In 1990, Los Angeles anti-establishment punk band Bad Religion released their song 21st Century (Digital Boy), which would be included in their 1990 album Against the Grain and their 1994 album Stranger Than Fiction. This song, written by the band’s guitarist Brett W. Gurewitz, deals with the problems caused by consumerism and mainstream culture in a distinctly middle-class suburban setting. The song describes a stereotype of a dysfunctional middle-class family consisting of an unsatisfiable, gadget-laden child, a “lazy”, though intellectual, father, and an overstressed mother who is on Valium (an immensely popular anti-anxiety medication). The final time the song’s chorus is repeated, it contains the following line:
‘Cuz I’m a 21st century digital boy. I don’t know how to live, but I’ve got a lot of toys.
Although suburban society had never truly been a bed of roses, the advent of modern technology had brought even more problems onto an already anxiety-laden youth. The future would see this “problem youth”, Generation Y or the Millennial Generation, writing songs about their problems on a large scale themselves, in genres that would evolve from the original punk style that had emerged during the 1970s.
A unique relationship between punk music, and the dreads and issues of suburban life has existed since the very dawn of this loud and fast music genre. In later years, subgenres derived from the original style of the 1970s would en masse be embraced by the angsty adolescents of suburban areas across the Western world, though especially in the United States in a very distinct way. Both the decisive role suburbia has been playing in the development of punk subgenres such as hardcore punk and pop punk, and the role these subgenres have been playing in the lives of so many teenage suburban outcasts are insurmountable. We can ask ourselves why specifically punk subgenres have become so intertwined with suburban youth culture.
Most likely, the process of suburbanization was first mentioned as early as 1898 (Harper, n.d.). This was the year when English urban planner Sir Ebenezer Howard published his book To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform, in which he introduced a method of sustainable urban planning that came to be known as the garden city movement. With this method, Howard attempted to seek a solution to the increasingly burdensome problems posed by the suburbanization of London. This process can be described as a general trend of middle- and upper-class urban families towards (still continuously growing) residential areas away from the city’s core (Kutler, 2003). This trend commenced at the end of the nineteenth century, but didn’t actually erupt until after World War II.
An early example of a modern method of urban planning, the garden city movement would soon be followed by many other urban planning methods across Europe and the United States, although these would, unfortunately, often constitute plans with a less sustainable and/or environmentally friendly character. This is how the vast areas of homogenous detached houses that we see in the picture above with perfectly manicured front lawns and typically populated by white middle-class citizens would eventually come to existence on the outskirts of many American cities at first, and, later on, also outside major European cities.
Although the original purpose of suburbanization in America had been for white middle- and upper-class families from the city to live peacefully in a quiet and spacious environment, life in suburbia wasn’t always quite the embodiment of a bed of roses. Since virtually all homebuyers in the suburbs were white, a frighteningly homogenous society came about. Social control and gossiping were a part of everyday life in the American suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s. The moment only the slightest imperfection became visible in the cleanliness of someone’s dishes or the way their front lawn had been mowed, the news would be spreading throughout the neighborhood like wildfire (Kutler, 2003). Therefore, suburban women played hardly any role in the women’s liberation movement that characterized those years. Unsurprisingly, daily life constituted a breeding ground for anxiety in many suburban women. Suburban men, on the other hand, would have to deal with the dreads brought upon them by daily commuting between the suburbs and the city, and all the energy-sapping aspects of upban life they had to endure during their working days in the city (Jayapalan, 2013).
In the 1970s, punk music had developed in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, with roots in genres like rock ‘n’ roll, ska, surf rock and hard rock. With this new music genre, a subculture emerged embracing a rebellion against the mainstream and the establishment, a DIY ethic and many forms of anti-authoritarian thinking. This music genre and subculture strongly appealed to youth across the Western world. With its striking lyrics concerning a diverse range of whatever problems and inequalities the modern world was home to, the problems of suburbia were very unlikely to remain untouched.
In the early 1980s, a heavier style of punk music that came to be known as hardcore punk, started emerging in Southern California, especially appealing strongly to suburban youth (Blush, 2001). Some considered this subgenre to be “anti-intellectual”, “overly violent” or even “unmusical”. This emergence characterized a schism between the traditional punk style pursued by bands like the Ramones, and this new suburban hardcore scene. In the United Kingdom, an altogether different schism took place within the punk scene. Middle-class punk artists (often with art school backgrounds) introduced more accessible styles like post-punk, new wave and art rock, whereas worker-class punk acts retained a rawer sound in the shape of hardcore punk, Oi! and anarcho-punk and found a place in underground cultures (Reynolds, 2006). Therefore, a distinction should be made between most early American hardcore punk bands and most early British ones. At the end of the 1980s, a blend of hardcore punk, noise rock and post-punk, now known as post-hardcore, started emerging in the United States, initially gaining little to no mainstream attention.
In the 1990s, the advent of modern technology slowly started inducing an increase in stress and anxiety across Western society. On one hand, thanks to portable phones and the emergence of computers and the internet, those working in the service sector were now also able to work outside of office hours, resulting in a broken meritocratic system that has persisted until today. This broken meritocracy has led both working adults and young students to spend alarming amounts of time in front of computer screens, causing depression and anxiety across the entire Western world, but especially in the United States (Kelly, 2012). On the other hand, consumer technology in the shape of personal computers, gaming consoles and the like had resulted in (especially middle- and upper class) youth to discover new methods of spending their spare time. These vast amounts of distractions both had an impact on their performance in education and their mental state, with young people constantly on hold to receive new stimuli. This takes us back to the line “I don’t know how to live, but I’ve got a lot of toys.” from Bad Religion’s song 21st Century (Digital Boy).
Bad Religion was one of the punk bands that paved the way for more contemporary acts within the genre that introduced more accessible styles, though retaining most of the original messages the veterans within the genre had once been carrying out. Of all these styles, pop punk is most probably the one with the closest relationship with angsty suburban teens, and their emotions and memories when thinking of the suburban podunk they grew up in. As Michael B. Mann put it in his blog post titled If I Die, I Wanna Die In The Suburbs: Pop Punk, Suburban Angst and Quarter Life Crises from 2014:
The suburbs are a breeding ground for angst and disillusionment, and no other genre of music has captured these feelings or mythologized the suburbs in quite the same way that pop punk has.
Most artists within this genre have a suburban background themselves, which makes their music even easier for the teens of suburbia to relate to (Mann, 2014) (Rentas, 2014). Many of the genre’s cliches were defined by the “old-school” pop punk pioneers, like the Descendents, Blink-182 and Green Day. In a nod to these cliches, Tumblr user and graphic designer Daniel Fellowes once jokingly designed a chart containing a number of rules for a pop punk drinking game (Fellowes, 2014). Competitors in the game should take a shot for every song title composed of over five words, every drinking or nautical reference, and for every mention of the words “friends” and “girl”. Every implication by a band that they want to leave their hometown would constitute no less than three shots. In addition, Fellowes had added the following rule:
1 slice of pizza for any reference to growing up, the past in general, not understanding, sympathy, regrets, or self-depreciation in a happy, upbeat song.
Reactions of Tumblr users familiar with pop punk music included “I DON’T WANT TO FUCKING DIE”, “death”, “Someone from the metal side must’ve made this” (implying mockery by metal fans of pop punk) and “Lmfaoo” – LMFAO being a contemporary acronym standing for the phrase “laughing my fucking ass off”. These reactions surely confirm the themes dealt within music of this genre. A recurring motto of many pop punk songs can be formulated as “I love my friends, but I hate my small town.”, although someone who used to be a fanatic listener of the genre listening to the songs of their childhood again will almost certainly also bring up fond memories of hanging out at the local mall of that same small town they so despise.
However, in a similar way to how its parent genre had been developing over the years, pop punk’s development didn’t stand still either. More contemporary bands within the genre, such as Brand New and My Chemical Romance, would be borrowing elements from genres like alternative rock, indie rock, noise rock and post-hardcore, though still appealing to the disenfranchised suburban youth. This is when an emotion-laden subset of punk music known as emo broke into the mainstream. This genre had been developing from the mid-1980s from emotional punk acts that had emerged in the underground. Almost needless to mention, this genre strongly appealed to anxiety-ridden outcasts of suburbia, and the genre soon came to be associated with severe mental health problems in youths across the Western world. The genre would soon be combined with more emotional styles of metalcore (a fusion genre of extreme metal and hardcore punk) and glam rock. During the 2000s and 2010s, post-hardcore started gaining immense amounts of mainstream attention among urban and suburban youth across the Western world. In a sense, this other punk subgenre, headlined by bands such as Sleeping With Sirens, Pierce the Veil and Bring Me the Horizon, took over the role that emo (and its more aggressive counterpart screamo) had been playing in the lives of angsty youths.
In his 2014 blog post titled Suburban America, our generation & pop punk, event planner and Women’s and Gender Studies graduate Brian Rentas refers to a theory by American political scientist Marc J. Dunkelman on the significant impact of persistent socioeconomic trends and enormous changes in the way interpersonal relations are looked upon on the way Americans get in touch with one another. In 2014, Dunkelman wrote that due to the advent of social media, amongst many other socioeconomic trends, Americans have become a lot more able to connect with the persons they have most in common with exclusively. One can nowadays easily find a plethora of online communities interested in the same subject one is interested in. However, this has also resulted in many people distancing themselves from the ones that don’t share their interests. Ergo, aside from connecting people, the internet has most certainly also amplified social segregation in a way that has not been seen before, thusly even further strengthening the need for disenfranchised youth to find an outlet for their heavy, angsty emotions.
All in all, the “breeding ground for angst and disillusionment” that suburbia represents according to Mann makes the existence of music that functions as an outlet for anxious adolescents, whether that is pop punk, hardcore punk or even black metal, necessary for them to have a hideaway from the harsh outside world. As a person looking from outside at the obsession of a large segment of disenfranchised suburban America with pop punk and genres related to it – I listen mainly to black metal, black metal-inspired genres and rawer styles of punk myself, although I’ve definitely had a phase in which I’ve been listening to melodic hardcore, post-hardcore, metalcore and some pop punk – I am also able to understand why these kids can find a safe haven in these styles of music. As Mann put it:
In some ways, punk rock, pop punk, and later on, emo, numbed the pain that accompanied my life as a confused, underachieving outcast lost in a sea of privileged overachievers.
As long as society doesn’t find a way to properly deal with the tsunami of evolutions in modern technology and social media that it’s become submerged in, these songs will not merely be constituting a fond memory of the past, but will actually be serving a function in the way large segments of society go by in everyday life.
Blush, S. (2001). American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House.
Dunkelman, M. J. (2014). The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Fellowes, D. (2014, June 5). Pop Punk Drinking Game. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from http://fellowes.tumblr.com/post/87899804190
Gurewitz, B. W. (1990). [Recorded by Bad Religion]. 21st Century (Digital Boy). Hollywood, CA: Westbeach Recorders.
Harper, D. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=suburbanization
Howard, E. (1898). To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. London: Swan Sonnenschein.
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Kelly, M. (2012, July 3). Trickle-Down Distress: How America’s Broken Meritocracy Drives Our National Anxiety Epidemic. Retrieved July 08, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/07/trickle-down-distress-how-americas-broken-meritocracy-drives-our-national-anxiety-epidemic/259383/
Kutler, S. I. (2003). Dictionary of American History. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Mann, M. B. (2014, August 06). If I Die, I Wanna Die In The Suburbs: Pop Punk, Suburban Angst and Quarter Life Crises. Retrieved July 09, 2016, from https://jukebox-breakdown.com/2014/08/06/if-i-die-i-wanna-die-in-the-suburbs-pop-punk-suburban-angst-and-quarter-life-crises/
Rentas, B. (2014, November 20). Suburban America, our generation & pop punk. Retrieved July 9, 2016, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141120144336-63110202-suburban-america-our-generation-pop-punk
Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984. New York, NY: Penguin Books.