Machine Gun Kelly. Three words that can strike fear in anyone. This rapper-turned pop-punk star has been appearing in the public consciousness much to the dismay of many. MGK has inspired countless memes (I am weed), and has provoked very clear distaste across internet spaces. From his childish persona to his cringeworthy and very public relationship with Megan Fox, the blond e(mo)-boy seems unavoidable in pop culture. While I cannot bring myself to enjoy his music, I have to give credit where credit is due: MGK is the artist largely responsible for a very interesting resurgence of the pop-punk style in popular music – for better or for worse. Who gave this man-child permission to lead the pop-punk revival, and what does it mean for the future of the genre?
Every good pop-punk banger follows a simple two-step formula: be catchy, and go hard. Pop-punk takes the rebellious and loud nature of punk, slaps a catchy hook on it, and usually cleans up the lyrical themes to fit a more radio-friendly, adolescent sense of rebellion. The genre has achieved dedicated listeners, a defined culture; and a storied history. The first pop-punk album is widely considered to be the Ramones’s 1976 self-titled debut album, which features hit single “Blitzkrieg Bop”: a punk song with a memorable, softer, catchy hook. Pop-punk would continue bubbling excitingly in the underground with some charting singles popping up here and there, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that pop-punk really pushed its way through into popular culture.
All of a sudden, Green Day broke onto the scene, and Billie Joe Armstrong’s melodramatic yelling could be heard from MTV broadcasts across America, “Do you have the time /To listen to me whine?” from that point, pop-punk’s mainstream success would stick. Green Day ruled the mainstream pop-punk scene at its height, tailed by bands and artists like blink-182, My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Fall Out Boy; and Avril Lavigne. Even though the genre returned to obscurity by the mid-2010s, it had already made its mark on the music industry. When emo-rap emerged in the late 2010s, traces of pop-punk influence could be found in the lyrics and sounds these young rappers were using. Lil Peep, Juice WRLD, and Lil Uzi Vert were among the many emo-rap artists to express their love for pop-punk. Around the late 2010s, blink-182 drummer Travis Barker became a sought-after producer in the emo-rap scene, inspiring more crossover between the genres.
It’s from the framework of emo-rap that pop-punk has seen a recent revival – with rapper Machine Gun Kelly making a transition to the genre in 2020. MGK released his first pop-punk album in 2020, titled Tickets To My Downfall. The record was a commercial success, prompting many rappers (Iann Dior, Vic Mensa, Trippie Redd) to enlist the help of Travis Barker and chase after the next pop-punk hit.
Machine Gun Kelly expectedly came back this year with his second pop-punk record Mainstream Sellout. Following in the footsteps of the bland Tickets To My Downfall, MGK serves us another helping of his signature brand of cringy pop-punk horseshit. When returning to the formula of every great pop-punk song; (go hard and be catchy), MGK’s pitfalls as an artist become most evident. The polished-up guitar riffs and over-compressed drums that suffocate his songs make for an uninspired sound that blends together into a murky pastiche of the pop-punk aesthetic. Everything you already expect about a pop-punk song is here, but it’s been chewed up and regurgitated back. Periodically Kelly will switch out the drums for a 5-dollar trap beat that turns his punky drivel into cheap, lifeless playlist-fodder.
It doesn’t help that Machine Gun Kelly is about as edgy and rebellious as an episode of “Paw Patrol.” He scatters in drug and sex references for shock, but mostly his songs either boil down to vague descriptions of an abusive relationship or surface-level rants about mental health issues that are too general to be relatable. There are a few lyrical moments on both Tickets to my Downfall and Mainstream Sellout that get a little more personal, and usually, they are the most interesting and purposeful parts of the record. On “god save me”, Kelly describes how he uses the fast-paced celeb lifestyle as a distraction from the loneliness he’s felt ever since his parents passed away when he was young. It is one of the only genuine and vulnerable moments on Mainstream Sellout, but it’s very short-lived, because he goes back to “She’s a goth girl, She’s a pop girl” 10 seconds later. The moment that MGK lets his guard down and actually starts singing with purpose, he retreats right back into his bad-boy pop-punk caricature. While Tickets to my Downfall focuses on addiction and adolescent relationships (which goes over just about as well as you’d expect for a 31-year-old man trying to resonate with teens half his age), Mainstream Sellout struggles severely to find its thematic footing. MGK loves playing the victim, whining about how the rock scene doesn’t accept him, how the music industry hates him, which all just feeds into the tiring age-old ‘I haven’t sold out, I’m just misunderstood’ narrative that MGK plays out to a pathetic extent. Of course, you also have the predictable and predatory “I’m so fucked up, we’re bad for each other, but we still have sex” story that comes up again and again on each record. All of the worst stereotypes of emo culture are here, and they are exaggerated to an insulting extent.
To wrap up my ranting, does Machine Gun Kelly’s music go hard? No, not at all.
Luckily for us, we don’t have to leave the pop-punk revival in MGK’s hands. Putting aside some of the smaller artists pushing the genre forward (Jeff Rosenstock, PUP, Joyce Manor), the savior of pop-punk lies in an unlikely newcomer. Actor, social media influencer, singer, songwriter, and young up-and-comer… Olivia Rodrigo. I was a bit late to the Olivia Rodrigo hype. “Drivers License” didn’t grip me, and her second single “Deja Vu” had some production quirks that caused me hesitation. It wasn’t until Olivia burst onto the pop-punk wave with her inescapable banger “Good 4 U”, that I started really paying attention. It’s a catchy-as-hell, emotive, angsty foray into pure pop catharsis. Olivia’s breakup story displays the simple, powerful, and rebellious adolescent spirit that is lacking from Machine Gun Kelly’s rambling and meandering themes. Technically, Olivia Rodrigo has only made two pop-punk songs: “Good 4 U” and “Brutal”, but the same power-dismantling attitude that made them so effective as pop-punk songs, prevails in the softer ballads that comprise the rest of her debut album. Judging by the success of both “Good 4 U” and “Brutal”, I expect more pop-punk greatness from Olivia, and I hope she continues to make catchy punk bangers that blow MGK’s trite and annoying style out of the water.
Jess Williams is a Freshman Exploratory major whose most played songs are “Welcome to the Black Parade,” “Good 4 U” and “Sk8r Boi.” They can be reached at [email protected].