Menu Menu

How pop-punk’s revival reflects modern Gen Z angst

2021 saw the return of guitar-driven, pop-punk orientated chart music. Its resurgence and angst-ridden aesthetic make perfect sense given the precarious nature of modern, lockdown living.

This year was an odd one for nearly all of us, live entertainment industry included.

On-and-off lockdowns, gig cancellations, and temperamental touring rules meant that most of us were only able to see live music a handful of times at most. As the new variants force us all back inside once more, it seems the never-ending nightmare of this pandemic will continue to cause havoc to young people’s social lives and musical experiences for a good while yet.

It’s within this rocky, tumultuous climate that we’ve begun to see the resurgence of guitar-led pop-punk music.

An eclectic range of young artists are embracing the nostalgic power chords of the late nineties and early noughties, borrowing heavily from yesteryear’s angsty VHS aesthetic to offer a refreshing switch up to the standard snyth-focused pop that has been dominant in the charts for a fair while now.

It makes sense to see this change in 2021. Most of us don’t know when we’ll be able to get back to a normal daily routine and, for a fair few Gen Zers, a large portion of adolescent life has been cut short by two years of social distancing and long-distance Zoom calls.

Pop-punk serves as an appropriately angsty outlet, a familiar yet unique approach to song writing that helps to encapsulate the worry of a generation facing so much uncertainty, both immediately and in the abstract future.

From the timeless struggle of break-up anger in songs like ‘good 4 u’ by Olivia Rodrigo or ‘abcdefu’ by GAYLE, to the exploration of mental wellbeing in ‘WANNA BE’ by jxdn, power chord pop has cemented its place in the mainstream once again, racking up billions of streams and making its biggest artists industry heavyweights.

Here’s a quick guide to the acts worth listening out for, where the future of the scene is headed, how it’s impacted and reflected Gen Z attitudes, as well as a look at the criticisms the new wave is currently facing.

You’ll be ready to lecture your unwilling friends within no time.

Who are the biggest artists of the scene?

It’s probably worth a rundown of the biggest names in the new scene, at least the ones I’ve made a note of after spending hours trawling through questionable Spotify playlists and subreddits. Yes, I’m a nerd, please allow it.

The most famous new-age pop-punk and rock acts are ones you’ve likely heard of. We’re talking Olivia Rodrigo, Machine Gun Kelly, YUNGBLUD, and even Lil Nas X to some extent. Other acts include WILLOW, Pale Waves, and nothing.nowhere.

There are a ton of smaller acts making waves, however. You’ll often see them pop up on the music side of TikTok, asking for pre-saves and tactically posting song preview snippets. A few of the best ones I’ve found are TITUS, LESANE, KIDPUNK, carolesdaughter, iamjakehill, Magnolia Park, Connor Kauffman, Hot Milk, and Jack Kays.

Other, slightly bigger acts can often be found making tracks with Travis Barker or popping up on the alternative charts. I can recommend Kennyhoopla, MOD SUN, Aries, jxdn, Jutes, GAYLE, and POORSTACY here too. Phew.

Failing these, it’s worth checking out a few of the new wave playlists available on Spotify. There you’ll find lots more acts not mentioned here, and you could even check out my own playlist on this very genre. Why not take a self-plug opportunity when you can, eh?

Why is this genre of music making such a big comeback?

Pop-punk’s re-entry into the zeitgeist can be attributed to multiple factors.

For one, the cyclical nature of trending styles and aesthetics, alongside the modern obsession with nostalgic throwbacks and endless remakes, provides the ideal environment for noughties-tinged rap and punk to thrive.

Record labels and artists know that this genre can be monetarily successful and cater to a willing market of listeners. Fifteen years on from its heyday, now seems the perfect time to re-introduce a genre that is both familiar and fresh, with a proven track record of mainstream success.

Pop-punk’s traditionally emo-centric, cynical, and outwardly aggravated tropes also reflect the typical Gen Z outlook.

Introduced to adulthood during the height of a pandemic, within a capitalist model that has left most young people worse off, alongside the ever-looming threat of climate change, many Gen Zers are pessimistic and stressed.

As this excellent piece by Tim Marcin on Mashable points out, plenty of the lyrics on one of the biggest albums of the year, ‘SOUR’ by Olivia Rodrigo, drown in this existential frustration. As she sings in the opening track, ‘God it’s brutal out here’.

All of this comes alongside a generational shift in mental health conversation, too. Gen Z are more likely to report mental health concerns and are better equipped to recognise their emotions than older folks, at least according to the APA Stress Survey from 2019.

This introspective proficiency has helped to create a climate in which artists can be very transparent about their struggles and addictions, perhaps even more so than during the paparazzi obsessed, mean-spirited blur of the mid noughties.

Rapper and recently-converted pop-punk act Machine Gun Kelly embodies this confessional song writing, frequently referencing depression, suicide attempts, heartbreak, and insecurity. His entire last album, ‘Tickets To My Downfall’, is an exploration of demise, a playful and theatrical portrayal of internal struggle. Check out the full music film below.

New wave pop-punk also offers young listeners and creatives a very distinct aesthetic that can easily translate to social media platforms – especially TikTok.

Think bleached hair, tattoos, skinny jeans, lock chains and high contrasting, patterned clothing. It’s a mix of traditional punk and the e-boy and e-girl trends from a few years back.

This added visual appeal explains, at least in part, some of the success of TikToker turned pop-punk artist, jxdn, as well as his contemporary Lil Huddy. Both these acts have translated viral popularity into commercial music, a phenomena that extends beyond just pop-punk with creators such as Bella Poarch and Addison Rae.

This is a relatively new trend that, while offering potential stardom to anyone who makes it big, has its own problems – and is the root of many criticisms of new-age pop-punk.

What are the criticisms of the new pop-punk scene?

If you’ve read up on pop-punk at all in the last year or so, you may have seen some critics and journalists hail this fresh wave as ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’, largely due to the fact that the original mid-noughties scene consisted of nearly entirely white dudes.

To some extent, this is true. The biggest artists grabbing ears this time around are not simply male and white.

Acts like WILLOW, Kennyhoopla, and Olivia demonstrate that the genre has made progress, offering stardom to acts that may have otherwise struggled in the era of Blink, Green Day, and Jimmy Eat World. This is obviously a good thing and should be championed as a sign of genuine change within the industry.

Nevertheless, it is easy to overlook the problems that remain and have arisen since the genre first began to regain momentum.

An analysis video by oliSUNvia on YouTube outlines what she calls pop-punk’s ‘new form of exclusion’, whereby only the most attractive musicians and creators will be able to rise the ranks and find mainstream appeal.

You must be slim, conventionally appealing, and meet a certain aesthetic criteria in order to be accepted within the industry.

As mentioned earlier, there is a unique look and style to many artists within this space today – but it is also now adopted by models, influencers, and socialites as a larger part of their brand, rather than as a reflection of a scene they are involved in.

As is the nature of modern music marketing, visual appeal and an understanding of social media growth are necessary pillars to success, but pop-punk’s well-defined look is not limited to the alternative or ‘subgenre’. This means that all sorts of people are incorporating its tropes into their look which, while not inherently a bad thing, leads to a music scene that is largely spearheaded by conventionally attractive people.

There is a larger conversation to be had about the cut-throat competitive nature of today’s pop music, fuelled by popularity wars on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

For now, what I will say is that pop-punk is as susceptible as any other music genre to the problematic pitfalls of mainstream success, and we’ve yet to see whether it will remain a looks-orientated clique moving forward, especially considering its re-birth is somewhat fresh.

2021 saw the genre reach new heights with a young audience that is perfectly in tune with its traits, however, from angsty rebellion to pessimistic frustration at the status quo. Where it goes next is anybody’s guess – but I’m excited to listen.