pop’s past, then first to be jettisoned must be the well-worn fodder of love and romance that had imprisoned listeners in states of inertia and fantasy escapism.
Thus, it seemed incongruous to standard punk praxis that around the same time as the Clash were inciting youth to rise up against the police (“White Riot”) and the Sex Pistols educating them to regard the royal family as an insidious arm of state oppression (“God Save the Queen”), the Buzzcocks were singing songs like “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have)” (1978) and “Love You More” (1978). Before the Buzzcocks helped modify punk, to even use the word “love” in a song for any purpose other than to demystify its intrinsic harm was seen with suspicion, if not scorn.
Also pushing punk in poppier directions was a handful of bands out of Northern Ireland that coalesced around the Good Vibrations indie label. With its daily sectarian “Troubles”, Belfast was an unlikely site for the softer side of punk. In Stiff Little Fingers, the region had produced the kind of politically charged and aggressive-sounding band one might have expected, though they were an anomaly. Unlike their songs about “suspect devices” and “wasted lives”, the Undertones sang odes to teenage yearning and the pains of romantic rejection.
Alongside label-mates Protex and the Outcasts, the Undertones followed the Ramonic template, crafting two-minute pop nuggets that distilled the everyday feelings of their young (listeners’) lives. Thanks to the cheerleading of the BBC’s sole supporter of indie music at the time, DJ John Peel, the Undertones enjoyed chart success with a series of teen anthems at the close of the ‘70s. Among them was “Teenage Kicks” (1978), a song of such simple pop perfection that Peel was moved to play it twice in a row when first introducing it on his radio show.
As primary punk transitioned towards street punk in the UK and hardcore in the US during the early ‘80s, victims of these developments were the pop melodies, relationship themes, and light-hearted humor the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, and the Undertones cultivated. Nevertheless, as hardcore hardened hearts and guitars in sound and fury, a few bands straddled punk’s pit-stops, playing melodic hardcore while embracing the underground’s growing commitment to independent principles. Among those keeping the pop punk flag flying were L.A.’s Bad Religion and the Descendents, two bands that survived the hardcore years to enjoy overdue success when pop punk broke (again) in 1994. Together, these stalwarts embodied many of the values, lyrical perspectives, and sound features that have been foundational in the long journey of this subgenre.
Bad Religion were the quintessential straddle band of the early ‘80s, able to be sufficiently hardcore to keep up with heavyweights like Black Flag and Minor Threat while overlaying their wall of sound with melodic lead vocal lines and harmonies. Singer Greg Graffin’s lilting delivery gives the band an Irish folk flavor, while the chorus sing-alongs bridge the gap between the Adolescents and the Beatles, which greatly influenced all band members. Bad Religion’s catchy hooks belie their old-school lyrical concerns, which veer more political than the typical pop punk band. Titles like “American Jesus” (1993) and Age of Unreason (2019) are not the usual fare of the average pop punk group, nor is their provocative “crossbuster” logo or band name, though they all show evolutionary scientist Graffin’s willingness to confront the elephant in the room of American anti-intellectualism and conformity: religion.
Whereas Bad Religion reflect a political edge found more in hardcore than pop punk, the Descendents descended more from the Dickies than the Dead Kennedys. Despite boasting of their doctor of biology in Milo Aukerman, the band’s frontman was less driven than Graffin to integrate his elevated intellect into his songs. Contrarily, as Bad Religion went high, the Descendents went low, then lower, into the hearts and minds of average suburban adolescents. “I’m Not a Punk” (1982) and “I’m Not a Loser” (1982) echo the various “I Don’t Wanna…” mock negation youth narratives the Ramones wrote for their debut album. Schools, parents, riding bikes, and falling in and out of love are all addressed with Ramones-like knowing humor in Descendents songs like “Parents” (1982), “Myage” (1982), and “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” (1985), while “Pervert” (1985) sees Aukerman penning his own “Orgasm Addict”.
Irrepressible toilet humor is on display in “Orgofart” (1986) and “Enjoy!” (1986), prefiguring the kind of boy-punk bonding and silliness that Blink-182 and their minions would later develop to profitable effect. As Wells explains, the Descendents were “where the whole snotty, petulant, don’t-wanna-grow-up three-minute cry-baby loser-punk thing started.”
Missing from Wells’ description is the word “male”. Although punk is a subculture often praised for its inclusivity, pop punk has long suffered from being largely a boys club pandering to adolescent male preoccupations. That appears to be changing with the new crop, whose representatives and representations, argues Vice UK editor Hannah Ewens, cross lines of gender, race, and sexuality. Ewens cites Meet Me @ The Altar, State Champs, Neck Deep, and other Gen Z artists. Undoubtedly, the subgenre will continue to be regarded by some as the runt of the litter; however, recent developments can only bode well for it and punk going forward.
Ewens, Hannah, “’There are no rules now’: How gen z reinvented pop punk,” TheGuardian. 23 July 2021.
Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: The Birth of American Punk. Chicago Review Press. 2005.
Myers, Ben. Green Day: American Idiots and the New Punk Explosion. Independent Music Press. 2005.
Osgerby, Bill. “Chewing Out a Rhythm on my Bubble-Gum: The Teenage Aesthetic and Genealogies of American Punk”. Punk Rock: So What? The Cultural Legacy of Punk, ed. Roger Sabin. Routledge. 1999.
Wells, Steven. Punk: Young, Loud and Snotty. Thunder’s Mouth Press. 2004.