Fifteen years ago Monday, the world had a song bestowed upon it that would change the course of music by lowering the level of discourse in the world of pop punk to its nadir. If you are of a certain age, you will remember the heyday of pop punk, a brief period of time when it took over music around the turn of the millennium. After the surprise success of Blink-182’s 1999 Enema of the State, pop punk, the logical endpoint stemming from The Ramones adding some melody to punk, became the music of the moment. It still has its champions, but those are increasingly hard to find in the mainstream. And that’s the fault of “Teenage Dirtbag.”
You may remember this song well. Wheatus was a one-hit wonder, and, of all the pop punk songs that became hits, “Teenage Dirtbag” is the worst, and we are well aware of the discography of Avril Lavigne. “Teenage Dirtbag” is worse than “Sk8er Boi” or any other song you want to throw out. Also, Lavigne basically just made pure pop music anyway.
Let us set aside the fact that the lead singer of Wheatus had a whiny voice. Let us set aside the instrumentation, as well, which isn’t terrible, to be honest. The problem with “Teenage Dirtbag,” and the reason it synthesizes everything that was wrong with so much of pop punk so definitively, is the lyrics.
The story is as simple and insipid as it gets. Our protagonist is the titular teenage dirtbag. To what extent he is a dirtbag, we will never know. We do know he listens to Iron Maiden. That’s about it. Iron Maiden, of course, being a heavy metal band whose music has nothing to do with Wheatus’. Anyway, this guy loves some girl from afar, he doesn’t think she knows who he is, and her boyfriend is a jerk.
This is all inane, and laid out horrendously. This girl, whose name is Noelle, is a cypher. We know she rocks in Keds and tube socks, because the singer tells us this. We are given no reason to care about this guy, or about Noelle. We do learn some interesting things about her dick of a boyfriend, though. Namely, he brings a gun to school. Now, we are all familiar with the trope of the douchebag boyfriend of the girl of some guy’s dreams. However, when has their obnoxiousness ever been exemplified by bringing a gun to school? Bringing a gun to school is the province of deranged school shooters and gangbangers, not fratty a-holes. Did Josh Charles have a gun in the Wet Hot American Summer prequel? No, because this is not a trope that exists or makes sense.
It gets worse from here. The denouement of the song takes place at prom, which this outcast decided to attend by himself, even though he is unhappy to be there. Does he know that going to prom is not a requirement? It only makes sense for him to go to prom because prom is where bullsh*t teenage love stories end. Sure enough, suddenly, Noelle is approaching him, and she’s got two tickets to Iron Maiden (baby) and wants to go with him. It’s the happy ending we’ve been waiting for. Our heroic teenage dirtbag got the girl of his dreams by… well, doing nothing. Also, what happened to her boyfriend and his gun?
The thing that makes “Teenage Dirtbag” so obnoxious is that this teenage wish fulfillment nonsense was not written by teenagers. Brendan B. Brown, the frontman of Wheatus, was born in October 1973. He was in his mid-20s when this song came out, and here he was, singing some nonsense about Iron Maiden and teenage dirtbags finding love. It is, and this will sound harsh, pathetic. This is not the way adults should be engaging with the world. He should have grown out of this years prior. However, Brown and his Wheatus compatriots are not the only ones guilty of arrested development. Blink-182’s breakout hit, “What’s My Age Again?” was all about that. They were right about something in that song: Nobody does like you when you are 23 and still amused by prank phone calls.
Now, you may also want to argue that Wheatus and other offenders were making music for teenagers, and are merely appealing to teenage sensibilities. This may be true, but it is also insidious if that is the case. If this were true, then these bands are crafting disingenuous music in order to sell records. Making music to make money is fine, of course. Nobody is here to yell “Sell out!” at anybody. It’s just that, if you want to make music for teenagers, you don’t need to speak down to them. As adults with life experience, these bands could have made music for teenagers that actually had some value to it and didn’t condescend to them. This is not say Wheatus needed to turn their chairs around to have a rap session with the youth of 2000, but they didn’t have to make such drivel. Everybody deserved better, including the fans and the bands.
Before pop punk, grunge grabbed the teenage audience by tapping into its omnidirectional rage and belief that nobody understood it. Pop punk stepped into grunge’s wake by tapping into those same people’s belief that maybe, just maybe, somebody hot and popular would f*ck them, or that they and their misfit friends would rise up and rule the world, or a million other bits of wish fulfillment that flows from teenagers to this day. These immature bands were feeding them nonsense borrowed from a bad ’80s movie in between songs dedicated to scatological humor. The bands can’t all claim ignorance, either. When working on Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, the fellas of Blink-182 were asked to craft a breezy summer single. Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge bristled at the notion, and proceeded to go home and toss off a couple songs in the span of minutes. Those songs are “The Rock Show” and “First Date.” They are both terrible and juvenile. They were also both big hits because teenagers are terrible and juvenile. They decided to keep playing the songs, presumably because fans like them, which is both noble and about the least “punk” thing somebody can do.
Do bands like Wheatus embody the whole of pop punk? Of course not. No band can. There were plenty of pop punk bands that were capable of maturity and insight in their lyrics. Some bands, such as Green Day or Saves the Day or other bands with “day” in their name, dabbled on both sides of the divide. Pop punk is a designation of sound, not content. However, it would also be unfair to call “Teenage Dirtbag” an outlier. This was an insidious strain that ran through the subgenre that, perhaps unjustly, paints the entire era negatively. These songs deserve their negative reputation, but they are not a brush that should be used to tar an entire generation.
At its worst, and it was at its worst more than a lot of people want to admit, pop punk was the music of adults who never stopped being immature teenagers. The death of the genre is not one to be mourned, although, in truth, it was just replaced by something else, because teenagers have never stopped being teenagers, and the music industry never stopped being the music industry. That’s why Aug. 17, 2000 is a day that shall live in infamy. It’s the day that a teenage dirtbag, a blank slate named Noelle, and some guy with a gun came into our lives, leaving the world forever just a little bit darker. Man-children – and they were almost entirely men, which is a whole different kettle of fish – were allowed to run amok and rewarded for never growing up. Pop punk was, at its heart, a way to mix the energy and drive of punk with poppier music sensibilities (hence, duh, the name). It just happened to get co-opted by a lot of dudes who never stopped dreaming about that high school girl who wouldn’t give them the time of day, which is sad. When you are a teenager, you don’t realize it, of course, because you are dealing with your own sh*t. As an adult, though, it’s hard not to wonder what anybody was thinking, and how a bunch of adults were allowed to remain perpetual 14-year-olds.