When I was thirteen years old, music became my entire life. As a socially awkward middle school kid who had, until that point, only wanted to emulate the action heroes of the movies and TV shows I so cherished, the discovery of rock music gave me purpose. It gave me a sense of identity that I treasured nearly as much as the music itself.
Yet the connection I formed to rock went beyond the music itself — I idolized guys in bands and wanted nothing more than to be one of them. If Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy had told me to jump, as the old saying goes, I would ask how high.
This exaltation of famous musicians is nothing new in music history, dating back to at least the birth of the rock genre, if not far earlier. However, it can have real consequences in an age where social media can make band members full-fledged celebrities, whose every move can be obsessively tracked through Instagram photos, tweets, and blogs.
This cult of personality has many effects on the fan-musician dynamic, but perhaps the most pronounced is the way in which it elevates the musician’s viewpoints to a rarified status among their fanbase.
The fans who follow all of their favorite band members’ social media accounts have instant access to these men and women’s viewpoints on any issue they choose to provide discourse on — and it’s no secret that they are likely to take after the views of those they idolize. There are many reasons why this occurs, but in the case of the pop punk and the broader alternative scene, the answer lies right in the genre’s core demographic.
It is no secret that the genre plays to a largely adolescent or even pre-adolescent fanbase. However, what often goes unappreciated is just how impressionable such a young audience can be. Pre-teens, both male and female, are generally in the developmental stage where they are just beginning to form their individual worldviews and value systems.
Naturally, they try to model themselves after the viewpoints of those they admire most, whether those are role models in their own lives or celebrities they look up to. We’ve all done it, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but this process puts the band members that these kids idolize in a very precarious position, with undue influence over the hearts and minds of passionate young fans.
Many artists throughout history have used that influence to advocate for social change and push for action on global causes. From Bono to Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam, many superstars have galvanized their sizable fanbases to bring about progress on urgent social issues. Even within our scene, Buddy Nielsen of Senses Fail has recently become a passionate advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.
Then there are bands like Attila. Beyond all the stage antics and “Suck my F***” T-shirts, frontman Chris “Fronz” Fronzak claims to use his music to spread a message of positivity and “staying true to yourself”.
However, in practice, his band’s lyrical content makes frequent use of homophobic slurs and degrading, sometimes violent, references to women. With sample lines like “Got a few sl*ts to help me roll a few blunts/And they never question me cause they know I hate c***s” (“About That Life”), the band promotes shockingly misogynistic tropes to its mostly teen fanbase, who eat up every word.
While the band claims to promote tolerance, they seem untroubled by their frequent use of homophobic and misogynistic slurs as part of their message. This backhanded “acceptance”, while spewing slurs and insults, isn’t true tolerance and should not be viewed as such.
If Attila were a lone anomaly, or a blip on the scene’s outer fringes, such lyrical content would perhaps be less consequential, if no less troubling. Unfortunately, not only is the band one of the most popular acts on the Warped Tour circuit, but they are only one of the most outward examples of an undercurrent of sexism and intolerance that runs unrestrained beneath the welcoming exterior of the alternative music scene.
Many of the most influential bands in the pop punk genre made their careers on lyrics full of “nice guy” tropes and open slut-shaming, as well as vaguely violent allusions to ex-girlfriends and other women who “did them wrong”.
If any casual observer questions the power of song lyrics to impact values, one only needs to observe the way in which the sexism still rampant in pop punk extends far beyond the music itself and is ingrained into every facet of its culture — from festival booking, to the environment at shows, to silencing sexual assault allegations against band members.
Large American punk rock festivals still book a shockingly small number of female artists or bands with female members in proportion to the general population, despite the attention being called to this issue in the past year. When these festivals do book female artists, they are sometimes relegated to a “female only” side stage, as they are on Warped Tour and their Shiragirl Stage.
While these side stages were perhaps a step in the right direction when they were first implemented, the fact that they are still necessary to get female artists on tours speaks volumes about the challenges of being a woman in the modern punk scene.
With the wave of shocking allegations of sexual assault against many band members within the pop punk and larger alternative genre, the music scene is at a crossroads.
We can continue to bury our heads in the sand and treat these events, and the frequent attempts by the bands to silence the voices of alleged victims, as “isolated incidents” with no larger bearing on the state of pop punk. Or we can begin to recognize that the horrifying place our scene has found itself at is but the end of a long road of belligerence and hostility towards the women in this scene — one that begins with something as seemingly benign as song lyrics.
Words can have devastating consequences, and it is long past time for the influential voices in the music scene to take a stand against everyday sexism and discrimination in word and deed, in addition to instituting a no-tolerance policy on sexual assault and harassment.
Women and LGBTQ+ members of this scene are every bit as passionate about music as its straight, cisgender male fans are, and they deserve to feel just as represented, appreciated, and safe.