The Evolution of Angst

by Gabe Fine; illustration by Morgan Bak

On an otherwise insignificant afternoon, I was cleaning my room when a Blink-182 song came on shuffle through my computer speakers. For a moment that was gone before I could grasp it, I felt an indefinable sadness. I had often experienced that strange, visceral nostalgia that occurs when listening to music symbolic of past phases in one’s life, even if my old tastes are regrettable. But this moment was different, and its echo lingered in my mind. It seemed that Blink-182 had suddenly, inexplicably, become something tragic. I listened to the entire album with my eyes closed and wondered whether this band––in fact, all the bands of that era of angsty pop punk that I had loved as a tween––would remain melancholy for the rest of my life.

It turned out that determining how this shift occurred did not require much thought. I see now that the transformation had been burgeoning for a long time. It was the product of a series of changes in my life, and the way I saw my life, that caused this music to take on a radically different symbolism for me. I also realized that relaying the history of the fleeting era of pop punk, perhaps ironically, might help me understand my own history, and give me a better understanding of that newfound, elusive sadness.

Pop punk began two years prior to my birth, when Green Day released their pivotal 1994 album, “Dookie.”  The album name says it all: that I-don’t-give-a-shit mentality, the band’s blatant mockery of mainstream music by christening their first album on a major label with a Simpsons-esque scatological term. But going deeper into the songs, and the artists, says a bit more. Take “Basket Case,” a song titled for someone in a state of mental disrepair: “I am one of those/ melodramatic fools/ neurotic to the bone/ no doubt about it,” Billie Joe Armstrong whines. Or “When I Come Around,” a song that doesn’t seem to contain as much baggage on the first listen (perhaps caused slightly by Armstrong’s slurred, often incomprehensible enunciation). Yet once you hear, “I’m a loser and a user/ so I don’t need no accuser,” you may start to notice something else entirely about the album. The essence of the punk archetype seems to have shifted: from the hipness of being a rebel, encapsulated in a song like the Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” to the celebration of being worthless, a fuck-up, which in its own way signifies a whole new style of rebellion.

Put another way, what punk meant to Green Day, according to the lyrics of “Dookie,” was not being a rebel in and of itself. Being punk meant being a hopeless mess, a wayward, thankless child whose rebellion depended on his very acceptance of his waywardness, his enormous middle finger to the standards of his culture. One was no longer a punk because they were cool or hip. They were punk because they were the opposite: trash, scum, skate rats who had no direction in life and frankly didn’t care (think of Lit’s “My Own Worst Enemy”). In owning this, these ’90s artists became empowered as a new kind of punk. I picture the iconic photograph of a young Billie Joe Armstrong on tour in 1994: his bleached, messy hair, his baggy shirt, his iconic low-hanging guitar that seems massively impractical to play at such an angle. He stands on-stage looking like a teenager lacking a sense of style—an outcast, someone you would find smoking cigarettes in the alley behind school. And he couldn’t care less. He hammers away at his guitar angrily, ecstatically, pouring forth his qualms and anxieties through the raw, yet somehow vulnerable, music that he plays. 

Along with this fundamental revision of punk, there was one other significant change with the release of “Dookie,” and it caused big disruptions within their fan base: Green Day was no longer punk. Just as their substance had changed, so had their sound. Their music was now driven by melodically infused rock and strayed from the harder sounds of bands like Stiff Little Fingers who preceded them. It was the combination of the shift in subject paired with a more accessible––“prettier,” if you will–––sound that caused much of Green Day’s initial fan base to dub them “sell-outs.” Green Day had become a filtered product of the eclipsing post-punk scene (think later-era the Clash, with their horn-laden melodies, or the Pixies) merged with the youthful angst-romanticism of New Wave bands like the Cure and the Smiths. Starting with “Dookie,” Green Day was a pop punk band, and this label came to encompass the blossoming genre for the next ten years. 

Perhaps you notice something illogical in my story. I was born two years after Dookie’s release. In fact, by the time I was old enough to begin garnering my own musical interests, I became drawn to Green Day (and bands like them) not because of their “punkness” at all—at least not directly. It was due to their “popness,” their accessibility and catchiness. Green Day did not start my era of pop punk. That came later. 

The first album I ever purchased was Blink-182’s “Enema of the State.” I must have been nine or ten, about five years after the release of this album. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Enema was like my version of Prince’s 1999: not to mention the name (which went over my head for years), when my parents saw the provocative cover (with the busty porn star Janine Lindemulder pictured in a nurse’s outfit, pulling a latex glove onto her hand), they tried to throw the album away. I clung to it assertively, first by hiding it and eventually by removing the disk and throwing away the case to assuage my parent’s distaste. Secretly, I would snap the CD into my Walkman and listen in a swoon of emotion, vacillating between pleasure at the music and awe at the subject matter and vernacular of some of the songs (e.g. the shameless line in “Dysentary Gary”: “Fuck this place/I lost the war/I hate you all/ your mom’s a whore”).

This is all to say that I didn’t really understand the pop punk principle until I experienced my own adolescent disillusionment. Instead, I was drawn by the impression it gave, the dubious ground it formed that hovered among dissonant, gritty palm-mutes, exhilarating, explosive drums, and a sensitive, sometimes saccharine temperament. The subject matter within this sound, on the other hand, was more like an enigma. I listened to the words without understanding them, sometimes even paying them no mind. Oftentimes, I mistook the lyrics because I didn’t know the concept they centered on. Take “What’s My Age Again,” when Mark Hoppus wonders, “What the hell is ADD?” I remember hearing, “What the hell is AVP?” after the release of Alien vs. Predator. Or, I think of how on a later Blink-182 album, “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket“ (enough said), I would always skip the short, brutal song, “Merry Christmas You Bastards,” because I didn’t realize at the time that the violence of its language was a joke. But it was the presence of this mystery, this incomprehensible facet that I desperately wanted to understand, that made Blink-182 my first rebellion. As is the case with first rebellions, this signified the beginning of myidentity formation, with all the trauma and confusion with whichthose stages carry. In time, Blink-182’s lyrics about bewilderment at the approaching world of maturity, with all its expectations, alienation, sex, drugs, triumphs and defeats, started to make sense.

During this naïve period in my relationship with pop punk, a few other bands joined my repertoire, including Sum 41, Yellowcard, Jimmy Eat World, and, yes, Green Day. However, by the time I started listening to Green Day, it was when “American Idiot” had been released, an album that signified both the pinnacle of the band’s popularity as well as the beginning of its end. I distinctly remember hearing either “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Holiday” on the drive to elementary school every day on FM 93.3. I burned four albums from a childhood friend, including “Dookie,” and solidified my interest in the Green Day that had been, but was no longer. I learned quickly that “American Idiot” paled in comparison to their Dookie-era sound. In their very transition of subject matter from self-worthlessness to political activism, Green Day had lost the essence of their pop “punkness.” They were trying to replace the substance of pop punk with the substance of punk, perhaps not admitting to themselves that they were no longer equivalent genres. That is, pop punk was no place to incite social movement; it was a genre that encapsulated the sentiment of a generation. It was more a sound through which one could wallow in passion rather than be stirred to action. 

As people came to this realization and other pop punk bands began to cross the fatal Rubicon (e.g. Sum 41’s exceptionally misdirected “Underclass Hero,” which posited the punk icon as the new revolutionary, an idea that seemed doubtful even then, and now seems like an awkward attempt to sew the dictatorship of the proletariat into mainstream music), pop punk itself started its decline. However, just as pop punk was giving way to post-pop punk bands like Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, All Time Low, etc.––all bands that became emblematic of poor taste––I was becoming enamored with their predecessors. Not only were Blink-182 and Sum 41 symbols of my rebellion through their thematic nature, but they remained bands I could only indulge in secretly.

This was due largely to the fact that I went to an “art school” for junior high. Besides learning straightforward, traditional academics, each student also participated in a major such as creative writing, visual arts, theatre, etc. And, as you might find is characteristic of most art schools, regardless of the students’ ages, music as low as pop punk was anathema. I was surrounded by fledgling hipsters, which meant that fitting in ironically required listening to music outside of the mainstream, be it Iron & Wine, the Decemberists or Death Cab for Cutie (all of which I bought into passionately, don’t get me wrong). For me, however, this scenario made listening to bands like Blink-182 all the more rebellious. I was in an environment where they no longer had popular approval, and listening to them remained subversive. This was my true era of pop punk, despite coming technically at the moment of the era’s decline. And, as it turns out, I was not alone. I began to associate part-time with the skaters of my school, who wore sagging skinny jeans, had long hair, and skated in the rotunda after class. I identified with them not because they were the best people I knew, but probably because they were the worst. I wanted to be reckless with them, tag buildings after class, burn piles of leaves in the alley––and I see now this was all a yearning to fight back against the disconcerting forces of growing up. That is, I wanted to be angsty, to epitomize the punk persona––but I wasn’t really that person. In the end, I was just confused. 

It was not until much later that I learned that everyone feels like this at some point. How can a child possibly confer the utter perplexity they experience as they begin to question their parents, fall in love with girls and grow leg hair? A good friend of mine recently found a diary entry from sixth grade in which she had written, “Being eleven is so hard.” The complaint was endearing in its innocence, but also accurate in its bluntness. We did not have a way to articulate what was happening to us at the time, only having an inkling that it was something strange and irrevocable. Pop punk songs were some of the only words in the world capable of explaining what we were feeling. The genre was emblematic of the painful transition from childhood to adulthood––that muddled experience called adolescence. 

Now, many years after the end of pop punk, the genre has made a small resurgence in our lives. We find an amusing nostalgia in it, an alluring glimpse at the questionable tastes of our past selves. Upon listening, we discover that remnants of that child still remain, against all odds and transformation. When I hear Blink-182’s “First Date,” for instance, I remember my very first girlfriend, in seventh grade, telling me that the line, “When you smile, I melt inside,” made her cry, and I remember that hearing this drenched me wonderfully, horribly, in the throes of first love. I remember how, once, I held my RAZR cell phone trembling in my hand as I listened to the lines of “Roller Coaster,” and tried to will myself to call (or perhaps text) someone in order to declare my eternal love. And I remember smoking weed for the first time with the band I was part of in eighth grade, returning to the basement from the smoky garage and surging through a rendition of “Stay Together for the Kids,” and later, the more sensitive, “I Miss You.”

Ultimately, the memories these songs spur become allegorical for the greater issues of our lives, which we finally see have been the same all along. In looking back now, I recall my first girlfriend’s tears at the lyrics of “First Date” and see that this may have been the earliest moment in either of our lives when the force of romantic love became capable of conferring a wound. Or, I hear“Aliens Exist” and realize that the song embodies a child’s shift in fears: from monsters in the closet to the power of loneliness and the despondency of feeling misunderstood. The point is, we eventually cross a bridge in which our nostalgia gives way to a sobering revelation about the nature of life in general. And once we realize it, the bridge disappears behind us.

At this point, we begin to wonder why we continue to listen to music that symbolizes this revelation, if the nostalgia becomes ambivalent or even painful. I am reminded of a line in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity: “What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” This line captures two important concepts, the first of which is that music, a surprising amount of the time, fosters misery. And whether we admit it or not, there are times when we love feeling miserable. We wallow like a character in a Goethe novel in the torments of our emotion—or, more accurately, like the boy in Blink-182’s “Adam’s Song,” who sings, “I couldn’t wait ‘til I got home, to pass the time in my room alone.” When I listen to Blink-182 today, I see that the disillusionment I felt then is really no different than that which I feel now. The only difference is that my confrontation of the irrational world as an adolescent made the feelings novel––now, they are just expected.

But then there is the second notion that Hornby captures: that these thoughts are nothing more than absurdities. It is precisely at this moment that we can, and must, begin to see the comedy. Perhaps the great joke of it all is that in listening to these bands that mirrored our disillusionment, we recognize that they were, in fact, terrible. Whether intentionally or not, they encapsulate both the agony of growing up as well as the farcicality. If we can laugh at the twelve-year-old who was subsumed by the world, whose only recourse was in the music of a few sub-par pop punk bands, then perhaps we can also laugh at ourselves today when we feel subsumed by that very same world, which seems to have chased us for the past ten years.

This is the ultimate message of the pop punk movement: There is no true rebellion of identity. We assign nostalgic value to a time when possibilities were dreamable, when we seemed capable of not falling into the system of everyday pains and confusion that we always, inevitably, fall into. And therein lies the joke: Life is, was and will continue to be, strange; oftentimes we can’t discern anything truthful out of the mess. When we feel as if we have learned nothing, and perhaps never will, we are probably right––and that is exactly the point. We listen to pop punk and realize that the only sense is in the nonsense. We take the world we are given and laugh at it, never quite rising above it, but at the very least facing up to it, as we shout out the words, “Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me/It all keeps adding up/I think I’m cracking up/Am I just paranoid/Or am I just stoned?”