Yes, There Really Is A Difference Between Pop-Punk Bands and Boybands

From blink-182 and Busted to 5 Seconds Of Summer

Yes, There Really Is A Difference Between Pop-Punk Bands and Boybands
Yes, There Really Is A Difference Between Pop-Punk Bands and Boybands

By Rob Barbour

Oct 15, 2014 18:47

The year is 2003. 'The Rock Show' and 'First Date' from Blink-182’s 'Take Off Your Pants and Jacket' album are all over UK radio like a particularly stubborn outbreak of contact dermatitis. With similar frequency, the first songs by Busted are pouring out of speakers in Topshops and Virgin Megastores across the country.

These are the dark days before Spotify, Bandcamp, Youtube et al made discovering new music a task as simple as changing your MSN Messenger screen name to a different Taking Back Sunday lyric; when it comes to discovering new music, Radio and Music TV are not so much instrumental (pun absolutely intended) but vital.

As the video for ‘Year 3000’ appears on the TV in my student house for what feels like the hundredth time this afternoon, I turn to my Libertines-worshipping, indie-girl housemate and whinge, ‘Not this crap again.’ Her response?

“How can you like Blink 182 and hate Busted? I can’t even tell the difference.”

Obviously, I’m outraged. I launch into an indignant explanation of the obvious (to me) differences between the two bands, which as I recall revolves primarily around the volume of the guitars on their records and the number of toilet venues each respective band have played, to which my Pete Doherty-loving friend simply shrugs and says

“Well, they all look and sound the same to me.”

Fast forward a decade and Emma Garland at Noisey is essentially making the same argument with regards to 5 Second of Summer, albeit from the position of having been a member of the pop-punk tribe. It’s a well-written and entertaining article which makes a considered and compelling argument – and one with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

Garland’s essay starts out with an eloquent summary of the cultural shift which took place at the tail-end of the 90s, during which

The climate of pop culture had shifted towards an increasingly hypermediated age in which three losers wearing Dickies could be 5x platinum icons and the idea of Fred Durst dating Britney Spears was entirely plausible. All of a sudden, it was cool to be uncool.

On the face of if, it’s hard to disagree with that assertion because Blink-182 and Limp Bizkit were undeniably two of the biggest bands on the planet. It seems ridiculous to ascribe any kind of ‘outsider’ status to acts who were appearing on MTV’s ‘Cribs’ around the time that that channel began rendering the ‘M’ in its name entirely redundant by churning out vomit-and-anger-inducing “reality” TV, but is it really?

Back before the lines between the various tribes of youth culture were irreversibly blurred by high-speed broadband, American Apparel and ‘American Idiot’, there really was a huge and – as far as we were concerned – important difference between the kids who’d pollute the Sixth-Form common room CD player with ‘100% UK Garage’every lunchtime and those of us who listened to “real” music. In objective terms, of course, the difference between our cultural choices was as symbolic as the differences between the bonuses of the various Sony execs who profited from the 2009 ‘Rage Against the X-Factor’ campaign.  We were being good little consumers and simply buying into different cogs of the same corporate machine.

Yes, There Really Is A Difference Between Pop-Punk Bands and Boybands
Yes, There Really Is A Difference Between Pop-Punk Bands and Boybands

The thing is, they were our cogs. It’s easy to look back cynically on the bold statements of ‘individualism’ we all made as teenagers, but at that stage of life identity was everything. Garland writes of

all the kids who used to pick on me for wearing baggy jeans as a tween … listening to the bands I liked. Suddenly, kids from all different social circles were united by a love for kale green corduroy Quiksilver rucksacks.

I’m showing my age here, but this wasn’t my experience at all. It was strange – and disappointing, in a way – to hear ‘What’s My Age Again?’ being played on commerical radio and to see Green Day headlining Wembley Arena but in the boring, barren Berkshire suburbs where I received both my academic and cultural education, pop-punk was most certainly not “cool”. We were not “cool”.

The guys who played football – they were cool. The kids who spent their weekends getting wasted and getting laid and then bragged about it on Monday morning – they were cool. But pop-punk? Absolutely not. You listened to The Artful Dodger or you were a “grunger”, a “greebo”, a “mosher”. If you had the temerity to leave the house wearing baggy jeans or a wallet chain you were at risk of having kids yell those words at you across the street as if they were racist slurs.

(Let me be clear: I am in no way equating teenage cultural identity with racial prejudice, simply noting the spite and malice with which the “other side” regarded “us”.)

The success of Blink-182, Sum 41 and Good Charlotte didn’t significantly change this cultural dichotomy – it simply gave our “enemies” a few household names they could throw into the mix when mocking our sonic and sartorial selections.

When Busted hit the scene, those of us who sourced our music on import from independent side-street record shops and prided ourselves on repeating the lie that ‘Dude Ranch’ was better than ‘Enema of the State’, simply because fewer people had heard of it, could see exactly what was happening. The music industry was taking our music, sanding off the edges and serving it up to children and, even worse, “townies” (the “chav” as a concept barely existed back then, and carries with it some class baggage I have no intention of addressing here).

I know a lot of people who look back fondly on Busted but personally I was too old to like them non-ironically and just young enough to hate them on principle. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, James Bourne and Tom Fletcher’s songwriting talent* is obvious and – as Beez Says recently pointed out – Busted acted as a gateway drug to get kids into punk music. ‘The Kids Who Pop Today Will Rock Tomorrow’, as the obscure Biffy Clyro EP had it. That is, however, a crucial difference. Being the band who act as a conduit for the enjoyment of a genre does not place said band within said genre.

So, why are boybands not pop-punk bands, and why does it matter? It boils down to two things, in my view: cultural impact and, for want of a better phrase, paying dues.

Blink-182, Green Day, Sum 41 and their ilk were many things but model-handsome they were not. That’s not to say that members of their audience didn’t fancy them, but that wasn’t the end game. These were bands who plugged away in sweaty garages and practice rooms, put out badly-recorded albums and EPs on tiny independent labels and inspired a generation of kids to learn to play guitar. Badly, on the most part, but the point stands: their influence is undeniable.

For the past 15 years, playing Blink-182 covers has been ubiquitous for the ‘shit first band’ all musicians form at school to play gigs at village halls to friends drinking vodka out of mineral water bottles while parents look on with a combination of pride, confusion and relief that their little darlings are horribly abusing Top 40 hits rather than Class A’s.

The Noisey article acknowledges this difference in passing, but for me that difference is absolutely fundamental. It’s the reason that Blink-182 are a punk band and 5 Seconds of Summer are not.

Yes, There Really Is A Difference Between Pop-Punk Bands and Boybands
Yes, There Really Is A Difference Between Pop-Punk Bands and Boybands

Before they’d released a note of original music, 5 Seconds of Summer had worked with stylists and songwriters and were unleashed on the world via a support slot on a One Direction tour taking in some of the largest venues on the planet. They might have piercings and guitars but they are simply a reiteration of the Monkees/Bay City Rollers/Busted/McFly formula, fine-tuned to hit the Kerrang! demographic. They may “write their own songs”, as the Noisey article notes, but not without a huge amount of input from those most heavily invested in them.

To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at the writing credits for Blink-182’s ‘Na-Na-Na-Na’-laden breakthrough hit ‘All The Small Things’:


Written by the two guys who sing it. Standard. Compare and contrast this with the writing credits for 5 Seconds of Summer’s catchy-as-all-hell début single ‘She Looks So Perfect’:


Written by two of the guys who sing on it… and their Grammy-nominated producer. Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with that per se. Hell, Jake Sinclair co-wrote ‘This Is Gospel’, the opening track from Panic At The Disco’s fourth album and a fixture on just about every playlist I’ve made this year.

I’m not one of those DIY purists who thinks a band is automatically rendered irrelevant the second they decide to work with a songwriting team – what matters is how good the song is, not who wrote it. But the broader point is that Blink-182 et al happened to stumble across a formula which worked and is now being cynically reproduced as if by an assembly line. Panic! At The Disco got to work with Jake because they were cranking out bangers like ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’, not the other way round.

Like Ed Sheeran rapping about not going to Brit School, but leaving out the bit where he auditioned to be in ‘Britannia High’, 5 Seconds of Summer have had their “punk” credentials as carefully crafted as their elegantly disheveled hair. They may have met at school and they may be holding guitars, but they’ve been pumped through the same pipeline which presented Paramore as a band when they were essentially a pop star who’d brought her mates along for the ride and which transformed Black Eyed Peas from a pretty decent hip-hop act into an auto-tuned aural massacre; a process now so streamlined that it forgoes the grass roots smoke and mirrors and simply throws the band, fully-formed, straight into the limelight.

Perhaps the most egregious assertion in the article is contained in its closing argument:

Essentially, 5SOS look back to blink-182 the same way blink-182 looked back to Descendents, and they take from One Direction just as blink-182 took from the Backstreet Boys. If Tom Delonge was 19 again, he’d be doing exactly what they’re doing.

No. No, no, no. Blink-182’s video for ‘All The Small Things’ was a pastiche of the slick, choreographed boyband videos of the late 90s; Tom Delonge sitting on a toilet pouting at the camera was pure mockery. Gentle mockery, granted, but it was not appropriation. Blink-182 took one thing from the Backstreet Boys: the piss.  5SOS take from One Direction – among other things – a management company and a target demographic.

The teens of Tumblr ‘ship’ the members of 5 Seconds of Summer and One Direction because they want them; we picked up guitars because we wanted to be Blink-182. Not because they were hot, or popular, but because we loved the songs. Blink came from the same SoCal punk scene which produced Bad Religion and Pennywise and spent not just 5 Seconds but entire summers cooped up in sweaty vans, in sweaty Vans, playing the Warped Tour. I’ve no doubt that 5 Seconds of Summer will make a huge amount of money in a short space of time before at least one of the members decides to “do a Charlie Simpson” and start a “real” band. But if you’re asking whether there’s really a difference, Noisey, then the answer is “Yes”.

Thanks to a decade and a half of careful cultural co-opting by savvy music management teams, that difference is difficult to pinpoint but I think it can best be summed up thusly: in 15 years’ time, there will still be awful bands comprised of young teenagers mauling their first guitars while trying to nail the intro to ‘What’s My Age Again?’ while 5SOS will have been relegated to the bargain bin, or at least its 21st Century equivalent, the Spotify recommendations page. ‘You Listened to The Latest Manufactured, Overproduced Attempt to Buy Simon Cowell A New Yacht’, Spotify will say. ‘You Might Like: 5 Seconds of Summer’.

*(I know Tom Fletcher wasn’t in Busted but he did co-write many of their biggest hits and took the formula they pioneered to the next level as part of McFly).