• Matthew Emerson

Love: Pop Punk's Golden Calf

"And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32: 4, ESV)

I love Pop Punk. Ever since the distorted intro to "Jesus of Suburbia" rang in my seventh grade ears, early 2000s punk music has been my treasured musical genre to this very day. Like a lot of rock music, one of the primary subjects of all the songs written is of course a significant other, or the lack of one.

Pop Punk has a great fascination with the relationship partner. Often many of the songs are lamenting the fact of how terrible the singer is and how unworthy he was of his lady or whatever. Other times the song is mourning the loss of a relationship and how the singer will never feel happiness again now that his girlfriend isn't in his life. Take Aaron West for example (I know that's folk punk but bear with me) who sings in the song "Grapefruit" the words, "if I can't make you happy, I'm no good for anyone."

Pop punk songs are full to bursting with lyrics surrounding how everything would be better if the singer just had a girlfriend, or how life literally won't ever be good again because the singer messed up his past relationship. I just want to say I love these bands. I love these songs. Punk is by far my favorite genre. That aside, allow me to critique one of the most popular subject matters for this genre. Relationships.

The pop punk genre is rife with examples of the singer/songwriter talking about how life is worth living because <insert significant other>. Or many songs deal with such subjects like, "I hope you're happy moving on, but without you my life will now forever be miserable." This cookie cutter lyric template can be found across the multitude of bands both mainstream and indie in the punk music scene. It thunders in our eardrums day after day, and has subconsciously affected the way many of us today view relationships.

It has implicitly taught the reason your life is so terrible is because you don't have the right significant other, or that you can't get better until you find that girl. This absolute obsession in pop punk music has turned all of the listeners into damsels in distress, waiting to be saved by some significant other. It has a hyper focus on the brokenness of the singer/listener, and the almost Messiah-like character.

Speaking of messiahs, anyone check out Neck Deep's new song "She's a God"? Aside from its almost idolatrous character (which I won't be dealing with) this song literally calls the girlfriend a god. In an interview, the songwriter Ben says he wrote it this way because getting into a relationship with his now (?) girlfriend saved him from a really dark place. The chorus talks about how she needs to carry him to Nirvana, which if you don't know, is more or less a heavenly realm for multiple Eastern religions that is free of the sufferings of this mortal coil.

That is not her responsibility. I am glad that he got out of his dark place, and yes, it is good for your significant other to bring you happiness, peace, pleasure, etc., it is not her responsibility. If you are not happy with yourself, if you are missing something, if you are struggling, it is not the burden of your significant other to fix you or carry you off into some heavenly dreamscape.

This is toxic for a whole host of reasons, and I use this song as the most explicit example of this trend in pop punk music. Why is this so bad?

It is absolutely and utterly abhorrent to put the responsibility of fixing yourself on another person.

It is a detriment to your own mental health and an immense anxiety-inducing pressure to put the burden of fixing you on someone else. You are your own responsibility. This trend in pop punk lyrics has taken the agency of change from the listener to some ethereal significant other. That is not healthy or productive. It turns significant others into objects of self-help whose primary responsibility is to fix you and your brokenness.

I recognize that "She's a God" is a bit over the top, but this idea in some level of development exists across pop punk music, and it has created a mentality of helplessness and dependency that only produces further depression and broken relationships. We all have things we must deal with. The playground of a human heart is full of sharp objects and dark shadows. To think that it is someone else's responsibility, especially your romantic partners, is a ridiculous idea and yet it is continually recorded over distorted guitar riffs.

The thing is, many of these songwriters are onto something. They are right that love is genuinely transformational, but it is not the falling in love with the other person that saves you, but the giving of yourself for the other person that brings self-awareness and healing. That's the grand paradox of love. The more you give up yourself and sacrifice for the other person, the more you come to know yourself and find yourself. The agent of change is not the other person, but you, and your willingness to be selfless and live for the other person.

These bands are touching on a deep, transcendental truth. Love can save the world, and love can transform the greatest monster into a charming prince (*cough* Beauty and the Beast *cough cough*). But it is the act of loving someone that produces change, not the possession of a significant other, or even their love for that matter. Aside from perhaps inspiring you to love all the more. We must not allow this salvivic narrative of romance continue. It will only breed more and more disappointment from people who seek out the perfect girl to save them from all of their own darkness.

I love these bands and songs, and I'll go right back to listening to them after posting this article, but we need to be more thoughtful and reflective of what we are listening to, and need to dispute the irrational thoughts that are placed in the songs, even if the guitar riff is tasty.

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