blink-182 and the Futility of Music Journalism

bands you weren't supposed to like?

This is one of the worst record reviews I’ve ever read in my life, whether contemporary or retrospective. It has nothing to do with the author, Jeremy Gordon, who by all standards is a good writer, and everything to do with the culture of Pitchfork, as outlined by Dan Ozzi here, and the “eternal purity test,” as my friend David Anthony describes it here. David’s closing quote is perhaps the most illuminating:

"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?”

blink-182 is a band that holds perhaps one of the most prime spaces of mental and emotional real estate within me. I’ve often said that they are in my top 10 bands of all time; that is true (their post-hiatus work notwithstanding, and which will not be discussed here, as I am unfamiliar with it and it is also for the most part irrelevant to their legacy).

Again, as David points out, blink-182 were deliberately juvenile, routinely misogynistic, and were one of the biggest purveyors of gay panic humor. I can’t find it right now, but I believe Property of Zack once wrote a retrospective of Enema of the State that called blink one of the bands most terrified of sex in recent memory (a bold claim to make when Weezer exists, but one I'd wager holds some water). All of this is pretty undeniably true, but it elides the element that so many people, from pop-punk kids to hardcore kids to normie millennials, grasp onto with blink, and that’s their essential emotional authenticity.

The Pitchfork review makes mention of Travis Barker’s working class roots (although it says that he is from Riverside— he is actually from Fontana) in a positive way, implying that he is the only member of the band that actually has “cred.” But I say that if Travis has cred because he was once in a band with Alex from Chain of Strength (the original Box Car Racer), then Tom and Mark also have cred for being in the 1998 film Release with such contemporary hardcore luminaries as Earth Crisis, Deadguy, Lifetime, Vision of Disorder, and Hatebreed. (Full disclosure: as I write this, I am listening to Steve Aoki’s Revelation Records playlist on Spotify).

Musically, blink doesn’t have much in common with any of these acts (although I’d argue Dude Ranch comes close to standard 90s melodic hardcore— take a listen to the self-titled Kid Dynamite record from 1998 and tell me that it doesn’t sound exactly like Dude Ranch with harsher vocals and more lite-breakdowns). But all of these bands have one thing that thematically unites them— the feeling of being a confused teenager/young adult with a shitload of conflicting emotions and no other outlet for them than fast and loud punk-derived music. blink never pretended to be something that they weren’t; even when they were singing about being in high school at age 25, they were tapping into the same emotions they felt in those years in such an accurate, perfectly distilled way that millions of kids listened to it, and continue to listen to it, and have those same feelings come rushing back to them with all the intensity in the world. I get the same feeling listening to the most objectionable blink-182 songs as I get from listening to the oft-misogynistic-and-homophobic debut record of the Adolescents, or from the spiky, self-pitying woe-is-me-for-I-have-been-scorned-by-the-females early work of the Descendents. It’s both troubling and unmistakably honest and cathartic. I can recognize the flaws inherent in their attitudes while still identifying with the place they are coming from, and it’s a powerful, inherently adolescent package.

This balancing act is a special gift, and when you combine it with the band’s undeniable songwriting chops, it’s hard to deny that blink-182 were fucking fantastic at what they did. You had Mark Hoppus, with his deceptively simple bass lines and controlled pop sensibilities, contrasted with Tom DeLonge, who slowly evolved over the course of a decade from rudimentary NOFX worship to accomplished skate punk to enormous nursery-rhyme riffmaster to expansive post-hardcore tinkerer, resulting in the pop-punk Lennon/McCartney or Morrissey/Marr. Whether they had Scott Raynor bashing away with 90s punk fervor or Travis Barker throwing in more complicated and effective arrangements and experimental (for pop-punk) percussion, the band was a force to be reckoned with, one that all the pithy Pitchfork takedowns in the world couldn’t begin to scratch. A 7.5 is a relatively good score from them, but the review itself reads like an apology for enjoying the music; blink-182 isn’t apologetic so much as self-abasing.

In fact, one of the most redeeming (or rather, mitigating) aspects of their constant shitty dudeliness is the fact that the joke is constantly, self-consciously so, more on them than it is on the Girls or the Gays. It seems that every joke about being gay is self-directed, so ever-presently as to become a sort of meta-commentary on straight male homophobia in a similar way as the Jackass ouvre (the Jackass boys have gone on record a few times saying that the goal of their constant, jokey homoeroticism is both to antagonize heteronormativity and to combat homophobia). If the goal of their humor was to demean gay people, it failed, because it was all principally about demeaning themselves. Whether that comes from a place of suppressed gayness, suppressed bisexuality, straight dudes playing gay chicken, or just genuinely finding the idea of sucking dick funny is anyone’s guess, but given that blink’s roots are in the same skater culture as Big Brother/Jackass I’d err on the side of the latter.

You could write reams of copy on a “queer reading of blink-182” and I’m willing to bet my life that some fucking soul out there already has, but for the moment, I’m willing to leave it at this: blink-182 were coming from the suffocatingly homophobic culture of the 80s and 90s, where even the “geek heroes” like Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles were entitled misogynists who frequently made use of the word “fag” as an insult. blink-182 are ostensibly straight, yes, which means that they do not get “reclamation rights” per se, but that spirit of “fuck it, I’m gay” was, in a weird way, empowering to me growing up. I am an AMAB non-binary person and the charged homoeroticism of blink-182 and Jackass made me feel able to bond with my dude friends in a way that didn’t make me feel threatened. I would never go so far as to say that they were in on the joke, but something about their openness and semi-ironic “dudebro, but gay” persona made me feel welcome, in an odd way. Does that make sense? Maybe not, but I know I can’t possibly the only person who feels the same way, and I have to suspect that given Mark’s charity work with the Trevor Project, there had to be more of a nuanced or at least light-hearted message intended.

Much more difficult to reckon with, but perhaps more fruitful for analysis, is blink-182’s attitude toward women— often fearful, occasionally angry, but perpetually self-deprecating. I’d like to go back to the analogy of 80s and 90s teen movies. In movies like Pretty In Pink or She’s All That, the people who got the girls were the confident, overtly masculine jocks, while the nerds were the ones who pined in the distance. Over time, this nerdly self-absorption became part and parcel with what we now know as the Nice Guy personality, a sickly and entitled pathology that puts the blame on women for not realizing that the Nice Guy’s personality is so much more amazing than the jock personality. Eventually, the Nice Guy archetype metastasized even further into the incel.

The thing that set blink-182 apart from this duality (both sides of which are misogynist in their own unique ways) is their synthesis of the two attitudes, as well as a rejection of much of the trappings of both. Mark and Tom were good-looking, tall, athletic dudes who projected a sense of comfort with themselves that didn’t devolve into macho arrogance, while they were also unapologetic about their dorky, more subterranean interests (sci-fi, obscure HBO sketch comedy Mr. Show— which provided the name of their anti-suicide anthem “Adam’s Song”— skateboarding, etc.) and, most importantly, rarely if ever blamed the women in their lives for their romantic shortcomings. In this way, they had evolved from the gross, blame-shifting attitude of their most important forbear, the Descendents. On the other hand, they laid the groundwork for the self-loathing emotional blackmail of the sadboi/softboi contingent. If you were on Tumblr in 2013, you know the type: they listened to Yung Lean and DMed girls about how sad they were, hoping to get a pity-fuck or maybe even just a crumb of titty. This is really just another form of condescension and hatred of women (“women love sensitive guys, so I’ll be the most sensitive while simultaneously sacrificing confidence, a sense of humor, an interesting personality, ambition to better myself physically or financially or emotionally, or literally anything else that might endear a woman to me”).

However, I do not think it is entirely fair to blame blink-182 for this, since the issues they expressed with their romantic endeavors always took real accountability for their shortcomings. There is a subtle but important difference between the extreme lack of faith in oneself that defines the sadboi and the type of emotional honesty and genuinely charming self-deprecation that defines blink-182’s best songs about failed romance. The Harvard Crimson, of all outlets, took an interesting look at this phenomenon with their retrospective on Dude Ranch, characterizing it as a concept album about a pathetic loser slowly realizing that he is not a good person and learning to take accountability for his actions and behavior, culminating in the tour-de-force that is “I’m Sorry.” I think this reading is both startlingly accurate and one that isn’t acknowledged as much as it should be. There are so many naked confrontations of the way that Mark and Tom come up short as romantic partners, from the aesthetic (“Josie”’s admission that Mark is, indeed, “lacking in the bulge”) to the more cutting and self-aware (the masterpiece that is “Apple Shampoo” culminates in the shockingly poignant line “I’ll teach myself to live with a walk-on part of a background shot from a movie I’m not in”).

One of my personal favorite examples of this is in Cheshire Cat standout “Wasting Time,” in which Mark openly addresses the fundamental divide between performative masculinity and the need for human contact: “Maybe if I act real tough, she’d let me hold her hand.” Later on, an even more painfully honest line: “I really want to ask her out, but my ego could never take it.”

Of course, none of this erases the fact that Mark and Tom could be, if anything, rather shitty to the objects of their affection, especially on their power-pop breakthrough Enema of the State— opener “Dumpweed” literally just says straight-up that Tom wants “a girl that he can train.” Later in the album, on “Dysentery Gary,” he ends his screed against the dude who stole his girl by asking, “Where’s my dog? Cuz girls are such a drag,” further implying that what he wants is a subservient, unconditional pet to control. Whether you interpret this as an acknowledgment of his own shittiness and inability to better himself enough to have a fulfilling, mutually respectful relationship or just a jibe at women who aren’t nice enough to him is up to you, but the text honestly doesn’t leave much room for the former. Mark doesn’t get off scot-free on Enema either, as evidenced by “The Party Song,” where he guilelessly refers to “those things on their chests” and laments about how “some girls try too hard.” Gross as it may be, it’s tempered by the bluntness of “Don’t Leave Me,” where he talks about how he’ll “pretend to care” to win a girl back and doesn’t want their future together to be “destroyed by my past.” Endearingly, though, Mark makes it abundantly clear that the girl in question refuses to fall for his bullshit: “She said don’t let the door hit your ass.”

blink’s relationship with women, as demonstrated, is a complicated one, especially when you factor in their millions upon millions of fans, arguably the majority of whom were/are young women. Internalized misogyny or a willingness to overlook lyrics for the rockin’ tuneage aside, whenever I’ve asked people about it their answer comes down to the same thing: blink were honest. They made themselves an ineffectual threat, if they were a threat at all, and although they didn’t always avoid the trap of putting women on a pedestal, they were quick to acknowledge the humanity and agency of the women in their songs (much quicker than contemporaries like Good “girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money” Charlotte) and weren’t afraid to just admit that they were ignorant and fucked up.

In another seminal Cheshire Cat track, “Does My Breath Smell?”, Tom takes the premise to its logical conclusion: “Why do they always kick me in the groin when I come near? I’m not complaining, it just hurts after a bit.” Even better, when discussing his own inability to approach girls he likes in “Story of a Lonely Guy,” Tom straightforwardly admits that “I get too scared to move cuz I’m a fucking boy,” later expanding on it with “I get too scared to move cuz I’m still just a stupid, worthless, boy.” Prolonged adolescence and arrested emotional development are, in fact, not good things in blink’s world. Hell, look at their calling card, “What’s My Age Again?”, initially named “Peter Pan Complex.” The entire song is pretty much about why no one should date Mark. It doesn’t get more honest than just straight-up saying that you’re immature. “You still act like you’re in freshman year,” indeed.

Nowhere is this more clear than in late-album standout on Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, “Shut Up.” Take Off is an essential moment in blink’s catalog, a muddled middle ground between the polished pop of Enema and the expansive post-hardcore and goth-influenced soundscapes of the untitled record. “Shut Up” takes the Oedipal complex of manchildren, the expectation that girlfriends should also function as mothers, and magnifies it tenfold. The chorus is the repeated refrain “I’ll never ask permission from you/Fuck off, I’m not listening to you/I’m not coming home.” It’s discomfiting, augmented by the added complexity of the first verse, in which the woman in the song tells Mark “your life is meaningless, it’s going nowhere, you’re going nowhere.” It’s a subtle element of pathos that highlights the deepest contradictions of an unhealthy relationship, one that undermines the confidence of all involved. In this context, it becomes less about a breathless declaration of “bros over hoes” and more about a deliberate separation of oneself from a toxic situation, a cry for independence. Mark is an asshole in this song, but one that can’t improve himself until he exits the shitty situation that he’s been embroiled in.

This is the fundamental appeal of blink-182, one that’s descended from one of their biggest influences, Screeching Weasel. When you’re an asshole, self-reflection can’t happen until you honestly reflect on your faults, and there’s no impetus to do so until you’re confronted with a break-up or rejection that forces you to contemplate why that happened. blink-182 is the soundtrack to being a teenager figuring out who you are, what you need to work on within yourself, and ultimately knowing that you are still young and that there is still time to change. For every “Waggy,” where Mark resigns himself to “jack off in [his] room until noon,” there’s an “Every Time I Look for You,” where he finally realizes that “I never did quite do everything that she asked/I never let what happened stay in the past.” Lying within is a blueprint from which to move forward.

When all is said and done, blink-182 were really only on top of the world for a short period of five years— from 1999’s Enema of the State to their final show in late 2004— arguably, their throne was taken in 2005 by Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. That their influence and popularity has persevered far beyond any of their peers is a testament to the intangible timelessness of their lyrics and sound, one that doesn’t break or bend no matter how many times Pitchfork tut-tuts them, one that has resulted in even the devout of /r/hardcore admitting to enjoying blink-182, one that will keep them in conversation as one of the most important pop-punk bands of all time, perhaps second only to Green Day. And if there’s one thing that my Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like series has taught me, it’s that where music journalism becomes futile is where the fans succeed. They will vindicate blink-182, deconstructors and reconstructors of toxic masculinity, a band that I will never feel guilty for liking, and a band that’s a lot more thematically complex than anyone would give them credit for. Long live blink-182.

ESSENTIAL BLINK-182

One of the things that this new wave of music journalism often forgets while they’re analyzing the cultural context of artists (which, don’t get me wrong, is extremely important) is the actual music itself. Although I highly doubt that anyone reading this would be unfamiliar with blink-182’s music, I do want to do a quick run-through of what I personally find to be the highlights of their discography.

FLYSWATTER, DEMO #2, BUDDHA

Unless you’re a huge fan of Cheshire Cat or you simply want to dig into the lore of early blink-182 (in which case, I’d suggest Mark’s sister Anne’s 2001 memoir Tales from Beneath Your Mom, which is amateurishly written but informative and completely in keeping with the band’s ethos), these can pretty easily be written off. No offense to diehard fans of “Alone” or “Marlboro Man.”

CHESHIRE CAT

It’s not a perfect record, or even necessarily a great record, but it is as close to perfect a snapshot of skate punk in 1995 as you’re going to get 25 years later. The new version of “Carousel” is pretty much unfuckwithable, “Wasting Time” is a sweet treat even all these years later, “M+Ms” boasts perhaps Tom’s most intricate bop of a guitar line, “Does My Breath Smell?” is a quintessential ignorant punk banger, “Toast & Bananas” is melancholy My-First-Punk-Song perfection, “Sometimes” is quasi-hardcore, “TV” has some primordial social critique buried deep within it, and “Cacophony” borders on lumbering emo in its first section. Songwriting-wise, they haven’t quite gotten everything together and the songs can tend to blend in with each other a little bit, but it’s infectious and goofy enough to push through regardless.

THEY CAME TO CONQUER URANUS

Aside from an early appearance of future favorite “Waggy,” this single also boasts two tracks that function perfectly as a bridge between the rough-and-tumble Cheshire Cat and the well-oiled monster that is Dude Ranch. “Wrecked Him” has a super-fun bass chord intro from Mark and a simple-yet-fun-as-fuck solo and bridge section, while “Zulu” is a straightforward speedy punk banger with probably my favorite Tom lyric, “Run into the deepest pile of shit cuz that’s where I’m going to blend in.” Side note, they’d later cop the line “Life is too short too be long” from this track for that godawful “Bored to Death” single from California.

DUDE RANCH

I’ve gotten some hate for this take among the younger crowd (who tend to favor Enema or, if they’re a bit artier, the untitled record) but in my opinion, Dude Ranch is blink’s one top-to-bottom masterpiece.

Tom’s figured out how to sand down his skate punk tendencies into something chunkier yet still infectious, and every song shimmers with its own unique identity. The guitar tone, courtesy of Drive Like Jehu’s Mark Trombino, is absolutely gigantic and the palm-muted chugging even recalls hardcore every so often (despite the band’s brushes with hardcore being mostly limited to Earth Crisis and the occasional messy San Diego screamo band, a la Heroin). Scott’s drumming isn’t necessarily as polished as Travis’s, but he works perfectly with this material and supplies every song with the breakneck energy needed to make them pop. And for his part, Mark is fantastic here, offering bubbly bass fills and distinctive melodies. At the time, he was quitting smoking, and that combined with the famous fact that “Dammit” was written just outside his vocal range caused him to strain his voice aplenty on this album, resulting in a rougher, rawer, more frantic and aggressive vibe that the record benefits from in spades.

Every song here is a winner, but my personal favorites include the downtrodden, harmony-filled “Waggy,” the surprisingly complex and unconventional “Enthused,” the sublimely melancholic “Emo” (which features a hair-raisingly intense performance in the bridge that the band would later hearken back to on “Every Time I Look for You”), and the kickass spite and bile of “Lemmings.” Of the singles, “Josie” boasts one of Mark’s best bass chord riffs in the intro and is a top-to-bottom showstopper, “Apple Shampoo” is hands-down my favorite blink-182 song of all time, and “Dammit” is, well, “Dammit.” It’s as close to perfect as a pop-punk song can get and anyone who tries to shit on it is an idiot who should be shunned.

This record’s influence reverberates through even the most surprising facets of the scene— for example, I don’t think that Title Fight would even exist if not for Dude Ranch (if you don’t believe me, listen to “Evander” off The Last Thing You Forget comp LP and tell me you don’t hear them rip off “A New Hope” in the bridge section).

ENEMA OF THE STATE

Big changes here— Travis replaces Scott behind the kit and contributes both a deft dexterity as well as some interesting compositional ideas to the songs (“Have you guys ever tried slowing down some parts and speeding up others?”). Tom also changes up his playing style, morphing more into a big, immediately recognizable nursery-rhyme riff machine that forgoes the more technical or aggressive aspects of his earlier sound for a sticky, anthemic quality. There are admittedly some flawed tracks here, most notably the agonizingly slow and boring Ramones tribute “All the Small Things” and the seemingly endless, immature-even-by-blink-standards mid-tempo slog “Mutt” (which gained a misguided cult following due to its inclusion in the American Pie soundtrack), but the hits are plentiful, even with the lyrics reaching some nadirs of grossness. “Dumpweed” is a killer opener, all breakneck tempos until the honestly kinda dope breakdown hits; “Don’t Leave Me” is maybe the catchiest song Mark has ever penned; “Aliens Exist” has a monster riff; “Going Away to College” is shockingly sweet and textured. “What’s My Age Again” is, in my opinion, the perfect two-and-a-half minute song, only matched in efficiency by the borderline-hardcore-speed of “The Party Song.” The record ends with “Anthem,” a song that summarizes the blink ethos in a tight little package, somehow fusing a genuine sense of high school nostalgia with the melancholy knowledge that, yknow, being a high schooler kinda sucks ass.

THE MARK, TOM, AND TRAVIS SHOW

The insipid-yet-endlessly-quotable stage banter aside (“If you ever get caught jerking off, just tell them you were cleaning it and it went off”), you can’t talk about stellar blink-182 songs without talking about “Man Overboard,” hands-down one of the best songs in their entire catalog, stuffed with hooks from beginning to end. The lyrics definitely imply that Tom and Mark are really, really shitty friends (“Left you in the bar to try and save face”???) but that gnarly bass line and the savagely cutting coda more than make up for it.

TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS AND JACKET

Bit of a mixed bag here— aside from “Online Songs,” one of the most immediate and effortlessly powerful songs in the history of the band, the first half of the record falls flat, with bullshit literally-written-because-the-label-wanted-a-hit singles “First Date” and “The Rock Show” being the worst offenders. “Happy Holidays, You Bastard” is pure fluff and isn’t nearly as funny as previous joke songs like “Family Reunion,” while “Story of a Lonely Guy” and “Stay Together for the Kids” are mostly plodding messes and “Anthem, Part II” feels confused and unformed, with a half-baked political sentiment that fails to take shape. Luckily, the back half of the record boasts some of the best songs they’ve ever written— “Roller Coaster,” “Every Time I Look for You,” “Shut Up,” and “Please Take Me Home” chief among them, all of which beat the listener upside the head with aggression, hooks galore, and even relatively innovative guitar work of Tom (plus that weird-as-fuck electronic break in “Roller Coaster”— cool as fuck!). The bonus tracks, “Time to Break Up,” “What Went Wrong,” and “Don’t Tell Me It’s Over,” also all rule pretty hard, even if they feature some of Tom’s most mediocre and cringe-inducing lyrics.

UNTITLED

I’m actually probably going to get crucified for this, but I don’t actually love this record the way I’m supposed to. Sure, I think there are some great songs on here— “Feeling This” is an A+ example of the fact that blink-182 wrote so many fantastic pop songs that they could combine three of them into one and not be any worse for the wear— but the whole vibe feels a bit cold and sterile in comparison to the warmth and passion of earlier releases, and some experiments, like the nervy post-punk of “Easy Target” and the scraping Quicksand-influenced “Obvious”, completely fail. That said, it’s definitely worth a few listens, with the career-best drum performance in “Violence,” the fuzzy, sickeningly sweet pop of “Always,” the heartfelt goth of the Robert Smith-and-strings-assisted “All of This,” the blazing trauma-coping punk of “Go,” and the heavily affecting, cutting riffage of “Stockholm Syndrome” all functioning as strong contenders. The Angels & Airwaves prototype “Asthenia” succeeds more than any AVA song, and their dibble-dabble foray into instrumental hip-hop with “The Fallen Interlude” is also a fun, if ultimately incomplete-sounding diversion.

SIDE PROJECTS, POST-REUNION MATERIAL, AND SKIBA-182

Haha, fuck you.

-xo, Ellie

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