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Rage Against the Machine Gun Kelly

Why is the rapper's pivot to pop-punk so divisive? Gen Z and millennial music geeks duke it out

Rapper Machine Gun Kelly, 30, is an unlikely 2020 success story. He appeared in the films The King of Staten Island and Project Power, went steady with Megan Fox and topped style lists for being garishly chic. But his biggest success may be the most divisive: his pivot to pop-punk. 

Tickets to My Downfall, his fifth album and the first to top the Billboard 200, is full of guitar-heavy, throaty pop-punk anthems, the kind that make former emo kids (and whoever runs the Wendy’s Twitter) turn their heads. Critics, too, largely appreciated his departure from a rap career. “Clearly, this is the work of a guy who’s found a fresh lease on life by inserting himself inside a new musical tradition,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Jon Dolan.

Thursday night, Kelly dropped a music video for the single “Forget Me Too,” an ode to mid-aughts angst and mall clothes, co-produced by blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and featuring singer Halsey doing her best Hayley Williams impression (the album owes a lot to Williams’ former band Paramore; its deluxe edition even features a cover of “Misery Business”).

It’s an unmistakable vibe that Kelly captures: to me, listening to mainstream pop-punk singles on KISS-FM in my mom’s Honda Odyssey on the way to elementary school. To my editor, Cooper Fleishman, it’s listening to burned Saves the Day albums in his mom’s Honda Odyssey on the way to his summer job at American Eagle. Kelly has picked up the ongoing aughts nostalgia trend that’s seen Paris Hilton, Bright Eyes and The Sopranos all return to the zeitgeist. 

Plus, Kelly is fucking sexy with bleached-blond hair. He’s not a vintage Goodwill T-shirt; he’s a PacSun hoodie — edgy but accessible. He looks like the older, tattooed cousin of Timothée Chalamet — a guy who actually knows how to roll his own cigarettes, owns vintage Vans and has strong opinions about the Monster vs. Red Bull energy drink debate. “Bottom line, Machine Gun Kelly is hot,” says fellow Gen Z reporter Magdalene Taylor. “Like G-Eazy, but hot and fun.”

I thought this song would be a cute bonding experience in our newsroom full of music geeks. Instead, it tore us apart on generational lines. Staff writer Eddie Kim now calls Machine Gun Kelly MEL’s QAnon — a poseur Pied Piper leading us all into hell.

Kelly is a “lightly talented young man who has failed upward endlessly because he’s white and beautiful, which is bait to any A&R exec who wants a ‘breakout,’” Kim says. “His dabbling in pop-punk is no different from Miley Cyrus thinking she needed to be hip-hop, then ditching hip-hop when it stopped keeping her famous. I find the whole exercise offensive to rap and even more offensive to punk.” 

Social media editor Alyson Lewis, who lives near Kelly’s hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, agrees. She has no love for Kelly — or any white rapper still finding his voice. White rappers “nearly always decide to pivot to a different genre after rap, [which] is what puts them on,” Lewis says. “Fuck MGK. Fuck Post Malone. Fuck all of them. It’s an insult to rap and an insult to Black people — they swerve into a lane that doesn’t belong to them.” 

These are excellent points. What Taylor and I can’t endorse, however, is the idea that “sellout” punk, or what cool kids call Hot Topic punk, is inherently worse than the raw DIY shit my elders know from late ’90s and early 2000s basement shows. They’re not ready to accept a suit signed to Interscope thinking he can just snap his fingers and bring pop-punk back.

“[Kelly’s] like if someone said, ‘Hey, here’s everything you hate about radio pop-punk and Good Charlotte, but now it’s done by a fucking white rapper,’” Kim says.

“Good Charlotte rules,” Taylor says.

“It’s strange that I would feel protective about a musical subgenre that I used to drag all the time,” Kim acknowledges. 

“I’ve always thought pop-punk was almost inherently a sell-out genre,” Taylor says. “Not that it’s a bad thing, but that’s why it’s pop.” 

Here lies the divide: Avril Lavigne, Fall Out Boy and all these uncool punk bands came into my life at an age when I didn’t even know what selling out was. (Or sex, for that matter.) We’re the generation that considers this Lindsay Lohan album punk. Listening to Paramore today reminds me of summers at the local pool where all the cool teens would play All We Know Is Falling while I waited in line for the body slide. It feels good, so why fight it?

And, to Taylor’s point, pop music today is no longer viewed as a “lesser” genre. It’s not gauche to respect pop stars like indie Pitchfork faves — just ask the army of guys in their 30s who love Carly Rae Jepsen. We have a better understanding that pop music is actually one of the few genres that allow women to succeed, while the pop-punk scene has a well-documented history of misogyny and sexual assault

Therefore, in 2020, is selling out still “selling out”? Why do we shame creative people making money? What really is selling out when we exist in a capitalist society that forces us to be part of a system?

Eventually, I got Fleishman, who played drums in Ohio punk bands as a teen, to admit some of Kelly’s new songs — like “Bloody Valentine” — are actually good. “I think as an angry kid I was much less open to liking bands that were successful, but now it’s just a vibe I appreciate in a different way,” he says. “A bop is a bop. I guess this is growing up.”