Pop Punk & How the Boomers Played Themselves

Time for an uncomfortable admission: I’m 32 years old and I love Sum 41’s “Fat Lip.”

I can’t help it. Pop Punk was all over the place when I was in high school: from Sum 41 to Good Charlotte to Bowling for Soup, they had a fairly outsized influence on my formative years. After all, it was either that or listen to the Pogues on repeat, and in a small rural Minnesota high school even my own sister told me to knock it off.

It was almost liberating, though, to hear this sort of stuff getting airplay on the pop stations. After seeing my older brothers thumb their noses at authority with bands like Nirvana and even once-scandalous acts like Green Day in the early 90s, my generation was cast into a stagnant pool of boy bands, pop tarts and, dare I even say it, country music. So when something came along that sounded like a sanitized version of the hardcore stuff our older siblings rocked out to, we were ready to ride whatever train didn’t feature choreographed dance numbers. What we didn’t realize at the time, though, was that Pop Punk was an attempt to control the anti-establishment energy that punk and grunge had created. Yet, at the same time the ultimately short-sighted captains of industry were lining up their $600 Italian leather loafers in the sights of a gold-plated pistol when the broad, simplistic ideas of pop-punk crashed headlong into a New Gilded Age.

Pop Punk was an attempt to capitalize on the angry, disaffected “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” ethos of the grungy 1990s. The only problem was, as a capitalist venture they were more concerned with getting it out fast and cheap. Manufacture the band, manufacture the music, and ape as much of what was popular the last time round as quickly and cheaply as possible. As a result, all the edges were sanded off and the whole product was dunked in Listerine, creating a sanitized and marketable product. The problem was they were in such a hurry to make a buck they didn’t think about what exactly they were trying to make a buck from. Any irony or self-awareness that might have been part of the 90s movement was scrapped for a more appealing and marketable product. As the suits learned with Cobain, nihilism doesn’t continue sell well enough if the guy kills himself. This was a nihilistic, anti-establishment, and in some cases overtly anarchistic movement, and the music spoke in that language even if the packaging was squeaky-clean.

So rather than get a nuanced approach, we get bands like Sum 41 playing it entirely straight. We had lyrics telling the listener to buck tradition, reject the status quo, and not become “another casualty of society,” which obviously clashed with the cash-grab nature of the business, a fact many people have pointed out. And what happens when the kids who see this anti-establishment message on MTV or hear it on the radio every day grow up and make decisions? Well, thanks to an adult society also weaned on the Reagnite/Randian toxic cocktail of psychoticly rugged individualism, they’ve been carefully cultured to not listen. Even bubble gum could be a revolutionary statement, and being an individual, an original and fighting the system was drilled into an entire generation for years. The only problem is, it was being translated by marketing hacks without any sort of nuance. It was revolution for revolution’s sake, and nowhere in these songs or commercials did you see anyone saying “now now, let’s be reasonable and accept that real change happens gradually.” You instead got a never-ending parade of skateboarding punks sticking it to “the man” and drinking soda. The only way to be cool, said the culture, was to fight the system, and now the Boomers who wrote those ads and co-opted that movement wonder why the kids won’t listen? You told them not to!

Funny thing is, if capitalism had just taken a bit more time to build a few back doors into the system, or had taken just a little more effort to put that edge of cynicism into it, they would have had an out when things hit the fan. But hey, this is psychocapitalism, and it’s all about get what you can when you can as fast as you can, which is why psychocapitalism is destined to eat itself. You still see attempts at damage control with the “pie in the sky, fairy dust and free ponies” line taken from the establishment, or even Chuck Todd’s latest screed claiming that the establishment is the only way to really get anything done. But, thanks to the short-sighted, profit-hungry marketers and promoters to the Millennial generation, these messages aren’t sinking in and the kids are falling in line. After all, if you do, you just wind up being that creepy lunchlandy or a trite Good Charlotte lyric come to life.

Now all of this wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for one thing: turns out all those trite lyrics turned about a lot closer to reality than the marketers and the promoters intended. The grunge kids, while growing up in a recession, entered adulthood into a bubble economy that made it easier to dismiss Cobain’s nihilism as “teen angst,”  a “phase” or whatnot. The WTO protestors in the late 90s eventually calmed down, got jobs, had kids, moved to the suburbs and assimilated… all things Millennials were banking on doing as well. Again, thanks to the lack of foresight and capitalism’s reliance on boom and bust, the Millennials didn’t get that, and instead had every bit of the manufactured media’s tone-deaf talking points verified: the system is crooked, and only those who reject it and act as individuals will survive. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if you were top of your class or the stoner in the back of the room, because you’re both flipping burgers. Any pretense to following the rules and rejecting the anti-establishment message as youthful transgressions fell apart when it turns out trying to conform actually was a terrible idea. Being part of the crowd just makes you another guy at Bear Stearns cleaning out his desk, but being a stinky, conniving, bend-the-rules individual who no one liked made you Steve Jobs. In a topsy-turvy world like the post-Recession one Millennials found themselves in after paying way too much for college, revolution doesn’t seem like the craziest idea anymore. After all, why should it? We were told in everything from our food to our music to our movies to our video games  that you can’t trust the system, and then that system turned out to be just as horrible as they said it was.

And those in power brought this on themselves by not being able to, or not wanting to, see the bubbles before they burst.

And they wonder why we don’t listen.