Cheat Sheet: Mall Punk
by Rachel Devitt | March 9, 2011
Ms. Avril Lavigne's latest, Goodbye Lullaby, is a rather somber, serious affair -- the most adult (and adult-alt) effort we've ever heard from the Sk8r Boi-loving Canadian, which makes sense, given that, well, she's a grownup and one who's been through a divorce at that. But you know what's packed in all that baggage, don't you? A rakish necktie, a ratty tee and a tube of eyeliner. Or at least, based on Goodbye's boi-baiting, "screw you, monogamy" of a lead single, "What the Hell," it sure sounds like Avril's still got a lot of Mall Punk in her.
So what do we mean by Mall Punk, exactly? In some senses, it's basically a synonym for pop-punk: music that shoots the snarling guitars and spikier attitudes of old-school punk through with pop hooks, danceable beats and a somewhat charts-friendly vibe. But there's also a specifically sartorial/shopping aspect of this brat we call Mall Punk: a distinct, commodifiable fashion, perhaps, or an overarching interest in style. Above all else, this is the kind of pop-punk that just sounds like it ought to be blasting out of the smart phones and car stereos of kids on their way to waste the afternoon just hanging out in the mall. Which brings us to the final nuance: Mall Punk also refers to the fans of this music, the "damn kids" loitering near the FroYo stand, the "rotten punks" shoplifting from the Sunglass Hut, the Warped Tour-tee-clad cadre blowing their allowance at Hot Topic. The kind of kid who snarls and sneers in public, then goes back to the subdivision for a nice, home-cooked meal and a round of door-slamming fights with the parents. Kids, consider this Mall Punk Cheat Sheet your own personal Cliff's Notes to the angsty, acne-riddled years.
The Brat-Pop Diva
Quintessential Example: Avril Lavigne, Let Go.
She may be all grown up and adult alt-y now, but in our hearts Avril will always be the sneering Sk8r Grrl of Let Go. Her brash, bratty 2002 debut epitomizes the "mall" half (read: poppier side) of Mall Punk. Its oh-so-slightly spiky guitars and angsty/angry confessionals are the perfect soundtrack for a food court hang session -- or, you know, teenagedom in general. At its (ultimately warm, vulnerable) heart, this kind of Mall Punk is really just good, solid pop that happens to come in an eyeliner-smeared, ironic necktie-bedecked package.
See Also: Ashlee Simpson, Fefe Dobson, Demi Lovato, Pink
SoCal Scene "Sell-Outs"
Quintessential Example: No Doubt, The Singles 1992-2003
No Doubt is an example of a band that rather exquisitely straddles the divide between the angular authenticity of punk and the guilty pleasure of pop that defines Mall Punk -- and nowhere has that divide been more pronounced or more productive than in the strip malls and suburban cul-de-sacs of Southern California. This collection of singles traces the band's trajectory from scrappy SoCal ska scenesters to glammy, shiny, bona fide pop stars. Every step along the way is filtered through a sugary, Orange Julius sheen of sweetness and snarling youth.
See Also: Sublime, Metro Station
Dude, the Suburbs Suck!
Quintessential Example: Fall Out Boy, From Under the Cork Tree
Churning, hardcore-laced guitars. Clear, overly articulated vocals. Sensitive, lovelorn lyrics peppered with heavily ironized pop culture references, all set to sweeping melodies. Musical references that range from Green Day to MJ to JT. An overarching mood that encompasses both a bubbling, pent-up intensity and a disenchanted ennui. Fall Out Boy's major-label debut gave voice to the disenfranchised youth of the suburbs. Finally, someone who gets us, you guys.
See Also: Panic! At the Disco, My Chemical Romance, most recent bands from Florida.
More Emo Than Thou
Quintessential Example: Paramore, brand new eyes
Paramore and Fall Out Boy are really more like outposts of the same Mall Punk franchise than totally separate stores. But where Fall Out Boy trades in smug irony and wounded masculinity, Paramore is in the business of more adult angst, its sound more a spin-off of emo-pop than a rehashing of it. Their second album in particular responds to the huge amount of spin the band got after its more, uh, riotous debut with introspection, self-awareness and, as Rhapsody's Alt/Indie editor Stephanie Benson put it, "a conviction unmatched in the genre." In other words, they found a way to make the style their own.
See Also: Tokio Hotel, The Academy Is...
The Original Cali Pop-Punks
Quintessential Example: Green Day, Dookie
Green Day and its early '90s punk brethren serve as an important bridge between the punk (anti-)establishment of the 1970s and the poppier inclinations of contemporary Mall Punk. While they may have been criticized by diehards for going major, Green Day managed to embrace both punk's radical one-two punch and a good pop hook -- all while keeping fists raised and tongues firmly in cheek. They spoke to and for bored, misunderstood kids everywhere.
Steph Benson sums up the cultural cache of Dookie best:
"Signing with a major label may have come as a let-down to Green Day's doting underground fanbase. But those screaming "Sellout!" were quickly drowned out by Dookie's unprecedented success, largely due to major exposure on MTV and radio. The recognition was every bit earned, though, and the album spawned such hits as "Longview," "Welcome to Paradise," "Basket Case" and "When I Come Around." At a time when grunge was ruling the roost, Green Day's playful pop-punk provided a hookier, droller outlet for any kid who's ever felt a tinge of boredom, disillusionment or lack of motivation."
Twisted Sister Acts and Other Riotous Grrrls
Quintessential Example: Meg & Dia, Here, Here and Here
Meg & Dia and ladies like them are a record label's dream come true. They are cute. They are girls (yes, it's sexist, but it's also reality). They can sell a hook like it's candy. They wear attitude like it's the hottest fashion you couldn't possibly pull off. And, oh yeah, they can rock. Utah sisters Meg and Dia Frampton are especially rockingly dreamy because, as they prove on their third album, they are capable of rocking across a number of punk-steeped styles: Warped pop, overly enunciated Fueled by Ramen emo, even the occasional bit of Mraz-ian whimsi-pop.
See Also: The Veronicas, Lillix, Care Bears on Fire
Quintessential Example: Cyndi Lauper, She's So Unusual
What, you think Cyndi Lauper is "just" a pop princess? Wrong, sucker. She's a punk queen -- at least at heart. Though it's a pop classic, Lauper's debut is shot through with punk style, from her yelp-like vocalizations to her raw emotional intensity, from the subtle verbal "F you" of many of her lyrics to the not-so-subtle stylistic "F you" of her appearance. Come on, a pop hit about masturbation? Now, that's punk rock.
See Also: The Runaways, Hole, the B-52's
Quintessential Example: Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
Yes, they may have walked/been (depending on your punk perspective) among the forefathers of old-school punk, but the Sex Pistols must also be counted among the progenitors of Mall Punk. Their sound, if not exactly pop, was certainly much more accessible, more mainstream-friendly (if not parent-friendly) and maybe even more danceable than a lot of their contemporaries. And these boys were most definitely interested in being celebrities, which is common, though not a requirement, among Mall Punks. But most of all, the Sex Pistols were intimately, intricately intertwined with ... shopping! From their impact on/role in creating punk fashion to their relationship to boutique-owner Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood, the Sex Pistols were Mall Punk practically before malls existed.
See Also: Red Kross, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Boys with Lots of Piercings and Lots of Feelings
Quintessential Example: blink-182, Take off Your Pants and Jacket
Bands like blink-182 are what people who market to teenage girls dream of. They are punk rock enough to shock the parents and appeal to the rebellious teenage instinct, but they also sing like a bunch of pop-loving softies -- about broken hearts and un-nice girls and the hardships of being young and misunderstood. Oh, and they absolutely refuse to act their age. It's like aural Hot Topic up in here, people.
See also: Sum-41, Motion City Soundtrack, the Matches, Simple Plan, Yellowcard, A.F.I.