Over the past year, pop-punk and alternative rock have reasserted their place in mainstream music — and this year’s 21 Under 21 list reflects that resurgence, with nearly half of the artists loosely fitting that mold.
In 2020, on the heels of TikTok fame, jxdn became Travis Barker’s first signee to his DTA Records label (an imprint of Elektra). “I was interested in someone his age venturing into that [pop-rock] sound,” Barker told Billboard in August 2020, emphasizing how jxdn’s social media savvy is a huge selling point for breaking an artist now. “It’s a big reason why he’s popular, but it’s one of the reasons that rock bands in general are not popular, because they don’t know how to use social media,” said Barker. “I just feel like it’s one of the things that makes an artist [today], love it or hate it.” In the last year alone, Barker has also helped young talent including Willow, Nessa Barrett and LILHUDDY land alternative and rock hits.
LILHUDDY, who similarly translated a TikTok following into a faithful fan base, found fast success in the pop-punk lane — and even starred in Machine Gun Kelly’s album film, Downfalls High. After signing with Adam Mersel’s Immersive Records (an Interscope imprint) in January, the rising artist released his debut album and scored a high-profile brand campaign with Burger King.
Considering TikTok’s role in helping what was once old become new again, it’s natural that artists like jxdn, LILHUDDY and others are finding success by infusing the genre with new flavor: mixing guitars with hip-hop beats for bite-size, social media-friendly choruses.
LILHUDDY “was really a student of pop-punk,” says Mersel of what initially stood out to him about the artist. “For him, it was always about the genre and redefining what it meant to be a young person in 2020 … doing that kind of music and doing it in an authentic way that made sense for him and didn’t feel copycat or something that was derivative of something else.”
“Even though there’s this resurgence of pop-punk going on, it didn’t feel like [LILHUDDY] was making that kind of music to fit into a box,” continues Mersel. “But I think it’s a blessing because it opened the door to the sound really resonating with young people and a rediscovering [of this genre] through young people.”
Chart-topping artists like The Kid LAROI and Olivia Rodrigo are among those embracing, and benefitting from, the mainstream return of pop-punk with songs that lean heavily on guitar. While both scored non-rock No. 1 hits with “Stay” and “drivers license,” respectively, they’ve also shown an alt-rock proclivity on songs like “Without You” and “good 4 u” (the latter of which retroactively credited Paramore’s “Misery Business” as inspiration).
And, as Will Calder, director of branding and program-ming at Florida stations WPOI Tampa and WPYO Orlando, told Billboard of LAROI and Rodrigo in September: “[They] are the new kings and queens of pop radio right now.”