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Pop-Punk Exploded In 2021 — Will It Continue To Grow?

This story is part of Billboard's annual Year In Music package, which identifies and explores the major music trends and industry stories that defined 2021.

Johnny Minardi, Elektra Music Group’s vp A&R, began a fruitful relationship with Blink-182’s Travis Barker in 2019, when the two worked on projects for EMG acts Fever 333 and nothing,nowhere. The multihyphenate drummer soon started showing Minardi the amount of work he was doing for other labels — and it became increasingly sensible to have a conversation with him about starting his own. By the end of the year, Barker launched DTA Records in a joint-venture agreement with EMG. “I watched how he built songs, treated artists and took time to help their vision get to the next level,” says Minardi. “The idea [for a partnership] was built off him already doing this, but just not having that outlet.”

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In the time since the deal, pop-punk has soared to mainstream prominence reminiscent of its early-2000s heyday, with emerging genre stars as well as chart-topping pop artists like Olivia Rodrigo exploring the sound. Yet it’s Barker who has become one of the most valuable co-signs, having worked countless successful releases in the genre over the past year-plus. Last fall, he executive-produced Machine Gun Kelly’s Tickets to My Downfall, which became the first rock album to top the Billboard 200 in more than a year at the time. This spring, he helped Willow score her first Billboard Hot 100 hit in over a decade with the more uptempo and roaring “transparentsoul.” In the following months, he elevated other burgeoning acts among pop-punk’s next wave, including LilHuddy, KennyHoopla and DTA Records’ jxdn.

Sonically, artists haven’t shied away from dialing up the intensity on some of the genre’s biggest hits in 2021. Rollicking guitars, thrashing drums or even full-throated yells — like from KennyHoopla during the bridge of “hollywood sucks//” or jxdn’s featured vocals on Nessa Barrett’s “la di die” — illustrate angst boiling over, which Gregg Henderson, Spotify’s senior editor, Canada, argues has only helped to make pop-punk more appealing.

“Given the state of the world over the past two years, people have been frustrated, anxious and angry,” says Henderson. “The popularity of pop-punk goes hand in hand with that — the sonics and lyrical themes are a useful tool in an artist’s arsenal to create songs that are aggressive, emotional and hopeful all at the same time.” Adds Spotify indie, alternative and rock editor Shannon Carragher: “We’re seeing new bands writing songs about going to therapy, queer relationships, the patriarchy, gender identity and sexuality — topics that haven’t always been broached in the genre but are important and relatable.”

Pop-punk’s resurgence has also been boosted by artists’ ability to modernize the sound: Illenium and iann dior’s “First Time” features a post-chorus dance drop, while many others have incorporated hip-hop, such as Jasiah’s “Right Now,” which gets a lift from Barker. “There’s a lot more cross-pollination and collaboration with other genres and artists from multiple genres on the same song,” says Minardi. “Now there are trap drums incorporated. There are more 808s when you wouldn’t hear that 20 years ago. The definition of where the music industry is going has moved it forward.”

Barker has played a pivotal role in that push, giving artists the space during sessions to explore areas they haven’t previously and, importantly, notes Minardi, pushing them in the direction of their respective visions rather than his own or the label’s. “He has a true excitement and passion taking the 25-year knowledge of being in one of the genre’s biggest bands of all time into a studio with an 18-year-old kid who’s excited about a similar genre,” he says. “That is something he’s passing down.”

For some, that excitement and passion have translated to affectionate interpolations of the work that inspired them to try out the genre in the first place. Rodrigo’s tongue-in-cheek “good 4 u,” which finished at No. 5 on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart, was inspired by Paramore’s 2007 smash, “Misery Business” — later updating its credits to add the band’s Hayley Williams and Josh Farro. Meanwhile, jxdn drew from Blink-182’s 2003 single “Feeling This” on his “A Wasted Year” from his debut album.

“Newer artists that incorporate pop-punk into their music are driving interest in the bands that influenced them,” says Henderson. “Some fans are coming for the nostalgia factor; others are discovering it for the first time.”

Carragher notes that the new wave is “being consumed by particularly young music fans who are growing up online” — and listeners who can easily access decades-old catalogs benefit legacy acts looking to revitalize their careers. They’re already doing so: All Time Low’s “Monsters” spent 17 weeks on the Hot 100 this year to become one of its biggest mainstream hits since 2007’s “Dear Maria, Count Me In.” In November, Avril Lavigne signed to DTA Records and released her high-octane new single, “Bite Me,” featuring Barker on drums. Meanwhile, Williams hinted on social media at a Paramore return in 2022.

Minardi expects the coming year to be filled with more artists trying to stage similar comebacks. But it’s not just the legacy acts that will need to keep pace as pop-punk continues to grow, as the new generation is already inspiring the next one.

“I get a ton of demo submissions and can pinpoint the [influence of] MGK and jxdn,” says Minardi. “Hearing things that they’re doing make their way into [music from] a 16-year-old kid starting to mess around with instruments is super exciting. When that kid is 19, we’re going to get an album that started there. I think all great genres are built off that.”

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2021, issue of Billboard.