Pop punk's problem: gender inequality

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • February 3, 2016

In the seventh grade, I flat-ironed my hair, wore studded belts, and listened to Panic! at the Disco with an almost religious devotion. Like most, I fell victim to the middle school pop punk phase, an unfortunate phenomenon that shaped too many tween years. Luckily, mine was short, as I quickly realized there was no real place for a girl like me—or really for any girl at all—in that culture. Done with the seemingly endless well of problems with women these pop punk boys had, I set out to find different music. Soon after, the mainstream media moved on too, and the scene seemed to fade from the general consciousness.

The future of pop punk remains to be seen. If it’s going to stay relevant, it needs to address the real issues of exclusion that are driving its downfall. Whereas women have always been lyrically absent in the genre, they also have had no place in its performance or media. The last standing mainstays of the culture prove again and again that the scene is out of touch, unable to tackle important gender issues.

Vans Warped Tour, the traveling music festival that made pop punk a national presence, features lineups dominated by male acts year after year. Founder Kevin Lyman is routinely pressed on the matter, but his only explanation is that there simply aren’t enough groups with women to diversify the lineup. This is a lazy excuse—if it seems that there aren’t enough bands with females in them, it’s only because these artists don’t have the wholehearted, gendered support of the music press. There are plenty of pop punk acts with women—All Dogs, Petal, Swearin’, Tigers Jaw—that would not only fit the Warped Tour vibe, but bring some desperately needed credibility to the festival.

To understand the extent of pop punk’s female problem, one only needs to turn to its media. Alternative Press Magazine, which has been a genre tastemaker since the mid-‘90s, has rarely featured bands with women over the years. While there has been a slight improvement lately, over the past five years, women have only appeared on the cover of eight out of 60 issues. Of those, only four of them were lead vocalists; either Lynn Gunn of PVRIS or Hayley Williams of Paramore. Digging back through the magazine’s archives, the gender disparity is visually striking. 

When a music scene’s formative institutions don’t promote equality and inclusiveness, the behavior of its participants reflect these values. Last summer, it was revealed that Jake McElfresh, the songwriter behind Front Porch Step, was sexually harassing teenage fans via text message. Many called for him to be removed from the Warped Tour lineup. Even other pop punk artists, like Paramore and All Time Low, spoke out against letting him take the stage, noting that it would call the entire scene into question. When Kevin Lyman made the decision to let McElfresh play his set, with the compromise that the performance would not be paid, it sent a clear message about the authority of women in the music industry, even beyond the world of pop punk.  

This discriminatory, dismissive view runs all the way down to the music itself. The objectification of women has characterized pop punk since its beginning, portraying the female experience as existent to inspire entitled men and the love-pain in their songs. Dashboard Confessional, for example, have few songs that aren’t about possessing women, and in the more pop-oriented 3OH!3’s hit single, there was that loud, shouting chorus of “don’t trust a hoe.” Women appear flat, faceless, with no agency. In its heyday, the scene was notorious for failing to create safe spaces for female audience members, and it is hard not to feel the music itself is at least partially at fault.

Pop punk is not the only genre with these issues, nor will be the last. But representation always matters, especially in a music scene targeted toward young people—it defines who has power. To have been able to see myself represented by women playing music, even in pop punk, would have broken my teenage world wide open, giving me more confidence. The fall of pop punk shows that every genre, every space, every publication could and should do better to promote visibility, and if they can’t, they may just not be around much longer.