When allegations of sexual harassment and assault against pop punk band All Time Low started cropping up on social media in October of last year, I did not feel surprise. Like many adolescent girls in the pop punk apex of the 2010s, ATL was one of my favorite bands. I bought their merch, piously waited for new album releases, and joined the online communities dedicated to documenting their every move. Most people feel an attachment to the music they listened to as a teenager, even if they’ve grown out of it. However, my nostalgic attachment to punk and emo bands (note: bands, not just their music) has already been tested by what seems like an endless stream of sexual abuse: members from other popular bands like Brand New, The Front Bottoms, and Neck Deep have also faced allegations, to varying degrees of response. So this news, and ATL’s subsequent denial and pursuance of legal action against survivors, just made me think: what is it about this scene that fosters violence against mostly underage girls?
In the mid-2000s, pop punk was one of the only acceptable spaces for adolescent girls to express their rage. The music was not gatekept by an intimidating, mostly-male fanbase like hardcore or heavy metal music, but touched on the same ‘hardcore’ or ‘heavy’ themes of depression, heartbreak, and suicide. The adult men in these bands often embodied a sort of boy-band charm, acting like teenagers and broadcasting their fun-loving relationship in music videos and documentaries, as well as on social media. It was a sort of modern evolution of The Beatles’ personality-centered ‘Meet the Beatles!’ marketing strategy. In her podcast American Hysteria, Chelsey Weber-Smith explains the fangirl phenomenon by noting the ‘unmistakably androgynous quality’ of musicians like Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and The Beatles, who initially attracted a largely teenage-girl fanbase: ‘even the allegedly masculine Elvis wore eyeliner, and sang love songs mournfully, and smiled boyishly [...]. A lot of times, to teenage girls, full-grown manly men are kind of scary, but these were safer, softer men, who had real emotions, real love inside of them— men they not only wanted to fall in love with, but men that also reminded them of themselves, of their own emotions that they weren’t allowed to talk about.’ Pop punk especially felt both safe and rebellious, vulnerable and tough, a paradox encapsulated by the genre name itself. Even if fans couldn’t afford to go to concerts, we forged online communities in which we shared pictures, live performances, and personal reflections on what the band meant to us. The scene became a cathartic outlet for all the anger we felt, and could not express, at being misunderstood at school and home, in adolescent relationships and friendships.
There is a popular and almost automatic impulse to turn to the music for clues of their abuse and, to be fair, a lot of pop punk music does not do the bands any favors. The evil-heartbreaker-seductress figure dominates 2010s pop punk, in songs like ‘Sabrina the Teenage Bitch’, ‘The Curse of Curves’, and ATL’s song ‘That Girl’, which features the charming lyrics ‘That girl, that girl, she’s such a bitch/ But I tell myself I can handle it’. However, at least for me, it felt exciting to claim this identity of the ‘Teenage Bitch’, a woman who had the audacity to break the hearts of cool, heartthrob musicians — a woman who actually had power in the relationship, even if this power was limited to her sexuality. ATL fans called themselves ‘hustlers’ after the song ‘The Girl’s a Straight-Up Hustler’, reclaiming the femme fatale persona even in fandom. Again, Weber-Smith is illustrative: ‘Collectively, this was an almost singular place where girls held the power. A primal kind of power.’ We were trying to navigate a perilous landscape, learning how to survive in the maddeningly disempowering position of adolescent girlhood, and pop punk music gave us a sense of agency, an identity to which to cling.
Twitter user @gammysarcia recounts an instance when she was 14 years old and a 21-year-old Jack Barakat, guitarist for ATL, signed her chest: ‘I don't have any feelings personally about it, other than the culture at the time should not have been encouraging teenage girls to oversexualize themselves for “the scene”’. I think this is a more accurate identification of the problem: a culture that the music reflects, rather than the music itself. In an essay on discovering afropunk from his brilliant collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib explains, ‘What we’re sold about punk rock is that anyone can pick up an instrument and go, something that we’ve seen proven time and time again by a wide number of awful bands. But even in a genre that prides itself on simplicity, the complexities of erasure and invisibility in punk rock go deep.’ He continues, ‘In the punk landscape, we are often given imagery that reflects the most real truths of this scene: the exclusion of people of color, of women, of the queer community, and that exclusion being sometimes explicit, sometimes violent, but almost always in direct conflict with the idea of punk rock as a place for rebellion against (among other things) identity.’ This is what is most sinister about the pop punk scene and the protective ‘brotherhood’ these bands exist within: it feels like a safe and rebellious outlet for teenage girls, when in reality it is neither. Instead, it replicates the same violence enacted by the prominent politicians, businessmen, and family patriarchs that the scene claims to rebel against.
In a later essay from the same collection, Abdurraqib recalls seeing the band Cute is What We Aim For in 2016. Another concert-goer, also in his 30s, says ‘Shit, man. I dunno. I got a wife and a daughter now. This ain’t like it was when we were young, is it?’ and Abdurraqib ends the essay with his response, ‘I smile, and shake my head. No. No, it isn't.’ I always come back to this part of the essay, perhaps because it shows how many men in the pop punk scene grow out of their adolescent misogyny, thinly veiled as heartbrokenness. I think more than that, though, I resonate with the urge to go back, to revisit the music that helped me survive adolescence, and the inevitable disappointment that accompanies this nostalgic practice. When I hear new sexual abuse allegations against bands I used to admire like All Time Low, I find myself reverting back to that adolescent girl rage, channeling the distinct, or rather ‘primal’, anger that comes from being silenced, misunderstood, and abused. Despite popular culture's dismissal of fangirls as hysterical, it is a powerful and calculated emotion that binds us to one another, one that is not just mobilized in crowds, but also in moments when someone comes forward with their story — I can feel it, writing this, even now.
Lexi Clidienst is an M.Phil graduate from the University of Cambridge, where she studied contemporary American poetry. She holds a Humanities B.A. from the University of Texas. Her work has previously been published by Mistake House and Echo Literary and Arts Magazine.