Watching, Waiting, Commiserating: The Misogyny in Early-Aughts Pop-Punk

Like many people who came of age in the 2000s, pop-punk played a formidable role in my psychosocial development. Between crushes and rejections, butting heads with my parents, my friendships at the core of my universe, and the absolute rage at being unable to legally drink: pop-punk was my soundtrack to it all.

Blink-182, of course, was an important band.  Enema of the State so clearly captured the complicated emotions I felt as a high school senior, never mind the fact the album was released when I was six years old–that angst had longevity. Fall Out Boy has been my most-played artist on Spotify Wrapped since the streaming service implemented that algorithm six years ago.  “Wishing to be the friction in your jeans,” the line from “Sugar We’re Going Down”, was the first lyric that resonated with the horniess I felt deep in my little sexually-repressed soul. The Story So Far and The Wonder Years got me through my first breakup.  My senior quote in my high school yearbook was from an All Time Low song. (“Maybe it’s not my weekend, but it’s gonna be my year.”)  I don’t think I’ll ever not get emotional when I hear Yellowcard’s “Ocean Avenue.”

However, as I’ve gotten older and my consumption of media has become shrouded in my feminist ideology, my ear has become more critical, and my analysis of lyrics more skeptical.  

Upon reflection, I have realized, sadly, that pop-punk has helped normalize misogyny in heteroromantic relationships.

I am not referring here to the garden variety sexism present in the industry, the overwhelming dominance of male artists within the genre, or the sexual harassment and assault that has been perpetuated by some of pop-punk’s heroes  (I’m looking at you, Jesse Lacey). Rather, I’m troubled by the messaging embodied within these songs, and how  they influenced my perception of what a relationship should look like.  Pop-punk taught me that if a man hates himself and doesn’t consider himself deserving of my love, it’s romantic, and I should use my kind lady heart to make him see the goodness inside himself.

Like all media, pop-punk reflected the cultural norms of the society it exists in.  Toxic masculinity and the patriarchy mean that men are not taught how to express, regulate, and alter their emotions. Because of this, simply expressing emotions is considered a symbol of pseudo-wokeness.  Once the man acknowledges his pain, the beautiful princess can work her magic and fix it.

If I drew a big venn-diagram of every guy who has ever given a shit about me, they would all coalesce in the circle labeled “has clinical depression.”  I don’t blame pop-punk for my penchant for men with mental health issues–that’s a much more complicated dynamic, and one that therapy and intense self-reflection have helped me come to terms with.  I do think, however, that pop-punk is part of what led me to romanticize these types of attachments.

Take, for example, Fall Out Boy’s “Nobody Puts Baby in A Corner,” a song that I love so much I would put it on my own funeral’s playlist, if I were morbid enough to create such a thing:

Keep quiet, nothing comes as easy as you
Can I lay in your bed all day?
I’ll be your best-kept secret and your biggest mistake
The hand behind this pen relives a failure everyday

As someone who has long had the habit of developing feelings for friends and acting on them against my own best judgement, the “best-kept secret and your biggest mistake” phrase has always struck a chord with me. I’ve listened to this track many times as I’ve navigated the confusion that comes with these kinds of situations.  

The best part of this song, undoubtedly, is its bridge, which is also rife with problematic lyrics:

So wear me like a locket around your throat
I’ll weigh you down, I’ll watch you choke
You look so good in blue, you look so good in blue 

Once, upon discussing a relationship problem with a close friend, she validated my stupidity, saying how there is something incredibly liberating about knowing full well how dumb you’re being and just going full steam ahead anyway, illprepared to deal with the consequences. It’s this exact sentiment that leads this stanza to resonate with me so strongly. I’ve thought that allowing someone to weigh me down and watch me choke was a noble pursuit, one that highlighted my worth as a woman: loving, accepting, obedient, a “chill girl.” I could do the mental gymnastics around being weighed down, convincing myself that I was exercising my agency.  

While “Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner” encompasses much of the “man hates himself but loves me and that’s romantic” rhetoric, there are other songs that have continued to dominate my mind since my adolescence, shaping my view of romantic relationships. Something Corporate’s 9 minute 37 second emo magnum opus, “Konstantine,” has remained one of my favorites when I’ve been trying to see nobility in my own subjugation:

And if this is what it takes to lie in my mistakes
And live with what I did to you
All the hell I put you through….

They’ll never hurt you like I do
No, they’ll never hurt you like I do

Even blink-182’s upbeat hit single “First Date” demonstrates the phenomenon of low-self esteem artsy-boy likes beautiful, cooler-than-him girl:

When you smile, I melt inside

I’m not worthy for a minute of your time

I really wish it was only me and you

I’m jealous of everybody in the room

Please, don’t look at me with those eyes

Please, don’t hint that you’re capable of lies

I dread the thought of our very first kiss

A target that I’m probably gonna miss

Songs like ‘“First Date” seem innocuous upon listening, but they help perpetuate harmful gender norms.  Insecurity is a normal part of the courtship process, and can be a very real side effect of falling in love (or even falling “in like”).  But it’s through these lyrics that a man seeing himself “unworthy” of a “superior” woman becomes romantic and desirable. 

To put within a greater lens of media criticism, pop-punk lyrics are full of men seeking their manic pixie dream girl. Coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007, the manic pixie dream girl “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors [or musicians] to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Pop-punk provides a soundtrack to this narrative, allowing men with a bad case of main character syndrome to feel like their quest for, and subsequent mistreatment of, their own personal manic pixie dream girl is poetic and just. For women (and keep in mind, for purposes of this argument I am speaking very exclusively of heteroromantic relationships), pop-punk allows women to feel being the manic pixie dream girl makes them worthy of male affection.

This type of “broodingly soulful” young man has become known as a “soft boi” in recent years.  His type isn’t new. You definitely know him, you may have dated him.  He gets drunk and cries to you about how depressed he is.  He expresses guilt over how he’s treated his exes, but never does anything to change his behavior. He says he doesn’t deserve you, but then he doesn’t do anything to be a better friend/boyfriend/hookup/human to you.  He likes psychedelics, indie films, and judging your taste in music. Ultimately, the soft boi, not to be confused with just a regular guy in touch with his emotions, uses self-awareness and a creative spirit as defenses for his misogyny.

While the soft-boi’s misogyny runs rampant through all pop-punk, Brand New might be the granddaddy of the genre’s misogyny, made even more troubling by frontman Jesse Lacey’s aforementioned sexual harassment of teenage girls. One shining example of this is “The Boy Who Blocked His Own Shot,” an absolute pinnacle of adolescent male-self hatred: 

If it makes you less sad
I will die by your hand
Hope you find out what you want
Already know what I am

If it makes you less sad

We’ll start talking again

You can tell me how vile

I already know that I am

I understand it.  When you’ve been scorned by someone you love, sometimes the most satisfying thing is hearing them recgonize how fucking awful they are.  In low moments, especially during formative teenage years, hearing a voice in your headphones saying what you wish your shitty ex-boyfriend would actually say, can be very comforting. But, as many of us have had to learn, acknowledging how you’ve hurt someone doesn’t automatically make it any less terrible.

While I certainly have not grown out of my love for 2000s pop-punk, and I doubt I ever will,  it’s the music of woman-identifying singer- songwriters that has helped me unlearn much of the internalized misogyny.  Artists like Best Coast, Maggie Rogers, Kate Nash, Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, Julia Jacklin, Angie McMahon, and Fiona Apple have provided the soundtrack for the new stage of my life, a stage ridden with (somewhat) less angst, and much more self-assurance.

The current mainstream queen of sad girl music, Phoebe Bridgers perfectly summarized this self-assurance and self-awareness in “Savior Complex,”  a song named for a psychological affliction that I see all too strongly in myself:

Drift off on the floor

I drag you to the shore

Sweating through the heat

You’re gonna drown in your sleep

For sure, wake up and start a big fire

In our one room apartment

But I’m too tired

To have a pissing contest

All the bad dreams that you hide

Show me yours, I’ll show you mine

I should be clear:  I don’t blame a genre of music for any of my dating stressors, or my choice to take on other people’s pain. My love for “broken birds,” as a therapist so succinctly put it for me, was largely because of my own self-perception as broken.  At 20 years old, finally receiving a diagnosis for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I was able to slowly start shedding myself of the narrative that only men with comparable mental health issues would want me.  The difference between myself and them, I realize in retrospect, was that I took the steps to get help, and to get better.  They didn’t. 

I recognize that this music’s influence on me says less about the music itself and more about who I am as a person. As someone with heavy codependent tendencies, no doubt exacerbated by the OG instigator of savior complexes, Catholicism, my romanticization of fixing men’s pain is my cross to bear (pun intended.) 

But the casual misogyny in pop-punk, in the form of a lyrical manic pixie dream girl/sad boi crossover, is emblematic of how young women are conditioned to accept acknowledgement of pain inflicted as sufficient, even if no changed behavior follows. Girls are taught to be amenable and adaptable to men’s shittiness, and the pop-punk of the aughts and tens highlights that phenomena.

In light of all this, the genre has made significant strides in rectifying its misogyny, self-policing problematic artists and paving way for more diverse voices in the genre.  Some great artists include Meet Me @ The Altar, awakebutstillinbed, Ratboys, and Remember Sports. Podcasts Wednesdays We Wear Black and Angry Grrrl Music Pod have become leaders in the industry, holding artists accountable as well. Misogyny is elss acceptable (and less profitable) in our current climate, and the genre reflects this.  However, regardless of pop-punk’s road to atonement, its troubling roots are still inadmissible. 

That said, I’m still going to listen to 2000’s pop-punk, one, because I just find it auditorily pleasing, and two, because my life feels directionless and I like to revisit my youth But now, I like to keep in mind lyrics from Paramore’s lead track “For a Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic,” from their sophomore album, Riot!:

Why don’t you stand up

Be a man about it

Fight with your bare hands about it, now

No more accepting self-hatred as a band-aid for bad behavior.  You have to fight your demons yourself.

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