Double Dare, Equal Vision Records (c) 2016
Pop-punk: it’s a bit of a contradiction in and of itself. Pop music is made for the masses, while punk music rejects the mainstream and conformity, yet the genre of pop-punk exists and has indeed developed over time. The most recent wave of mainstream pop-punk occurred in the early- to mid-2000s with bands like Fall Out Boy, Taking Back Sunday, New Found Glory, Paramore, All Time Low, and even blink-182 and Green Day. Some of these bands were also influenced by emo, and their popularity helped to define this new kind of pop-punk. However, it was ultimately a trend that oversaturated the market and died out by the late-2000s. The pop-punk community never ceased to exist, and there are still plenty of exciting bands, but everybody is still waiting for (or trying to be) the group to bring the genre back into the spotlight, and Waterparks could very well be that group.Their debut from Equal Vision Records, Double Dare, is one of my three favorite albums of 2016; its diversity makes it accessible to a wide audience, and the band’s clever wordplay is always entertaining, often disarming, and actually definitive of the idea of “punk.”
Waterparks is made up of three Texan guys in their mid-twenties, and their music is on the poppier side of the pop-punk spectrum — they aren’t as raw as The Story So Far or as dark as The Wonder Years, but they have more edge than 5 Seconds of Summer, and this makes them accessible to a larger and more diverse audience than most other pop-punk bands are. They have solidified their own recognizable sound, but the album itself is very diverse. Some songs are shaped by electronic effects while “21 Questions” is a stunning acoustic track, but all are engaging and a lot of fun to sing along to. This is an eccentric and extremely likable band, and their music reflects that. Sonically, they are more dynamic than other active pop-punk bands, and their lyrics are just as dynamic.
Vocalist and lyricist Awsten Knight douses Double Dare with witty commentary that covers a variety of themes. On “Royal,” he touches on the pressures and expectations of being on the brink of fame and mainstream success, and on “Dizzy” he relates to us, “I don’t hear from my friends anymore/Everything slows down by 24,” sharing his despair of the confusion and meaninglessness he has experienced in early adulthood. “Stupid For You” and “Take Her to the Moon” are joyous love songs, but there are traces of self-doubt in them that make them multi-dimensional and relatable. “Made In America” is especially relevant right now, scathingly discussing the current apathy and hypocrisy in our nation. On “Gloom Boys,” Knight seems to take a jab at emo pop with the line, “I like happy songs/With titles that don’t match at all,” (see Panic! at the Disco’s “There’s a Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought Of It Yet”) but it describes this specific tune as well; the chorus sounds so bright being in a major key, yet our lead singer discusses how he can only seem to write when he is “stressed or sad,” feeling creativity sparks only when he is at his lowest of lows. Imagine believing that you could only be good at doing what you love when you felt tortured, but it would be torturous if you felt unfulfilled and incapable of doing what you loved — that is a terrifying and overwhelming catch-22 of personal expectations where happiness is scarce, and it makes for a somber but spellbinding song.
Now I love every single song on this album, but there are a few standouts that deserve a little extra attention. “21 Questions” is one of these tracks. It is simple and tender, and it reminds me of A Day to Remember’s “If It Means a Lot to You” because of the style. However, it is cautious too, and that caution makes it so honest and raw. As cliche as it sounds, Knight is literally pouring his heart out to us, and it feels so refreshing compared to so many contemporary ballads. The build and crescendo in the bridge is emotional and powerful, and every time I hear him wistfully wonder, “Am I in his position now?” my heart just breaks. “Plum Island” is just as powerful, although it is a frustrated confessional regarding the opinions of others.
“Little Violence” touches on some of the same points as “Plum Island,” but it fully fleshes out the band’s anger. Now that Waterparks is working with the Madden Brothers, signed to a well-respected label, and starting to make some waves (terrible pun not intended) within the national pop-punk community, other bands suddenly want to be friends with them, and these guys see through and resent that artificiality. Knight boils over the fact that people in the industry have always considered them “too soft,” but now that they have started to establish a fan base and make a name for themselves these people have changed their minds; it is intentionally ironic that this is the heaviest song on the album. He defies the stereotypical pop-punker with “So take off with your snapback/Before you get knocked flat,” and decides to move on from the criticism and continue to make the music he wants to make. Waterparks has been condemned for sounding “too pop,” and their confidence in being a poppier band has made them an anomaly in this scene. Ironically enough, because they so willingly create a more pristine pop sound, they are not conforming, and that non-conformity is definitive of the punk mindset — their utilization of pop makes them punk. There is so much spunk here, as our vocalist snarls, “I wanna be a sellout just to piss y’all off.” It’s clear that this band does not care what anyone thinks, and that confidence in defying others to follow one’s own dreams is something people genuinely want to relate to; Waterparks helps the listener to feel more confident in himself and his eccentricities.
Why can Waterparks reinvigorate pop-punk? They are self-aware of the genre and reinvent it, demonstrating mature creativity and wit on their debut. Nevertheless, the real answer to this question lies in this fact: they are not pop-punk. Because they are unafraid to delve into a variety of topics and draw influence from various genres, they are more than just pop-punk, helping to redefine the concept. Double Dare is much more than a whiny collection of romanticized pop-punk stereotypes like pizza, khakis, best friends, and getting out of this godforsaken town; it is a thoughtful body of work that should be celebrated. With their abundance of potential, the future is bright for Waterparks. Who knows? We could be looking at the roots of the leaders of the next progression of pop-punk and pop-rock in mainstream pop culture.