Lyrical Artistry in Pop Punk
By Nick Chhoeun
Although my posts about music on Café MFA have focused on rap, my favorite genre has always been pop punk. Bands like Blink-182, Paramore, and Green Day stick out as some of the most well known of the genre. The songs are filled with catchy lyrics and, often, fast paced rock instrumentals. They are great for head banging, dancing, singing along, and even for getting into one’s feels.
The pop punk genre holds the stereotype of being very “emo” and “angsty” with subjects like teens growing up and rebelling against the norm. While some songs do address these subjects, there are many songs that lyrically focus on more serious and important topics. Plus, if the songs do focus on the genre’s stereotypes, they are done in purposeful ways that emphasize certain emotions. This genre is very influential to how I write stories and poems in regard to structure, form, voice, and subject matter. I put together a list of songs that show how the genre uses language powerfully to convey ideas. These songs’ lyrics could stand on their own and still maintain their power. This list is not in ranking order.
Real Friends has many songs that deal with mental health. “Skeletons” is a great example in that it talks about other subjects, like a yearning for innocence. Most of the song contains youthful images. In the first verse, the line, “I remember when love was just a word and not a fight,” shows the difference in perspective for when the speaker was a kid versus an adult. As a kid, hearing “love” did not hold any binding significance, yet as an adult the speaker realizes that the word is more complex and sometimes false. In the chorus there are lines, “[w]ay back then there were monsters in my closet / and now there’s just skeletons hiding in there,” and “[t]he sun burn on my shoulders kept me warm back then / Like the heat from the blacktop.” There are specific youthful images and metaphors to identify key differences in values as the speaker ages.
Grayscale is known for using colors as one of their main devices for description. The song “Mum” is one of their more serious songs, which is about one of the band member’s mothers and her disappearance from his family. The metaphors in the lines, “I used to pray that the summer sun / Could warm your bones and pull out all the drugs,” shows us the perspective of the speaker at a younger age. When he was a kid, his mother’s drug addiction damaged her life and his, and as a helpless kid he could only hope that she would quit.
It is hard to choose what song by Modern Baseball to include on this list, because most of their songs are very descriptive stories that could work as flash fiction/non fiction pieces. The song “The Weekend” has love and friendship themes. These themes are described through very descriptive images such as, “[t]hough the white jacket didn’t fit / The friends I came with did, perfectly / Snugged right to my body / Like sad movies and late night drinks.” There is a mix of happy and sad imagery that fully describes the speaker’s emotions. This level of detail is present through all of their songs.
I included songs both by Neck Deep and Yellowcard because they tackle the same subject: the relationship of their respective parents or grandparents. Both have real and tragic ends for the speakers. Neck Deep’s song paints the picture of the story about how the singer’s parents met in a very fairytale way and ends with the tragedy of how his father suffered from a heart attack. This song progresses through time with the repetition of the line “nineteen-seventy-sumthin’” to show the quick progression of life and how it ends too soon. In Yellowcard’s song the lyrics are in the voice of the singer’s grandfather. There are actual voice clips of an elderly man in parts of the song describing his love for his wife even when one of them suffers from Alzheimer’s. Motifs of memory are repeated with versions of the line “[d]o you remember when?” This gives the song a bittersweet tone because the ideas described are joyous yet the wife is losing her ability to recall them.
The Wonder Years is another band where it was hard to choose what song to include because of their complex yet very descriptive and powerful lyrics. “Cigarettes & Saints” deals with the story of the lost friend of the singer due to overdose, and a more general take on pharmaceutical drugs in America. This song speaks for itself. It is hard to single out what lines show the best examples of this topic. Give it a listen and you’ll see why.
I assume that this band and song is the most well-known on this list. Green Day tends to write very political and cultural critiques so it’s no surprise that they have a huge following. “American Idiot” is timeless in its meaning. The song was released when George W. Bush was re-elected, yet many of the ideas still hold true today. For example, the lines “[d]on’t wanna be an American idiot / One nation controlled by the media / Information Age of hysteria,” directly addresses out the faults of America. In a sense, the band asserts that, as Americans, we are all idiots and that our massive access to information causes more conflict than aid. With critiques about popular media, propaganda, war, immigrants, and sexuality, this song covers a lot about the issues of America that many would argue are still present in today’s societal and political climate.
Of course these are just a few examples of the lyrical complexity, power, and artistry of bands in the pop punk genre. This genre uses language in varying ways to speak on important and serious matters. I’ve learned a lot about writing from the choices these artists make in their songs. Though the writing itself stands out to me for its meaning and structure, these songs also involve other choices, instrumentation for example, that make them representative of their genre.
If you have any other suggestions for pop punk songs that stand out lyrically, feel free to leave a comment.
Nick Chhoeun is a staff editor at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.