Punk rock has risen from the grave, but it doesn’t take a Mohawked rocket scientist to realize that times have changed when it comes to rock & roll’s most notoriously scabrous genre. ”I’m a snotnosed slob/Without a job,” sings Billie Joe Armstrong on Green Day’s fourth album, Insomniac. That crack is a standard no-future punk sentiment, of course — but elsewhere in the song, telling us he’s waiting for Mom and Dad to kick so that he can nab his rightful inheritance, Armstrong chirpily adds, ”My parents’ income interest rate/Is gaining higher clout.” The anger is apropos, but it’s the lack of a trust fund that made Johnny Rotten mad in the first place.
Louder, brawnier, and more popular than ever — thanks to traditionalists like Green Day and Rancid and surfer dudes the Offspring — punk rock is now a formally reborn genre. Yet it is a revival snot-noseful of fascinating contradictions. For one, this antiestablishment music and stance is now treated by a new generation as if it were an establishment itself. The spiked haircuts and pierced body parts are a regulation uniform, and today’s young punkers no longer resemble their pale, wan predecessors of the ’70s; more often than not, they could pass for pissed-off health-spa members.
In its first incarnation, the music itself was intended as a rattling, up-yours retort to the corporate rock then dominating the charts. Even that scenario has changed. Today’s mainstream bands — be they Nine Inch Nails, Foo Fighters, or, God help us, Live — clearly show their punk roots, in one way or another. And somehow, taking a stance against grunge screamers doesn’t have quite the same impact.
Beyond music, old punk had a social context. It was intended to rattle complacent middle-class suburban youth, and it accomplished that goal handily. Yet the new punk doesn’t seem to be upsetting or annoying anybody. Instead, it’s accepted and beloved; the only people being jarred, it seems, are record executives battling their way through mosh pits in order to reach the bands and start contract negotiations.
A song on Rancid’s collar-grabbing ”…And Out Come the Wolves” called ”Disorder and Disarray” isn’t about the upcoming destruction of societal norms. It’s an angry rebuke to all the slimebags who tried to make the band sign on the major-label dotted line. (Despite many offers waved in their faces, Rancid continue to record for the independent label Epitaph.)
So, in many ways, the new punk rock seems absurdly out of synch. Yet in what is surely the ultimate irony, the genre represents the last bastion of economical pop songwriting. Unlike the idle strummings that too often pass for melodies in alterna-rock, the songs on ”…And Out Come the Wolves” or Green Day’s ”Dookie,” or even a recent knockoff like Klover’s ”Feel Lucky Punk,” have tight, concise verse-chorus-verse structures; they slam home their points, often within two minutes, and move on. In that regard, the new wave of bubblepunkers are carrying on a worthy tradition. Many of the early safety-pin anthems, from ”God Save the Queen” to Buzzcocks’ ”Ever Fallen in Love,” were as unexpectedly melodic as the musicians’ haircuts and clothing were unconventional. If today’s wholesome punk rockers are rebelling against anything, it’s sloppy, unfocused songwriting that shrouds its real feelings in irony and diffidence.
Green Day certainly have the spirit and spunk of the music down pat, and they show no interest in changing for ”Insomniac.” Other than a thankful decrease in Armstrong’s faux-cockney slur, the new album is, like ”Dookie,” 14 slices of hearty anarchy, played with a follow-the-bouncing-spitball compactness and vigor. The songs are new-generation-punk formula, but there’s no denying the band’s ear for a hook: Sonic blasts like ”No Pride” or ”Walking Contradiction” (which mocks their unexpected fame in lyrics like ”My wallet’s fat and so is my head”) will have you singing along with bassist Mike Dirnt’s high harmonies every time.
Fans needn’t worry about Armstrong, a new father, rhapsodizing over the joys of changing diapers or whining about being a wealthy rock star. Once more, the songs relate the travails of a pathetic, self-loathing goofball whose sense of self-worth is continually reduced to rubble by sundry jerks, authority figures, and cultural elitists. ”The world is a sick machine breeding a mass of s–t,” goes the chorus of ”Panic Song.” In ”No Pride,” he gripes that ”dignity’s a land mine in the school of lost hope.” ”Geek Stink Breath” is most notable for ”picking scabs off my face” and ”methamphetamine” in its chorus, surely a first for a major-label single.
”Insomniac” does make you wonder about Green Day’s growth, though. Between albums one and four, the Clash, to take an old-school example, branched out from guitar crunch to reggae, dub, and Spectorized pop. By comparison, Green Day sound exactly the same as on their first album, albeit with crisper production and, ominously, a palpable degeneration in their sense of humor. The few hints of growth are fairly microscopic: a tougher metallic edge to a few of the songs (”Panic Song” kicks off with a pummeling instrumental section that recalls the Who at their peak), and lyrics that are bleaker than ”Dookie”’s. The songs are studded with lines like ”I made my decision/To lead a path of self-destruction” and ”I must insist on being a pessimist.”
Even as Armstrong sings those words with a blank-generation choppiness, you know he’ll never slit his own wrists, because the new punk rock doesn’t celebrate dead ends. In contrast to alternative rock’s slumped-shoulder slouch, punk’s pile-driving chords and its sense of reckless fun (even felt in the grimmer songs on ”Insomniac”) overflow with a sense of empowerment. Nineties punk may sound nihilistic, but it’s actually the polar opposite: Instead of telling its fans to give up hope and give in to a dark side, it relentlessly forces them to stand up for themselves, their rights, and their future. These days, that’s a pretty punk-rock stance.