Over time—as it has divided and subdivided into subgenres, and through general misappropriation—the definition of "punk" has become nebulous. Now, one of those subdivisions, "pop punk," is experiencing similar dilution.
Green Day, The Offspring and Blink-182 brought pop punk to the masses in the mid-'90s. Since then, the defining bands of the genre have come and gone, giving way to more emo-influenced acts like Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco. In 2016, pop punk has new leading forces: bands like The Story So Far, The Wonder Years and Chicago's Knuckle Puck.
Speaking with City Weekly via phone from his home in Chicago, Knuckle Puck guitarist Kevin Maida says he definitely sees why the genre has changed. "If something stays the same for 20 years, I don't think it would last for 20 years in the first place," he says. "Things have to change if they want to increase longevity ... that's just a natural process."
He sees the change reflected in Knuckle Puck's influences. When they started out in 2011, they wanted to play fast, catchy, upbeat songs like "Lifetime, Blink-182, The Starting Line, Jimmy Eat World," he says. "There were no bands in our local area that were playing songs like that, so we wanted to be that band."
So, the change happened as part of the natural evolution of music. But why has pop punk changed the way it has? Why has it gone from the four-chord rehashes of one song, to the technically complex and more melodic sound with more mature and introspective lyrical themes? "I can't quite put a finger on it," Maida answers. "I think that musicians were getting bored of the same-old, same-old, and saying, 'Let's try and revamp it and throw new things in there to make it more interesting to us as musicians.'"
The same is true for Knuckle Puck. Four years into their career, with their first major release, Copacetic, out on Rise Records, Maida reflects on the changes in his band: "I never would have thought I'd be in a band that plays music like how some of the album sounds."
In their early days, they tried hard to write happy, fast-paced songs that it almost became a habit. When they sat down to write for Copacetic, they realized they'd changed. "It was actually hard to write a fast part or an upbeat part. That's what we had to work at," Maida says. "And it's funny, because it's flipped so much."
Knuckle Puck's songs remain catchy; a number of songs on Copacetic are real earworms. "Disdain" is one of the faster tracks on the album, with a hooky chorus and rapid vocal delivery, and "True Contrite" plays more like a ballad with memorable riffs and almost an invitation to move to the beat. But behind the sweeping guitar melodies are sometimes quite melancholy lyrics—some about heartbreak, some about the regrets of long-distance relationships—and some about reassuring yourself that, as Maida puts it, "I'm fine, I'm OK."
That's not far from the original pop punk, when Green Day sang about being basket cases, the Offspring fretted about low self-esteem, and Blink-182 pondered how growing up means looking out for yourself. It's as though pop punk is doing some growing up of its own, as groups like Knuckle Puck introduce more musical and thematic complexity than was there before, while retaining the genre's hallmark tempo.
While wanting to prove their maturity as artists, Knuckle Puck and others are making sure they have fun at the same time. For some of them, this means taking the changes of pop punk in stride and making them their own, as artists have. To Maida, all the change and maturity is a way of shaking things up, and that in the end, "When we keep things interesting, it's more fun that way."