Key Changes: Machine Gun Kelly and Mainstream Sellout

As someone who’s had the song Emo Girl (featuring Willow Smith) stuck in their head on and off for weeks, I think this is a perfect time to explore controversial artist Machine Gun Kelly’s professional journey from hip-hop and rap to pop-punk and mainstream success, culminating in 2022’s appropriately-named album Mainstream Sellout.

He rose to fame with a series of rap and hip-hop mixtapes (generally acclaimed) before releasing studio albums, starting with Lace Up in 2012, General Admission in 2015, and Bloom in 2017. Notable features included rapid-fire flow and pride in an unattractive underdog image. Then in 2020 he made a dramatic shift from rap to pop/punk with the release of Tickets to My Downfall – a shocking, impressive, and fluid album still with rap-inspired elements.

Why did he make the move? Without knowing details, it reminds me of Lady Gaga’s professional journey (which is a blog post in itself) in which she made mostly loud statement pieces until she’d captured public attention and then, fame established, moved to a more stripped-down mainstream sound in albums like Joanne. (Lady Gaga, of course, has now moved back to her outlandish roots with the flashier album Chromatica, but I digress.) Sometimes musicians want to try something different and explore their other interests, but don’t have the freedom to do so until they’ve reached a certain level of success.

Whatever the reason he seems satisfied with his new career track, since he continued with pop/punk in 2022’s album, Mainstream Sellout. The reviews have been mixed, but the album has had big commercial success debuting high on the Billboard 200 charts. Emo Girl ft. Willow is particularly good track (though I may be biased in saying that) — it’s a good example of the overall pop punk revival going on in the 2020s, partly because it’s extremely self-aware of how it’s referencing a scene more than participating in it. Rolling Stone called it “gleefully derivative” and on the whole the feeling is of playing a part and having a ton of fun with it.  Willow Smith’s vocals shine, her gen Z energy a good balance to Kelly’s so-called “buzzsaw bubblegum”.

For myself, I haven’t heard the whole album yet, but I enjoy Machine Gun Kelly better in pop-punk, which is one of my favorite genres. I know I may be in the minority; what are your thoughts on Machine Gun Kelly, Willow, or the pop-punk revival? Let us know in the comments!

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