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Growing Up Sucks, Dude: Blink-182 Face The Music

Molly Lambert on California and whether dick jokes improve with age

Friendships are like romantic relationships: They mostly end, sometimes badly. And when a friendship defines a band, then ends, and that band decides to proceed without a member, it's never quite the same again. The friendship between Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge was the foundation of Blink-182. The apocryphal origin story of DeLonge and Hoppus's first hang sesh as early-twenties dudes in San Diego includes the detail that Hoppus climbed a street lamp and broke his ankles coming down in order to impress DeLonge, as if in an awkward, punk The Notebook. They bonded over a shared interest in goofball nihilists The Ramones and beautiful U.K. sad-boy music from the ’80s like The Cure and The Smiths, and formed Blink-182, whose power-pop poignance included a lot of songs about being insecure failures.

The "pop" portion of pop-punk meant that Blink-182 were a band in touch with its every fleeting feeling — and this was 1992, so pre-emo era, mind you. These guys felt things in teenage extremes of elation and lowness. Their breakthrough single, "Josie," posits a romance that sounds like a great friendship: Our narrator respects his girlfriend for her taste in music (Dance Hall Crashers) and movies (Vacation) just as much as the stuff she does for him (brings him Mexican food from Sombrero just because). Nothing seemed more romantic to me in 1998, or now, than a pledge of fealty from a dude who just wanted to hang out and watch ’70s comedies and eat burritos. That deeply romantic streak is what set Blink-182 apart. They captured that totally crushed-out teenage feeling perfectly, in soaring choruses with snotty vocals. Despite their broishness, they mostly sang about women like they were people, and their ideal imaginary girl's main traits were coolness and independence. Their idea of romance was so simple, so mundanely suburban, and so beautiful to me: “Always, I know, you'll be at my show.”

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Blink-182 formed in the early ’90s, peaked at the end of that decade, then continued on for a few more years in a victory lap until internal conflict blew them up. They went on hiatus in 2005, reunited in 2009, and put out their "comeback" album, Neighborhoods, in 2011. Hoppus and DeLonge's side projects Box Car Racer, +44, and Angels & Airwaves were met with derision from critics and shrugs from most Blink fans. Why experiment with form and function when you’ve mastered the three-minute pop song? Why do you have to be good at other things too? It's the tiniest violin, or maybe the tiniest cello — the kind you might use to back up your "serious" song.

We expect people to mature as they age, but most people just get older. Youthful arrogance morphs into adult stubbornness. Suddenly everyone's set in their ways. Blink-182 are a band whose whole appeal is built on immaturity. To grow up would mean to become an entirely different kind of band, to devolve — or perhaps to rot. Their 1999 smash “What's My Age Again?” makes reference to feeling over the hill at 23, and had the working title "Peter Pan Complex." But time makes LOLs of us all. People do change and grow apart. When your friendship is also your day job, it puts a strain on both. The dissolution of the friendship between DeLonge and Hoppus appears to be a Ghost World–like situation where one friend (Hoppus) just wants to sell out and be a grown-up and the other one (DeLonge) steadfastly refuses, out of youthful principles they still adhere to, becoming alienated from both their friend and the world at large.

Today, Mark Hoppus openly professes to a California dad lifestyle of cargo shorts, green tea, and listening to audiobooks about Benedict Arnold. He was at least once registered to vote Libertarian, a rich white Californian's first turn into officially becoming The Man. He comes off very happy-go-lucky and tweets dad jokes that would make Art Linkletter blush, like "People who think I don't live my life on the edge of oblivion never saw the time I told my wife she looked tired." Meanwhile, DeLonge has become a different sort of heavily codified free-thinker, becoming immersed in the UFO subculture and tweeting things like, "I am Producing Major Motion Pictures with people in Government to tell the true story about the UFO phenomenon for the first time. YES." Hoppus, for his part, told Vice, "I don't think that aliens have visited us — I believe there's life out there of some sort but I don't think they've come here and hung out."

It's easy to understand how all the members of Blink-182 might have eventually felt boxed in by the Blink formula, and also how seductive it would have been for Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker to make a Blink-182 tribute album after the split. DeLonge, the "difficult" one, was also the band member who expressed the most interest in expanding the band's direction and sound. Then again, what's the harm in rehashing the hits that made you big if there's no chance you're going to improve? Isn't accepting defeat and making peace with limitations a kind of maturity, too? You can see it from both sides, even if DeLonge and Hoppus can't. Did stardom doom the band to become a bloated entity, destined to fracture the union between two men who started as touring punks crashing on floors and ended up as millionaires with art collections? The attempts to rekindle Blink-182 since 2005 have been plagued with bad blood, like an on-and-off relationship that fails each time for exactly the same reason. And possibly the reason they keep failing at reuniting is because they are meant to fail. The passionate relationship that fuels your whole world in your early twenties is not necessarily the one you end up in forever, and often for good reason. The platonic ideal of lifelong friendship is riddled with as many holes as that of lifelong romantic partnership. Best bros who love each other also sometimes resent each other, and it happens that resentment overpowers love.

During the making of Neighborhoods, Hoppus and DeLonge stopped talking to each other entirely, communicating only through their managers. The classic lineup of Hoppus, DeLonge, and Barker was slated to record a seventh album together, but the group broke up again for reasons that remain classified. Just as Hoppus's basic normality ultimately showed itself, DeLonge's long-present and once mostly whimsical paranoid streak hardened into stone. DeLonge claims he was axed from the band with no warning. Barker and Hoppus say DeLonge backed out of performance commitments, forcing them to essentially divorce him. Hoppus and Barker opted to bring in Matt Skiba from Alkaline Trio as a ringer and call the new group Blink-182, but the new frontman makes this a full-on Van Hagar reboot. After failing to age up their sound for the last time with Neighborhoods, Blink apparently saddled up to do what old bands do: Age all the way back down, and try to recreate the sound America first fell in love with, on their latest album, California. But without Tom DeLonge, it can't help but be a zombie version of Blink-182 — a “Mike Love's Beach Boys” of pop-punk. Any band that sang wistfully about its teenage years long into its members' twenties and thirties is easily primed to become a nostalgia band. The hooks are there, but without DeLonge's angst, it's a sanded-down version of the band that always feels like it's missing a phantom lip ring.

Without DeLonge in the picture, California's nods to the band's San Diego origins — plus Skiba’s passing resemblance to the man he’s replaced — go beyond the Uncanny Valley to shades of Vertigo. There are many such strange moments on California: Joke songs meant to recall the band's glory days just serve as a jarring reminder that we are listening to grown-ass adult dads sing lyrics like "I wanna see some naked dudes / That's why I built this pool." Using homoeroticism as a gross-out tactic has been played out in punk since the ’90s; here it feels designed to win chuckles from 12-year-old boys. Which is to say Blink-182’s obsession with dicks and bodily functions, which already seemed schticky and immature a decade back, is now just downright bizarre. Occasionally, California broaches the subject of growing up, namely through the idea that regardless of whether you feel mature enough to claim adulthood, the world sees you as a grown-up. "It's a long way back from 17," they sing on lead single "Bored to Death." But the album ends with "Brohemian Rhapsody," another joke song that punctures any pretensions, the entire lyrics of which are "There's something about you / That I can't quite put my finger in."

California augments the traditional Blink-182 sound with anthemic stadium-rock chants, but the album is largely a return to the sound and approach that originally made this band likable — its dual-pronged sword of teen horniness and teen angst, a marriage of The Raspberries' "Go All the Way" and the brilliant cretinism of The Ramones. There's a "The Rock Show" retread called "She's Out of Her Mind" that references Bauhaus, the self-serious verging on nu-metal dystopian dream of "Los Angeles," and the would-be romance of "Sober" and "Teenage Satellites." The song “San Diego” veers the closest to greatness by addressing the DeLonge split. Goldfinger's John Feldmann, who produced California, encouraged Hoppus to write the song. The chorus goes, "I can't sleep, ’cause what if I dream of going back to San Diego / We bought a one-way ticket so we could go see The Cure and listen to our favorite songs in the parking lot." But the harmonies that intertwine with Hoppus's voice are sung by Skiba. The effect is like seeing an old love with their new partner, and finally realizing you really never can go back.

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