After listening to Machine Gun Kelly’s new album, “Tickets to My Downfall,” the one that may or may not be a pop punk/emo/whatever have you album, I have one real conclusion.
This is not a pop punk or emo album, and I’ll give you one piece of definitive, undisputable evidence:
It got a 6.7 on Pitchfork.
Do you know how many bands that weren’t Arcade Fire in 2004 would have killed for a 6.7 on Pitchfork? Yes, I know Pitchfork has gotten a little softer in its old age, and I’m mostly joking. But this is still enough of a litmus test to show me that this is not a bona fide pop punk album, nor is it an emo album.
And it was never supposed to be.
I’ve seen plenty of discourse about this album online from pop punk purists mocking it it, some people tentatively welcoming the genre crossover, and plenty of confusion.
I gave it a listen after a friend told me to check it out, and told me that MGK got Travis Barker to play drums on it and produce it.
My initial reaction was something resembling secondhand embarrassment that this dude who had made a name for himself in hip-hop had decided to throw money at his new flight of fancy of being a pop punk hero about a decade and a half too late. He got all excited about playing Tommy Lee in that Netflix Motley Crue movie, and then stayed in rock n’ roll character too long. (Like when Nic Cage made National Treasure and then lost all his money buying actual treasure.)
It felt like stolen valor. It felt like how kids who loved Marvel comics before they made “Iron Man” feel right now with all the jocks wearing Captain America shirts. It gave me rich kids vibes—the kid who says he wants to do something, and his parents get him the foremost expert in their field (in this case, arguably the greatest drummer the genre has ever seen) to do the heavy lifting for them and make the dream happen. At least Post Malone has the pedigree of being a metalcore kid so his Nirvana tribute (also with Travis Barker, coincidentally) has some credibility.
And let me be clear: I am not saying that hip hop artists are not allowed to play with genres or cross whatever binary fence into rock music. That’s not the issue here. The issue was, in my mind, that he was seemingly skipping the steps every other band had to go through, that whole research phase, and playing with a loose grasp at best on what he was doing.
I thought about it while I biked to and then walked through the grocery store, listening to the album in its entirety.
By the time I was riding my bike home, my thoughts changed slightly. I still didn’t/don’t think it was/is good. But, to feel threatened by this or to feel MGK is a poser is to miss what this is entirely: It’s a pop album in a new outfit. It’s still tight hip-hop production, just with a Tom DeLonge impression on top and bad lyrics. And he’s hardly the first person to do this. Hell, he’s not even the only person this year to call back the fashionable music of the ‘00s.
Taylor Swift is currently going woodsy sweater-core for her new album, which is now redundant since Fleet Foxes surprised us with a new album (which unsurprisingly kept their P4k Best New Music streak alive).
I’m sure you can think of at least five bands who went through a phase where they did something like this, too. “We’ve really been listening to [insert genre] music lately, and that showed on the new album,” or the dreaded “We wanted to explore using the studio as an instrument itself in a rock band and now we’re accidentally Muse” route.
This is marketing. And a lot of what general society views and accepts as “punk” has been on that same level of phoniness for the sake of capitalist gain since its infancy. The Sex Pistols were started by a clothing store owner who wanted to get people to come into his shop. They were a boy band, but just without good looks. Knowing that makes it a lot easier to reconcile with the fact that Johnny Rotten, arguably the least punk guy whose ever lived, is a MAGA lump now. So, it’s hard to call MGK a poser when the world he’s trying to infiltrate is full of people just like him.
To put aside Capital P Punk for a second, which I think is prudent to do when discussing this album, think back to the era that he’s revitalizing. Think about Warped Tour in, say, 2006. There were a lot of bands made up suburban white dudes, mostly handsome dudes, with Scene haircuts and pop-heavy production but on an ostensibly punk (or phony DIY) label like Fueled By Ramen. Your 3OH!3’s. Your Boys Like Girlses. All of those bands with tight pop production and swoopy-banged haircuts that were created to make a lot of money. THAT is the world MGK is operating in. The late-stage Green Day sharpie font, the black-and-pink color scheme, the thousand-yard stare on the album artwork is just the aesthetic for this album. This pop album.
And to feel threatened by this after actually listening to any of the lyrics is to again give it too much credit. Here’s a bro who’s simultaneously trying to show you his poetry that he earnestly wrote, both to appear as vulnerable and maybe to actually try to be, you can’t really tell. Meanwhile, he’s simultaneously showing that his only knowledge of the genre is the things he made fun of—caricatures of bands like Hawthorne Heights. The first song on the album includes the line “I use a razor to take off the edge,” he complains about his dad at one point in the album, he throws around the phrase “my bloody valentine” and proclaims that he’s never growing up. There’s one chorus that goes like this: “I’m in too deep / I feel too much / I’m insecure / I fuck things up.”
He operates only in emo cliches, to the point where if he’s really trying his best, you have to feel bad for him and ask Barker why he didn’t intervene. It’s all about being “crazy,” sad, angry, “better off dead,” dying inside, etc. But, as I’ve said, if you believe it’s just adding emo-colored dye to a pop/rap album (the latter being what Pitchfork even bills it as), it’s a little more forgivable.
Is that “in too deep” line a conscious Sum 41 reference? If so, did he come up with it himself? Are these lyrics supposed to be making fun of someone? Is he genuine? Is it irony?
So, you know, maybe this isn’t just cosplay for the sake of trying to sell albums or appeal to a new audience. It’s at least not the “stolen valor poser shit” I initially thought. Because to accuse him of trying to be punk, or to fear that he’s tarnishing something, is to completely misunderstand the genre and that world.
Jes Skolnik touched on the topic of arguing over or gatekeeping punk in a post a couple of weeks ago. Their thesis stays mostly within the scope of politics related to the punk scene, but I think a bit of it applies here:
One of the great things to me about digging around in punk history is exactly how complex an affair it’s always been, just like any other human endeavor. There are people who do incredibly cool shit and people who do incredibly wack shit and sometimes—often, even—they’re the same person. There are endless petty fights and endless GOOD fights and endless debates about meaning, too, in which it becomes incredibly clear that punk is more of a vector than anything else. The more you know about it, the less single-minded and simplistic it seems. The tensions of punk, the creative and the destructive constantly trying to balance one another out, are one of the aspects of this by-turns-frustrating-and-terrible-and-wonderful subculture that’s kept me around for so long (the others are obviously a few good friends, love of records, and a general set of ethics that gels well. Also I love running around and yelling in a band, it’s good for me).
In summation, stop arguing about corny dinosaurs who haven’t done anything relevant in years and listen to records that make you feel alive.* Even better, make music that makes you feel alive.
In this case, I’m saying stop arguing about corny millennials rappers who aren’t actually harming punk because they weren’t ever and aren’t going to ever actually make it into that space enough to ruin whatever you think it is already. And if you think it will, then you were probably never in or never fully understood that world to begin with.
And, again, let me be clear: There’s a ton to make fun of on that album. But to feel threatened by its existence from the point of view of a punk and punk-adjacent fan is to renounce any credibility you had in the thing you’re “defending.” It shows that you also think punk is a black/pink color scheme, swooped bangs, middle school notebook scribble font, kicking over a trash can and songs about hating your dad.
And to police the merits of something against a rubric it never tried to actually adhere to, and that you might not actually understand yourself, is to do it and yourself a disservice and waste a lot of time and oxygen.
By the time I got home, the album was done and I was left with two mindsets. Two wolves I could feed.
The one was saying “Brendan, how are you gonna just let him use the lyrics to ‘Knowledge’ in the chorus of a song when you know damn well he’s never heard it or any Op Ivy? He’s using it on merchandise! Kids are just going to buy this without thoroughly researching every Bay Area punk band!” The other one was saying “You know, this might be a good sign that pop punk and emo are fashionable again. So if you want to wear tight jeans and flannels and vans all the time like you have been since you were a kid, now you can at least look up to date.”
And with all of the plentiful articles between the first underwhelming Strokes album and now about “Is Guitar Music Dead,” here’s your answer: No. It’s not. Not that this is guitar music. But he’s holding a guitar. And someone at his label thinks there’s money in that. So that counts for something. And it’s sort of a natural progression of “emo rap” anyway.
Hell, the one song landed on the new Tony Hawk soundtrack, which launders its reputation a little bit.
Mostly, my takeaway is that this album, overall, was bad. And that’s OK because this album, while bad, is not intended for me or anyone like me who would be upset by Saves the Day “unjustly” getting a bad Pitchfork review.
(But I also can’t help but think how you can fuck up that badly while having Travis Barker at the helm but that’s another discussion. I’ll say this, too: He does get one thing about 00s pop punk/emo dead-on, and that’s vilifying the women in his songs. But that, too, is a discussion for another time.)
And then, a third wolf popped into my head, and this is the one I choose to feed:
Wake me up when Machine Gun Kelly makes a ska album. Then we’ll really talk.
Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is Shamir.
But wait, before you go:
A Lot of People Think Eddie Van Halen is In Hell or That the Devil Lives in Heaven, Too, or Something
Finally, something beautiful:
I shit you not.