There’s a fine line between camp and class, between low-brow and high-brow. Have you ever been that person who’s constantly defending a movie or TV show or album that everybody else seems to despise? With “Back Off, Jerk,” Hidden Track writers tell the rest of the universe to wake up and stop hatin’.
This week, Trace William Cowen defends the unfairly maligned pop-punk band Simple Plan.
My first car was a beautifully embarrassing 1994 Mercury Topaz. The tape deck worked like a comedic charm, so I invested about three weeks worth of grass-cutting money into a portable CD player with a flimsy cassette adapter. The audio quality, though hindered by two degrees of sonic separation, was tolerably poor. The only real problem was the fact that, with a single swift turn or classic Alabama pothole, my tediously constructed listening apparatus would be sent crashing to the floor, either causing a complete halting of music or a series of skipping phrases. One more grass-cutting later, I purchased some velcro strips and — finally — found myself in the throes of first-car-windows-down-too-loud bliss.
My father would occasionally drive the Topaz to work, often remarking upon his return home that whatever CD I had left in the car was “pretty good.” He grew up on Sabbath and the like, so his fatherhood-era affinity with Blink-182, Good Charlotte, and — yes — Avril Lavigne made, at least, some amount of sense. One fateful drive, however, proved to be a bit much, even for a Sabbath guy.
“I don’t know how you’re not depressed all the time,” he said, shortly after getting home from work. Naturally, I assumed I had left my yard-sale-purchased copy of The Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs in the car. Maybe even my copy of AFI’s Sing the Sorrow. Turns out, it was Simple Plan’s No Pads, No Helmets…Just Balls. The track was “God Must Hate Me.” I felt silently vindicated, as earlier that week, someone in gym class had berated me for my Simple Plan T-shirt, describing them as “Backstreet Boys with guitars.” My teenage vindication fell short, however. A few months later, my mother proclaimed — during an episode of TRL — that she really liked the Simple Plan song “Welcome to My Life.” I was confused. Was it cool for my parents to like the bands I was listening to? The answer, of course, was — and is — that it doesn’t matter.
But therein lies the unnecessarily complicated joys of loving these five Canadian pop craftsmen. From the outset, is it a tad weird that lead singer Pierre Bouvier refers to himself as “just a kid” on Simple Plan’s first single “I’m Just a Kid”? Well, maybe it should be. But the sentiment works. Does one remove Roald Dahl’s literary relevance for being 45 years of age when he penned James and the Giant Peach? What about Melissa Mathison for being 32 when she wrote one of the greatest childhood friendship stories of all time, E.T.? The answer, again, is absolutely not.
A popular message board argument in defense of Simple Plan, particularly during the height of their American popularity (but still referenced today), is the “gateway drug” theory. For example, Simple Plan often cited a plethora of purported punk rock legends in early interviews, including NOFX, Alkaline Trio, No Use For A Name (The band recently contributed a track to fallen lead singer Tony Sly’s tribute album). The “gateway drug” theory, then, says that fans of Simple Plan would then go look up these bands, eventually fine-tuning his or her musical pallet.
This theory proved true with me, as I made an obsessive habit of at least attempting to like any smaller or “less mainstream” bands that received mention from Simple Plan in interviews. They weren’t, however, the only band serving as supposed gateway drug liaisons in the throes of pop punk mania (roughly 2001 to 2005), but their references, despite what elitists of the genre seemed to believe, made a great amount of sense; much more sense than from many of their contemporaries.
Prior to Simple Plan, Chuck Comeau (drums), Pierre Bouvier (vocals), and David Desrosiers (bass/vocals) all spent time in the relatively successful punk band Reset. Though painfully young, the band appeared on successful tours with MXPX, Face to Face, and Ten Foot Pole. Bouvier showcases a remarkably different vocal styling on the Reset albums No Worries (1997) and No Limits (1999), but the lyrics — more directly aggressive and less broad than Simple Plan’s discography — often fall flat. There’s a lack of authenticity here that, perhaps, lead to both Comeau and Bouvier eventually leaving the band (Desrosiers served as Bouvier’s fill-in for a short period after No Limits).
In a cosmic act of “pop intervention,” Comeau and Bouvier were quickly reunited when they both bumped into each other at a Sugar Ray show. Perhaps both coming to terms with the fact that their respective artistic callings would rest more comfortably in the house of Pop than the shacks of Punk, the two friends began to more seriously pursue a new group. That group, rounded out by Desrosiers, Jeff Stinco (lead guitar), and Sébastien Lefebvre (rhythm guitar and vocals), would quickly become Simple Plan.
The universally acknowledged “ethos” of punk rock, well understood by Comeau and company, have certainly become perverted in the last 10 years, but the fingers pointing at selected titans of pop punk are pointing firmly in the wrong direction. Subtly anthemic atheism on the aforementioned “God Must Hate Me” aside, is there anything even remotely offensive to mainstream culture within the Simple Plan universe? No. Does their music stand proudly in firm contrast against “whatever’s on the radio”? No. If anything, Simple Plan has always belonged on the radio. Was Fat Mike (NOFX) referring to Simple Plan, perhaps even indirectly, in these lyrics from “The Separation of Church and Skate” from their 2003 album The War on Errorism?
“When did punk rock become so safe?
When did the scene become a joke?
The kids who used to live for beer and speed
now want their fries and coke
Cursing and flipping birds are not allowed
In fact, let’s keep noise levels down”
Possibly. But, if so, Fat Mike’s got it all wrong too.
The guys in Simple Plan aren’t fuck-everything-just-do-what-you-want cool, by any means, but their brand of cool – the I-know-exactly-who-I-am brand – is, in many ways, far more admirable. Unlike aforementioned contemporaries Good Charlotte, Simple Plan never abandoned the core of their appeal — a message of charming, worldly innocence born of admirable intent, only occasionally colored, albeit broadly, with real-world concerns (hinted at on 2004’s “Crazy”).
Simple Plan have survived every mainstream trend – from pandering dubstep to the abuse of AutoTune to the rise and subsequent fall of Mumford & Sons sound-alikes – by simply letting these small movements wash over them, leaving little to no residue.
Simple Plan have defiantly remained Simple Plan, astutely aware of both their strengths and their respective weaknesses.
There is, perhaps, nothing more “punk rock” than that.
(Simple Plan are currently prepping a new EP, which is expected to be released before the end of the year.)