Getty Image/Merle Cooper
Allow me to introduce myself as the target demographic for Blink-182’s self-titled (or untitled) album — someone who was theoretically amenable to Blink’s ruthlessly hooky form of pop-punk and had no hang-ups about “punk cred,” but was absolutely not going to say a Blink-182 album title out loud if it was another masturbation (or anal) joke. A 23-year old who read Pitchfork but was still mad about their Jimmy Eat World reviews. Someone who still considers Blink-182 the band’s first and only album that they actually liked. In short, someone with no sentimental attachment to Dude Ranch or Enema Of The State and was willing to see it the same way that Travis Barker supposedly did – “Think of it as the first Blink-182 record.”
Even during my middle school years in suburban Pennsylvania, pop-punk never really spoke to me the way it was supposed to – not even local legend Weston’s Got Beat Up did the trick. But it’s not like I’m in a position to look down upon my many friends and colleagues who genuinely love Blink-182 and have written many thoughtful words on their behalf. During Blink’s commercial peak, I genuinely loved Korn and Weezer and Linkin Park songs and I suppose it’s only a matter of inches between what I viewed as the work of genuinely dark and disturbed people and what struck me as nerd stolen valor in the case of Blink-182. This was a band playing both sides, claiming the romantic failures and parental misunderstandings of the dorks while making music embraced by jocks – I had trouble believing anyone who was from San Diego and also looked like the most San Diego people on earth could ever truly be depressed or heartbroken. They were a boy band for people who shopped exclusively at Hollister, spiritually indistinguishable from everyone they mocked in the “All The Small Things” video.
And by the turn of the century, it appeared that Blink-182 had achieved a longer imperial phase than Green Day or The Offspring because they conscientiously avoided trying to make a “mature album”; rather than an Insomniac or Ixnay On The Hombre, a conflicted, cred-conscious response to a diamond-selling, surprise blockbuster, Blink gave us Take Off Your Pants And Jacket. Still, whether it was due to “Adam’s Song” or “Stay Together For The Kids,” I had gotten the sense that Blink-182 would inevitably feel the need to be taken seriously. In 2002, Tom DeLonge assembled Box Car Racer as a means of establishing his post-hardcore bona fides, name-dropping Fugazi and Refused as influences; yet, when I heard lead single “I Feel So” on MTV, it mostly sounded like the pop-punk parody song that Built To Spill slapped on the end of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love.
Regardless of the internal tension about their future direction – brought on by artistic considerations, physical injuries, touring fatigue, Barker’s budding multimedia fame — Blink probably sensed a culture shift already underway. By 2003, it was clear that Is This It was not a Nevermind-type extinction-level event for rap-rock or post-grunge or boy bands or pop-punk that many hoped for, if only because the latter’s impact has often been overstated as a means of creating “the 90s”; yeah, Nirvana made it a lot harder for Winger and Great White to eat and Poison and Motley Crue made hilarious attempts at grunge rebranding. Still, that didn’t stop Aerosmith and Meat Loaf and Guns ‘n Roses and Bryan Adams and Metallica and Eric Clapton from sharing MTV slots with “Heart Shaped Box.”
In fact, pop-punk and nu-metal and emo got even bigger, albeit while heading in a more refined, dare I say, “tasteful” direction. Many of the late-’90s emo bands with whom Blink were once conflated (mind you, they did have a song named “Emo” on Dude Ranch) were making solemn, indie rock records, most of which flopped so badly that their creators broke up immediately afterwards. But whether it’s Sing The Sorrow or Deja Entendu or Meteora, bands that might have once been seen as a little too jokey or juvenile were reinventing themselves as brooding perfectionists. This would only become more apparent in 2004 when American Idiot and Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge secured pop-punk and emo’s future as classic rock.
So when word got around that Blink were getting into turntables and linking up with DJ Shadow and whatnot, it was hardly unexpected, probably no different than all of the alt-rock also-rans in the late ’90s claiming allegiance to electronica. But before we go any further on Blink-182, let’s talk about Jimmy Eat World. In the summer of 2001, Rolling Stone published a lead review of Bleed American — prescient in hindsight, but certainly not merited by the band’s immediate status. The title track was making minor inroads on rock radio, but it would still be three more months before “The Middle” was released as a single. The first paragraph nonetheless lauds “The Middle” as a potential Song of the Summer and the second one acknowledges the best thing Jimmy Eat World had going for them at the time: Blink-182 liked them, so much so that Tom DeLonge hired them as his wedding band. As the story goes, DeLonge first said “I love you” to his then-girlfriend during “Episode IV,” a soft-serve power ballad from Jimmy Eat World’s unheralded 1996 debut Static Prevails that featured Tom Linton on vocals (unlike Blink-182, Jimmy Eat World’s “Tom songs” all but disappeared from their catalog after 1999). According to Setlist.fm, they haven’t played this song live since 2005.
Of course, Bleed American would result in Jimmy Eat World becoming direct competition, as “The Middle” and “Sweetness” jockeyed for airtime against “First Date” and “The Rock Show.” But as the above anecdote makes clear, Blink-182, or at least DeLonge, admired Jimmy Eat World’s earlier, more atmospheric work, specifically Clarity, a masterpiece of experimental emo that was famously unsuccessful in 1999 and caused them to make the “disgustingly catchy and straight ahead” Bleed American as revenge. I often think of Blink-182 wanting to make a kind of karmic realignment — what if Clarity was made by a band that had just gone double platinum instead of one that could indulge in their most experimental impulses solely because they were being ignored by their label? Would the public love it as much as Tom DeLonge did?
Oddly enough, though Blink-182 had previously worked with Mark Trombino, the guy who actually produced Clarity, they stuck with Jerry Finn for Blink-182, who produced AFI’s Sing The Sorrow earlier that year. Even as DeLonge namedropped Bad Astronaut’s post-Lagwagon cult classic Houston: We Have A Drinking Problem as a touchstone, the point remains that Blink-182 remains a fascinating “experimental” album because it looks no further than their immediate friends. It’s Inside SoCal asking, “Art, is it gangster?” in musical form.
Sucker that I am, the most successful songs on Blink-182 are the ones that owe the most obvious debt to Clarity, the album’s true north star; what In Utero was to Razorblade Suitcase, what The Chronic was to The Documentary, this is what Clarity is to Blink-182, not just the primary influence but often times, seemingly the only one. Even Clarity itself is a part of this lineage, as its opening song, “Table For Glasses,” was inspired by the state of awe and confusion that Jim Adkins felt while watching an abstract art performance. Maturity in pop-punk and emo might mean tweaking the lyrical formula, as Blink does on “All Of This” and “Obvious.” Listen to how “I heard you fucked him again” on the latter is delivered compared to “Did you hear? He fucked her” on “Dammit” – this is understood to be deeply felt, adult pain, not locker room talk. When DeLonge sings “Come on and uuuuussse me” on “All Of This,” there is an air of danger and conflict, not just some simp shit begging to get to second base. This is how you get a song that compares getting ignored by a woman you can’t have to actual violence. Naturally, the song is called “Violence.”
But for the most part, maturity just means drum machines, cellos, acoustic guitars, intricate stereo panning, choral vocal overdubs, and “the studio as an instrument.” “Obvious” tunes down to C#, maybe the first time they showed any interest in actually considering the tuning of their instruments. No amount of tasteful mic placement or flange effects could restrain Travis Barker from doing the same thing he does on every song, i.e., play enough fills to balance out the utter lack of technical frill from Hoppus and DeLonge.
Which is to say that I disagree with Rolling Stone’s claim of it being “pop-punk’s Sgt. Pepper,” that it fundamentally changed the idea of what the genre was capable of achieving. Rather, it’s a fascinating example of “art” albums by rock bands who are not all intrinsically artsy — I’d argue, with all due respect, that this includes every Deftones album made after Around The Fur, or at least Chino Moreno’s side projects. Or, Coldplay wanting so badly to be U2 that they were willing to have Brian Eno insult them in the press. I dunno, those late ’90s albums where bands like Better Than Ezra tried to go trip-hop. Or, hell, even A$AP Rocky or Travis Scott trying to present themselves as genius polyglots by getting James Blake and Kevin Parker to phone in some hazy beats.
The difference between, say, Stankonia or even Electric Circus and Warning or Utopia comes down to whether the creator sees themselves as artistes or, rather, a curator, someone who wants to present themselves as an insightful consumer of taste. Substance vs. signifiers. What is art rock to Blink-182? Art is not something that must be excavated from the deepest, darkest parts of the soul, something heretofore unheard. Art is obtuse song titles, like “Asthenia.” Art rock is spoken word interludes. Art rock is Tim Burton. Art rock is the stuff on the higher shelves of Hot Topic. Art rock is The Cure, which emerged as the “art rock” entry point for pretty much every pop-punk or metal band during the early 2000s, peaking with the airing 2004’s MTV Icon; alongside AFI, Deftones, and Razorlight, Blink-182 paid homage to The Cure by covering “A Letter To Elise” and performing “All Of This,” the Blink-182 deep cut that actually featured Robert Smith, no stranger to making a mid-career pivot from snotty, punkish pop.
“All Of This” isn’t the best song on Blink-182 and I’m not sure it’s even my favorite either, but it is the most illustrative of its charms — even on a song where they’re barely present, Blink-182 just cannot be fully pretty or artsy. This should’ve been obvious enough on “I Miss You”; the use of upright bass and cello and skittering brushed drums and piano signifies “taste” and then DeLonge literally opens his mouth and turns it into the most meme’d song in Blink-182 history. “Feeling This” revisits Blink-182’s single favorite topic — making out, or, at the least, wanting to make out, and stretches it towards more visceral extremes of longing and consummation. And by repeating the title every two seconds, it ultimately sounds like a commercial for Mountain Dew or Dell laptops, betraying its roots as a song once titled “Action” on the Madden 2004 soundtrack.
But also, the dissonance between Blink-182’s abilities and their ambitions makes this their most interesting album, or at least the one that’s likely to provide something new every time I hear it. I deeply admire their intent to make writers rehash every single “I guess this is growing up” punchline they’ve ever written, yet the way they succeed is more in subtext. What I hear is a document of three guys in their late 20s, and having a very age-appropriate freakout over the person they’re seen as and the person that they think they are.
Getting from one point to the other is all in the follow-through, and that’s perhaps why Blink-182 most reminds me of…hear me out, Radiohead’s The Bends — which, at the time, was largely perceived as an unserious band trying to make a serious album. I’ve often wondered how The Bends would be perceived in 2023, or if it would even be perceived at all if Radiohead had broken up immediately thereafter or if their third album was closer to Coming Up or Be Here Now than OK Computer. For all of its pedal board razzle dazzle and unconventional melodic sensibilities, “High And Dry” and “Bones” and “My Iron Lung” and the title track aren’t that much less angsty than “Creep.” Indeed, critics at the time treated The Bends about as kindly as they did Blink-182, which is to say that many saw it as a great leap forward whereas others saw Thom Yorke’s self-loathing as the one thing holding them back.
Rather than following through on Blink-182’s grand experiment, the trio punted; Blink went on hiatus in 2005 and their experimental streak resulted in +44 and Angels And Airwaves, which respectively resembled a more guitar-focused Owl City and a less pompous 30 Seconds To Mars. After finding their footing on 2011’s Neighborhoods, Blink more or less committed to pure fan service. They indeed made a Clarity that was as popular as Bleed American, but only going platinum represented a Clarity-like flop for Blink-182.
Yet, it’s 2023 and Blink-182 is an arena rock band. Literally. No, really — think about that for a second. The same songs that so many associate with their days of faking an illness to miss gym class are sharing space with the Vancouver Canucks or New York Knicks. In 2024, they’re even booked for summer headlining concerts at SoFi Stadium and Petco Park. All of this despite not having a meaningful pop hit in 20 years or evolving beyond their core sound. All of this despite being, by all accounts, a legendarily shitty live act. But if Blink-182’s current status is largely due to the sheer goodwill of reviving the classic Mark, Tom, and Travis Show lineup, it’s the culmination of two decades of damage control after the “first Blink-182 album,” the one they named after themselves, became their only identity crisis.