Really, it never really left.
The year is 2003. You’ve just arrived home from a terrible day of middle school to learn that Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” has once again claimed the top spot on the VH1 Top 20 Video Countdown. (You’re happy for Amy Lee, specifically.) After diving into a sleeve of “Xtra Cheddar” Goldfish, you slip the “Freaky Friday” soundtrack into your Discman. You want to have the lyrics to Simple Plan’s “Happy Together” memorized by that sleepover on Saturday.
Here we are, 18 years later, and I have never been more sure that time is a flat circle. Bennifer is making out all over Los Angeles, again. The cast of “Friends” got paid millions of dollars to film an episode of television, again. Travis Barker is featured on a bop on the charts, again.
In fashion, too, the collective dress code of late appears to be hovering between the Powerpuff Girls and Bratz dolls. People are taking this new-millennium revival so seriously, in fact, that the beleaguered “whale tale” is making a comeback. But there’s another aesthetic that’s cropping up among all-powerful Generation Z-ers who didn’t experience Y2K the first time around. That’s pop-punk, and it’s back, baby!
This isn’t news to the music business: While the genre has long been white- and male-dominated, a new generation of BIPOC artists — like Willow Smith, De’Wayne and Meet Me @ the Altar, to name a few — are reclaiming pop-punk and making it their own. Industry darling Olivia Rodrigo’s poppy-with-a-bite sound is drawing comparisons to Gwen Stefani, Fefe Dobson and Paramore’s Hayley Williams, and not just because she sets a bedroom on fire in a music video. (Very punk.)
As ever, fashion is following suit. Pop-punk iconography is cropping up on the runway, atop the red carpet and of course, in street style, (assuming grainy paparazzi shots from Nobu count as street style, which they do). This time around, pop-punk is more accessible than ever. It’s more than the studded belts and plaid mini-skirts that MTV once made canon, and it’s certainly more available than what was once propped on the shelves of your suburban Hot Topic. Pop-punk can be whatever you want, which is what punk, more broadly, set out to be, anyway.
When punk rock first came to be in the 1970s, artists looked to rebuke the excesses of mainstream music and culture with anti-materialistic styles. Simple garments like T-shirts and trousers became styled to appear worn and even dirty — a far cry from the high-gloss flash of disco then owning the decade. Vivienne Westwood is considered the blueprint, and for good reason: Her influence is indeed inseparable from the punk aesthetic as we know it today. But as New York City-based design historian Dr. Sonya Abrego reminds me, that devil-may-care Westwood look isn’t the subculture’s only iteration.
“Punk was a street style that came up from kids, so you saw a lot of vintage,” says Abrego, who specializes in the history of American fashion throughout the 20th century. “You saw a lot of mixing different eras and deconstruction done in very individualistic ways. It was Westwood and her popularity that made punk a little bit more uniform. But there wasn’t one unified look, originally. It was very, very mixed, and that’s what made it cool.”
By the 1980s, a codified punk style had emerged: studs and spikes, bondage pants and safety pins — which, more or less, makes up punk as we know it today. In the five decades since The Ramones first debuted at CBGB, that style has become commercialized within an inch of its life. Enter pop-punk, which made even punk’s most riotous themes palatable to suburban adolescents who shopped at sterile malls with names like “Shady Grove Court.”
“What’s interesting to me is that what we’re seeing now is almost quoting the Hot Topic punk look of the 2000s, which was already a couple generations removed,” says Abrego. “It’s distilled punk to ripped white shirts, safety pins and little plaid kilts. Those are always the cues, right?”
This is how fashion has been interpreting pop-punk, at least. Marine Serre stitched her concerns about creative burnout into punky, patchwork pieces made from her now-signature deadstock. R13‘s Chris Leba is styling post-punk basics with some of the subculture’s most recognizable staples, like grubby high-top Converse and combat boots. Even Chanel — tweedy Chanel! — is joining in: Its Resort 2022 show included (sadly unripped) fishnet stockings, punchy graphic tees and heavy kohl eyeliner, sometimes all in the same look.
These pop-punk cues are on the red carpet, too: Dua Lipa‘s campy BRIT Awards look served as an unofficial Ginger Spice tribute complete with a Union Jack mini-skirt and thigh-high black tights. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the high-glam-pop-punk crossover of both new-age pop-punk icon Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox and Blink-182’s Travis Barker and Kourtney Kardashian.
Not all of these examples are strictly pop-punk. But they are, at the very least, representative of “alt-fashion,” an umbrella term that encompasses a family of Y2K subcultures like mall goths and emo kids, and that evolved out of punk and represent similar anti-establishment ideologies. And right now, everyone — by which I mean, millennials and Gen Z-ers — seems interested in sticking it to the Man.
“It’s brilliant, right?” says Cassidy George, a Berlin-based culture writer who wrote about the recent come-up of the emo subgenre for W in May. “Pop-punk appeals to this imagined nostalgia for younger crowds, and then it actually triggers loving nostalgia for millennials who lived through it. It unites the two and creates this intergenerational companionship over the excitement.”
Millennials of a certain age may remember the Y2K pop-punk epoch as having materialized on emerging digital platforms like Xanga and MySpace. Naturally, Gen Z has their own version on TikTok, where pop-punk has been brewing since early 2019 when “e-boy” and “e-girl” style started picking up steam.
“By segmenting us based on what we like, the TikTok algorithm has resurged subcultures,” says Agus Panzoni, a trend researcher who shares miniature versions of her own trend reports on TikTok, including one about pop-punk. “People are developing and joining communities online based on tastes and interests, and these are becoming the new trend-setters.”
If it feels like the pop-punk trend wave is cresting rather quickly, that’s because it is. TikTok is, quite literally, not your mother’s social network. So try as they might, retail is still hard at work courting Gen Z, hoping to win their favor with e-boy Celine campaigns and faux Chanel lip rings. The payday is massive, after all: Gen Z has a spending power of more than $140 billion, and growing.
But Gen Z’s spending habits and consumer values differ widely from those of previous generations. Their personal style is driven more by individuality and less by status, which makes marketing luxury goods extremely difficult. This is especially true when attempting to commercialize pop-punk, which, to Gen Z-ers, represents something far more than a blingy Y2K renaissance.
“After a year that shook us socio-politically, economically and environmentally, it makes sense that we’re turning to music that has anti-establishment roots,” says Panzoni. “Pop-punk is the tamed version of punk rock, and in a way, it’s suitable for an activist generation that’s still victim to tech corporations and all the mental damage that comes from social media.”
The pop-punk of today is missing one key factor: live music. The genre hinges on the very act of gathering, be that shilling out for Warped Tour weekend passes or congregating outside your local thrift store, angling to snag a beat-up band tee or seven. But physical experiences are coming back, and so are concerts. So while pop-punk thrives in a concert pit five feet from Pete Wentz, the aesthetic also transcends a specific time or place, decade or generation. You might say pop-punk is forever.