Breaking Down Pop-Punk’s Heteronormativity

The only thing we love as much as great music is great music writing, and from time to time we like to highlight some of our favorite pieces by sharing them here on our blog. The following piece was originally featured on the official home of Punk Out!, a great organization you can learn about in this feature we ran back in December. Be sure to support their efforts to encourage equality and acceptance in music whenever possible.

In 2001 we – along with blink-182 bassist Mark Hoppus – fell in love with the girl at the rock show; before that The Dead Milkmen had us jumping on tables at pizza joints and stealing cars for that special punk rock girl, while Descendents had us bemoaning the mystique of that black haired, fair skinned kabuki girl.  All of these seminal pop-punk songs offer classic boy-meets-girl-meets-heartache-meets-angst stories and we all love them for it – they’re cathartic and give us the feeling that someone else goes through the same romantic pitfalls as us.

But what if they don’t? Notice that boy-meets-girl trope? It’s pretty common to pop-punk and it’s also incredibly heteronormative.  It’s easy to just write this off as a result of the fact that most pop-punk bands consist of heterosexual guys still navigating the maze of early adulthood.  As a cis-gendered, heterosexual male I can attest to the ease of this assumption, but it’s wrong.

This assumption stems from both the pop-punk scene and our greater society.  Pop-punk – much like the patriarchal and heteronormative society it evolved inside of – is a boys club.  All the biggest pop-punk bands are dominated by men who identify as straight and we cannot fault them for their sexuality, but we can question how this genre became so heteronormative, and more importantly, how we can work to reclaim it as a safe space for the LGBTQ community.

Anyone remotely sensitive to LGBTQ issues understands the importance of pronouns.  They are a subtle, yet crucial, syntactical tool that speaks to our identities and how we see ourselves.  For example, to mis-gender a Trans person by using incorrect pronouns immediately invalidates their existence.  Similarly, to consistently listen to a slew of pop-punk songs that you might identify with musically, only to hear tales of “he loves her,” is disheartening for those, young and old, in the LGBTQ community.  

LGBTQ music lovers, like all music lovers, want something they can identify with, which begs the question: why must heterosexual pop-punk bands rely so heavily on gendered pronouns?  Is this just another way of exclaiming “no homo!” or is it simple ignorance?  The optimist in me hopes it’s the latter, which opens up the possibility of educating and encouraging our favorite artists to adopt gender neutral pronouns, because after all the words “I love you” do not have a sexuality and act outside of our socially constructed gender norms.

However, making pop-punk more LGBTQ friendly is not just about leveling the playing field and creating egalitarian songs that everyone can identify with, but also pushing those pop-punk musicians who identify as queer to the forefront.  While using gender neutral pronouns might make straight pop-punk bands more accessible to the LGBTQ community, it is also important to let that same community have something that is unequivocally theirs, which is why we ought to encourage LGBTQ pop-punk bands (and all bands) to sing the lyrics that represent their lives best.  

The punk community was (supposedly) founded on the premise of inclusion for the misfits of society and so often we fail that guiding principle in regard to anything from race to sexuality.  The pop-punk scene needs to make a stand and support pop-punk bands that openly identify as LGBTQ and whose songs give the LGBTQ community something to identify with.  The LGBTQ community needs to hear Jordan Black from Like Pacific scream about his failed relationships, they need to hear Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace sing about the harsh realities of being Trans in America, and they need their own Soupy.

As fellow Punk Out content developer Kat Hamilton noted in her recent article about notable queer, male musicians, the genre of queercore may exist, but it significantly lacks the same popularity as mainstream genres like pop-punk.  This relegation of LGBTQ friendly music to the obscure, niche realms of punk is a shame and contributes to the heteronormativity so prevalent in pop-punk.  This problem is not a question of there being too few LGBTQ pop-punk bands, but rather there being too little support for them in the scene.  

It is important that those bands exist, but in order for them to burst pop-punk’s heteronormative bubble they must both feel that their scene is willing to welcome them and also to support them.  It is easy to proclaim one’s willingness to let LGBTQ bands and fans take a more prominent place in the pop-punk scene, but it is another thing to make their existence financially viable.  The existence of every band ultimately comes down to dollars and cents – if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense.  On top of making the pop-punk scene a safe space for these artists, we also need to buy their merchandise, go to their shows, and buy their music so they can continue to break the heteronormative fetters that have confined pop-punk’s accessibility for so long.

As someone who has benefited from the privilege of being a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual pop-punk fan for most of my life, I cannot help but advocate that we all break down the overtly heteronormative barriers of entry so entrenched into pop-punk culture.  Music ought to confront, not perpetuate, these systems of exclusionary power – it is an art form for everyone and I think it’s about time that the LGBTQ community take their rightful place at the front of the stage so they can sing, scream, and angry finger point along to their own anthems.

Written by: Zac Lomas

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.