Rock

The 'Punk Goes Pop' Series Laid the Groundwork For Today's Dialogue Between Pop, Punk and Hip-Hop

jxdn, All Time Low
jxdn: Katarina Benzova / All Time Low: Rob Loud/Getty Images

(L-R) jxdn, All Time Low

On January 19th, TikTok star Jaden Hossler, who started making music last year as jxdn, released a cover of Olivia Rodrigo’s global smash “Drivers License." There’s nothing unusual about a rising artist putting their own spin on the most popular song in the world, but it was the sound and style of jxdn’s rendition that made it feel like a watershed moment: As a social media star who could be mistaken for your local fratboy, Hossler bears little resemblance to a young Patrick Stump. However, his version of the emotional ballad is a straight-up pop-punk song: palm-muted guitars, drumming from Travis Barker, and a nasally belt in league with Pierce The Veil’s Vic Fuentes and Sleeping With Sirens’ Kellin Quinn. 

Ten years ago, a pop artist at jxdn’s tier -- who has a co-publishing deal with Warner Chappell and racked up over 200 million worldwide streams in his first year as a musician -- would have no business reupholstering the hit of the day into a Warped Tour anthem. That duty was fulfilled by pop-punk, metalcore, and Hot Topic-adjacent alt-pop acts who were recontextualizing Top 40 pop and hip-hop for the moshpit via Fearless Records’ iconic Punk Goes Pop series. Now, everything is topsy turvy. Celebrity artists like jxdn are the ones doing novelty pop-punk covers, and melodic rappers like Machine Gun Kelly and 24kGoldn are topping the charts with songs that resemble the pop-rap-punk hybrids that filled the Punk Goes tracklists in the late aughts and early 2010s. In essence, pop is going punk. 

“We’re sitting here in the studio everyday making this music, and knowing that we’re changing pop,” says Hossler while zooming in from sunny L.A. The 20-year-old has spent the last year working on his forthcoming debut album with Barker and producer Andrew Goldstein (who’s gone from producing Punk Goes Pop covers to writing for the likes of Britney Spears and blackbear), and he’s ecstatic about making a festival-ready pop album that’s directly inspired by Taking Back Sunday. “I tell Travis, ‘I don’t want to get too pop,’ and he’s like, ‘Bro, you’re making pop. We’re renaming what pop is.’”

To see someone like jxdn, who fell in love with genre-smashing rappers like xxxtentacion and Juice WRLD in high-school long before he found traditional pop-punk, namecheck former Punk Goes contributors All Time Low as a reference is wild. That's mostly because the series originated as a tool for Fearless artists to reach for the mainstream crossover potential that jxdn already has, as an artist who signed to Elektra Records after his first song.

The first one was 2000’s Punk Goes Metal, which featured bands like AFI, New Found Glory, and The Ataris covering classic hair/thrash metal songs. By the end of the '00s, the comps became dominated by metalcore, post-hardcore, pop-punk, and Myspace-born alt-pop acts -- the same trajectory that Warped Tour and Fearless’ competitors took throughout the decade. By 2006, the Punk Goes series had cracked the Billboard 200 albums chart, but 2008’s Punk Goes Crunk was the first significant splash (peaking at No. 86 on the Top 200) and it marked a distinct pivot from nostalgic themes (‘80s, ‘90s, older metal staples) to covers of present-day radio hits. 

However, the very existence of Punk Goes Crunk highlights the stark generational distinctions between pop-punk of then and now. Its Pen & Pixel-style cover art depicts a hooded white dude decked out in bling, and despite its title referencing a specific breed of Southern hip-hop, the compilation was a melting pot of myriad rap, R&B, and pop songs covered almost unanimously by white pop-punk and metalcore bands. Say Anything’s dry cover of ODB’s “Got Your Money” attempts humor in the quickly dated subgenre of “well-spoken white guy reciting rap lyrics like stuffy poetry,” and most of the songs on the comp hinge on similarly condescending tropes.

It feels both sonically and culturally archaic to hear after the last decade; an era when emo-rap facilitated a mutually beneficial crossover between traditionally “black” and “white” genres. Mainstream rappers like Lil Uzi Vert and Juice WRLD embraced pop-punk vocals and won over alt communities, while Mac Miller graduated from fratboy whisperer to genuine auteur, and figures like Post Malone and Jack Harlow became comfortably embraced by mainstream pop and hip-hop fans alike, in a way Macklemore ultimately wasn’t. 

Crunk was the only time Fearless made a hip-hop-specific comp, but many of the covers on the Punk Goes Pop editions of the late aughts and early 2010s -- the ones that charted at No. 15 (2009’s Punk Goes Pop 2) and No. 16 (2012’s Punk Goes Pop 5) on the Billboard 200 -- either fumbled with racial appropriation or were just plain cringey. In their grating metalcore cover of Kanye West’s “Mercy," The Word Alive’s white vocalist didn’t censor the song’s multiple “n”-words, which might explain why it’s been scrubbed from the Punk Goes Pop 5 tracklist on streaming services. Cute Is What We Aim For’s acoustic flip of T.I.’s “Dead and Gone” into something you’d hear during a Journeys in-store session is actually kind of charming, but their stiff, passionless rap delivery sounds like a relic from that era. You can hear the friction between the pop-punk delivery and the rap composition scraping together in real-time, and the result is a song with all the tension of a middle-school dance where everyone is avoiding eye contact except for the two weirdos in the center of the room who are awkwardly grinding on one another.

Meanwhile, Forever the Sickest Kids’ chug-laced rendition of “We Found Love” and Like Moths To Flames’ pitchy take on “Some Nights” are too gimmicky to be offensive -- but they do feel like snapshots of a time when heavy music and pop had a much more antagonistic relationship with one another. Even though metalcore bands of the time were loading their own music with beaming pop hooks, there was still an ambient hostility toward “traditional” pop that proliferated throughout their scene. But when Attack Attack! and Upon This Dawning covered Katy Perry and Carly Rae Jepsen, it exposed just how much these bands loved the opportunity to cosplay as pop stars, while still keeping their tongues in their cheeks by littering the arrangements with bludgeoning breakdowns. 

“In being a rock band, there’s sometimes that idea of, ‘Oh, I don’t listen to pop music, I’m too cool for that,’” says Shane Guitar, Fearless’ VP of Music Sales and Merchandise who’s marketed every Punk Goes release since 2009. From his vantage point, the comps gave fans (and bands) the go-ahead to launder their pop taste through niche forms of rock music. “I can say, ‘I like this band,’ but there’s no way I can say, ‘I like that pop artist,’” he explains. That rigidness between underground rock and pop still exists in some form today, but it feels largely outdated in a post-genre world where Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” and Bad Bunny’s El Último Tour del Mundo -- crossover pop and trap-influenced records with transparent rock elements -- are global chart behemoths.

“You listen to alternative radio and you’re hearing Juice WRLD or blackbear or 24kGoldn or Post Malone,” he says. “It would be hard for some of the artists in our world to do a unique spin on those pop acts. We definitely wouldn’t be able to do MGK, that is our music.” (Guitar could not be reached for additional comment about some of the series’ more unfortunately dated elements.) 

The classic Punk Goes Pop songs even feel antiquated compared to what could be considered their present-day spinoffs. The post-hardcore band Our Last Night have a surprisingly successful YouTube channel (nearly 2 million subscribers) where they post high-quality covers of modern hits like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road," blackbear’s “Hot Girl Bummer" and Justin Bieber’s “Intentions." Unlike Punk Goes metalcore covers, like For All Those Sleeping’s guttural rendition of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me," Our Last Night’s covers have a clean, utilitarian feel to them. They’re not winking at their listeners and approaching the songs from a place of rockist superiority.

How could they? If the music Machine Gun Kelly and blackbear are making today came out ten years ago, it likely would’ve landed them one Warped Tour stage over from Our Last Night. jxdn himself is a human manifestation of that one degree of separation between those acts. His latest song “Better Off Dead” was co-written by streaming-friendly Billboard Hot 100 denizens blackbear and Lauv, so now the types of marquee pop artists that a band like Our Last Night are covering (blackbear) are in the studio with artists they could reasonably tour with (jxdn). 

These interactions between pop, rap, and the types of pop-punk and metal that were once siloed from the pop zeitgeist are inescapable. TikTok denizen Ashnikko flipped Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8r Boi” into a pop-trap banger on her recent mixtape, which has chunky guitars and nasally pop-punk melodies all over it. Rico Nasty’s “iPhone” uses glitzy auto-tune and squeaky synths that feel akin to older Breathe Carolina, and Halsey’s recent collabs with MGK and former Warped Tour stars Bring Me the Horizon signal that she’s preparing to reboot her teenage scene kid days. And although Papa Roach preceded the Punk Goes era, TikTok star Jeris Johnson doing a reloaded melodic trap version of “Last Resort” feels relevant to mention. 

“There’s not a single person in the f--king industry right now who isn’t turning their ear [to pop-punk],” Hossler says gleefully. “They hear real drums and they’re like, ‘What’s that?’ Because they know it’s coming.”

24kGoldn might be the most salient example of this new top-down relationship between pop, rap, and the type of punk that formerly hit its ceiling with rotation on Alternative radio. The 20-year-old was included in XXL’s 2020 Freshman Class and his latest single features a verse from DaBaby, but his torrential hit, “Mood," topped the Hot 100 and the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs charts simultaneously. Another squeegeed pop-punk song of his, “City of Angels," could easily be mistaken for a former Fearless band like The Summer Set—a group who were nominally pop-punk in the way 24kGoldn is nominally rap. Both are basically making pop music, except now the river is running in the opposite direction. 

From Hossler’s vantage point, the next couple years are going to give way to a full-on pop-punk renaissance that will dominate post-COVID festivals and continue to dunk on the charts like MGK’s unexpected No. 1 smash, Tickets to My Downfall, did last fall. He’s sure of it. 

“The fact that we’re up there running this s--t, feeling like we’re on top of the pop scene, is the coolest thing in the world,” Hossler says. “I’d say that’s the most punk you could get -- f--king up somebody else’s scene. And that’s what we like to do.”