📍Cultural Commentary: April ’21 - Part III
The final episode on what's happening in mainstream music's transition.
In Parts I and II, we traced a line from Kid Cudi to Machine Gun Kelly (MGK)—via SNL—to the revival of pop punk in the US musical mainstream. We ended with the co-conspiracy between MGK and Yungblud to “bring back rock’n’roll.”
Today we tie up their collaboration and make a link with Miley Cyrus, via the mysterious indications provided by SNL’s selection of musical guests, to round off this cultural commentary on what’s brewing in pop music today.
Co-Conspirators: The ‘Rock Revival’ Pow-Wow
As noted in the last dispatch, MGK’s effort to ‘bring rock back’ via the release of his pop punk album Tickets to My Downfall—and its incredible reception—has not been concocted alone. Tickets wouldn’t be what it is without having drummer and producer Travis Barker (of Blink-182) on board. In a way, Barker legitimises MGK’s inroading into the pop punk genre. He helps the music be taken seriously as a contribution to the opus, legacy, and future of pop punk in the 21st century.
MGK’s work in rap also has an important role here, since gone are the days where fans swear allegiance to a sole genre and its musical sub-culture. Mods vs. Rockers isn’t a thing anymore. One can listen to mixed playlist of hiphop, punk, and electronica—mixing Top 40 tracks with obscure releases from tiny labels, and it’s no big deal. In fact, it has become the norm. So fans of his rap œuvre can be coaxed into the ‘rock revival’ mission without much friction. They’re probably already wearing cheap Black Sabbath tees whilst loving anything Danny Glover does anyway.
Hip hop has been sampling from rock for decades. Since its beginning. Soul, blues, guitar licks and the integration of analogue instruments was always there. In many ways, guitar sounds never really went away. They were simply utilised in different ways. And visa versa. Tame Impala’s psychedelic beginnings with 2011’s Innerspeaker eventuated in 2020’s The Slow Rush—an album Kevin Parker said was the electronic sound he wanted to make all along, he just didn’t have the skills for until now.
But back to pop punk’s comeback. Like everything (fashion, visual art…) music is cyclical. Things fade out of popularity and come back around, albeit in renewed and reconfigured shapes and forms. And sounds.
Although Tickets is nothing revolutionary in terms of the sonic, the emergence of a significant and well-received pop punk album does feel like it’s coming from left field in 2021. Nobody was awaiting the return of pop punk, nor was anybody asking for it. Except MGK, Barker, and their buddy from across the pond, Yungblud.
Yungblud and MGK have been working together after connecting via a love for the “culture and aesthetic of rock’n’roll”, now rallying together on a mission to “bring rock back for a new generation.”
Last year they released their first big song together Acting Like That, including Barker on drums, a perfect pop punk anthem centring around three glam punks on an anarchy-symbol-sprayed party bus set in a weird night of LA zombie apocalypse.
MGK likens himself and Yungblud to a modern day Elton John and Jimi Hendrix:
‘It feels like a dope, across-the-pond thing, like: “You hold it down over there and I’ll hold it down over here.” Together we can make some sort of union of rock stars. We’re like Elton John and Jimi Hendrix back in the day.’
Yungblud is a British musician (who spends a lot of time in LA, presumably living there for most of the year) who parallels MGK in their rapper-come-punk-inspired mishmash of music and lifestyle projection—circling the same themes as MGK in both the sound, lyrics, dress, and communication with fans.
Crossover themes and topics in their work include: mental health, ADHD diagnoses, experiences of insomnia and suicidal tendencies, questioning gender norms and (pan)sexuality/the fluidity of both, drugs and addiction difficulties due to not feeling great in oneself/with one’s place in the world, rebellion against ideas of ‘conformity’…the list goes on.
As seen in his artist name, ‘Yungblud’ pays reference to hip hop culture whilst drawing on his British roots in style nods to punk history, including wearing Sex Pistols and The Clash tees, creepers, tartan, padlocks and chains, leather jackets with pin badges, make up and painted nails, etc.
It was the duo’s first collaborative song ‘I Think I’m OKAY’ on MGK’s 2019 Hotel Diablo album that MGK attributes as starting the “landslide into Tickets to My Downfall” (the song also features Barker, with lyrics including: No sleep, up all week wasting time with people I don't like/I think something's fucking wrong with me.) The two have spoken publicly about their “pow wow” for “bringing rock back.”
Commenting on his happiness for the success of MGK’s Tickets, Yungblud told Billboard:
‘It’s fucking brilliant! To see my mate, we feel like we’re part of a scene again. Rock 'n' roll is coming back very quickly, because it’s a scene.
It’s not just one twat with a God complex and a leather jacket eating too much guacamole going “I saved rock music.” Rock 'n' roll is about freedom and expression and defiance to conform. And you can only do that in a group. Seeing my best bud and my best mate score a No. 1 album in his country was just magic. I couldn’t be more proud to know him and I couldn’t be more proud to kind of be with him on that journey.
[…] Ever since we wrote 'I Think I’m OKAY,' we saw this place to go, and we saw this community. No one’s looking over their shoulder going 'Oh, they beat me!' That’s what was wrong with rock 'n' roll—everybody was fucking thinking that they had to be the messiah, whereas now it’s just like, celebrate your mates, uplift them and be a part of something that’s gonna help a load of fucking people, and help you at the same time."
Emotions, (More) Kurt Cobain, and Monetisation
Like Kid Cudi, MGK and Yungblud want their lyrics to be emotional and in conversation with their audience’s own mental/emotional experiences, as well as citing Kurt Cobain as a muse. MGK professed his Cobain love, saying:
‘Some of us are just fuck-ups who look normal and wear shitty clothes because we can’t afford good ones, and we’re angry and we just wanna take out our angst and shit with a guitar. I’m not inspired by how good you are, it’s almost like the opposite. I wanna feel you…
Kurt didn’t give a fuck how he sounded, he gave a fuck how he felt. He was like, “Dude, my stomach hurts today. I feel like shit. I hate this song that you all love so much. I’m gonna play it terribly. I’m not even gonna sing the right lyrics to this shit. Fuck you!”’
The monetisation of their fame and image is also of concern to these musicians, another sign of the times—or is it? Musicians have long capitalised on their careers with periphery products and ventures. Think of the fragrances of celebrities from Sophia Loren and Cher in the 80’s, to the explosion of celeb-scents in the early 2000’s (including Christina Aguilera, Britney, David Beckham, Beyoncé, and Justin Bieber, to name a handful), as well as reality TV shows starting with MTV’s The Osbournes, right up to the multitude of fashion lines and cosmetic brands, like Rihanna’s runaway Fenty Beauty.
Just like the commercial motivations behind Cudi’s ‘dress’ exhibit on SNL (which disguised the promotion of a collaborative collection with Off White) MGK also has ulterior promotions going on.
As he shows off painted nails and a favour for dressing in pink, it turns out he is launching his own unisex nail polish brand ‘UN/DN’, parcelled with Tickets merch that includes three nail polishes in Punk Pink, Paparazzi (a glitter version), and Black Like My Heart.
A press release for MGK’s UN/DN line shared that:
‘Machine Gun Kelly has always defied norms and standards for self-expression, gaining incredible recognition with his fashion and beauty presentation. He has been recognized as a pioneer in leading the nail art trend within menswear, oftentimes embracing fresh manicures while walking on the red carpet, performing on the stage, for photo shoots and in his daily personal life, showcasing that nail art doesn’t need to be feminine or exclusively for women.’
MGK also has a coffee brand/shop called 27 Club Coffee (based in Cleveland) that merges millennial pink with punk, including caffeinated slogans like ‘Sleep when you’re dead’ and an Instagrammable wall suggesting to ‘Enjoy where you are right now’. The coffee shop and brand’s name pays obvious homage to the notorious ‘27 club’ in rock and roll history (a phenomenon of musicians and artists passing away at the age of 27).
Collaborator Travis Barker’s side hustle is a CBD products brand Barker Wellness Co, which develops and sells “Premium quality and ethically made vegan, THC-FREE, cannabinoid-infused wellness products for your body and mind.”
Although these ventures and products are not as obviously promoted in the music, as was the case with the Cudi/Off White capsule collection, the fact remains that artists and musicians are no longer focusing themselves on solely providing music to their fans, but offering a lucrative entry into a lifestyle and look.
Where There are Boys, There are Girls
By now, both Barker and MGK are deeply situated within the Hollywood. Barker goes out with a Kardashian and MGK with Megan Fox. ‘Rockstars’ have always had ‘babe’ girlfriends, though traditionally the babes were part of the same musical sociality or a pretty supermodel on their arm—rather than the 2021 version of Instagram influencers or A list celebrities. Perhaps these connections and influences might feed into the musicians’ business projects that run alongside their rising celebrity, fame, and ultimately, monetisable influence. Their ladies might be teaching them a thing or two about how to be a fully-fledged ‘creator’ in 2021.
Yungblud too has recently been said to be dating Jesse Jo Stark, a former ‘it girl’—when Nylon mag used to do covers on such things, with the likes of the Geldof girls, Alice Dellal, etc. What these ‘it’ women share in common is having famous parents. Jesse Jo’s parents are the founders of rock fashion label Chrome Hearts. Founded in LA in 1988, Chrome Hearts counts Steven Tyler, Elton John, Kanye West, Cher, Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott, and Drake (musician) amongst its clientele, and has gone on to collaborate with high fashion design houses such as Yves Saint Laurent and Comme des Garçons. It’s the kind of brand that would say rock and roll never went away.
The Return of Rock and Roll
What we have traced until now is the decline of guitar music during the 2010’s, with Ticket to My Downfall’s chart-topping arrival in 2020 marking a potential ‘return of rock and roll’—if anybody dares to put pop punk in that category.
These boys are wildly aware of the stigma of corny associated with their chosen genre, just as they know the industry workings and how to bring a record into mainstream recognition. Their pursuit to put guitar music on the radar again, and to inspire kids into picking up instruments again themselves, parcelled up as a vehicle for personal expression of emotions and dissatisfactions, makes for a heady concoction (of success) within the context of popular culture in 2021.
When MGK arrived on LA’s Sunset Strip many years ago, disappointed that it was nothing like what he had read in Anthony Keidis’ Scar Tissue biography, he had a vision to revive the Strip into the raucous and lively rock and roll Mecca that it was in the past (the same era he enacted as Tommy Lee in 2019 biopic The Dirt, which placed prominence on the Strip’s scene for Mötley Crüe).
So far, several public and private events MGK has initiated on Sunset have been effective in calling back the ghosts of subcultures and paradigms passed, and consistent references to the area in his songs (“Drop me off at The Rox on Sunset”) act as clear calls to the youth to repopulate the Strip and bring it back to life.
Tracing back to where we began, MGK’s performance on SNL of tracks off of Tickets also went down a smash—another musical guest proposed by and connected to Pete Davidson (like Kid Cudi). In his pop pink outfits, MGK showed the world this new side to his artist persona, painted nails and all, and solidified SNL as being a thermometer of what’s going on, or brewing, in mainstream music at the moment.
Through photos of backstage post-it notes, the show reveals who is scheduled to be up next. In the show’s next episode on May 8th, the musical guest will be Miley Cyrus. And the host, Elon Musk (??).
Cyrus too appears to be on the ‘rock revival’ train, releasing the song Bad Karma featuring the legendary Joan Jett of the Runaways (off of Cyrus’ ‘rock and roll manifesto’ album Plastic Hearts) and continually channelling looks (hair/dress/attitude) of female rock legends past in recent appearances.
Cyrus and Jett’s performance together earlier this year at the Superbowl saw Miley bring out the best of her husky (undeniably) rock’n’roll ready voice. A Tiny Desk (Home) Concert from the beginning of this year captures Cyrus dressed in full old-school rockstar glam (fur, flares, hat, sunglasses indoors and all) opening with a cover of Mazzy Star's hazy psychedelic anthem Fade Into You. For the Final Four Concert NCAA in April, Cyrus performed another ‘70s rockstar throw back, beginning with Queen’s We Will Rock You, followed by Don’t Stop Me Now, later heading into Blondie’s Heart of Glass, and closing with the Guess Who’s American Woman.
It can be confirmed that Miley Cyrus is part of this ‘bring back rock and roll’ vanguard, alongside MKG and Yungblud (whom, prior to Jesse Jo Stark, he was rumoured to be romantically connected to. They are certainly friends.) Cyrus’ recent foray into covering rock classics and aligning herself with icons of the genre feels like a soft launch and self-education of an immanent, full-on rocker-Miley explosion.
If MGK and Yungblud might struggle to put rock and roll back on popular music’s radar, for more than a minute, having a pop heavyweight like Cyrus pushing rock’s revival could be what it takes to change the game and attain a popular love for all things rock’n’roll—sounds, looks, attitude, and all—once more.
As the next musical guest on SNL, and if SNL’s recent record of signifying what is happening in popular music via their musical guest selection is something to go by, we might just see Cyrus claim another stake towards mainstream music’s eventual, long-awaited, return back to guitar sounds.
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