I have a confession to make: like Roxane Gay, I am a bad feminist. She enjoys jamming out to hip hop in her car on the way to work, and for about a solid decade, I’ve embraced a genre I know is rife with misogyny: pop punk. (For the record, in this piece I’m using the term “pop punk” incredibly loosely — sorry genre purists.)
Pass it to the homie, now you hit it
Cause she ain’t nothing but a bitch to me
And y’all know that bitches ain’t shit to me
“Ain’t No Fun” by Snoop Dogg
Do you look yourself straight in the eyes
And think about who you let between your thighs?
“Mt. Diablo” by The Story So Far
Living in a patriarchy means that no part of society, including music, is free from sexism and misogyny. But while hip hop rightfully gets loads of criticism for its sexism, pop punk rarely gets critiqued in the same way. And it’s not a coincidence that a genre run by Black men is painted as violent, out of control and aggressive. Our ideas about sexism and misogyny are very clearly racialized. This isn’t to say that men of color can’t be sexist, but it’s important to examine who we hold accountable (or don’t) and why.
There’s been a lot of important discussion around the lack of safe spaces for women, especially teenagers, in pop punk. Fans of the genre know that it’s heavily dominated by White men, and the literal spaces — venues, shows, festivals — can be unsafe. Pop punk isn’t given a pass because it lacks misogyny. In fact, one of the most difficult parts of writing this piece was trying to narrow down what songs to feature. So why is rap synonymous with sexism, but pop punk isn’t? We can understand the silence as part of a larger pattern of individualizing or excusing the behavior of White people.
We see this trend in mass media, particularly with celebrities. Chris Brown, Ike Turner, and Mike Tyson are forever associated with their instances of domestic violence, as they should be. But there are dozens of White, male celebrities whose violence against women is swept under the rug: Sean Penn, Michael Fassbender, Woody Allen, Charlie Sheen. This is a core characteristic of White privilege: having your bad behavior ignored while people of color are demonized for the exact same thing. We also see this pattern with media narratives around mass violence when suburban white kids get labelled mentally disturbed, Black kids “thugs,” and Brown people immigrants or terrorists.
Feminists also perpetuate this narrative. In Gay’s Ted Talk, she mentions her love of rap to illustrate how “bad” of a feminist she is, even using the word “thuggish.” Admittedly, she might not share my love of Fall Out Boy and is unfamiliar with pop punk. Regardless, it’s clear that rap is the go-to genre when talking about sexism in music. Another example is the video “10 Hours of Walking Around NYC as a Woman,” made by grassroots feminist group Hollaback! It’s a noble attempt at showing the harsh realities of street harassment, but one that features almost exclusively men of color, again giving White men a pass.
Self-deprecating, suburban White guys in ripped jeans are about as different as you can get from big, tough, Black rappers. But both genres reproduce harmful ideas about women and relationships. It’s essential to disrupt these narratives and hold White men equally accountable. While much could be said about punk spaces, attitudes, and history, I’m going to focus on pop punk lyrics and how they perpetuate sexist and patriarchal ideas.
Much of the misogyny in pop punk comes through the “Nice Guy” trope. Core characteristics of the Nice Guy include, but are not limited to, putting girls on a pedestal, obsessing over them from afar, and reacting intensely negatively when their feelings are unrequited. The lead singer would treat her right, love her, and write her songs, so why can’t she just love him back? Why is she dating another guy who’s Totally not right for her?
Pop punk legends Descedents embody this perfectly in their song, “Hope”:
“When he makes you cry, you know I’ll be there, but I know my day will come, I know someday I’ll be the only one.”
This sentiment is echoed by dudes who complain about the friend zone: they aren’t really friends with women, but instead are just waiting for her to finally realize how in love she is with him. For women, it’s horrible knowing a guy is only nice because he’s biding his time until he can fuck you. Fall Out Boy exemplifies the Nice Guy in one of their first singles, “Grand Theft Autumn.” Lead singer Patrick Stump sings,
“You need him. I could be him. I could be an accident but I’m still trying. That’s more than I can say for HIM.”
The Nice Guy fetishizes and objectifies women while denying their agency. On Andrew Jackson Jihad’s song, “Sense, Sensibility” the folk punk duo sing, “a pretty girl with broken wings is all that I desire.” A cute boy with glasses and an acoustic guitar calling you “pretty” feels like a compliment, but it’s disturbing when a woman’s weakness or subordination is a turn on. It’s an insidious kind of sexism, but sexism nonetheless.
Pop punk newcomers Modern Baseball follow the footsteps of sensitive White boys before them with their song “Pothole,” which includes the lyrics, “You are the ember of my heart, whether you like that or not.” Paul Baribeau does something similar in his song, “The Wall,” where he fantasizes about his neighbor on the other side of the wall (even while she’s in the shower), a song he admits is about him “being a . . . freak.” That’s the problem with the Nice Guy trope and these lyrics : they feel innocent and romantic, especially to the young girls who are listening to them, but are actually creepy.
To these men and boys, you’re not a whole, unique person. You are A Thing and He Wants You.
You are the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to their brooding, sensitive loner. You are the cure to his loneliness, depression and anxiety. In “A Very Pretty Song For A Very Special Lady,” the Ergs! sing, “There’s this feeling in my brain that I just can’t shake and I know with you I’ll be alright.” This perpetuates the idea that girls’ and women’s sole purpose is to fix men, rather than humans with autonomy who have the right to choose their romantic and sexual partners.
When women do exercise that autonomy and reject Nice Guys, they suddenly turn mean. They go from obsessively wanting you to obsessively hating you. Women become evil, manipulative and untrustworthy. Say Anything embody this bitter, vindictive attitude in their song, “Every Man Has a Molly,” where lead singer Max Bemis sings, “Molly Connolly ruined my life, I thought the world should know.”
In their song, “Dysentery Gary,” Blink 182, arguably one of the most famous pop punk bands of all time, sing, “Life just sucks, I lost the one, I’m giving up, she found someone, there’s plenty more, girls are such a drag.” It’s alright to feel dejected after a break up, but there’s a difference between sadness and hating women as a whole. Again, Blink 182 on their song, “Dumpweed”:
“My dad used to give me all of his advice, he would say you got to turn your back and run now, come on son, you haven’t got a chance now … I need a girl that I can train.”
If talking about wanting to literally train a woman isn’t misogynistic, then I don’t know what is. The trope of the manipulative, lying, untrustworthy woman is recreated again and again in pop punk. We can see it in “Kabuki Girl” by the Descendents, where they sing, “You’ll probably stab me in the back, but that’s the chance I’m gonna take.” (We could talk about the racism in that song too, but for the time being, I digress.) It’s again exemplified in the song “Cute Without the E” by Taking Back Sunday, “She’ll destroy us all before she’s through and find a way to blame somebody else.” In the song “Roam,” The Story So Far speak directly to Evil women when they sing, “I know where you’ve been, you’re ruining men.” Burger Records darlings FIDLAR have a song simply titled, “Whore.”
Unfortunately, men aren’t the only ones that use misogynistic slurs. Singer Hayley Williams, front woman to the band Paramore, sings, “Once a whore you’re nothing more, I’m sorry that will never change,” on the band’s breakthrough single, “Misery Business.”
This anger and frustration with women sometimes turns explicitly violent. One of Brand New’s oldest and most famous songs, “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad” contains the lyrics, “I hope the next boy that you kiss has something terribly contagious on his lips.” The song goes on , “Even if her plane crashes tonight, she’ll find some way to disappoint me, by not burning in the wreckage or drowning at the bottom of the sea.” Yikes. This theme of begging for their ex-girlfriends to get into an accident is continued in Fall Out Boy’s song, “Tell That Mick He Just Made My List of Things to Do Today.” Patrick Stump sings, “Breaking hearts has never looked so cool as when you wrap your car around a tree.” It gets more violent on their song, “Chicago is So Two Years Ago,” which contains the lyrics, “With every breath I wish your body would be broken again.” Say Anything are very blunt on their song, “Little Girls”, which opens with the lyrics, “I kill, kill, kill little girls.”
The misogyny in pop punk ranges from idolizing women to wishing actual physical violence unto them.
Misogyny in pop punk, and the broader ways in which White men uphold patriarchy, need to be taken seriously. The normalization of sexism is one way sexual assault and relationship violence persist, and we know these things are present in punk and alternative spaces. By failing to address how White men perpetuate misogyny, we also create a narrative that men of color, especially Black men, are uniquely sexist or dangerous. We know it’s not true, but it has real, oftentimes deadly consequences. Before murdering nine people in cold blood in South Carolina, Dylann Roof attempted to justify his actions by saying, in part, “You rape our women….You have to go.”
Men can and should be our allies in the fight against patriarchy. Actively rejecting these narratives in an attempt to carve out a safe space for women and/or people of color is an essential, and radical, and very punk thing to do.