TikTok and Travis Barker: The Pop-Punk Revival Is in Full Swing

When we talk about “bloody valentines” these days, we’re no longer talking about Good Charlotte.

That’s 19 years ago, and we’re living in a present state where pop-punk is no longer a sought-after nostalgia trip to the frosted tips and Dickies of the early 2000s. Pop-punk has made a resurgence in contemporary culture as of late, much thanks to the hip-hop and TikTok stars looking to bring punk rock back into the mainstream.

Machine Gun Kelly is the artist behind “Bloody Valentine,” the song that may or may not have kicked off this movement — its staying power still in question, but having a major impact in the year since its release. The hit song is a steadfast helping of thick, low-tuned guitars and nasally monotone vocals, a Frankenstein’s monster of synth-rock, Top 40 power-pop, and humble Blink-182 imitation that all come together to form a delectable pop-punk anthem.

“Bloody Valentine” dropped in May 2020, then MGK headed to the studio with Travis Barker to record the full-length, Tickets to My Downfall, featuring additional singles “Concert for Aliens” and “My Ex’s Best Friend.”

While MGK (real name is Colson Baker) has done songs with Wacka Flocka Flame, Young Jeezy, and Hailee Steinfeld, it wasn’t until 2019’s “I Think I’m OKAY” with Yungblud that a rock direction seemed wholly viable. His newest effort is a collaboration with a legend of pop-punk’s heyday: Blink-182’s Travis Barker. The duo found such lightning in a bottle with “Bloody Valentine” that a full-length followed, and the rest is history.

Well, MGK’s already starting to make history, at least.

Tickets to My Downfall debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 charts, the only rock album of 2020 to do so (remember, rock isn’t exactly popular these days beyond Nirvana and Led Zeppelin). Its contents had all sorts of success as well, with four singles reaching the Billboard charts as well — including “Bloody Valentine,” which made such an instant cultural impact that it was even featured on the remastered Tony Hawk Pro Skater game last summer.

Machine Gun Kelly’s climb to the top of the rock world hit a peak on the stage of the 2021 Billboard Music Awards, and it came just seven months after his pop-punk debut album dropped (Photo Credit: Emma McIntyre/NBC – Getty).

MGK’s most recent accolade? He won top rock artist at the 2021 Billboard Music Awards, with had rock fans vocally upset that this newcomer to the genre was already beating out AC/DC and Five Finger Death Punch.

You’ll hear grumblings online about how MGK’s a genre hopper, that he’s not a real “punk,” that he ditched hip-hop because he lost a rap battle to Eminem (ugh, that’s the cringiest opinion). But this move is a long time coming for the former scene kid, who played Warped Tours throughout the 2010s and guest featured on songs with Papa Roach and Sleeping with Sirens (now Kellin Quinn is the one hopping on his songs).

“I released my first mixtape 15 years ago, and this is the first big stage I’ve ever been invited to accept an award on,” he said during his acceptance speech, a truly humbling moment for a very deserving artist.

This recent pop-punk surge can be partially attributed to Machine Gun Kelly, but he’s simply made a ripple — and as it turns out, he’s not the only one wanting to revitalize the genre. His good friend, another Warped Tour rapper in Mod Sun, is in the same boat. Mod Sun (real name Derek Smith) actually began his career in the late 2000s playing drums in hardcore bands, including Four Letter Lie and Scary Kids Scaring Kids.

The Punk Rock MBA’s Finn McKenty would agree with me about the importance of star power in the resurgence of pop-punk, with big names and personalities reaching the public consciousness (and our eager eardrums).

“When Machine Gun Kelly told me last summer, “I’m going to bring pop-punk to the mainstream, I fucking laughed at him,” Mod Sun said in a must-watch interview with The Punk Rock MBA (truly, the realest interview you’ll ever see). “We’ve been trying to do this, we really have.”

Baker and Smith sound like veteran, battle-hardened men finally reaching the apex, and there’s a lot of truth to that. Baker is 31 and Smith is 34, so they’ve put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get to this breakthrough moment. They’re not only proving that hard work pays off, but they’re also refuting one of the millennial generation’s greatest fears: that if you don’t reach this point by age X, you’ve failed.

“The imaginary timeline that you put on yourself is trash, it really is,” Mod Sun went on to say in the interview. You could say Smith is having a personal enlightenment. But he’s fully plunged into his own stardom, and the payoff has been immense. Things have come full circle for him in the past few years. Recently, he started dating Avril Lavigne, who was a prominent figure in the popularity of 2000s pop-punk herself.

Mod Sun’s “Flames,” featuring Avril Lavigne, is the climactic standout off Internet Killed the Rockstar. But don’t underestimate the power of the summer sing-along “Karma” or the Angels & Airwaves atmospherics of “Bones.”

The two collaborated on “Flames,” Mod Sun’s biggest single off his new rock album, Internet Killed the Rockstar, which was the next sequence in the pop-punk revival in early 2021. The song is a powerhouse duet, rolling back and forth between Lavigne’s piano ballad pipes to Mod Sun’s belted-out punk energy — and it’s got the heavy guitars to match (perhaps the second-most “punk” song on the record behind the anthemic “Karma”).

“Flames” is a moment in time for contemporary pop-punk, following Machine Gun Kelly’s success with the duo’s own memorable contribution. They played the track on Jimmy Kimmel in May, and it had all the makings of an instant scene classic: basketball goals, skateboarders (or should I say “sk8er bois”) in the background, and legendary punk producer John Feldmann on guitar.

It’s enough to make former scene kids froth at the mouth, and the excitement is just getting started. If you watched Machine Gun Kelly’s Downfalls High last year, you would’ve known there’s a lot more to come.

The 50-minute Downfalls High is a triumph, considering it was written in a week and filmed in four days. Mad props to the writers, MGK and Mod Sun, as well as Andrew Sadler, who served as producer.

This ambitious full-album music video featured a smattering of up-and-coming darlings in the pop-punk revival dealing with their own high school romance melodrama, with MGK and Barker playing the soundtrack. It’s like a more existential and off-the-wall High School Musical, and it’s lovable in its own way (“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Sydney Sweeney asks co-star Chase Hudson. “Dead,” he muses.”)

Hudson (known in music by the moniker Lilhuddy), Maggie Lindemann, and many other Downfalls High stars are also playing movement. But before we get to them, we have to talk about Barker, who’s helped take a lot of them to the next level.

Barker has always had a hip-hop style to his drumming, so it makes sense he’s teamed up with rappers like MGK. His credits over the past year have grown tremendously, and it seems that almost every player in the pop-punk revival has worked with him in some way.

With collaborations ranging from TikTok star Jxdn to celebrity heir Willow Smith to Soundcloud rappers KennyHoopla and nothing,nowhere., Barker has been a busy man. You can hear his contributions, too, providing a hard-hitting edge to the beat of the songs, as well as signature production effects that he’s brought to Blink throughout their career — especially standing out on the band’s self-titled record.

Reviving pop-punk is a pretty good way to stay busy while not touring with Blink-182. Travis Barker’s long list of feature credits continues to grow, and will soon include new full-lengths from MGK and Lilhuddy.

“Rock music is on its way back. I couldn’t be more proud,” Barker said in an interview with Rolling Stone. The way he’s watching pop-punk come back, he sounds like a father watching his kids grow up — and that’s exactly what working in the genre for 20-plus years will do. You hear bits of Blink-182 in the revival, too, from Machine Gun Kelly and Jxdn’s best Take Off Your Pants and Jacket impression to KennyHoopla’s sleek, sensitive punk reigniting the magic of “Feeling This” and “Down.”

His role in the revival has given him new purpose while Blink has staved off touring amid the pandemic, and it’s also allowed him to give back to a scene that’s already given him so much. “It’s what I get excited for. Like, I’m not an architect. I don’t know how to build a home — but I do know how to build songs,” Barker said.

The drummer/producer hit it off right away during sessions with Machine Gun Kelly last year, and he shows no signs of stopping a year later. He’s already working with MGK on a follow-up to Tickets to My Downfall, he’s producing Lilhuddy’s debut, and he’s also featured on two songs on Lil Lotus’ debut, due out in August.

Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker found a magical connection right away together. With MGK on guitar and vocals and Barker on drums and producing, their collaboration has proved fruitful, whether it’s originals or covers of emo classics.

When he’s not immersed in music, Barker is spending time with his girlfriend — and if things couldn’t get any better, it’s Kourtney Kardashian. You could say life’s pretty good for the 46 year old right now (not to mention good for the scene as well, as Kourtney has posted about the pop-punk revival multiple times to her millions of followers).

Barker, MGK, and Mod Sun have set the stage for a pop-punk summer, and it’s arrived with a variety of young artists looking to make a name for themselves amid this generic revival. Perhaps the most summer-friendly album to hit shelves in recent months is Jxdn’s Tell Me About Tomorrow, a spiritual successor to Tickets to My Downfall and an ultra-catchy pop-meets-punk affair.

MGK himself features on standout “Wanna Be,” as he seamlessly fits in alongside thunderous guitars and a sing-song hook. It makes even more sense that Barker is at the helm, helping the 20-year-old TikTok star follow in the footsteps Kelly carved less than a year prior (Jxdn even bleached his hair for a further doppelganger look). Jxdn is one of many TikTok stars dabbling in the genre, following a pandemic lockdown that exposed an entire new generation to angst they could relate to.

Jxdn hit it big initially with the single “Angels & Demons” in March 2020. He’s since taken a more aggressive pop-punk direction with songs like “Think About Me” and “Wanna Be,” his debut’s single featuring MGK.

Alongside Jxdn is fellow TikTok star Lilhuddy, who’s even younger but has all the makings of a fresh emo darling — picture Pete Wentz and Davey Havok plopped back into adolescence as social media celebrities. Following a clunky first single in “21st Century Vampire,” he’s since found his footing with “The Eulogy of You and Me,” featuring one of the catchiest guitar-pop hooks of 2021.

Together, Jxdn and Huddy reflect a genre-fluid approach that’s gaining steam, rotating between hip-hop and pop-punk, 808s and heavy guitars. Huddy has since followed up “Eulogy” with the saccharine acoustic track “America’s Sweetheart” and Top 40 rock affair “Don’t Freak Out” (bolstered by a guest appearance from The All-American Rejects’ Tyson Ritter).

Guest features are commonplace in the hip-hop world, so no wonder rappers and TikTok creators are teaming up so often in their pop-punk pursuits. Fortunately, scene legends Travis Barker and Tyson Ritter have jumped on board as well.

The young phenoms represent a new kind of rockstar in modern music — ones cloaked in branding and personality, who garnered big online followings before reining in their musical talents. That’s sure to ruffle some feathers from old-school punk’s “music first” mantra, but it’s a smart strategy for those looking to stand out among all the Gen-Z noise (and boy is there starting to be a lot of it).

Speaking of Gen-Z, there probably isn’t an album that speaks more to a generation than Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, which dropped in May but has already received enough attention and accolades to span an entire career. Like Huddy and Jxdn, Rodrigo is no stranger to the entertainment industry, starring on High School: The Musical: The Series before kicking off her music career at the fresh age of 18.

The popstar’s gotten plenty of undeserved categorizations as an “industry plant” (certainly a sexist term since I rarely hear male musicians held to the same high bar for credibility). But with two number-one singles that have gone platinum already, she’s earned every bit of the recognition she’s received — and with a solid two feet under her, she has nothing to worry about.

Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour Prom gives fans a glance at her performative nature (after all, she made her break as an actress). She plays “Brutal,” “Good 4 U,” “Traitor,” “Driver’s License,” and other cuts from Sour.

Like MGK, she’s also pushed her creative medium to new levels. Her Sour Prom special draws from Downfalls High, but it’s not a carbon copy: Rodrigo performs her latest material live, in a pink dress, in the setting of a prom dance (between this and High School: The Musical, she’s sure got a thing for public education).

Rodrigo’s latest chart-topper, “Good 4 U,” channels her inner pop-punk influences (see: Paramore and Hayley Williams). It calls back to “Misery Business” in the best way possible, not only in its jumpy chorus but also the singer’s venting in the direction of an ex-lover. Heartbreak is a common theme on Sour that’s definitely more palatable if you’re a teenager with lots of feelings. Yet, the singer has the pulse of an entire age group — as if she’s the Chris Carrabba of Gen-Z but reaching every teen girl possible right now.

The success of “Good 4 U” is not just in its emo sensibilities, but the fact the hit single appeals to fans of pop, rock, punk, and alternative styles. It’s Rodrigo’s second number-one single following “Driver’s License.”

While her romantic troubles permeate her entire runtime, Rodrigo doesn’t stick to the pop-punk formula, branching out into piano-tinged ballads (“Driver’s License”) and stripped-down bedroom pop (“Enough for You”), as well as the more nuanced ‘90s Riot Grrrl punk — if only she channeled her inner Bikini Kill in more than just “Brutal.”

If there’s one thing that was missing from 2000s pop-punk, it was female voices — beyond Williams and Avril Lavigne, the genre at that time was mostly a self-serving choir of sad and sweaty dudes crying over girls. On top of Rodrigo, Willow Smith and Maggie Lindemann have hopped on board this year to diversify the regiment.

Smith, the daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, has stepped out from the shadow of her parents to craft her own musical identity. Still, she draws from her mom’s own experiences in 2000s nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom (and this includes death threats during her touring days). Willow is the name of her new pop-punk project, bringing a unique presence to a demographic long underrepresented in the rock world.

Maggie Lindemann, Olivia Rodrigo, and Willow all have dazzled with solid releases so far in 2021. We can’t forget Poppy, too, who’s playing not pop-punk but an enticing ’90s alternative rock/grunge sound on her upcoming LP.

“Black people created rock music. But we have been so indoctrinated to believe that we only thrive in certain categories of creativity and entertainment,” Willow said in an interview with The Face. She’s certainly found her niche as she explores the darker corners of pop-punk and emo on Lately I Feel EVERYTHING. It follows the hype-setting “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l,” which got folks talking months ago — whether it was Travis Barker’s signature drumming or the oozing influence of Paramore and My Chemical Romance.

Lindemann also got some well-deserved attention for her Paranoia EP earlier this spring. It’s no surprise she headed in the guitar-rock direction since she’s always stuck out as an alternative-punk girl in the Los Angeles music scene. “Knife Under My Pillow” is the exact result of this turn: A pop-punk banger in the body of a pop hit. Oh, and of course she’s collaborated with Travis Barker (on “Friends Go” in 2019).

Though Travis Barker is featured on the big single, he didn’t produce Willow’s debut album. In fact, Willow Smith herself produced a few of the songs, while most of the record was produced by Tyler Cole.
Maggie Lindemann has thrived as a performer ever since she moved to Los Angeles as a teenager. She played several songs off Paranoia, including “Knife Under My Pillow” and “Crash and Burn” during this live session at The Roxy.

If rappers and entertainers have done enough give the pop-punk revival legs, then emo rappers are maintaining its connection to the underground. Lil Lotus and nothing,nowhere. appeared on the scene as Soundcloud rappers looking to fuse their emo roots with their hip-hop tendencies, and their evolutions have equaled bigger sounds and fuller bands — and with their hearts in the right place, everything has felt natural.

Since I wrote about the emo rap movement last year, the subgenre has sought more of a guitar backing than ever — not that it’s lost any of the 808s or autotune that gave it its own identity.

nothing,nowhere.’s Trauma Factory is the definition of genre fluid, his most diverse effort to date that ranges from electronic-rock to hip-hoppy Blink-182 to raucous hardcore. It’s on single “Fake Friend” where Joe Mulherin’s musical fusion hits its peak, a track that brings all the pop-punk vibes but maintains every bit of his signature digital production.

nothing,nowhere. flaunts his soaring punk style on “Fake Friend,” but he explores lots of territory on his new album. He hits a percussive groove on “Upside Down” and takes listeners on an electro-infused emo ride on “Lights (4444).”

It’s obvious Lil Lotus isn’t settling either. After releasing a three-EP series last year, he’s returning with his debut full-length with Epitaph Records in just a few weeks. Like Mulherin, it doesn’t look like he’s sticking to one genre. “Girl Next Door” is an ultra-compressed pop-rock gem that hits like an early 2000s rom-com. But he officially entered the pop-punk conversation with “Think of Me Tonight,” a full-band romp with a high-energy hook that wouldn’t feel out of place on Take This to Your Grave.

Lotus has been a busy man, and he’s proving you can never spread yourself too thin. All the while his solo career takes off, he’s recording splits with screamo-hardcore side project If I Die First and SeeYouSpaceCowboy and teaming up with Lil Aaron for more pop-punk goodness (“That One Song” is a shameless ode to Blink-182 that you can’t get out of your head even if you try).

It’s easy to call the pop-punk revival a rip-off of early 2000s sounds, but all great artists have influences, and they’re intricately woven into their personas as musicians nostalgic for the tunes they grew up with.

Speaking of odes to Blink-182, KennyHoopla brought us his own take on the genre with the Survivors Guilt mixtape. Teaming up with Travis Barker, he’s found his niche basking in the glory of Blink’s self-titled record, but bringing a distinct stadium-rock approach with a hip-hop edge in his deep vocal delivery (which isn’t always pretty, but neither was Tom Delonge’s).

His transition to punk has felt seamless ever since the EP How Will I Rest in Peace If I’m Buried by a Highway, which sounds like something right out of a sappy teen diary. Considering Kenny’s emo sentimentality, it’s no wonder he and Mulherin are good friends (he makes an appearance on nothing,nowhere.’s “Blood”).

“Estella//” is KennyHoopla’s shortest song off Survivors Guilt, a gliding guitar onslaught clocking in at under two minutes. It’s one of three singles from the record, along with “Hollywood Sucks//” and “Smoke Break//.”

The pop-punk revival is only getting stronger by the day, and it seems like there’s a new catchy hit popping up every few weeks. But the same question comes up that did with emo rap: Will this movement last, or will it just be another blip in the radar for those nostalgic for the 2000s for a hot second?

This movement has all the resources it needs to continue on an upward trajectory. It’s got the longtime clout of Travis Barker as he facilitates the new crop, plus other key collaborators like John Feldmann and Avril Lavigne. It’s got label backing from Epitaph, not to mention major labels like Universal and Interscope. Most importantly, though, it’s got the stars. Love them or hate them, you have to admit Machine Gun Kelly, Mod Sun, and Olivia Rodrigo are doing a damn good job of bringing pop-punk back.

But we can’t worry about all of that right now. As MGK prepares for yet another full-length release, let’s just enjoy that pop-punk — and guitar music in general — is back in the mainstream, even if it’s just for a little while.

Listen to the latest and the greatest in the pop-punk revival, including many of the artists and songs I talk about in this article:

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