How Women Are Making Pop Punk Cool Again
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Waxahatchee
Credit: Facebook

Pop punk may have been born in the early ’90s with more than a few too many Y chromosomes, but in 2013, the Xs started taking over. Specifically, Waxahatchee (a.k.a. Katie Crutchfield) who, along with a cadre of other female musicians, is undeniably making the genre cool again.

At the beginning of 2013, you couldn’t blink without seeing mention of Waxahatchee on a music site. There were various interpretations of then-24-year-old Alabama native Katie Crutchfield’s lyrical lo-fi melancholy, the type of narrative introspection that feeds an industry hunger for honesty. She’d been making music for years  – in various incarnations mostly with twin sister Allison — but Waxahatchee is Crutchfield at her most fundamental, most dynamic and most transparent. And for a while, it was little more than her and an acoustic guitar. Despite appearances, however, she’s not your average singer-songwriter: Her music, at its core, is pop punk.

Punk — and by extension, its sub-genres — has always been a boys’ club. In the early ’90s, pop-punk took this to new levels: it was music almost exclusively for lonely, heteronormative boys, and women were oft placed in the position of the vindictive “other.” As Andy Greenwald writes in his 2003 book “Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo”:

Just as Gatsby saw the green light, the… bands of the era could see the beacon—the road ahead—but could never get there. They were content to muse about romantic possibilities, not potentially unpleasant realities. Their songs were about wanting something terribly, but ultimately wanted the wanting more than the actual object of desire. No matter which way you look at it, that’s not a sustainable situation.

Waxahatchee, unlike her male predecessors, is a realist. For example: In what is, in my opinion, one of the most profound lyrics in recent history, Crutchfield croons, “I don’t care if I’m too young to be unhappy.” The sentiment comes from “Grass Stain,” the lead track from her debut full-length, American Weekend. The emphasis here is on herself. It’s an ultra-personal, many-layered depiction of a battle with depression that did not exist in Greenwald’s emo pop punk. She’s not deflecting blame, she’s fixing herself. How novel.

But that doesn’t mean Crutchfield can’t still wallow: At the risk of sounding reductive, American Weekend is little more than 11 lo-fi acoustic songs with a definitive narrative, the title track cataloging a weekend wasted, spent with shrooms and conflicting ideas. At the core, she’s still a pop punk musician — she just adds another facet to the genre by marrying the sonic vulnerabilities of emo with clever lyrics and bombastic melodies.

Waxahatchee is just the first in a long and very recent line of female-fronted bands to revolutionize the genre of pop punk (or, more loosely, punk-influenced pop). And it’s trend that feels necessary and subconsciously dissident. Women — key players in music who have been historically marginalized — are taking a genre that has also been trivialized and ripping it up and starting again, seam by seam, to construct something new, exciting, and ultimately, innovative.

Photo credit: Sarah Creighton

Tacocat
Photo credit: Sarah Creighton

With Crutchfield’s latest record, Cerulean Salt – and her twin sister’s band Swearin’ — a pattern has emerged: people are really into this stuff now. From Seattle fem punks Tacocat to Western Massachusetts’s own Potty Mouth, the Crutchfields have become the sparks that started the inferno.

It’s a tale as old as time: creativity, at its most exciting, requires a few voices before it can be popularized. There has always been a strong community surrounding this kind of music, mostly stemming from the hardcore scene that birthed Waxahatchee, but the genre, very recently, is just now taking off.

Red Bull Music Academy’s Editorial team recently posted a list of the 30 best guitarists under 20, including many of the female guitar players in these bands, bands that continue to be awarded Best New Music status on many a blog. New up-and-coming acts like Columbus’s All Dogs and Atlanta’s Places to Hide, bands that very easily could have been indie-shamed, are given a chance to succeed — even with intensely vulnerable lyrics like: “I am almost nothing now,” and “Come home and we can have the saddest sex.”

Not that these bands don’t deserve whatever recognition comes their way in the future, but they clearly owe a lot to the acts that preceded them. The music has always been out there, the question becomes: Why is it popular now?

Pop punk didn’t go anywhere; this is not a revival. There will always be a contingency of young, typically white boys worshipping at the altar of Jade Tree and midwest emo, the Kinsellas their ministers. The difference is found in a quality that Katie Crutchfield once described to me as “intelligent pop punk,” something I took to heart as having a few defining characteristics: this music is usually as DIY as it comes, beginning sans publicists and creating/fostering a community from the ground up. The music is honest but never juvenile or adolescent, although it benefits from having those listeners. It is fundamentally more complicated in the issues it addresses and the background from which it came. Complexity is key: and it’s why women are kicking the boys’ asses.

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Places To Hide

Reinvention comes from a place of necessity, and these women and their bands are reinventing the wheel seemingly effortlessly. They’ve found a way to be lyrically clever and tell a distinct yet universal story without relying on pop culture tropes or safe illusions. These women address sex, unlike the gross puritanism of past, male-dominated acts. Sex isn’t something to be feared but tackled full on — and with crippling honesty.

This may not seem like the newest idea in the book — being frank about sex and gender — but these bands are building on these well-tread concepts, evolving them. Wales’s Joanna Gruesome, for example, takes a page out of the riot grrrl bible, although she never subscribes to the ideology: They’ll take the empowerment but not the “antiquated” terminology. To compare any of these acts to the riot grrrl movement of old is lazy, but not wholly inaccurate. This is a new form of feminism, and it’s fucking cool.

Syracuse’s Perfect Pussy are another example, having only officially released a four-song demo, the fantastically titled, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling. The best song is the first one, titled, “l.” It’s a cuttingly candid look at frontwoman Meredith Graves’s relationship with a friend: “Her eyes fell low and heavy with shame and cum / She must have been desperate; she acted so lonely,” she sings, before coming to terms with the experience, “I am full of light / I am filled with joy / I am full of peace / I had this dream that I forgave my enemies.”

In a recent Pitchfork Rising feature, writer Evan Minsker asked Graves why the song is untitled, to which she replied, “What am I going to call it? ‘Song About How My Best Friend Blew My Boyfriend the Day After We Broke Up?’” In a sentence: these women don’t need saving. They can handle their emotions all on their own.

There is one very real exception to this revelation — that the women are breaking into the genre and making it wholly their own. Like the male-fronted pop punk movement before it, these bands default on a personal ideology instead of a political one (though the personal as political notion is no stretch). But by doing so, and by doing it well, the listener is free to relate to music in his or her own way. This is the freedom of this music: You don’t have to care if you’re too young to be unhappy, but hopefully you’re inspired to learn why you feel that way.

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