Although pop-punk was not invented in the late nineteen-nineties—in the preceding decades, bands like Bad Religion, Agent Orange, Social Distortion, Hüsker Dü, Green Day, and the Descendents did the strange work of injecting either melody or jocularity, or both, into punk’s staunchness—few musical genres now feel as emblematic of that era. And no era is presently being gazed upon with more pie-eyed approbation than the waning years of the twentieth century. It seems deeply bogus to call that adoration “nostalgia,” as many of the folks now knotting flannel shirts around their midriffs and dipping their pigtails into jars of Manic Panic weren’t even born when, say, the Offspring released “Smash”—but it is earnest, and it is widespread. The nineties, they are Cool.
Which means the melodic pop-punk of yesteryear is having an odd return, if not quite a proper renaissance. While a handful of new bands are making vital-seeming pop-punk records, the genre is not commercially ascendant; rather, it seems to have invaded young hearts and minds as an artifact. To that end, one of pop-punk’s most beloved practitioners, Blink-182—a trio born, in 1992, from the skate parks of Southern California—is enjoying a renewed popularity. When the band released its seventh record, “California,” in July, it débuted atop the pop charts both in the U.K. and in the U.S., where it unseated Drake. (Kelefa Sanneh reviewed the album in the July 25th issue of the magazine.) This month, the band will play a string of shows in and around New York, including Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, and the Nikon at Jones Beach Theatre, in Wantagh.
Punk purists were scandalized by Green Day’s leap, in 1994, from the independent Lookout! Records to Reprise, which is owned by the Warner Music Group, one of the “Big Three” recording conglomerates. But by the time Blink-182 released its third record, “Enema of the State,” in 1999, pop-punk was axiomatically understood as a sovereign entity, a subgenre that—unlike punk, which thrived on subverting notions of palatability—was deliberately engineered for mass pleasure. “Enema of the State” has since become one of the genre’s most canonical documents (though it owes its predecessors everything) and also one of its most adored. It is as apolitical and un-self-serious as its title suggests. The cover features a young lady (Janine Lindemulder, then a star of pornographic videos) wearing blue eyeshadow and a red brassiere, squeezed into a nurse’s costume. She is suggestively stretching a rubber glove over her right hand.
In 1999, the three members of Blink-182—the singer and guitarist Tom DeLonge, the singer and guitarist Mark Hoppus, and the drummer Travis Barker—were in their mid-twenties, and deep into the kind of extended adolescence now presumed of young, privileged American men. I’d dare suggest that the band even helped engineer (or at least further normalize) the practice of rejecting traditional beacons of manhood. Blink-182 was brazenly unconcerned with seeming churlish or wayward. Being a clown incited no shame. A year earlier, the band had titled a tour “PooPoo PeePee.” The notion of embracing adulthood, even begrudgingly—of putting aside childish things, of committing to the sort of life that places a person in orbit of something other than himself, of pumping the brakes just a little on the dick jokes—simply did not register or have currency. Life was about gags, and doing whatever you felt like doing—or at least that was the performance. From the outside, it looked glorious. “Enema of the State” eventually sold more than fifteen million copies worldwide, a success by any measure. Blink-182’s snickering nihilism had legs.
On “Damnit,” an early single about a trying breakup, the chorus goes, “I guess this is growing up.” Hoppus sounds devastated each time he sings the line. It seems he was so bummed out by it that he ultimately decided to try and circumvent the eventuality of aging altogether: by the summer of 1999, “What’s My Age Again?,” a single from “Enema of the State,” had become a frantic anthem for anyone unwilling to go gracefully into adulthood. The song continues to function as such. “My friends say I should act my age,” Hoppus sings, but he just isn’t feeling it; he loses the girl. “That’s about the time she walked away from me,” he shrugs. “Nobody likes you when you’re twenty-three.” This isn’t exactly true—twenty-three is, in fact, squarely within our most coveted and courted age bracket—but part of being a perpetual teen-ager is refusing accountability, enacting an endless shuck and jive around the issue of your own cowardice.
Which is not to say that the band was witless. The video for “All the Small Things,” a sendup of boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, is startlingly clever, positioning Blink-182 as a petulant, mischievous counterpoint to dopey, manufactured pop music—when in reality those bands share significant musical DNA. It made the band seem fun, carefree, insouciant. Elsewhere on “Enema of the State,” when Blink-182 attempted seriousness—as in “Adam’s Song,” a track nominally about depression and suicide—it lost momentum. Its finest moments are barked in aggrieved-teen shorthand, like this verse from “All the Small Things”: “Late night / Come home / Work sucks / I know.”
The grievances and pleasures Blink-182’s songs express—the dumbness of adults, how weird sex is, how cool jokes are, how lonesome life can be—are the kinds of things that get worried over most loudly from ages twelve to eighteen. It’s tempting to think that our emotions become more complex and multitudinous when we grow up. But most of us continue following those same early tracks, the ones we gouged in adolescence; the whole spectrum of human experience, all that longing and self-doubt, is perfectly sketched out in those formative years. That’s where pop-punk lives. Its rawness lies not in the music but in the heady newness of those feelings.
This is, I think, at least partially why the band has endured. But I also wonder if we’re clinging to the sound—protecting it—as we would an endangered species. In 2016, a record like “Enema of the State” hits like a shot of oxygen. It’s revitalizing—and comforting, somehow—to revisit the sort of playful, featherbrained temperament made possible only by a decade in which prosperity and safety seemed nearly guaranteed. Most of the kids hollering along to the band’s discography at shows today never even knew a pre-9/11 world. I sometimes wonder, though, if the air has gotten too toxic for Blink-182’s brand of ribald goofiness.
Of course, Blink-182 looks different these days. DeLonge, who turned forty last year, has stopped touring with the band, although it is unclear whether he remains a member. (Matt Skiba, of Alkaline Trio, has been acting as his replacement.) Instead, DeLonge has committed himself to activities involving extraterrestrial life. Lately, he’s been giving loony-sounding quotes to magazines, like in April, when he told Rolling Stone, “I couldn’t tell the band I was working with people in the government. . . . I have ten people that I’m working with that are at the highest levels of the Department of Defense and NASA and the military. Big shit, and no one knows this.” Which is good copy—who wouldn’t delight in the idea that the former guitarist of a terrifically juvenile pop-punk band is now colluding with government officials to untangle the mysteries of space?—until it begins to register that maybe something else is going on.
Or perhaps focussing one’s attention on celestial affairs is a reasonable way to deal with 2016. There is a palpable hunger for balms of any type right now, and, as it gets harder and harder to invent new ones, it makes sense that we’d turn, collectively, toward preëxisting expressions—toward songs or bands or genres that don’t feel marred by a vast pessimism. In that sense, pop-punk—and its ability to express foolishness and, by extension, true joy—feels eternal.