Blink-182′s ‘Enema of the State’ at 20
When fans hit play on Enema of The State back in 1999, they expected more apathy-powered anthems about dropping out, chlamydia and forgotten two-tone ska bands. Instead, young Blink-182 fans were met with a meticulously produced and unrelenting run through the confused collective consciousness of a generation on the cusp of coming-of-age.
With snares snapping, there’s physicality to the songs, splitting a dozen tracks between the lead vocals of Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge. By the universal standard of projecting the mythology of the Beatles onto any band’s sociopolitics, Mark is a prosaic Paul, concerned with stories of heartbreak that anyone could hold close; meanwhile, Tom is the poetic John, speaking more from abstract imagery, anxiety and the encroaching dread of the ultramodern, Internet-saturated culture just a year or two away. Combined, the music becomes laser-focused: a message-in-a-bottle from an island of youth within the ocean of resentment that flooded Generation X.
That in mind, “Come on son, you haven’t got a chance now,” are some of the first lyrics on opening track, “Dumpweed,” reminding the listener of the band’s station in the inheritance of rock music. The opposition took the form of Blink-182’s exuberance, this capricious youth, with a soft sense of rebellion. Enema of the State became a gateway drug for a new generation of kids captivated by the ever-evident contradictions of late-stage liberal capitalism.
How can something so raunchy and rude be so successful in the very environment that grants the thing those “negative” qualities? Enema of the State (a title that could be a typo in a Trump tweet) flew in the face of all established cultural norms, from mainstream to underground. And it wasn’t just populism: Enema of the State got the album of the week nod from The New York Times, a feat that would mint a PR agency for life today.
Spinning out of the Southern California late ‘80s punk rock diaspora, Blink-182 started as little more than a barre chord — in witness to the Los Angeles scene orbiting SST, the Bay Area scene harboring 924 Gilman and Lookout! Records (the owner of which would later denounce, in print, the exponential commercialism of Blink-182) and sooted in the patina of failure left by the grunge implosion. Blink-182, by virtue of sheer existence, became vanguard among a new strain, relocating punk ideology and practice from gritty city centers explicitly to suburban ones. What’s more, the young age at which the band formed led to a disengagement from social ills. These guys were not going to sing about a “Holiday in Cambodia”; instead, we’d get brown-eye jokes and narratives of social anxiety about bumping into an ex at the movie theatre.
And five years into their existence, that formula metastasized with a genuine hit, “Dammit,” off their second LP, the 1997 scene breakout, Dude Ranch. Abandoning the morose emo influence of 1994’s Buddah or 1995’s follow-up, Cheshire Cat, Hoppus penned the tawdry-yet-sticky lyrics of “Dammit” to counter DeLonge’s barbed and unforgettable lead guitar. Original drummer, Scott Raynor seemed utilitarian at that point; he was just… there: proficient in a handful of grooves, hefted over from D-beat, post-hardcore and skate punk.
With “Dammit,” MTV video and major radio play landed Blink-182 a spot on the still-nascent Warped Tour. Birthed in 1995 as a concert and extreme-sports touring spectacle, the Warped Tour barnacled burgeoning festival markets by mimicking big-tent business models, while explicitly subverting the mainstream. Don’t forget, the weight of celebrity brought the sigil of punk genius Kurt Cobain to his knees.
Where at one time maximum exposure and world domination stood as the driving egotistical force behind bands like Led Zeppelin, subversion now held sway as the mark of authenticity. Outmoded discussions of “selling out” became paramount to a band’s evaluation and identity.
So what did subversion look like to our boys? How does one rebel in mid ‘90s San Diego — that most intermediate of places — where the U.S. Navy employs more residents than any other organ? For Blink-182, it meant not regression, but an almost willful rejection of development in subject matter (save for matters of the heart).
Blink swapped out Eastern philosophy and Lewis Carroll for STDs and Jedi jokes, formalizing a musical antecedent to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In fact, the central dilemma of Raynor’s 1998 departure from the band concerned maturation: Raynor wanted to go to college. Surf’s up, Spicoli.
When Raynor went home, Travis Barker — a working-class Southwest native with a sometimes-unhealthy obsession with drumming — stepped in, leaving behind tourmates the Aquabats. And like that, Blink-182 went from a trio to a Power Trio. The X-factor suddenly palpable, even members of the Aquabats wanted Travis to join Blink, according to the drummer’s memoir, Can I Say.
For Blink-182, all this crucial aforementioned history only led to the launch pad for stage two of their ever-ascendant career: the stratospheric breakthrough of their third LP, Enema of the State. What more can artists do these days than play with expectations? Subversion, at that moment for Blink, meant getting as big as possible.
The first shimmering, pummeling, distortion-and-crash resonant chords on “Dumpweed” mark a fanfare of arrival. It was Barker’s first statement for the band: his hi-hats are almost visibly dripping sweat, finding a shuffle somewhere between ska and techno, his naked ambition transmuted to technique, the breakdowns replete with bells and toms.
In applying melodic, rudimental techniques to punk drumming, Barker instantly became the most iconic drummer since Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones or John Bonham. Travis did not play to a vacuum; but to the uninitiated, he appeared positively superhuman. The band had arrived.
Although this opening statement introduces us to Barker, Mark and Tom first recorded with him on album deep-cut “Mutt.” Barker brings us Latin-inflected tom rolls, and the reverb blooms and dissolves like clouds of pheromones in this tale of “a strong sexual goal.”
It snags the attention for a second, when the hilarious line, “his pants are super tight, oh yeah,” pushes into the next bridge. The track, commissioned for the soundtrack to teen sexcapade movie American Pie, introduced Blink to producer “Huckle” Jerry Finn, and cemented the band in the pituitaries of every adolescent with a VCR.
Finn, by that point, had a substantial production CV while coming up as an engineer, among his first projects none other than Dookie. If Blink-182 had become a power trio, Finn’s contributions to the band — until his sudden death in 2008 — added a base to the band’s pyramid, finally elevating them into the zeitgeist.
An explosive little tag on the outro and a little cymbal ding at the end of “Mutt” help retain the spirit of studio recklessness and joke-making defined on Dude Ranch. That cymbal ding, a reflective little touch from Barker, shows his natural confidence — a musician’s joke in the take of this song. It’s an incredibly endearing and honest gesture, one made similarly in Mark’s whispers at the top of “The Party Song.” Written to round out his half of the record, it was the last song the band tracked for the LP.
“The Party Song” is a breathless and comic musical romp. Indebted to the Descendents’ “Coffee Mug,” the track becomes a game of tag for the band, with choked cymbals and lyrical asides. You can almost see the circle pit at Warped Tour, until the halftime bridge hits with, “And then I saw her standing there,” a direct reference to the Beatles, for better or worse.
But the observation of “some girls try too hard” devotes an inappropriate and outdated obsession to gender binaries that laces the album; thus, one aspect of the crystallization of Enema of the State reflects fearful and divisive sexual compunctions. It’s a shame he couldn’t just sing, “Some folks try too hard.”
These lines, and the band’s cameo in American Pie, approach the breaking point of machismo and homophobia that conservative ‘90s politics brought to arguments of censorship. Indeed, free-speech advocate Larry Flynt began publishing the Avant-skateboard magazine, Big Brother, who tapped one mister Johnny Knoxville, in 1999, to do a Gonzo review of self-defense tools, such as mace and tasers. This article, and the video footage that accompanies it, became the bedrock for the MTV television series Jackass. It is not the fault of Blink-182 that the floor rose up to meet them. Jackass and Enema of the State are spiritual cousins.
Still, Blink-182 managed to retain a sense of integrity and fun in the spotlight, taking criticisms of their motives from punk veterans on the chin. The album’s second single, and especially its accompanying video, “All the Small Things,” showed the band had not lost neither their sense of humor nor self-awareness. If there was ever an indication that they would refute their commercial aspirations, this video blew that up. While Blink-182 videos on TRL abutted the likes of boy-band powerhouses such as N’SYNC and the Backstreet Boys, Blink simply embraced the criticisms that they were no different than those boy bands. Examine “All The Small Things” as an artifact out of time; the band so sincerely pores into it that only the instrumentation sets it apart from the fatalism of the other groups.
In the most clichéd sense, they bared it all, running down the street naked in the video for lead single, “What’s My Age Again?” While the central thread of the song concerns juvenile escapades, its introspection remarks distinctly on this period for the band.
“No one should take themselves so seriously,” Mark offers, backed up by legitimately stunning harmonies from Tom. The slappy kick drums and intricate fills showed just how many influences Barker culled from, while double-tracked guitars pushed an already powerful track over the edge. It is a nearly perfect song, tugging equilaterally on all the skills the band has to offer.
No other track comes close to those heights. “Don’t Leave Me” levels the playing field for Mark, a breakup song with a lot of slack in the line, a lot of swing in the hi-hats, and a tambourine buried 100 feet in the back of the mix. “Going Away To College” offers a pastiche of the band’s experiences with higher learning (and another nod to the Descendents).
When Mark sings, “’I’ll write you once a week,’ she said,” you can almost hear his doe-eyes, among tiny squeals of feedback and a cloyingly underdeveloped bridge. “Dysentery Gary” gives Tom the mouthpiece for romantic apathy. When he sings, “girls are such a drag,” you can almost hear the exec in the studio pleading for a more targeted lyric.
Despite that, powerful pinch harmonics on the guitar are a nice ballast to the massive drop of, “Fuck this place/I lost the war.” And, as so often is the case with the conclusion of sexuality in these songs, Tom ends up not lashing out, but at home, alone. “Where’s my dog?” he asks, in the song’s last moments, apparently contemplating bestiality.
Tom’s most outlandish lead, “Aliens Exist,” explores themes of paranoia and maternity in the face of information overload. “Wish someone would tell me what is right,” he implores, dying for a sense of truth — or at least a sense of origin. The song foreshadows DeLonge’s To The Stars Academy, a nonprofit enterprise focusing on the study of extraterrestrial life. The roiling toms throughout undergird a central theme of Tom’s work: the feeling of isolation in an incalculable vastness. “I’m not like you guys,” he concludes, the self-imposed alienation complete.
But, aside from the commercial success of “What’s My Age Again?” the third and final single, “Adam’s Song,” probably left the greatest impact on the band themselves. Can you blame them for this earnestness? “The tour was over, we survived,” Mark sings, “I can’t wait until I get home to pass the time in my room alone.”
What started as a down-tempo track reflecting on the anxieties of tour became a dramatic symbol of suicide and loss. Hoppus composed the track as a hopeful conduit for loneliness and depression. The beautiful bridge elevates an inspirational piano line with rudimental snare drum rolls, a section so sanguine that I swear I heard it (or a sound-alike) in a pharmaceutical commercial the other day.
That sense of melancholy, resonant on “Adam’s Song” and their earliest work, comes to the fore of the underrated deep cut, “Wendy Clear.” Mark’s refrain of “I wish it didn’t have to be so bad,” still sounds sincerely comforting, especially as the organ, played by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., bloom up in the outro. It almost sounds like they made a bet with Travis as to how many notes he could play in one song.
Album closer “Anthem” also offers an actual cathartic release in the loose narrative of the record: the house show went down, even if we’re not yet independent. Leaving us with one more message of isolation in the historical lineage of “The Kids,” DeLonge sings, “You don’t belong/you left the kids to carry on.” The last lyrics on the record “I, time bomb,” perhaps a nod to Finn’s work with Rancid, presage the band’s coming split with DeLonge — but not for more than a decade after the release of this record.
If all this smacks of a dubious analysis, consider that the album became so popular that the Red Cross threatened to sue the label under the articles of The Geneva Convention because of a tiny red cross on the nurse’s cap of the album’s cover model, pornographic actress Janine Lindemulder. The third version of the cover art would be the one without the insignia, and the only edition stamped with a Parental Advisory warning.
The RIAA certified the record 5x platinum just six months after its release, and 15 million copies of the disc are estimated to have been sold. On the cusp of digital music distribution, this became one of the last cash cows the majors could ship. It became so ubiquitous, so homogenized, that problems of gender, sexuality and politics tend to fall away, in the wake of the album’s spread, a tsunami of influence that cannot be denied.
Here was Blink-182, at maximum occupancy, in the biggest venues, movies, and record stores in the world. And they did it with a selfness maybe not wholly unique, but at least wholly honest. Through it all, it seems like they’re just trying to have fun. Because what is more punk than laughing in the face of detractors? I’d submit only doing so with a guitar in your hand. Hi, haters. “I fucked your mom.”
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