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Blink-182 - Enema of the State Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit blink-182’s third album, a defining moment in both pop-punk and immaturity writ large.

On the weekend of the infamously disastrous Woodstock ’99, which symbolized rock radio’s id-fueled descent into aggro dipshittery, a snottier kind of teenage angst was manifesting 200 miles to the west in Buffalo, New York. Then in its fifth year, the Vans Warped Tour had crisscrossed the country bringing affordable revelry to the green-haired masses. If Woodstock was for the shirtless jocks, Warped Tour was for the skaters, losers, and wannabes who still sometimes needed a ride from mom. No one was there for the revolution; they were just teenagers drunk on community and tongue-kissing, blissfully alive during the final summer of what had been a relatively idyllic American decade. And that summer, no act on the bill was bigger than blink-182.


While the concept of pop-punk dates back to ’70s bands like the Buzzcocks and the Undertones, pop-punk didn’t become actual popular music until 1994, when Green Day’s Dookie sold more than 12 million copies and set off a never-ending debate about selling out that persists in DIY spaces today. Sure, Green Day sang more about masturbation than anarchy, but that simply did not matter to all the young kids who, apart from lapping up the music, constituted a new customer base for the record industry to serve.

These market conditions had lifted blink-182 to festival superstardom just five years into their recording career. In 1992, Mark Hoppus met Tom Delonge through Hoppus’ sister Anne, and they immediately connected through their obsession with punk rock and middle-school humor—two foundational elements for a new pop-punk band. But while they loved conceptual predecessors like the similarly Californian and cheeky Descendents, they were serious about owning a suburban home. “I’d like to make a lot of money and fuck credibility,” Hoppus said in 1998 to i-Zine. “People make so much out of something that’s just the band trying to get ahead and get its music to as many fans as possible.”

They weren’t selling out; they were buying in. Part of that was Hoppus and Delonge’s exurban SoCal upbringing, which encouraged a sunny prankishness at odds with the urban despair of the big cities. “The Californian middle-class suburbs have nothing to be that bummed about,” Delonge told music journalist John Robb in 2000. (He might have added “white,” too.) Two decades earlier, the teenaged Ramones were social outcasts in New York, but Delonge was named homecoming king his senior year of high school (he was also expelled for showing up drunk to a basketball game). What they began doing quite well and to excess was simple: record the pouty concerns of middle-class kids in a plainspoken language they could understand, set to addictive melodies and played at moshing speed.

That largely meant singing about women. “I guess this is growing up,” Hoppus had declared on 1997’s “Dammit,” a cynical dispatch about a collapsed relationship; two years later they were hardly more considerate about the opposite sex. As Warped Tour kicked off in 1999, they released Enema of the State, their third studio album, first with a real budget, and first solely for a major label (1997’s Dude Ranch was released in tandem between MCA and early patrons Cargo). Nine of its 12 tracks were directly about women, with a tenth—the anti-suicide “Adam’s Song”—inspired by the loneliness Hoppus felt on tour as the crowds got bigger and the schedule more demanding.

“What’s My Age Again?,” their first single to hit the Billboard Hot 100, summed up blink’s entire emotional purview: sexual failure, exes, and developmentally arrested existential despair. (The initial title, rejected by the label, was “Peter Pan Complex.”) The song was boosted immensely by the accompanying video, in which the band sprinted nude through Los Angeles, a stunt that landed them on MTV’s Total Request Live, then the gold standard for artists hoping to break into mainstream America. The nudity didn’t have much to do with the song, but juxtaposing earnest sentiment with love of their own dicks would become the band’s default approach for the next few years.

Nice guy misogyny, practiced by men who claim to love and respect women, but also think they know what’s best for them, was rampant in ’90s culture and music, and blink-182 were not an exception. Gasoline-powered opener “Dumpweed” is catchy as hell; it also has a chorus where Delonge yells, “I need a girl that I can train,” an attitude made abundantly clear throughout the album. (Reviewing it in The New York Times, Ann Powers called “Dumpweed” a “nasty idea, but the rest of the song makes it obvious he is the one at heel.”) The moral record doesn’t need to be retroactively corrected, as plenty of critics and adults despised their act: A 2000 SPIN piece threw them into the rising tide of sexist rock bands, alongside frat-rap acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock; a profile from the year before highlighted the animosity from ethically-minded punks concerned about the implications of blink-182’s waggish bullshit.

The music publicist Tristin Laughter, who was then employed by prominent punk label Lookout! (home to a pre-stardom Green Day), wrote in the influential fanzine Punk Planet, “Boys who go to see the punk bands on the Warped Tour may be inspired to start their own rock bands. Girls may be inspired to think they could actually be pretty enough to be cheered on when they remove their shirts.” The band treated the accusations with little credence: “I love all those criticisms, because fuck all those magazines!” Delonge told SPIN. “I hate with a passion Maximumrockandroll and all those zines that think they know what punk is supposed to be. I think it’s so much more punk to piss people off than to conform to all those veganistic views.” This brand of assholishness didn’t negate the fact of their wrongness, which the band could occasionally recognize with the slightest concessions; after all, as their audience began skewing younger, they did stop asking the women in attendance to remove their shirts.

They may have been stuck at the emotional age of 23, but the 1998 addition of Travis Barker had given their collective musical ability a quantum leap forward. Citing burnout, original drummer Scott Raynor had left the band mid-tour, and Barker was recruited on short notice from costumed punks the Aquabats, one of their tourmates. He learned the entire setlist in about 45 minutes, which Delonge later remarked was both a testament to his skill and the band’s lack of refinement. Not long after, Raynor was formally kicked out, and Barker was hired on full-time.

Barker’s two drumming heroes were jazz legend Buddy Rich and Animal from the Muppets. In contrast to Hoppus and Delonge, he’d grown up working class, and carried himself with a seriousness they did not share. (For years, he’d be regarded by fans as “the quiet one.”) Full-body tattoos and a stylish mohawk belied a monkish devotion to his craft—he practiced obsessively, and played so forcefully he once fractured his arm during a video shoot. Though he didn’t receive songwriting credits (and wouldn’t be inducted as an official member of the band until the recording of 2001’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket), Barker arranged all of the songs on Enema, selecting the tempos and organizing the flow of verses, choruses, and breaks.

Given new power thanks to producer Jerry Finn’s arsenal of pedals and amps, Delonge’s guitar-playing bounced against Barker’s hard-nosed drumming, with Hoppus’ bass lines as the connective tissue. Barker’s versatility meant they could settle into a twinkling ballad, or approach the tempo of hardcore. Often he did everything in the same song, like on “Dysentery Gary,” where a start-stop lockstep with the riff flows into a samba groove before achieving rocket-fueled liftoff on the chorus. Aquabats singer Christian Jacobs assessed the value of Barker’s contributions more bluntly: “Without Travis, Mark and Tom would have been, at best, a lukewarm poser pop-punk band. A couple of hot dogs wiggling around in a bucket.”

The full-throttle catchiness of a song titled “Dysentery Gary” (which is about a slimy guy who steals Delonge’s girlfriend) sums up why fans loved blink-182, and why critics often rolled their eyes. Their punk forebears offered clever critiques of capitalism; they came up with, “Work sucks/I know.” They were lifestyle music for kids radicalized by the Tony Hawk Pro Skater soundtrack, empowered by their self-assigned right to rebel.

Even so, they could be surprisingly sensitive, like on “All the Small Things,” which Delonge wrote about his then-girlfriend and future wife Jennifer. The lyrics aren’t profound, and the Fisher-Price rhyme scheme led to syntax that sounds spat up by a Babelfish translation (“Always I know/You’ll be at my show”). But it was engineered to provoke a physical reaction: leaping out of the speakers like a Van Halen song before slowing down to build momentum for another eruptive chorus buttressed by Delonge’s adenoidal harmonizing, his na-na coming out as a nasally faux-British naw-naw. The fizzy pleasure of the melody captures the Hallmark simplicity of young love, and though the instantly iconic video mocked the boy bands of their era, any amateur critic could point out they were just doing “As Long As You Love Me” for the lip-ring set.

Considering how easily the band defaulted to juvenilia—even the sweet “All the Small Things” got a goofy video—it’s relatively stunning how straight they played it on “Adam’s Song,” which became the most impactful anti-suicide song of the ’90s due to its vivid first-person perspective and empathetic narrator, a depressed teenager whose feelings of anguish and alienation were proximate to a lot of blink-182’s young fans. “Adam’s Song” read like something a teenager might have written, which is why millions of them loved it. The experience of navigating suicidal feelings rarely sounded so anthemic, and Hoppus’ somber delivery, heartbreaking details (“Please tell mom this is not her fault”), and eventual hopeful turn even closed out with a tender piano outro. It was capital-M Mature; it was also named after a Mr. Show sketch about a band who visits a fan after his suicide attempt, further heightening their push and pull between emotional development and the easy joke.

Then again, what do you expect a band that would call their next album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket? They were just close enough to their youth to instantly relive it, which may have given their therapists heartburn, but made for amazingly effective pop music: Hoppus was 27 years old when he wrote, “Nobody likes you when you’re 23,” and DeLonge actually was 23 years old when he insisted on being unlikeable.

But blink-182 eventually did grow up, sort of. The darker textures and increasingly sophisticated songwriting made 2003’s self-titled album, recorded just before their eight-year hiatus, a predecessor to the moody emo-pop bands that would soon dominate the charts (it even included a duet with the Cure’s Robert Smith, one of Hoppus’ heroes). They still write silly songs like 2016’s “Built This Pool” (complete lyrics: “I wanna see some naked dudes/That’s why I built this pool”), but their reunion records are studded with moments of emotional reflection and compositional elegance that, 20 years ago, would’ve been impossible to anticipate. Particularly good is 2011’s “Up All Night,” in which they grapple with the night terrors that set in after the money has been made, the suburban home has been purchased, the family life and personal development have been secured, but life nonetheless remains unresolvable.

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In a meta bit of casting, Delonge was replaced by Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio, who’d often stood in contrast to blink as a “serious” pop-punk band. Hoppus morphed into a sage, wry presence on Twitter, and a vocal advocate of the younger groups blink-182 inspired; Barker became canonized as drummer to the stars, and garnered an unyielding wave of goodwill after barely surviving a plane crash in 2008. Whispers abound that Delonge will eventually rejoin the band when he’s finished proving that aliens are real, and by the way, you are not alone in being overwhelmed by the fact that the guy from blink-182 might prove that aliens are real.

Through all these encroachments into adulthood, Enema remains the album that defined them. Nothing they released after had the same immediacy or cultural connection, and they’re now performing the record in full, the surest sign that a band has finally embraced its status as a legacy act. In blink’s case, their once-teenaged fans are now full-fledged adults with nostalgia for their less responsible years, and the money to emotionally regress for a night. They were slated to headline Fyre Festival, a disaster of Woodstock ’99 proportions mostly attended by monied urbanites whose artistic interests top out at “stuff I recognize.”

Even so, the appeals of puerile insouciance are evergreen, and their celebrity status allowed them to stretch across generations in a way that most pop-punk bands have not, with the exception of Green Day. When I finally saw them perform for the first time, at 2013’s Riot Fest, their audience was filled with hundreds of teens, some of whom weren’t even born when Enema came out. At that age, reacting stupidly in front of your crush is a forgone conclusion, because nothing ever feels as hurtful or as confusing as one’s first experiences with torments of romance. Immaturity is a type of rebellion—a stupid one, but transparently so, and though the band is now in its 40s, they can still faithfully evoke a specific pose of solipsistic juvenile rebellion that hasn’t been anywhere near as culturally omniscient or validated since 1999, at least not by a guitar band. No wonder they were still an inspiration for the kids not yet ready to grow up, even if they should’ve been acting their age.


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About Udara Madusanka

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