Genres, sub-genres and the short history behind pop-punk

When Alan Freed first used the words “rock ‘n’ roll” to describe the new genre of music that was coming of age in the 50’s, he probably didn’t think about all the sub-genres it would create. Or maybe he did, how could I know? What I do know is that now “rock’n’roll” or even its prime spin-off “rock” itself is not adequate to describe all pieces of music who use as prime instruments distorted electric guitars, loud drums and bass guitars with raunchy and screaming vocals.

Fall Out Boy

We’re in 2011 and rock ‘n’ roll had plenty of time to create an abundant offspring. From hard-rock to pop-rock, through punk, glam, indie, alternative, metal, grunge, neo, progressive and all other prefixes to which you can add the word “rock”, the genre seems to contain as many sub-genres with sub-genres themselves as there are human beings on earth. This is handy because everybody can find a specific genre to like. Mine happens to be what we usually call “pop-punk.”

Before going into details of what pop-punk is I must clarify one thing. Trying to classify music into specific genres is not something I like to do. At all. Music is so diverse nowadays that every other piece of music could form its own genre on its own. Narrowing bands or albums to a specific genre is most of the time too restrictive and doesn’t always pay tribute to the band’s intentions. That being said, in rock music, genres are sometimes convenient. Instead of an exhaustive list of music, bands and albums, a few prefixes help summarize a tons of influences into one main.

Pop-punk music will be the main subject of this blog and for that reason it deserves clarification. What is pop-punk? The genre was born with bands from the nineties and is now associated to a specific “scene” of a few music festivals and a handful of flourishing record labels. Now, the genre seems to be at a peak with a great amount of successful bands, and this underscores the fact that pop-punk is also the crossroad where underground and mainstream meet and sometimes collide.


Taking roots


Ask any current pop-punk band to cite a big name in the genre and their answer will necessarily match one of these: Green Day, blink-182 or New Found Glory. Other answers might also include Good Charlotte, Simple Plan or Sum 41. These bands were the “pioneers” of pop-punk by creating music that took root in punk and adding catchy melodies and sing-along choruses that made them pop-friendlier. While more pop than their predecessors and idols, they remained punk in the heart with loud drumming and distorted guitars. They were the heroes of the 90’s and early 00’s’ generation. Nowadays, new bands took over the hard task. The late 00’s saw Fall Out Boy and Paramore climb up the ladder. Following their split-ups* All Time Low and The Maine seem to be the closest bands to aspire to the title of pop-punk heroes, but a squadron of other bands are close behind, including Mayday Parade and Every Avenue.

One stage, one magazine and the scene

As the genre is becoming more and more widespread, a “scene” is forming. Pop-punk bands are touring together, collaborating to make music, doing interviews in the same magazines or just helping each other out in what we now call the “pop-punk scene.”

The Vans Warped Tour is probably the best example of that. Founded in 1994 by Kevin Lyman, the festival tours North America every summer and provides long days of live music and close fans-bands relationships. Showcasing mostly punk music at its debut, the Warped Tour incorporated a lot of pop-punk music these past five or six years, generating some harsh skepticism. The festival helped launch bands such as Paramore and provided them with their to-be fans. It is now considered as a main rendez-vous to see all these bands together and discover who the next big thing in pop-punk will be.

The Maine on the cover of AP magazine

Alternative Press magazine also helps describing the scene as many pop-punk bands landed on their cover several times. This established magazine and their related tour, the “AP tour” promotes pop-punk with in-depth interviews, reviews and news to keep the readership/fans informed about this music. Because AP magazine is one of the very few to talk about this genre of music, it has become closely associated with it and pop-punk becomes a lot of what lands on the pages of the magazine.


Bonding by contract

Bands I cited earlier are the most popular faces of pop-punk but the family is growing by the minute. The word is precisely chosen because pop-punk is a big family, by contract. It means that most of the bands from the genre, including the most popular, belong to a handful of independent record labels. Three labels are worthy of notice: Fueled By RamenFearless Records and Hopeless Records. The former is known for having signed what became the first wave of today’s pop-punk: Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Panic! At The Disco, The Academy Is…The CabHey Monday and Cute is What We Aim For among many others.


The tour poster for the recent "Fearless Friends Tour"

Flyer for the 2010 Fearless Friends Tour

After many of those bands experienced internal turmoil, Fearless and Hopeless records provided the next wave of successful pop-punkers. Artist Vs Poet, Every Avenue, Mayday Parade and The Maine are from the former, All Time Low, Anarbor, There For Tomorrow and We Are The In Crowd from the latter. Of course, three record labels do not own all the good (and bad) bands out there and the bands I cited are not the only ones from these record labels. Hopefully we’ll be able to discuss the other ones as we go along this blog. It is also worthy of notice that many bands once signed to these independent record labels have since then made the big jump to the world of majors, highlighting another episode in pop-punk music.

The eternal fight: Underground Vs Mainstream

As you probably noticed, “pop-punk” contains “pop” which means the genre contains in its name the seeds to make it popular. It is not in itself a genre that usually makes the headlines. It remains mainly an underground phenomenon where bands play small-scale venues, albeit in front of die-hard fans. This genre doesn’t usually make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine or the pages of the Arts section of the New York Times. However some bands do.

After a few years in the independent and underground world, the likes of Fall Out Boy and All Time Low have been noticed by the mainstream world and their growing popularity helped them get bigger venues, bigger records sales (if that’s still possible nowadays) and bigger contracts. And this is where the ambiguity of pop-punk rests. This is where the lovers meet the haters and the two world collides. In rock and punk music, going mainstream is the fear of die-hard fans, but remain most bands’ dirty little wish. It is the same in pop-punk music with the difference that it seems to happen more often because the boundary between the two worlds is blurry.


All Time Low on MTV Unplugged

When a band goes mainstream, it suddenly loses its credibility to the eyes of fans and the community. They are described as “sell-outs” and more hardcore bands and critics make fun of them for winning over a younger and less “hardcore” audience, who follow them at their shows, sometimes promoted by MTV. This is the unfortunate part of pop-punk music. The music itself might be really important, but the scene in which it belongs is as much important. The scene defines the credibility of a genre who has one foot in the indie world and the other in the famous one. This is where fans and bands are torn apart and where everybody sits awkwardly trying to figure out what to do next. Ask me the question and I’d say what comes next is music. And at the end of the day I believe this is the most important thing. Whether this is pop or this is punk, what really matters is if it’s good music.

These four elements – the bands, the scene, the record labels and the fight between underground and mainstream – helped describe what pop-punk music is to me and to, I believe, a lot of its supporters. This is what this blog will be all about. However pop-punk is a wide world and therefore music doesn’t have to fit into those four elements at the same time to fit into this blog. This is also what makes it interesting. Pop-punk is about cross-genres and combinations. And if you are really open-minded, at the end of the day it could just be about one thing: rock ‘n’ roll.

* Officially, Fall Out Boy are on hiatus and Paramore still exist but two of their founding members recently left the band.

5 thoughts on “Genres, sub-genres and the short history behind pop-punk

  1. This is a very nice overview of the pop-punk scene as it exists today, particularly your description of the struggle between underground credibility and mainstream success. However, another point that I would like to mention is the difference between the stylistic conventions of the genre known as pop-punk (uber-fast drummers, major key power chord progressions, and adolescent angst) and the thing that really makes pop-punk a sub-genre of punk in the first place: attitude and originality. When I first discovered punk rock more than a decade ago I was just an offbeat seventh grader going to dirty punk clubs and basement DIY shows surrounded by sweaty, passionate people who were just as offbeat as I was. I identified with a scene that celebrated the differences in everyone and especially the differences in music. That same year I, and a band comprised of my middle school friends, opened up for bands with names like Vomit Snack, Bodybag Romance, and Peep Show in dark corner bars with walls covered in black Sharpie. But it didn’t matter that we were just kids. We were accepted just the same because we shared a similar attitude and free-spirited way. Today I am in a pop-punk band called Third Time’s a Charm out of Chicago (check us out at and the world of punk rock that I grew up in is gone, replaced by the stagnation of the mainstream which has bastardized a scene that meant everything to me. Producers have ripped off the greatest pop-punk bands and incorporated elements of their sound in songs for major pop-stars like Kelly Clarkson or Ashlee Simpson. The same is true with bands like All Time Low, the Maine, the Cab, etc. They are masquerading as something that they are not and operating subversively in a scene that they don’t belong to. Punk is not so much a style of music as a lifestyle and an attitude. That is what is now missing in the current crop of wannabe pop-“punk” bands looking to cash in on the current craze. And that is why pop-punk is now in dire need of saving or else it will go the way of disco, but unlike with disco the world would be poorer without it.

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