You may have noticed that pop-punk — that meld of maelstrom and melody made popular by bands from Descendents to My Chemical Romance and beyond — is having a moment. Mainstream artists like Miley Cyrus, Machine Gun Kelly, Willow Smith and Olivia Rodrigo have all had emotive, guitar-fueled, harmony-driven hit records this year. Nashville has had its share of underground pop-punk lovers in recent years. We’ve also contributed a little footnote to pop-punk’s mainstream mini-renaissance, too, via a trio called Tramp Stamps. What they bring to the table, however, is up for debate.
The controversy around the group started back in April when their single “I’d Rather Die” hit TikTok, the popular social media app where they’d built a modest following. Almost immediately, there was a flood of call-outs in reaction videos and the comment section, citing problematic lyrics, faux feminism, punk posturing and ties to the mainstream commercial music industry that led some to label the group “industry plants.” Soon came think pieces from Slate, Vice, and Rolling Stone; Vox declared Tramp Stamps “the most hated band on TikTok.”
Drummer Paige Blue has produced music licensed by big brands like MTV, Apple and Sephora. Though the band’s songs are published by a company called Downtown, guitarist Caroline Baker and singer Marisa Maino are both signed to Prescription Songs, a powerful publishing house founded by Dr. Luke, the star producer who’s avoided the spotlight since being accused by Kesha of sexual assault. It’s unclear whether the writers the firm has under contract are indirectly making him money — and, as noted by critics, that’s something that’s worth considering. The group has its own label called Make Tampons Free. Critical takes have also pointed out that though the label is independent, it’s distributed by AWAL, aka Artists Without a Label, which is affiliated with publishing giant Kobalt Music Group and boasts big-name clients like Kim Petras and Finneas.
Valid concerns aside, “industry plant” is a stretch. You’d think that a band manufactured and focus-tested at the whim of label execs would know its audience a little better, or at the very least have a song fit for radio. The group sounds like something for Gen-Z ears, but their take on rebellion seems too narrow to appeal to contemporary kids.
That brings us to the group’s debut record, We Got Drunk and Made an EP, released July 16. It features six rant-filled, misanthropic and intentionally juvenile ragers. Lyrically, the songs whipsaw between being in love with their own toxic tendencies and being completely fed up with everyone else’s. From opener “Anger Issues” to trap-tinged closer “Puke & Rally,” the band seems hell-bent on having a bad time, even when they’re trying to party; the more-delicate “B.F.F.” is a little less sour.
The takedown of toxic masculinity in “I’d Rather Die” is well-founded — Tramp Stamps have every right to gripe about unsatisfying sex with smug, vanilla dudes. But “I’d Rather Die” misses the mark and lands in problematic territory, focusing on race and sexual orientation in ways that scan as fetishizing (“I’d rather die / Than hook up with another straight, white guy”), with what some have identified as a bonus side of coercion ("When you can't get it up / I'm sick of hearing, 'It's the alcohol' ").
“Sex With Me,” which calls bullshit on a guy for demanding a lot more in bed than he’s willing to give, could be spun into a clever critique for the ways a male-dominated society forces women to navigate and capitulate. Instead, it feels way less imaginative than hundreds of other songs by women about being treated fairly, like Margo Price’s “Pay Gap” or Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts.” Sure, it’s sexually explicit, but Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s incredibly fun “WAP” is way more raunchy and way more effective at encouraging women to embrace their sexuality. On top of that, “Sex With Me” literally starts to hurt after repeated listens, with the Auto-Tune effect on the vocals coupled to some harsh distortion in the high frequencies.
The whole shebang comes off as a trio of industry pros with legit chops trying so hard to be punk that they become dilettantes. They’ve impressively engineered a viral shitpost of a project, breaking through the algorithm and gaining attention, but they don’t use it to say much of anything without canceling the message out. In 2021, marginalization is a lot harder to ignore — whether it comes up in discussions about sexual equality, racial equality, economic equality or something else. Sometimes, we need artists to transgress on what we’ve decided is socially acceptable in order to make a point. But clumsy provocation like what Tramp Stamps offers doesn’t add much to the conversation besides noise.