blink-182 and the never-ending authenticity test

On blink-182, Pitchfork, reviews, and criticism in general

Last week, a few pieces ran that got the wheels turning in my brain. The first was Ellie’s great piece about DIY Twitter that, for a topic so exhausting and frustrating, they tackled with the kind of thoughtful grace you so rarely get to see (subscribe to their newsletter and support their Patreon). To reduce it to a single sentence is near impossible, but to do that exact thing, it’s vaguely about the way DIY communities engage on Twitter and how it is often detrimental to people both online and off. It’s one of the few pieces of writing I would call essential, so please work it in if you have the time.

The second piece was by my pal Dan, who also has a newsletter and it is also great. Dan’s piece was titled “Pitchfork’s Pop Punk Problem,” which is a subject near and dear to my heart. As Dan outlines, Pitchfork has—or perhaps had—a long history of shitting on things that were related to pop-punk in even the most tangential ways. Take even a cursory scroll through Dan’s piece and you’ll see a list of records that are well-liked, if not outright beloved, that the website totally tore to shreds. It’s the reason that, for most of my life, I never read Pitchfork, because they hated what I liked and I found most of the music they propped up to be very boring. It wasn’t until I had a job that required me keeping up with the general goings-on in the music world that I read the site with any regularity. Pitchfork and I were from completely different worlds when I was coming of age, and Dan does a great job of explaining how weird it is to see them go back on a lot of those criticisms in the present day.

It’s fitting that Dan wrote this last week, because the final piece I’m referencing here is Pitchfork’s “Sunday Review” of blink-182’s Enema Of The State, which ran just a few days ago. At this point, you probably have an idea of where I’m going with this. But, before we get into it, let me divert from the conversation by telling you that, yes, I have a personal attachment to the works of blink-182.

The earliest memory I have of hearing punk rock was my mom playing Green Day’s Dookie as she drove me to kindergarten. Now, for all the hand-wringing about Dookie and whether or not it’s actually punk or whatever, the fact that I loved this album before I could form complex thoughts in my brain (still can’t, for the record) probably tells you all you need to know about its edginess. Sure, there were songs about masturbation and visiting sex workers and even a song about Billie Joe Armstrong coming out as bisexual, but none of that really mattered to me then. The record was fun and energetic and I wanted to listen to it all the time. That’s about as far as things went.

I know I got Insomniac and Nimrod as those records came out, but I didn’t latch onto them as immediately as Dookie. In a way, Green Day, for as good as they were, never felt like my band. Hell, I heard them from my mom of all people. It wasn’t until I heard blink-182 that I felt like I’d actually discovered music on my own for the first time. The song was “Dammit” and the record was Dude Ranch, and while it is probably equally as damning that their material could totally captivate a seven-year-old, I still think it’s great, so who cares.

When Enema Of The State came out, I was nine. Maybe not the target demo, but close enough. When the band toured on the record, my mom took me to the show. While my memories of it are pretty hazy, I know for a fact that their banter was probably not something you want your mom hearing literally ever, but I was too young for any of it to register. They were playing “Wendy Clear” and I liked that song and those are the totality of the thoughts I had that day.

I saw them a couple more times, even as I was getting into what could reasonably described as “underground punk.” I was still young enough to not feel awkward about liking both blink-182 and Minor Threat, so while I surely could write blink-182 off as my gateway band, that’s not totally accurate either. Also, I was at this weird show that was recorded for an MTV2 broadcast, and it’s still the best I’d ever seen them as a live band. Go ahead and watch that as a way of fact-checking me if you so choose.

Now that you’re all asking yourselves “What the fuck does this have to do with a Pitchfork review,” allow me to try and answer that question.

As you can tell, I have a pretty strong relationship to blink-182. But, despite that, I’m not blind to the band’s many, many faults. They were deliberately juvenile, and they wrote songs that were often misogynistic for an audience of young boys that, surely, internalized some bad shit as a result. But they also wrote some good songs that, to this day, I still quite like, too. And to be totally honest, I don’t really care if people think that the band sucks. That’s a fair opinion to have, and one that I think would be fine to see drawn out in a retrospective review that engages with the material. But, unfortunately, that appears to be what’s missing.

From the very start of the review, it’s clear that, in the eyes of Pitchfork (just want to be clear that I like the writer who did this and am mostly talking about the institution itself here), blink-182 will never, ever be seen as something worth taking seriously. While they gave Enema Of The State a 7.5, the review reads, mostly, like a pan. Maybe the score is only that high because they rated blink-182’s two most recent albums so low and, by sheer logic, this one has to be better than those. But talking about grades is boring and pedantic, so allow me to be even more tiresome by digging into why this review has stuck in my craw (sorry).

To recycle points my friend Dan made in his newsletter, I was never a Pitchfork reader because, in the early-to-mid 2000s, they talked down to readers like me, the kids who liked punk, emo, hardcore, and anything else that fell outside the cool, indie sphere. My issue with the piece is not that Pitchfork doesn’t like Enema Of The State—it’s a good album, not a great one—but that they talk about the pop-punk audience as if it were full of mindless, drooling idiots. The fans of these bands were merely consumers who sucked down whatever shlock was served to them, or at least that seems to be the lens through which the scene is being viewed.

It’s an easy comparison to make, because even in the present day with poptimism’s take that “people who like popular things have valid perspectives,” that’s rarely applied in the reverse, and it’s very notable here. Sure, people who buy records are definitely consumers, but to put everyone who liked these bands together as a mere consumer base feels totally out of whack with how pop music is engaged with in the present day. In that sense, the review often reads like a throwback to that early era of Pitchfork, as it questions blink-182’s authenticity, and that of pop-punk as a whole. And while I hate picking things apart like this (sorry!), let’s dive into the second paragraph for a brief moment.

While the concept of pop-punk dates back to ’70s bands like the Buzzcocks and the Undertones, pop-punk didn’t become actual popular music until 1994, when Green Day’s Dookie sold more than 12 million copies and set off a never-ending debate about selling out that persists in DIY spaces today. Sure, Green Day sang more about masturbation than anarchy, but that simply did not matter to all the young kids who, apart from lapping up the music, constituted a new customer base for the record industry to serve.

I find it kind of funny that they choose to highlight that “Green Day sang more about masturbation than anarchy” when the Buzzcocks’ second single was called “Orgasm Addict” and featured a bunch of moaning in the choruses. The point seems to be that Green Day were sellouts and that, because blink-182 followed in their footsteps, they were yet another dumbing-down of the genre. There’s definitely an argument to be made there, but, to me, they always felt like a more marketable version of the original thing. It feels hard to blame the most popular acts in the genre for mining the same subject matter as the genre’s progenitors.

From there, blink-182 catches the full force of this classic version of Pitchfork. There’s a kind of constant drawing back to remind you that this thing you like actually sucks, and you must be pretty stupid for connecting to it in the first place. The fact blink-182 were on a major label made them posers—though it doesn’t make mention of the fact that plenty of bands with actual scene cred (Jawbreaker, Bad Religion, etc.) did the same thing long before Dude Ranch was released. The only member talked about with any level of reverence is Travis Barker for coming from a “working class” background which, if that’s the measure of an artist’s moral compass, I’d hate for you to learn about the class dynamics of modern indie rock. But they also want you to know these dudes were gross, bad men. The constant refrain is that they should have known better and acted as such, and while that’s a totally fair thing to say, it does ignore Mark Hoppus’ charity work, be it The Trevor Project or victims of natural disasters. Not that doing one good thing undoes one bad thing, but to encase the band and its fans in amber at its moral low feels, to me, like a deliberate discrediting of the subject instead of working to understand its relative worth years later.

Extending this out, I went back to look at other albums that Pitchfork had done a Sunday Review on to see how they grappled with artists who were mired by a bit of in-the-moment controversy but have become legacy acts all the same. Back in October, Pitchfork dusted off Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends and, unlike Enema Of The State, its jabs are saved, mostly, for the members of the band. There’s a distance drawn between the artist and the people who showed up at their shows, a distinction that doesn’t require Taking Back Sunday to be held accountable for whatever was happening within their orbit or what followed directly in their wake. The same could be said for the recent reappraisal of My Chemical Romance. While they don't bend over backwards to praise either band, the reviews are written from a place of genuine reverence. Flaws are acknowledged, history is contextualized, but there's an understanding and respect given to the material that's notably absent with Enema Of The State. Here, you’re told that Pitchfork was always right about this specific brand of music, and you should be thankful they’ve validated it even this much. It feels regressive in a way that, as you can tell, made me feel the need to write something about it (again, truly sorry).

Maybe I’ve put too much thought into all this (almost certainly). And let me be totally clear I don’t think blink-182 needs anyone defending them (I swear to you I’ve never owned a Defend Pop Punk t-shirt), and while this isn’t meant to smear the writer (again, sorry!!), it just reminds me of the faults I’ve always found with the institution that is Pitchfork. In many ways, by looking down on its subject while also trying to validate them, the review ends up offering a pretty clear view of why teenagers connected to this stuff way back when, but that feels completely missed in the piece itself. The kids who liked this music were told they were dumb, and that the things they liked were, too, so they just gave up and went all in with it. Is it really that hard to understand why blink-182 decided to do the exact same thing?

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