You're traveling to another dimension, a dimension where the most detested trends in pop music combine to make a sound that teenagers cannot resist. Sure, the Warped Tour (which comes to Shoreline Amphitheatre on Thursday, Aug. 20) isn't The Twilight Zone, but Rod Serling's taste for the absurd certainly fits well with this year's lineup. The tour's fifteenth year sees a large number of acts that have embraced a combination of minimalist Southern hip-hop, Auto-Tune croons, techno breakdowns, barked vocals, and party-til-you-puke poetics.
It's called scrunk, a bastardized combination of crunk and screamo, and it's the hottest thing since sliced bread joined Twitter. Chief among all the scrunk acts performing as part of the punk carnival is Albuquerque, New Mexico's brokeNCYDE, who have drawn considerable ire from the punk community and have ridden their infamy to #87 on the Billboard 200 with their debut album, I'm Not a Fan, But the Kids Like It! (Breaksilence). To the punk community, a genre like screamo had already hit rock bottom a few years ago, so the idea that a handful of kids would remix lowest-common-denominator screamo with crunk beats, misappropriated gangsterisms, and the extreme garishness of emo fashion was sure to incite hate-filled diatribes.
Musicians from Steve Albini to Thursday's Geoff Rickly trash them (there's even an awareness group named Mothers Against Brokencyde drumming up outrage), but the members of brokeNCYDE couldn't care less. "We don't care what people say," says vocalist Mikl on the phone from Utah. "All these critics are trying to bring us down, and yet we're selling a lot of copies of our music and that's because of our dedicated fans."
Carefree as Mikl may try to sound, he takes a defensive turn when it comes to how the band members are perceived as people. "We get this in interviews and other places all the time; that we're suburban kids, we're rich, we had it easy, our parents pay for everything, and it's the total opposite. We were raised the best that our parents could raise us, but there was times that we didn't have food, water, lights."
Yet, despite the various hardships the members of brokeNCYDE claim to have endured, it is by no leap of the imagination that people assume they're rich suburban kids with hot software. We need look no farther than their lyrics, which revel in the accoutrements of suburban comfort. Mikl states that the band writes about "everyday life." However, many of their rhymes come across as almost painfully juvenile attempts at plasticine gangsta rap, completely detached from the real: Put your hands down in my pocket/And make my pee-pee hard ("Sex Toyz"). Now drop it girl go shake that ass/I wanna see you make it clap/Like clap clap clap/clap clap clap ("Booty Call"). Kickin' it baby/Get crunk, get crazy/All fucked up/Make me wanna punch babies ("40 oz.").
BrokeNCYDE's messy setting of blandly misogynistic lyrics against a backdrop of catlike wailing, formulaic hip-hop tropes, and, yes, plenty of Auto-Tune has become poisonous to many punk ears. "There hasn't been a level of backlash like this toward one act in the 10 years I've been doing this," says AbsolutePunk founder and CEO Jason Tate via e-mail. Tate is a regular contributor to the website's forums and has been absolutely stunned by the mere existence of brokeNCYDE. "They're just that bad, and they epitomize everything that music (and human beings) should not be."
Jessica Hopper, author of TheGirls' Guide to Rocking, agrees with Tate's sentiment, and says brokeNCYDE are "everything awful about pop music rolled together." Yet Hopper can sense the potential appeal to teenagers scrunk acts have. "If you are sixteen or seventeen right now, brokeNCYDE just completely references anything that might be a contemporary pop culture reference, or anything that a teenage person is into. ... You kind of get everything at once."
Hopper traces the sound's influence back to 2005, when Panic! At the Disco first mixed up emo and electronics, much to the delight of mainstream music listeners. Warped Tour co-creator and CEO Kevin Lyman points towards Boulder, Colorado's 3OH!3 as the real tipping point for scrunk. "They were right at the cusp of this at the beginning," says Lyman over the phone from Phoenix. "Though 3OH!3 doesn't incorporate the blood-curdling screams of many scrunk acts, they were the first emo-influenced act to depart from traditional instruments in favor of pre-programmed beats, all while retaining many of the same stylistic elements that define emo today. A couple of years ago, this stuff started coming around, and I let them [3OH!3] play one show in Denver. It went exactly like the showcase I'd like to see."
This year, Warped is packed with bands that have taken to a mixture of electronics and screamo, be it the aggressive Christian technoscreametalcore of Attack Attack or Breathe Carolina's sugary electropop punctuated with growl-filled choruses. Of all these bands, the bulk of the attention continues to be split between brokeNCYDE and another band, Millionaires. This all-female Huntington Beach, California, trio have been relegated to scrunk largely by association. Although Millionaires refrain from any actual screaming over their crunkish beats, their immature and sexually provocative lyrics, weak style, fashion extremes, and secure place in Pete Wentz's Decaydance label have solidified this status — as well as an aura of perma-spite surrounding the group. To many, Millionaires are the quintessential example of the inertia and uncontrollable popularity of scrunk acts: what began with a couple of sisters shouting in-jokes in rhyme over GarageBand beats has snowballed into massive MySpace popularity.
Millionaires' newfound infamy is something singer Melissa Green finds hard to grasp. While interviewed during a break from a recording session, Green reached to offer an example of the band's positive impact: "As a role model, I don't think what we say is what the younger girls should really look up to saying or doing. The three of us are role models in that we never had the musical abilities to actually play instruments and play guitars." Unfortunately, when it comes to artistic expression, you don't get to choose what other people should and shouldn't focus on. Though some have criticized groups such as Millionaires for their inability to play instruments, a lot of the anger towards scrunk acts has been focused on these bands' oft-misogynistic lyrics. Green's inability to understand that her words, as well as her music, are at the center of attention (typical title: "Just Got Paid, Let's Get Laid") spell a musical movement that has been catapulted into the limelight too fast and too soon.
With the current phase of scrunk at maximum capacity, where does the genre go from here? Just as scrunk already appears to have quickly reached its tipping point, it'll be gone before you know it. "The market's gonna get saturated, just like the emo market did and the screamo market did, and then three or five of those bands will persevere and have a longer career," says Lyman. Whereas some scrunk bands have stirred up controversy, it will take a little more to persevere. As Lyman puts it, "If they don't get songs, if they don't really start to have the talent behind it, I'm not judging them, but they won't be around in a few years."