We talked to the man who crunched the data on thousands of punk playlists to find what users define as punk. (Hint: Blink-182 is the second most punk band.)
Somewhere around 1974, the genre of punk rock was born. Shortly thereafter, the term, which was loosely defined as short, simplistic, aggressive rock songs that presented a reaction to the overwrought popular rock style of the era, ceased to mean anything as people almost instantly started arguing about its definition. It’s a familiar pattern that’s played itself out over the ensuing decades throughout all aspects of popular music, and popular culture in general, as a once tangible form mutates and fractures into disparate parts over time. In punk, this came in the form of dozens of sub-genres that spawned tens of thousands of bands, and millions of infuriating lectures and disagreements from the gatekeepers of artistic purity who’ve anointed themselves as the Eternal Arbiters Of Genre Authenticity. For an even more exasperating example of this, look no further than metal, a genre whose internal squabbles make punk and Middle Eastern politics look reasonable by comparison.
This approach to defining genre has long fascinated Matt Daniels, a music fan and data analyst who runs the site Polygraph. For a project commissioned by Converse, Daniels wanted to unpack the way we actively talk about genre today, as opposed to the traditional passed down definitions, through the lens of our playlist-making habits on Spotify and YouTube and using punk as a jumping off point. In essence, it was an attempt to crowdsource the definition of the genre.
The results may not please you, particularly if you’re a holdover from a previous generation. Of the most popular artists appearing across the playlists he examined, using thousands of data points, the second most popular was Blink-182, falling closely behind Green Day. Rounding out the list were the likes of The Offspring, Sum 41, Rise Against, and Fall Out Boy. Nary a Clash or Ramone in sight. It’s enough to make a middle-aged dad punk run his SUV off the road.
“After Green Day, there’s no other band as pervasive on punk playlists as Blink-182,” he writes. “Of the thousands of playlists that I found titled ‘punk’ on Spotify, Blink-182 is on half of them. More often than not, Blink-182 and ‘punk’ are synonymous.”
In a visually effective, and infinitely interesting series of charts, particularly if you’re a huge music dork, Daniels further examined a number of sub-genres of punk, including emo, hardcore, pop-punk, metalcore, and others. Of particular note to me, as a guy who makes a lot of emo playlists, was a decidedly non-trad list of emo pioneers, like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, All Time Low, and Black Veil Brides. But, as Daniels tells me, if that sort of result makes me mad, I’m probably just old. He’s got a point there, sure, but there’s an interesting overlap in the point he’s trying to make and the way we talk about how language evolves. Think of the definition of the word “literally,” which, literally, no longer means what it actually means. A prescriptivist, otherwise known as a grammar nerd, will fume at the way the meaning of words change over time, but a descriptivist like Daniels instead suggest that words, and genres like punk, don’t mean what they mean, but rather are defined by how we actually use them.
I spoke with Daniels about his study, and why everything music critics have been working for their entire careers is essentially meaningless.
Noisey: What was the impetus behind this project?
Matt Daniels: I’ve done a lot of music projects in the past, if you go to poly-graph.co you’ll see a bunch of projects related to hip-hop and Spotify data and lyrics data. So I've done a bunch of this stuff in the past and one of things I’ve always wanted to get into was genre. Genre is one of the worst ways to make people angry in a conversation about music because everyone disagrees about what’s what. It’s always been this amorphous thing, whether something is a sub-genre of another thing. It’s kind of a meaningless discussion because there is no true definition and it’s always evolving.
That’s always been, anecdotally, a thing I've known, that it’s hard to pin an arrest to a genre and often even the artist themselves will disagree. So with this project I wanted to look at how people categorize artists with genre.
One way we’ve been unknowingly doing this is with playlists. Pre-Spotify, we never knew how people categorized artists within genres. Spotify is interesting because people create playlists all the time. You might create an emo playlist, and that’s a data point now that is meaningful, regardless of whether you’re right or wrong. Maybe in 20 years that will change, but this is an interesting data point for 2015. So I looked for all the playlists, for example, with “emo” in the title, and ranked them. The result is, essentially, who is emo in 2015, according the kids.
Why punk in particular? And how many playlists over all did you look at?
Punk—because it’s one of the most divisive genres. I think there’s way more agreement in hip-hop on whether or not an artist is a rapper. The genre is more definitive: if you're rapping and there’s a beat, it might be hip-hop. Punk is interesting in terms of examining genre. In terms of the playlists, it was like four million songs across 100,000 playlists. But I needed to filter those down to specific playlists. Of those 100,000, I only needed like, 2,000 emo playlists to make it statistically significant. I took a fraction of those playlists so we would have a similar sample for each sub-genre of punk—a couple thousand for emo, a couple thousand for hardcore, for pop punk, and post-punk. And that’s across both Spotify and YouTube. Most kids aren’t on Spotify, it’s expensive.
When you say "kids," do you mean literally kids, or like, “kids,” meaning music fans?
I literally mean kids. If you're 12 years old, you’re probably on a laptop, you don’t have your own phone, you can’t afford Spotify, and you listen to music on YouTube or some other free service. Kids are really interesting because they’re the ones that dictate the trajectory of music and the categorization of what’s popular. If a bunch of 14-year-olds think Fall Out Boy is punk music, they’re going to get older and that generation’s definition is going to proliferate. That’s why younger generations are interesting if you think about the definition of a genre. Thirteen-year-olds are really important when trying to predict the future.
Genre-titled playlists on which a band appears most often
Was there a little aspect of trolling when you put this together? You probably knew it was going to irk people to see, say, Fall Out Boy as the epitome of punk.
Well it depends who, right? If you're 13, you’re like, “Yeah, Fall Out Boy is punk, what else is new? The sky is blue.” The same thing happened 20 years ago. When Green Day was proliferating in punk, everyone was like, “This isn’t punk, this is pop with people with spiky hair.” What you just said is all relative. Every generation thinks every generation is wrong, which goes back to original point of the article: genres are always changing. When people are irked, it’s because a new generation has appropriated what they mean by “punk” or “metal” or “hip-hop.”
There’s a great quote, it might've been Vic Mensa, who said, “I don't give a shit about 90s hip-hop.” [Editor’s note: It was Vince Staples.] Everyone got angry. [Editor’s note: Yes they did.] But because he’s so young, artists from the early 2000s are what he’s pulling inspiration from. Whether or not a 13-year-old girl cares about a band from the 80s? That’s an eternity ago. Saying Fall Out Boy is punk instead the Ramones or the Sex Pistols is getting into generational dynamics
That’s kind of like what we saw this week with people trying to shame kids for not knowing who David Bowie was.
Yeah. I’m 30, so let’s say I didn’t know who some artist from the 1940s was. I was born in 1985. Let’s say you're a 12-year-old kid, you were born in 2004. Go back 30 years, that’s the 1970s, which is David Bowie, and that’s the equivalent of me going back to the 50s. I could name maybe four 1950s artists right now. If we were to make a listicle of 1950s artists, we would struggle. That’s what’s going on here. You need to shut the window on yourself. Who is the equivalent of David Bowie of the 1940s? He was an amazing artist, but not the first on a top ten list of cultural pervasiveness of arts in the 70s.
Were there any bands on here that surprised you where they fell?
One of the things I thought was crazy was No Doubt. They kind of defined ska-punk in the 90s, but they're not known for that anymore, they evolved into just being a pop band. So it was interesting to see, looking at ska-punk and No Doubt, they’re not even close to the top. That was interesting to me, when people look back at No Doubt, I wonder if they’ll remember them as a genre-defining band for ska-punk. Perhaps not.
Another one was that Joy Division is still synonymous with post-punk. In terms of where the stake in the ground of what post-punk represents, it’s still with Joy Division, which is several decades old. So there are still some genre terms that haven’t changed at all. We’re still good with Joy Division being post-punk, but if we said pop punk, what we mean by that is evolving. That’s Fall Out Boy, not Green Day. We’ve changed where the center of gravity is for that genre.
It’s similar to how language evolves, you have descriptivists and prescriptivists.
Yeah, you’re totally in the world that I’m in, etymology and semantics. And I think of it a little differently. I think of the whole genre debate as really just a rite of passage. Being able to talk about genre means you've nerded out about this world of music. If you can talk about ten sub-genres of metal, you know what you're talking about, so I think that’s all that this comes down to. It’s like a rite of passage and learning about a world of music and sub-culture and community. I’m going to tell you what I think this means because I have a different perspective on this community. You know a lot about emo, if you're in you late 30s, you have more empathy with what was going on in the 1980s on how emo came about. That’s where your definition is drawing from. Maybe you’re a little out of touch with what’s going on with newer bands. That’s how I think about it, how we’re approaching a sub-culture of music. That makes the whole genre thing interesting to begin with. That’s totally fine and that’s OK that definition is changing.
I agree with you in a way, but I also disagree. There are rules! But some of these bands you found are categorized all over the place, right?
Yeah. I think you get that with contemporary bands. They just show up everywhere because they're popular because they're in culture. If Bring Me the Horizon is showing up everywhere because they're a popular band now, that’s interesting. When you have a new band that sounds different, they're hard to classify because we don’t know where to put them yet. Those bands are interesting, they defy the typical sorting heuristics people have: “OK, the tempo is fast, but they don’t look like the genre they sounds like, so I’m going to put them here.” I wanted to do this with Death Grips. They kind of look like a hip-hop band, and there’s a guy rapping, but if you go to a Death Grips concert, you're not at a hip-hop concert, you’re at a punk concert. If you look at their genre sorting on Spotify, they’re not popular enough to get enough significant statistics, but you see a lot of experimental hip-hop. They show up on punk and hip-hop playlists, there’s lots of slashing going on.
Luke O'Neil thinks One Direction is punk as fuck. Ridicule him on Twitter - @lukeoneil47