The Last Of The Real Ones: the long half-life of Fall Out Boy
Fall Out Boy influenced a generation of bloggers, emo rappers and social media stars. So why don’t they fit into the 2018 they created? And why is mainstream rock so terrible now?
Poptimism Gone Wrong is a column that looks at the stories we tell about pop music, the artists we love to hate, and asks… what if we’re wrong?
This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it is: Fall Out Boy have the most commercial and artistic longevity of any pop-rock band this millennium. They’re one of the defining emo, pop-punk and top 40 acts of the 2000s. So why are they still treated like a punchline?
From 2003 onwards, Fall Out Boy defined pop-punk’s place in the cultural zeitgeist, only to disband just past their peak in 2009. They were one of the main acts who transitioned MTV/TRL culture to YouTube; the first band to be influenced by Nirvana and *NSYNC. In 2013, they reunited to the open arms of their fans, only to find themselves in a broader culture that had left mainstream rock behind… and an indie rock culture with no interest in crossing over to pop. Said singer Patrick Stump to Rolling Stone in 2015, "We aren't the last rock band. But we're the last rock band that doesn't think that pop is a four-letter word." Why?
The first few waves of punk rock - from The Ramones to Fugazi - reinvented their scenes, then changed the course of rock history. But pop-punk was less intense, more ordinary. It played to a younger demographic - kids who couldn’t just drop out to sharehouse or form bands; teens who discovered music not through tape-trading or indie record stores, but MTV, radio, and movie soundtracks. Through pop-punk’s cultural and commercial peak - roughly 1994 (Green Day’s Dookie) to 2007 (Fall Out Boy’s Infinity On High), the genre was often dismissed as a fad - for 13 years.
Pop-punk spawned a loose collection of subcultures, known as “scene” culture - emo, metalcore, the kind of music you’d associate with MySpace - that were even more disdained. If punk rock and hardcore were for young adults, scene was the kid brother who raided their closets and CD collections. Anyone older than 18 or so - the target demographic - wrote it off as mall-punk; faux-rebellion manufactured by major labels. Scene was viewed as a gateway drug: teens were expected to grow out of it, ditching their Hot Topic wardrobes and My Chemical Romance records in favour of something more “serious”.
But nothing lasts forever, especially teen fandom. Millennial scenesters, half a generation younger than their idols, eventually grew up. They went from high school and college to real jobs; from LimeWire to iTunes to Spotify; from LiveJournal and Xanga to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram. Many became writers themselves - canonising the albums they saw as iconic, while taking emo’s regressive gender politics to task. Ironically, by the time they’d come of age, all their favourite bands had broken up or lost their cultural relevance. Fall Out Boy are still making hits - but why have the 2010s been so terrible for mainstream pop-rock as a whole? And why do their 2000s records seem more influential than their current music?
M A N I A, their seventh studio album, comes as a necessary course correction after 2015’s too-polished American Beauty/American Psycho. M A N I A barely sounds like “rock” music, for the better. But do they still sound anything like the band they were at the beginning? Does it matter?
In 2001, long before he was an emo fashion icon or a tabloid fixture, the 21-year-old Pete Wentz had already spent years playing in Chicago hardcore bands. He was best known as the harsh vocalist in Arma Angelus, a surprisingly credible metalcore band whose legacy’s been lost to time. Having grown disenchanted with the hardcore scene, Wentz resolved to form a pop-punk band. He switched from vocals to bass guitar, and recruited two-fifths of Arma Angelus’ final lineup - 16-year-old guitarist Joe Trohman, and drummer-turned-singer Patrick Stump. Says former bandmate Tim McIlrath (now the frontman of Rise Against), “Pete was telling me at an Arma Angelus practice that he was starting a pop-punk band and they would be gigantic and take over the world… He was dead-set on that.”
As for their name? It just kind of stuck. The band were yet to decide on a moniker when they played their first show (“We were basically booked as ‘Pete’s new band,’” says Stump), but “Fall Out Boy” - named after Radioactive Man’s sidekick in The Simpsons - eventually won out.
[At our second show] Pete said, ‘Hey, we’re whatever,’ probably something very long. And someone yells out, ‘Fuck that, no, you’re Fall Out Boy!’
That youthful scrappiness made them utterly charming in the early days, long before they had any recordings to their name. Fronted by the then 17-year-old Stump, the unlikeliest of frontmen, they’d play friends’ living rooms with the same energy as 100-person shows.
But Fall Out Boy’s earliest recordings weren’t so auspicious. On their first release, the 2002 Project Rocket / Fall Out Boy split EP, they were clearly the inferior band - but they managed to poach Project Rocket’s drummer Andy Hurley anyway. The 2003 follow-up, Fall Out Boy’s Evening Out With Your Girlfriend, was no better - sloppily recorded in two days.
It’s really hard to have that awkward time memorialised forever… I could go the rest of my life without listening to [Evening Out] and I would be alright.
It was immediately followed by their true debut, Take This To Your Grave - an album that still exceeds all expectations. Mainstream pop-punk bands smoothed out their rough edges, and indie-emo bands played clean, Smiths-esque guitars - but Fall Out Boy still played like a punk rock band. They wrote melodic pop songs over heavy guitars and drums that showed their hardcore roots. Homesick At Space Camp, The Pros & Cons of Breathing: these were songs written by self-professed nerds, that rocked hard enough for jocks and metalheads. Stump and Wentz fought over their lyrics; and though Wentz took over sole lyrical duties on later albums, that creative tension made them stronger. Like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Morrissey and Johnny Marr, their dynamic would define the band’s entire existence.
We were just four unsuspecting Midwestern nerds named after a moderately obscure Simpsons character, living life like the background characters in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We were totally unprepared for everything that followed.
"This is side one / Flip me over / I know I’m not your favorite record”, Stump sings on Dead On Arrival. They weren’t playing at teen angst, like Simple Plan or Good Charlotte at the time. They weren’t rockstars - they were underdogs you couldn’t help but root for; fans like you, with diaries, guitars and very faint dreams. Many still consider Take This To Your Grave to be their best album - or at least the one they have the most emotional attachment to.
Where is your boy tonight? / I hope he is a gentleman
They didn’t get the girl, but they found a following.
2005’s From Under The Cork Tree took them out of Chicago, from indie label Fueled by Ramen to major Island Records. Like countless bands before them, they crossed over using their image, drawing legions of young fans and driving purists mad in the process. The lead singles, Sugar, We’re Goin Down and Dance, Dance painted two portraits of unrequited love and obsession. In Sugar, the nerd sleeps with the girl, but doesn’t win her love - so he writes a song about her. He feels used, but still puts her on a pedestal. Taylor Swift took notes.
I’m just a notch in your bedpost, but you’re just a line in a song
But Dance, Dance - their most musically ambitious song to date - is an urgent, double-time sprint that’s more melodramatic than run-of-the-mill pop-punk. In the music video, a John Hughes/Revenge Of The Nerds teen comedy, the nerds not only get the girl, they take over their prom. Dance, Dance was morbidly thrilling, Sugar joyfully fatalist - two different angles on Fall Out Boy’s dual psyches.
Emo isn’t just short for “emotional” - it signifies emotional dissonance. Punk rock railed against the establishment, but emo was about the war inside your head, too. It’s when you feel like a romantic, a poet of your private journals, but nobody else understands you. So you respond with self-deprecating irony, or real self-loathing - because no one can hurt you more than you hurt yourself. But if the girl of your dreams knew the real you, the dreamer behind the social outcast, everything would fall into place. Reality, compounded by sexual frustration, weighs down your youthful idealism.
And you're just the girl all the boys want to dance with / And I'm just the boy who's had too many chances
If The Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield was the original emo, a cynical 17-year-old calling out adult “phonies”, Wentz was born several generations of irony later. “Weighed down with words too overdramatic”, his lyrics had a theatrical bent - he was calling bullshit on his own writing. He knew that irony alone won’t fix you, but neither will self-pity. Perhaps that’s why Fall Out Boy’s lyrics have aged relatively well, compared to the more acidic fantasies of some of their peers.
Rockstardom began as a male power fantasy for musicians and their fans. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses wed bombastic music to hedonistic behaviour, putting no limits on either - except death. But as punk matured into alternative rock, songwriters turned their gaze inward. Morrissey, Kurt Cobain, Rivers Cuomo: their songs could be neurotic, but they were ambitious enough to want to front the biggest bands in the world. They looked like unlikely rockstars, but their personalities won us over.
I am one of those melodramatic fools / Neurotic to the bone, no doubt about it
Fall Out Boy emerged from the latter tradition. Pete Wentz’s lyrics were so precise they felt universal - to under-25s, at least. Pop-punk, more than most other rock movements, had a significant female fanbase. Girls could sing Fall Out Boy’s songs from their own perspective back at a male subject - though at the time, unfortunately, rock had more room for female fans than women-fronted bands.
With Cork Tree, new fans started treating Fall Out Boy more like teen idols than traditional rockstars. Wentz emerged as a public figure, your eyes drawn to him in press shots and videos whether you liked it or not. Fall Out Boy, like early Beatles or Duran Duran, functioned much like a boy band: fans could choose which member they saw themselves in most; and Wentz knowingly played the bad boy and the sensitive poet.
By contrast, Stump - younger, shyer - happily played the frontman in the background. Wholesome in both voice and appearance, he was never seen without glasses and his signature trucker cap. If Wentz was your most articulate self, Patrick was the best version of you. He sang not like a rockstar, but like a friend you could always count on, voicing your emotions with generosity enough for the both of you. Fall Out Boy’s songs, and their delicate balance of sympathies, couldn’t work with a less likeable singer, or a less neurotic writer. Stump was the vocalist, but Wentz represented the band in every other aspect. They were two artists with very different looks and personalities, but the bond between them was the heart and soul of Fall Out Boy.
Fall Out Boy were crossing over, but they were always in between - never only pop or punk, always both at once. They might be the most famous Chicago punk band, while not exactly representing that sound. Nor did they fit in with emo traditionalists. Cork Tree had some romantic fatalism, but the songs weren’t life-or-death - they were joyful, major-key. Fall Out Boy didn’t see pop as a guilty pleasure, which made punk’s gatekeepers furious - but it became their biggest strength.
None of the emo bands messed with us. They hated us. They wouldn't tour with us.
Teenage pop-punk is about wanting to escape. But what happens when your dreams come true? Breaking out of the pop-punk box meant leaving certain fans in their wake.
Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.
In February 2007, three months after My Chemical Romance’s similarly genre-defining The Black Parade, Fall Out Boy’s third album Infinity On High debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200. It’s an ambitious record right out of the gate: not only is Thriller, the opening track, named after the biggest album of all time; Jay-Z himself, then-president of Island Records, plays the band’s personal hype man. His co-sign proved that Fall Out Boy had transcended pop-punk, even before the album came out. Thriller aspired to pop immortality, to be as big as Jay-Z or Michael Jackson, while paying tribute to the band’s hardcore roots. They may have outgrown Chicago, but they were still there for the true fans.
I think it's amazing that Jay is having a conversation with our fans... Years from now, when I'm laying in some gutter somewhere, Jay-Z will still be on this record.
But can you imagine any current rock band writing a tongue-in-cheek song about how they’re selling out? This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race literally cuts their new and old sounds in half, seamlessly transitioning from R&B verses - a first for Stump - to a blistering, melodic pop-punk chorus. The music video depicts the band as bumbling, awkward rockstars, delivering laugh-out-loud lyrics that cheekily diss anyone who resents their newfound fame.
With Infinity On High, Fall Out Boy became a truly postmodern rock band. Emo was always an inherently funny concept - but Fall Out Boy were the first band to admit it themselves. They weren’t selling out, however - they were embracing their notoriety. It only made them more famous: This Ain’t A Scene peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and remains their highest-charting single.
Most modern rock bands - whether they’re hard rock, indie, punk, metal - are too concerned about being seen as “authentic” to break the mould. Fall Out Boy believed in themselves enough to not give a shit about the rock establishment. Isn’t that what punk rock’s all about?
Punk goes pop: it’s a pattern that’s repeated from The Velvet Underground to the Sex Pistols, Blondie to Green Day, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring to the entire new wave movement. But Infinity’s closest predecessor could be No Doubt’s 1995 breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, where the band dropped all pretenses at representing ska. Instead, they opened up their arrangements, unashamedly blending genres - new wave, punk, pop, reggae. And Gwen Stefani’s charisma - like Pete and Patrick’s - grew bigger than the idea of the band itself.
Thnks Fr Th Mmrs was Fall Out Boy’s least conventional song to date, but it became their highest-selling single, going platinum twice. The arrangement, with an offbeat pizzicato string intro and a Latin-inspired bridge, was pure Patrick - working with legendary R&B producer Babyface. But its lyrics - a kiss-off to a former lover - and video, starring a young Kim Kardashian - were all Pete. Fame and notoriety, adoration and loathing: for the reality TV generation, these things were one and the same.
Wentz was never a great bassist, but he was so compelling as a lyricist and public figure that it didn’t matter. Rockstardom is about performing masculinity; and more often than not, he chose to toe the line of sexual ambiguity. A mixed-race, swooshy-fringed style icon for the 2000s, he did for hoodies and guyliner what James Dean did for leather jackets and plain white tees.
To his fans, of course, Wentz was more than just a pretty face - although it certainly helped. He was as literary as Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst, but his lyrics were too tongue-in-cheek to ever come off as pretentious. He dropped diaristic confessions and future lyrics on his LiveJournal, as if they were one and the same; and his writing embodied the quippy, lowercase tone that defined pre-Twitter social media. Bridging the gap between Page Six and his peers in the scene, he spawned an online teen gossip culture whose personalities and websites soon infiltrated the established celebrity-industrial complex.
It's Wentz who hangs with Teen Vogue cover-girl types: Lindsay Lohan, Ashlee Simpson, Michelle Trachtenberg. ‘I'm attracted to creative people and train wrecks, and there's no shortage of that in Los Angeles,’ Wentz says. He hints at some sort of fling with Trachtenberg, but insists the other two relationships are platonic. ‘Maybe in a different universe, we'd be some hot couple, but not in this one,’ he says of Simpson. (Wentz may have his universes confused: At a Grammy party, he was filmed walking hand in hand with Simpson.)
To Wentz, the media was merely an extension of his LiveJournal. The hint-dropping worked. After a very public two-year courtship, he married Ashlee Simpson in 2008, and the two had a son before divorcing in 2011. At the time, the likes of Ashlee’s sister Jessica, Paris Hilton and Kevin Federline were viewed as white-trash, second-class celebrities at best. Now, social media fame has become the norm for artists and wannabes alike. Their successors - from Kim Kardashian to Cardi B - have become archetypes for 2010s fame. By turning social media into an extension of his art and personality, Wentz played a huge part in its acceptance.
But by 2007, Wentz’s notoriety had tipped the scales. His hacked nudes - which, in true noughties fashion, he snapped with his Sidekick - exposed the first penis many millennial girls ever saw. But not all publicity is good publicity. While the leak set tongues wagging in the online gossip realm, it overshadowed Fall Out Boy’s music in the eyes of agnostics. The endless stream of Pete Wentz celebrity coverage only made the band bigger, but it came at the expense of his sense of self. Wentz’s bad-boy image masked a deep melancholy: diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 18, he attempted suicide in a Best Buy parking lot in 2005. In hindsight, the harsh scrutiny of fame only compounded his internal struggles.
I spent my twenties as literally the most selfish person that I know... I didn't understand that three other people were making a choice to be there with me. They weren't there because they had to be.
An untalented asshole is just an asshole, but there was more to Wentz than his infamy. His volatile relationship with fame serves as a cautionary tale to younger generations not to repeat his mistakes…but if they’re anything like Wentz, they won’t listen. In the long run, however, his artistry outlives his reputation.
Wentz and Stump can seem like one traditional rock frontman cut in half. Like Elton John and Bernie Taupin, singer and lyricist, Pete and Patrick always speak through each other in their music. It’s as intimate a songwriting relationship as there’s ever been - they’re not just partners, but foils for each other’s ambitions.
Pop-punk singers have a stereotype - high-voiced, nasal - but Stump is one of the genre’s few truly great vocalists. He has an unusually rich, soulful tenor; though you may not have noticed it until the music opened up to accommodate his voice. Stump and Wentz sang and wrote in a way that emphasised lyrics and melodies equally, turning wordy lyrics into pop hooks that sound completely natural. Infinity’s greatest joy is hearing Stump, who never intended to be a singer, discovering his full range in real-time.
The magic of Fall Out Boy is that you get sincere emotion and winking irony at the same time. It’s a delicate balance - other singers would be too self-deprecating, or would sing the lyrics too straight. Stump gets Wentz’s irony, but delivers his words with more passion and emotional generosity than the fatalistic Wentz ever grants himself. Pete’s public notoriety and Patrick’s delivery were two sides of the same coin: in life and art, the two were inextricable.
Through his imprint Decaydance Records, Wentz spawned his own scene around him. Bands like Panic! At The Disco, The Academy Is…, and Cobra Starship became the next generation of pop-punk, more indebted to Fall Out Boy than to Green Day or blink-182. Modelled after Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella, Wentz’s Decaydance made him more than a bassist - it made him a businessman.
After nu-metal’s collapse, rock, hip-hop and R&B were looking for new ways to cross over. Kanye West remixed This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race seven months before Graduation cemented his rockstar status; Fall Out Boy featured on Timbaland’s Shock Value album; and Stump covered Ne-Yo’s So Sick solo. And at the 2007 MTV VMAs, Fall Out Boy played Rihanna’s backing band on Shut Up and Drive.
As Stump came out of his shell, emo fell by the wayside. The backlash was in full swing - the Get Up Kids, one of Fall Out Boy’s formative influences, even dissed the movement they helped to create in 2009. Either way, Infinity’s lyrics were less concerned with teen melodrama, showing less anxiety over women and lovers. In between albums, Fall Out Boy covered Michael Jackson’s Beat It, and Stump’s production career veered further into the pop realm. If “emo” was a dirty word, pop was the way forward.
Infinity On High made Fall Out Boy a household name. But who could have known it would be the final peak of emo? The arms race was over - and Fall Out Boy had won. There’d be many more pop-punk and emo albums, but none were half the cultural moment that Infinity was.
I think at age 27, I’m ready to shed the term “emo”. As an adult, I think I’d like to be called “sentimentally pessimistic.
2008 was a pivotal year for pop culture, marking the end of the Bush era and beginning a musical shift that would define the next eight-odd years. Taking cues from The Killers and the dance-punk revival, pop-punk and emo morphed into electropop: Metro Station, Cobra Starship. These new bands weren’t writing confessional emo songs. They - and top 40 as a whole - began to embrace hedonism, bratty irony, and Europop-influenced synthesisers. Lady Gaga was ascendant; Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl topped the charts the same month she played the Vans Warped Tour.
The only thing I haven’t done yet is die / But it’s me and my plus-one at the afterlife...
Fall Out Boy soldiered on. Folie à Deux, French for “a madness of two”, is an album about having to grow up as rockstars. The band’s in a quarter-life crisis, trying to justify their ongoing existence. “Nobody wants to hear you sing about tragedy”, sings Stump in the album’s opening track - but in December 2008, many of their fans didn’t feel the same way.
I’m a loose bolt of a complete machine / What a match: I’m half-doomed, and you’re semi-sweet
Disloyal Order Of Water Buffaloes is every bit as passionate an opener as Thriller. But while Thriller was about a band of underdogs overcoming obstacles, Buffaloes is about having already made it - and still having to live with self-doubt, forever. Being an artist means never getting comfortable. Instead of trying to stay young, Fall Out Boy embraced a more adult outlook - critiquing themselves, romance, and their fame. Though Stump was only 24 at the time, much of the younger fanbase couldn’t relate to the band’s concerns. Compared to Infinity On High, Folie was a commercial disappointment. But listening to Folie à Deux today, it seems entirely uncontroversial. Fall Out Boy were every bit as honest in 2008 as they were in 2005. Their only crime was aging out of “emo” before their fans were ready to let go themselves.
Audiences openly hated it… That’s not to say it didn’t have its fans, but at no other point in my professional career was I nearly booed off stages for playing new songs. Touring on Folie was like being the last act at the Vaudeville show: We were rotten vegetable targets in Clandestine hoodies.
Having just had his first child, Wentz’s mind was in an unfamiliar place. His confessions became more abstract, his metaphors more florid. If Wentz’s lyrics were once the driving force of the band, Folie is where Stump’s compositions took the reins. It marked a full shift away from pop-punk instrumentation, toying with more elaborate, Queen/Beatles-inspired arrangements.
Its lead single, I Don’t Care, was an ode to millennial narcissism over a bluesy, glam-rock stomp - and the most straightforward song on the album. Folie’s songs were pop-rock, but with a twist - full of odd digressions and guest appearances. Lil Wayne gurgles his way through an auto-tuned verse on Tiffany Blews; Debbie Harry and Elvis Costello - one of Patrick’s biggest influences - show up, each sounding eerily like Stump. 20 Dollar Nose Bleed, a Broadway-worthy duet with Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie, likens their careers to the farce that was George W. Bush’s presidency. Folie is full of astonishing vocal moments - Stump’s belted climax in Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown On A Bad Bet, the stacked harmonies in America’s Suitehearts, the heart-pounding melodrama of (Coffee’s For Closers).
What A Catch, Donnie, the album’s centrepiece, is one of the most intimate songs of the band’s career. Named after a morbid reference to Donny Hathaway’s suicide, the song is a soulful power ballad about the crushing lows of depression, and the healing catharsis of music - each chorus showcases a jaw-dropping key change, where Stump’s voice jumps over half an octave.
In the video, Stump plays the captain of a lonely fishing boat, his only friend an flightless seagull. He drifts aimlessly at sea, until he rescues the survivors - including his bandmates - from a nearby shipwreck. In the song’s bridge, a cast of their peers - Brendon Urie, Gabe Saporta, Travie McCoy - reprise lines from old Fall Out Boy songs. The band were rolling an end-credits montage on themselves, with a bittersweet message: Fall Out Boy belongs to the people. Even before the video was released, speculation was rampant that they were signalling the end.
You're supposed to be a voice for people's lives — that's what art is really about... right? And how are you going to sing songs about life if you're not living yours?
The band officially went on hiatus in November 2009, after eight years together. At their last show, opening for blink-182’s reunion tour at Madison Square Garden, Mark Hoppus shaved Wentz’s head, an act of ritual cleansing. There was no bad blood between the members - it’d just run its course. They couldn’t write more heartfelt songs than What A Catch, Donnie, or (Coffee’s For Closers). They had lives to live - and it was better to be apart than codependent. Believers Never Die, a compilation released immediately after their hiatus, captured the band’s astonishingly fast progression: a celebration of their music, tinged with sadness.
If every band stopped at their logical endpoint, this story would end here. But life goes on.
Don't you get it? A hiatus is forever until you get lonely or old. I don't plan on either.
Joe and Andy - metalheads through and through - formed a supergroup, The Damned Things, with members of Anthrax and Every Time I Die. Wentz formed the producer/singer trio Black Cards with Bebe Rexha, now a popstar in her own right - before dropping her and inexplicably becoming a dubstep DJ duo. Black Cards mixed new and old: electropop with reggae influences, the sound of Wentz’s Jamaican heritage. Neither band necessarily did anything wrong, but truly great musical chemistry is one in a million.
Stump’s first new beginning came on Live From Daryl’s House, mere days after their hiatus. Patrick had never seemed happier. He was singing with Daryl Hall, of Hall & Oates fame - one of the iconic blue-eyed soul singers - performing each others’ songs with lifelong session musicians. For the first time, we got to see an older generation validating Stump’s musicianship, playing the hell out of his humble pop-punk songs. Though Daryl Hall, funnily enough, couldn’t quite nail the odd rhythm of Wentz’s lyrics.
Away from Fall Out Boy, Stump realised his relationship with his own musicality. He lost weight and bleached his hair, looking almost unrecognisable. From his home studio in Chicago, he posted covers and originals on YouTube, playing and singing every part himself - an early example of YouTube’s now-thriving DIY cover industry.
In 2011, first came the quirky Truant Wave EP, then Stump’s true solo debut Soul Punk. Pop-punk bands have long drawn from the early ’80s, via new wave and John Hughes; but Soul Punk’s foundation was Prince and The Time - specifically the Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999 era.
Largely self-produced, Soul Punk sounded nothing like Fall Out Boy - driven by lush synths, bone-dry drums, and Michael Jackson-influenced vocals. Stump wasn’t just ahead of the current synth-funk revival - Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson et al - his take was totally unique. Nostalgia be damned, Stump found a new voice through new-old sounds.
Explode, Soul Punk’s opening track, has a chorus as big as anything he ever sang in Fall Out Boy. But it’s no anthem - it’s a song about a man bursting out in rage at society’s expectations. This was an album about dismantling hero worship, the kind of pedestal Fall Out Boy fans put the band on. On one hand, Stump sang: “If I’m never your hero / I can never let you down”. But on the other: “You can be your own spotlight / You can be the star, you can shine so bright”.
Stump, like Fall Out Boy, was signed to Island Records - but he soon came up against the limitations of promoting solo and side projects. Music narratives are fickle: everyone loves the next big thing, or a faded star’s redemption story. Soul Punk was simultaneously both and neither. You only get one chance at first exposure; Stump would've been better received as a completely new face.
In any case, Fall Out Boy’s non-fans weren’t paying attention; and most of the existing fanbase was too bitter from their hiatus to see its necessity, or to accept Soul Punk as anything but a detour. It didn’t fit into an established niche, so its release was largely met with confusion.
People were calling me a sell-out while I was doing my solo thing. And I was losing lots of money. I was like, 'If I were selling out, I hope I could do a little better job at it.' I was doing this as a labor of love, and I've never gotten so much shit in my life ... I don't think I was bullied until I was 27. It just blew my mind how cruel people can be. They would pay to go to the shows just to heckle me. They'd even yell out, 'I liked you better fat!' I was like, ‘That has nothing to do with anything. That was for health reasons, jerk.’
Solo, Stump is a distinctive, often cynical lyricist, heavily influenced by Wentz even in his absence. But there’s not the same crackling tension without him. They’re musical soulmates, each other’s muses - something that only became clear with their separation. It’s never more apparent than on This City, the first single from Soul Punk. A vague attempt at a Chicago “Empire State Of Mind” featuring Lupe Fiasco, the song’s so concerned with being universal that it never actually names the city, nor earns its last-chorus key change.
It’s one underwritten song, but the rest of Soul Punk is still fascinating - and wildly underrated. Stump sounds more comfortable in Fall Out Boy, a familiar home. But Soul Punk is closer to his own lifelong R&B influences. He belongs there, too; but the mixture’s unstable, unsettled - Stump was still discovering his sound. Later Fall Out Boy would integrate some, but not all, of Soul Punk’s progressions. It remains a promising debut without a true follow-up.
You know The Mask? The Jim Carrey movie where he puts on the mask, and he can be this superhero… and then he takes it off, and he's just this total nerd? I don't know what possessed me [to record Soul Punk].
What the fans didn’t hear in the music, however, was the depths of Stump’s depression. Stump was always naturally self-effacing, but Soul Punk inspired so much vitriol that it tainted what should have been a personal and creative high point. In 2012, Stump wrote a blog post confessing his existential frustrations, that some readers legitimately interpreted as a suicide note. “Every part of me wishes I hadn't written that thing”, he later said in 2015.
The reality is that, for a certain number of people, all I’ve ever done, all I ever will do, and all I ever had the capacity to do worth a damn was a record I began recording when I was 18 years old… If I am to be obscure and financially unsuccessful, there’s nothing disheartening in that. The thing that’s more disheartening is the constant stream of insults I’m enduring in my financially unsuccessful obscurity.
The note moved Wentz to reach out. The two experimented alone, writing songs until they knew it felt right. Pete, Patrick, Joe and Andy recorded an album in secret with producer Butch Walker, planning singles, videos, and a tour. In February 2013, after three years and three other projects, the only logical thing to do was get the band back together.
My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up), the first single, seemingly came out of nowhere. It was completely new for Fall Out Boy: riffing on Kanye’s POWER, the song integrated samples and hip-hop drums with Stump’s newfound vocal confidence, creating a new kind of stadium-rock anthem from the ground up.
They called their comeback album Save Rock And Roll - a title at once tongue-in-cheek, ironic, and totally serious. They shed the cynicism of 2009, determined to make rock music that actually rocked - and felt current. Their success was anything but assured - who knew how the fans would react? In the last five years, the music industry’s entire landscape had changed. Record sales were in freefall, streaming was ascendant; top 40 radio had shut out traditional rock bands. The cultural tides that led to Fall Out Boy’s breakup should have kept them apart. But if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em - and do it better.
And I cried tears you’ll never see / So fuck you, you can go cry me an ocean / And leave me be
The album opens with The Phoenix, a war cry not driven by heavy power chords, but booming production, string samples, and dance-punk drums. Stump’s voice, never more powerful, belts a message to himself: “I’m gonna change you like a remix / Then I’ll raise you like a phoenix”.
Live, Wentz often introduces Alone Together - an album highlight - as “[a song] about how punk rock will never leave you alone, no matter what”. Ironically, the music couldn’t have less to do with punk - it’s a heavily produced power-pop song where Stump indulges his R&B inflections, singing in a full, resonant belt. Alone Together may not be all that DIY, but it’s a love song from the band to the fans, a community once again.
In 2007, Fall Out Boy crossed over from the pop-punk scene to top 40 radio. While retaining the spirit of their songwriting, they opened up their sound and expanded their appeal. In 2013, they reinvented themselves a second time. It’s rare for any rock band to endure one cultural shift, let alone succeed because of it. Save Rock and Roll shared territory with R&B, hip-hop, EDM, and even folk rock. Young Volcanoes is an acoustic guitar-driven stomper in the wake of Mumford and Sons, Avicii and the Lumineers. But the song is uniquely Fall Out Boy, buoyed by the pure joy of being in each other’s presence, making music once again.
We will teach you how to make boys next door out of assholes...
Years before playlist culture became Spotify’s driving force, they were writing songs to conquer as many platforms as possible. It was more than a marketing move - by embracing all their musical influences, Save Rock And Roll made a statement about how we listen to music in the 21st century.
Save Rock And Roll still feels like a thrilling musical and cultural moment. But its crowning jewel is The Young Blood Chronicles, a full-length visual album released out of order over a full year. Its eleven chapters assemble a feverish, post-apocalyptic narrative about the death of rock - like a ’90s Guns N’ Roses blockbuster directed by Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez.
Fall Out Boy are kidnapped by a band of music-hating vixens, tortured, and pitted against each other - metaphors for their career to date. A cast of musicians, past and present, play alternative protagonists on both the record and film. Big Sean raps Wentzian lyrics with more lechery than Stump ever did, while Foxes plays the only female romantic foil in Fall Out Boy history: “I’m here to give you all my love, so I can watch your face as I take it all away”. Elton John plays God, a white-tuxedoed baritone singing opposite Stump’s tenor, while Courtney Love plays the fascist cult villain - a tongue-in-cheek joke about her and Wentz’s brand of infamy.
The Young Blood Chronicles finally establishes Patrick - a powerful, sympathetic actor - as the band’s true frontman. Countless films and music videos have depicted rock iconography as a religion, but Fall Out Boy aren’t afraid to commit sacrilege. The Young Blood Chronicles is a singularly strange work that’s desperate for reevaluation.
Save Rock And Roll’s success vindicated not just their decision to reunite, but their entire career to date - perhaps a little too well. Folie à Deux felt like one endpoint, but Save Rock And Roll was so thorough a reinvention that it became another. What do you do after you’ve made your musical and visual mission statement? Shot half a feature film? Fall Out Boy would never be underdogs again; Save Rock And Roll’s success ensured they’d have nothing to come back from. By the end of the era, it was hard to tell if they had saved rock and roll, or killed it.
Oh no, we won’t go / ’Cause we don’t know when to quit
In October 2013, they were still mulling it over. PAX AM Days - recorded in just two days, produced by Ryan Adams - served as a palate cleanser, taking the band back to their roots while showing how far they’d come. With Patrick wailing over 90-second-long melodic hardcore songs, PAX AM Days was a combination we’d never heard before, sounding more like Sleater-Kinney than Take This To Your Grave.
In September 2014 - just four months after The Young Blood Chronicles wrapped up, and a year before anyone expected any new material - Centuries premiered. Driven by a catchy but superfluous Suzanne Vega interpolation, it felt like a guaranteed hit. It was pure stadium rock, but synthetic, unfamiliar, and a little terrifying.
Recorded in three weeks, 2015’s American Beauty/American Psycho took Save Rock And Roll’s approach and cranked it to 11. Irresistible opens the album with one of the purest pop songs they’d ever written. But their old quirks soon became forced affectations - the title track’s bizarre electro synths, Uma Thurman’s meme-rock. The album emphasises choruses over verses, spectacle over intimacy - and for the first time in the band’s history, Wentz’s lyrics become a mere launching pad for hooks. With Stump’s newly weaponised belt over hyper-compressed production, non-fans must have felt like Fall Out Boy were fulfilling Rolling Stone’s infamous 1979 Queen review:
Queen isn't here just to entertain. This group has come to make it clear exactly who is superior and who is inferior. Its anthem, "We Will Rock You," is a marching order: you will not rock us, we will rock you. Indeed, Queen may be the first truly fascist rock band.
At the same time, the seeds Light 'Em Up planted had blossomed. ESPN used Centuries in an NFL playoffs commercial that aired so often that Wentz later apologised. Without even being sports fans, the band had become jock jam staples, their songs featured at countless sporting events. Who were they making music for? Had the old emos been replaced by a band of jock imposters?
For its flaws, American Beauty/American Psycho isn’t a simple concession to top 40 radio. It’s a committed, forcefully weird pop record - arguably their most divisive. Wentz himself lists it as his least favourite FOB album. It has its moments - Fourth Of July is lovestruck, urgent, while Favorite Record boasts youthful ’80s sentimentality - but elsewhere, the scale of the productions steamrolls whatever soul there was in the songwriting.
The cumulative effect of all these militant rock songs is exhausting, but so many of them became hits that the album still comprises much of the band’s live setlist. American Beauty/American Psycho became the third endpoint of the band’s career - they couldn’t possibly make this sound any bigger.
Fall Out Boy have gained and lost fans with each new release. From one album to the next, their arc feels like a logical progression. But jump across two - for example, Take This to Your Grave to Infinity On High - and they can sound like a completely different band. Fans disagree on where they first crossed the line, but on American Beauty/American Psycho, there was no turning back.
Fall Out Boy’s appeal was that they made the intimate feel grand. But there’s no room for pop-punk scrappiness in top 40 anymore, let alone punk ideals. In the 2010s, mainstream and grassroots rock split once and for all. Punk and alternative rock, once countercultures that infiltrated the mainstream, have become subcultures - looking inwards, not outwards.
The last decade has had few mainstream rock zeitgeist moments, none of which were driven by the charisma of a true rockstar personality. Were Somebody That I Used to Know or We Are Young even rock songs? The few surviving rock bands - Maroon 5, Coldplay - have lost their rhythm sections to drum samples and synth basses, becoming glorified solo acts in order to keep up with pop production trends.
When did the punks stop being mad? / They penned love songs while we got had / The hippies sold out, traded pot for coke / Moved to the ’burbs, found God in a vote
Being a teenager is about feeling larger-than-life emotions, often to the point of embarrassment. But adulthood comes with responsibilities - finance, relationships, parenting. Even rockstars have to grow up eventually. How can younger fans possibly relate to those life experiences, let alone how they change your relationship with art? Older listeners typically stop keeping up with new music, choosing to relive the sound of their youths.
Once a band hits their second decade, their options are limited. They can stare down stagnation, writing new songs with diminishing returns, playing the odd anniversary show for nostalgia’s sake. They can break up - maybe they never made it as big as they wanted, or never made enough money to supplant their day jobs. Either way, reality overrides the pure idealism of making art. Or they can diversify, becoming a business.
Surviving as a musician in the 2010s requires a constant stream of content and publicity. You can’t get rich off royalties alone, so you create multiple revenue streams: brand sponsorships, placements in film, TV shows, video games, commercials. Genuine creative experiments turn into content for the sake of content - and if you’re getting paid for it, then why not?
The American Beauty/American Psycho period was marked by collaborations, a half-assed remix album, and a universally loathed Ghostbusters theme with Missy Elliott. Immortals, a decent single, made a jarring appearance in Disney’s Big Hero 6. They made meme-y videos - including three for Irresistible alone.
Fall Out Boy’s last few years have been polarising, but the thing is, they’ve endured well - not just compared to their peers, but all rock bands historically. My Chemical Romance show no signs of getting back together; Weezer flit between rock for adults and goofball pop; and blink-182 minus Tom DeLonge are making shamelessly careerist pop-punk. Rock bands rarely score top 40 hits well into their second decade, but Fall Out Boy’s inescapability makes them a target - to non-fans, why won’t they go away? Why do they deserve success over your favourite band?
Watching a band rise to fame, fulfilling their creative potential, feels breathless. But once they’ve found their ceiling, the long half-life - the rest of their career - isn’t so romantic. Life goes on. Narratives are rewritten; a new generation of fans only knows Fall Out Boy since their reunion. Centuries has a staggering 346 million Spotify plays, but is Fall Out Boy at their most anonymous. How many of those listeners will be curious enough to delve into their back catalogue, even with their discography at their fingertips? Music coverage favours the present, and hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Nostalgic anniversary pieces rarely do more than scratch the surface of records we understood better in the moment.
But the influence of Fall Out Boy’s first decade extends beyond their current music, or even mainstream rock as whole. Fall Out Boy spawned Cobra Starship and Gym Class Heroes, who spawned Katy Perry, 3OH!3, LMFAO, and now The Chainsmokers - the only dance act writing truly confessional, explicitly emo pop songs in the late-2010s.
Pete Wentz, more than anyone, was the missing link between Morrissey and 2010s hip-hop. Wentz may not have been a rapper, but like Kanye, Drake and The Weeknd, he understood the connection between rappers and rockstars - that a star’s charisma isn’t just about swagger or cockiness, but vulnerability, too. It’s Post Malone covering Basket Case, sounding like both the emo kid he grew up as and the rapper he is now. It’s Marshmello x Lil Peep (R.I.P.), legitimately sounding like Kurt Cobain doing trap ballads. It’s the genre-agnosticism of twenty one pilots, or Halsey’s stadium emo-electropop.
Wentz’s shifting tastes in music, fashion, and image defined pop culture’s arc over the last 15 years. Born in 1979, now 38, he could be the oldest millennial. He’s gone from metalcore screamer to pop-punk bassist, pop-rock to electropop, online infamy to real celebrity influence. He’s played so many roles: bassist, lyricist, de facto frontman, designer, author, businessman, tastemaker, husband, father, best friend, villain.
Fall Out Boy were part of the generation that usurped alt-rock and nu-metal - but they’ve now been usurped by their next generation. It’s easier for kids to be influenced by music - new or old - than for established bands to catch up with trends. Still, older bands need to live on tension, not contentment. How do you evolve with the times, away from the establishment, while retaining rock ‘n’ roll’s spirit?
I only wrote this down to make you press rewind / And send a message: I was young and a menace
2018’s M A N I A answers that question: Young And Menace, the first single, takes EDM, rock and soul, and smashes them against each other. It’s one of the strangest songs the band’s ever written, and more importantly, it feels genuinely dangerous.
M A N I A is a motivational album about the joy of being in a band; the thrill of being alive, feeling everything. The band incorporates fresh influences and collaborators: the Latin beat on Hold Me Tight Or Don’t; Nigerian dancehall singer Burna Boy’s verse on Sunshine Riptide; and especially Sia, who leaves her unmistakable mark on Champion - the rare inspirational song that admits that life can be intolerable.
Stylistically, this is the album Wentz was born to make, and Patrick more than rises to the occasion. M A N I A’s strongest moments transcend the rock palette - Church and Heaven’s Gate are shimmering stadium-soul productions that push Stump’s voice to new heights. Unlike each of their last three albums, M A N I A doesn’t feel like an endpoint. It feels like a new beginning, built not on grandiose production, but in the spirit of global collaboration and openness. Even Joe and Andy, edged out on American Beauty/American Psycho, feel like they belong again.
When you're a teenager and you're angry, you give somebody the finger and you’re like, ‘I hate you forever’... Being an adult is having to sit with that person and have a nice, polite dinner, while hating them the exact same amount. We're all still exactly as angry as we ever were. You just channel it in different ways.
It’s impossible to make music from the same underdog perspective forever - and that’s okay. But rock culture, especially punk and indie, is built on the notion that the underdog’s always right; that commercial appeal is inverse to artistic ambition. But it’s disingenuous to say that bands should toil in obscurity forever, or that you can stop successful artists from ageing. There is no fountain of youth. Fall Out Boy can’t replicate Take This To Your Grave - and even if they could, why would they?
But what do they owe the fans who want to hear them play Dance, Dance for the thousandth time? On one hand, they refuse to look back; but watching Wentz pull his signature lick-lick-salute every time he plays Sugar, We’re Goin Down, you might think otherwise. Is it muscle memory? An affectation? Pandering to nostalgia?
I found the cure to growing older...
And all the good old boys are playing bad new songs / On the country station while the city moves on / The hot young things, they don’t age like wine / I’m on the bad side of 25
Fall Out Boy made it in 2007. We’ve been living in their future for 11 years - and they’ve now been back together for longer than they were on hiatus. Most bands only ever have one core idea. But they, and we, have to keep asking - what next? Is it better to burn out or fade away? Do you play it safe, or change with the times and risk alienating your fans? Populism and centrism have become dirty words. But what’s wrong with a little populist centrism, if you get to be one of the biggest rock bands in the world? If you get to define punk, emo, rock and pop, all at once?
What significance does Fall Out Boy hold for two generations, let alone the future? Fall Out Boy’s music has never stopped shifting, but neither has our relationship with it. Even now, revisiting Take This To Your Grave or From Under The Cork Tree inspires more than nostalgia. Each song feels like a living thing; their lyrics and emotions play out in real-time with each new listen. Their songs had complexities and influences beyond “emo”, that only seem more obvious in hindsight. Looking back’s not empty nostalgia, as long as you’re living in the present.
Pete and I attacked the Lost Astoria / With promise and precision, and a mess of youthful innocence
Fall Out Boy still end every concert with Take This To Your Grave’s Saturday, an ode to endless possibilities. Pete and Patrick almost always speak through each other, except on Saturday - the rare song penned by Stump alone. “Me and Pete / In the wake of Saturday”, he sings, as Wentz screams alongside him - a gesture of unconditional love; an acknowledgement that, for all they’ve endured, their bond hasn’t changed. For three-and-a-half minutes, fifteen years in the spotlight flash before our eyes, as our memories merge with theirs.
Fall Out Boy are not the last rock band left standing, but they are one of a kind. Is their story still being written? As long as we’re still asking.
And this crystal ball / It’s always cloudy except for / When you look into the past...
Richard S. He is a pop songwriter and producer in ELLE, and an award-winning critic. You can follow him at @Richaod.
Emma Goulding is an emo kid turned normie, an industry research editor and an armchair music critic. Please forward all grievances to @Richaod.