By all accounts, pop-punk is enjoying a full-blown resurgence these days. Contemporary artists like Machine Gun Kelly, Willow Smith and even Olivia Rodrigo have embraced the genre on recent releases, and early-’00s mainstays like Avril Lavigne are currently pushing new albums. This October, LiveNation’s new, aptly named When We Were Young festival will give the Warped Tour a run for its money with a lineup dominated by pop-punk and emo staples from two decades ago.
On the one hand, it feels natural: pop culture is cyclical, and sooner or later these sounds and styles were bound to roll around again. But there’s also a more sinister correlation between its new rise in popularity and the prevalence of self-described “incels” — young men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” and blame women for their romantic failings, often bonding by sharing misogynistic, occasionally violent messages via online forums — who have embraced the genre’s more problematic songs.
Pop-punk and emo — particularly from the late ’90s and early ’00s — both have a long, somewhat glaring history of sexism. Bands like blink-182 built their brand early on by yelling “Show us your tits” at female fans, and in recent years, a slew of horrifying allegations (ranging from grooming and harassment to sexual assault and rape) have been levied at artists from the genre, including Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey and former A Day to Remember bassist Josh Woodward. But beyond more overt misogyny or actual crimes against women, there’s a troubling collection of songs from that era that, though perhaps not intended as such, feel like incel anthems — tracks in which the narrators lament the fact that they’re hopeless losers who will never be noticed or accepted by the objects of their affection because, they claim, women only care about looks and status and nice guys finish last.
Take, for example, American Hi-Fi’s 2000 hit “Flavor of the Weak,” which sees a friend-zoned narrator anguishing over how unappreciated his crush is by her boyfriend, or Bowling for Soup’s 2002 track “Girl All the Bad Guys Want,” which features lyrics like “She is lookin’ through me/If you were me, then you’d be/Screamin’ someone shoot me/As I fail miserably/Tryin’ to get the girl all the bad guys want” and “And when she walks/All the wind blows and the angels sing/She’ll never notice me/Cause she is watchin’ wrestling/Creamin’ over tough guys.” Good Charlotte’s “Girls & Boys,” from 2002’s The Young and the Hopeless, boldly declares that “girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money” and asserts that “the girls with the bodies like boys with Ferraris.” Even as early as 1996, Descendents lead singer Milo Aukerman was outlining this on “I’m the One”: “Nice guys finish last/No one knows as good as me/We’re just good friends/And you come to me for sympathy/And tell me that I’m not your type/Still you call me late at night/Every time he picks a fight,” he sings.
Naturally, incels who believe that they’re doomed to a life of solitude because all women are shallow and incapable of appreciating how nice they are (and not, of course, because perhaps they’re actually insufferable assholes who feel entitled to women’s bodies and aren’t very nice at all) have found a lot to latch onto within the genre. But there’s one song in particular that seems to have resonated most of all, cropping up repeatedly on incel message boards and forums: Wheatus’s 2000 hit “Teenage Dirtbag,” in which lead singer Brendan B. Brown’s teen narrator listens to Iron Maiden, fantasizes about a girl who “doesn’t know my name” and “doesn’t give a damn about me” and concludes that “she doesn’t know what she’s missin’.”
In a thread titled “Teenage Dirtbag is such an incel song,” one user writes, “Basically about this cuck who drools over this girl at school, the only non-incel part is when she asks him out at the end.” Another writes, “it’s like THE incel theme song … just some invisible guy being ignored by stacy, and no matter how hard he tries nothing works.” (Incels refer to good-looking, popular women as “Stacy.”) One even suggested that Brown was a “bluepilled” incel — the term used on these message boards for someone who has not yet rejected mainstream narratives and accepted incels’ idea of reality — and posited that the end of the song, in which Brown uses a falsetto and adopts the female perspective, is the result of his inability to get a girl to sing on the song. “The song is like a bluepilled incel anthem, the guy looks like a total incel,” he writes. “I don’t think that he would bother trying to sound like a female if he could get a stacy musician to sing the female lines for him.”
Of course, it was never Brown’s intention for “Teenage Dirtbag” to be an incel anthem. Unrequited love and feeling like a misfit are both near-universal parts of being in high school, and there are countless songs about these subjects. It’s important to note that addressing these themes in song is not, on its own, inherently sexist. (Would we call Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me,” which sees her comparing herself to her crush’s girlfriend by singing, “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” incel pop, for example? Maybe if female incels existed.) In some cases, the misogyny is obvious, but in others, songs that are harmless explorations of feeling lonely or isolated have been co-opted by incels grasping for hidden meaning.
But why is it they’ve found so much to embrace from decades-old pop-punk and emo, specifically? Being an incel is all about victimhood. These men see themselves as people who have been wronged by an unjust society that favors looks above all else; they fancy themselves to be sensitive “nice guys” who have been dealt a bad genetic hand, and they’re not shy about sharing their feelings — no matter how dark — online. It’s not hard to see how one could make the leap from being “emo” to that. As author Maria Sherman wrote in a 2020 piece called “The Miserable Business of Emo Masculinity,” “Emo masculinity presents itself as heterosexual misogyny in song because expressions of what is personal and difficult and painful is written by the bands without the consult or empathy of the unrequited love. These dudes don’t only get the last word in, they get the only word in, and women, meanwhile, are written as blood-sucking monsters without agency. Men are simply victims of their wrath.”
In many cases, these expressions of toxic masculinity and casual sexism shift from being problematic to downright dangerous, and there are plenty of examples of self-identified incels committing or plotting violence against women. Sadly, they too have plenty of material within the genre to identify with, like Senses Fail’s “You’re Cute When You Scream,” on which singer Buddy Nielsen fantasizes about pushing the girl who broke his heart off a building and then running downstairs so he can watch her face as she hits the street.
Being frustrated by the fact that cool girls won’t notice you because you’re a loser clearly isn’t quite the same as wanting to revel in someone’s dying moments as you murder them — and in fact it’s downright tame by comparison — but they’re all rooted in the same idea: that women are nothing more than prizes to be won. In recent months, we’ve seen major reevaluations of the horrifyingly sexism female celebrities were subjected to 20 years ago. Perhaps it’s time those of us who spent our formative years singing along to songs that demonize women for not dating certain men to take a step back and think about the subconscious harm that might have done us. (What sort of internalized misogyny, for example, did I wind up having to work through later in life as a direct result of blindly and happily singing along to refrains like “girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money” as a 14-year-old girl?) As the genre enjoys its resurgence, it’s important to realize that not everything from when we were young is worth reviving; hopefully incel rock is something we can leave in the past.
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