As a teenager, I had a recurring daydream: I was in a basement with a sticky floor in the middle of a huge crowd. I was headbanging and running into the mosh pit, kicking my feet and jumping. After a while, I took the stage, with a microphone in hand. In these daydreams, I knew how to hit every note and every scream, with the full force of my teenage angst propelling the sounds forward. It didn’t matter that I was a petite teenager who didn’t know the first thing about growling without destroying my vocal chords. I stomped across the stage with ease, my energy crackling off me. I flung myself into the crowd, and everyone’s hands kept me afloat.
Music was serious to me — and so was anger. I was grieving the death of my dad. I was realizing my queerness during a time when gay marriage still wasn’t legal. I bristled at the idea that women had to be polite and proper. My Catholic all -girl high school reminded us to practice getting in and out of the car while wearing a dress so that at prom, no one would say girls from our high school didn’t know how to act. I wondered, later, what teenage boys got warned about.
The best way to drown out the noise around me was to put headphones on and press play on my iPod. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, I fell hard for the alternative rock bands I saw in MTV music videos and heard through CDs my friends burned for me. I gathered a soundtrack for those turbulent years, something decidedly different from the Spanish oldies and packaged pop that I heard at home and on all the major radio stations.
I turned the volume up on No Doubt, Paramore, The Distillers — bands whose lead singers stood out from the male-heavy rotation of acts like Audioslave, Linkin Park, and System of a Down. I loved these bands, but I heard the message, loud and clear: alternative rock was mostly for angry dudes with deep voices to scream about their angst. I rarely saw, or heard, femme lead singers — so I sought them out wherever I could.
Growing up Latina and queer, rock allowed me to feel angry, messy and loud — when so much of the world told me to be quieter, softer. The music of the 2010s gave me a way to let it all out.
Sometime during the pandemic, a friend shared a playlist with me called “13.” It was 9 hours long. She suggested that I play it on shuffle. I did, and suddenly I was back in Hot Topic as a teen, sticking my hand into the plastic bin near the cash register full to the brim with pins. I wore them on my uniform blazer like quills, to show others that I listened to rock bands — that I was sharp to the touch.
The sadness and frustration I felt as a pre-teen and teenager came flooding back. And rather than feeling like time travel, it felt like rediscovering a soundtrack I needed when the news cycle got too intense.
In the decades between 2010s pop/punk/rock and our modern moment, there’s still a lot to be angry about. Policies against queer rights, policies against reproductive rights, policies to control the way women should look and dress — the list goes on.
In that strange pandemic fog, I noticed that major mainstream artists — the kind you’d find on major magazine covers and Top 40 charts — started adapting the sounds and energy I knew so well as a teenager. The more I paid attention to new releases, the more I saw a common thread.
Leading the way is Willow, whose 2021 album “lately I feel EVERYTHING” includes collaborations with pop-punk royalty Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker. In classic punk fashion, the second song on the album is titled “F**K You.” It gets straight to the point. It’s anger bottled in a tiny vial, then poured straight into the listener’s ears.
Willow’s newest album, <COPINGMECHANISM> includes singles like “<maybe> it’s my fault,” a track that crackles with crunchy riffs and heavy-handed drumming — all capped off with her scream-growling the last few lines of the song. There are also more bouncy tracks like “hover like a GODDESS,” an unapologetic homage to a crush.
The album shows a departure from her early pop years, when a young Willow released radio-ready songs like “Whip My Hair.” In an interview, Willow told Glamour UK that the music industry higher-ups weren’t thrilled about the idea of her adapting a more rock-heavy sound. Many Black artists told her they’ve experienced the same thing. But Willow had a role model—Jada Pinkett-Smith—her mom and a member of the band Wicked Wisdom. Willow says her mom received death threats from people who couldn’t handle seeing a Black woman making alternative music.
Seeing Willow paving the way for younger listeners to scream out their anxieties feels deeply cathartic. I grew up during the peak of Radio Disney’s influence, with boy bands and pop starlets shaping what I knew about pop music. But one thing seemed clear. To get in the spotlight, you needed to fit specific criteria: Young, thin, gorgeous. I didn’t look anything like them. The rock stars I quickly replaced as my favorite artists offered me something new, instead: ripped jeans, chains, liberty spikes, fishnets, tattered jeans, leather jackets, combat boots, smeared black eyeliner.
While I searched for the right way to embrace my own identity, those Disney pop stars and actors grew up under intense spotlight. It’s fitting, then, that former Disney star Demi Lovato ’s eighth album, Holy Fvck, combines her knack for diving into the personal with a decidedly heavier rock influence. “Skin of My Teeth '' is reminiscent of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” and its lyrics address substance abuse and the chokehold of the tabloids. In the music video, Demi sports a mullet and an all-black outfit while playing a sleek Jackson King V guitar. Tracks like “Substance” dive into the pop rock sound even more, with crisp snare drum hits and fast-paced verses, ripe for headbanging. The album also includes collaborators, like Dead Sara and Royal & the Serpent, that turn up the volume on the grittier side of her music.
“29” addresses consent and toxic masculinity with a fearless directness, Demi’s vocals rising effectively into a pseudo-scream. The anger here hinges on looking back — Demi hits a milestone birthday and reflects on the vulnerability of her teenage years, and the true intentions of those around her.
So much of what I learned from alternative rock in my formative years came down to honestly and openly discussing struggles related to romance, grief, mental health, feeling ostracized, feeling unheard. And while the pop genre is still flawed, and celebrity culture creates unrealistic standards for teens, I can’t remember hearing a track quite like “29” during the years in which I started to learn about older men’s fixation on female youth. I grew accustomed to hearing men on TV, and in real life, talk about how they wanted a (much) younger girlfriend. I got used to men calling me “liar” or “rude” when I refused to give them my number in the club or on the street, or when I said I had a boyfriend already. During a Horrorpops concert I attended as a teen, a tall man behind me said “Can you even see?” and picked me up, his arm digging underneath my armpits. I was petite, easy to grab and put back down at a man’s whim.
Early in my mental health journey, when I started seeing a therapist and taking medication for the first time, I worried about never feeling good enough. I wondered what type of life I wanted to craft. I wanted to strike out on my own but also make my family proud. I grew away from the teenage and 20-something-year-old version of myself who didn’t care about what people thought when it came to her clothes or her music. My body changed and I started to criticize how I looked, choosing clothes that would flatter my new figure and agonizing over how everyone on social media looked more beautiful than me.
As I settled into the rhythm of this new life, I could see that the choices I made were going to determine the role I took on in adulthood. There’s a great privilege in making your own lifestyle decisions, but also an immense pressure to not mess things up.
In her 2021 album, If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power, Halsey worked with producers Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross to create a soundscape that captured the anxieties and joys of growing into womanhood and motherhood. The songs weave in mythology, with tracks like “Lilith,” and also trace the history of women as commodities, established in the opening track “The Tradition.” The album shows a clear shift from the 2015 full-length debut “Badlands” that first put her on the charts, with its catchy hooks and energetic riffs.
“You asked for this” zeroes in on the fear of becoming a mother. The chorus is largely inspired by the vocal styling of Gwen Stefani, Halsey explained on the podcast “Song Exploder,” who she says was really important during her coming-of-age years. The sonic texture of the track also takes a page from alt rock band My Bloody Valentine. Halsey explains that the song has a total of 33 guitars on it to layer the emotions she’s parsing through. It makes for a rich listening experience, paired with her raw and poetic lyrics about society’s expectations of motherhood and her own desires.
These albums offer a complex journey, made bolder by the use of rock elements. Willow worries about being naive but also screams about fake people and heartbreak. Demi chews up and spits out the ways in which society and media set impossible standards, and also revels in her own sexuality. Halsey embraces vulnerability, admitting her doubts about motherhood while bristling against the age-old ideas of “boys will be boys.” Some things stay the same.
Almost every time I log on to social media, I hold my breath for bad news. I do my best to stay informed, without spiraling into a depressive episode. Simmering with anger might just be a way to stop myself from boiling over.
I want every woman and femme to make the loudest music she wants. I want the distortion from their guitar pedals to drown out the hatred. I want them to leave everyone’s heads spinning.
Alternative rock as a means of expression burns bright across generations. At a sold-out Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert in 2022, The Linda Lindas (whose oldest member is 18) opened the night.
Just the year before, the band caught the attention of the Internet with their performance for the Los Angeles Public Library, namely the song “Racist, Sexist Boy.” The band’s drummer, 11-year-old Mila de la Garza, shared a short anecdote before the song: “A little while before we went into lockdown, a boy in my class came up to me and said that his dad told him to stay away from Chinese people. After I told him that I was Chinese, he backed away from me.” It’s something I couldn’t have imagined doing when I was their age. I could never quite keep up a consistent presence in the one band that let me play with them in high school. At a talent show, they let me sing The Foo Fighters’ “All My Life.” It felt thrilling, then, to choose a rock song instead of a Broadway number or Top 40 hit. A parent who attended that night commented: “She’s so small but then she has such a loud voice.” That’s perfect, I thought. I want to be as loud as possible.
That night, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ leading lady Karen O told the audience: “We have three generations of Asian-American women who rock tonight. I've been waiting my whole life to say that." I watched her gleefully dance around the stage and toss her head back and forth to feverish guitar riffs. She knew the hold she had over the audience, made only stronger over the years. At one point, she stuck the entire upper half of the microphone in her mouth, and held it there for a couple of minutes, as if daring someone to tell her to stop.
The band’s new album, "Cool It Down," is their first since 2013, the year I graduated college — almost a decade in the making. Karen O is a mother now. I have bills and an apartment with my partner. The spark of my teenage years hasn’t entirely disappeared, but I know what outlets to use to diffuse it now. At the concert, The Linda Lindas take a break between songs to talk about voting; I watch mothers shuttle their little ones into their seats.
When Karen O takes the stage, I forget, momentarily, about all the heartbreak that flooded my social media feeds and dampened my energy during the early days of the pandemic. I forget, briefly, about the days in which I woke up just to feel angry and defeated about another thing. I joke that it’s past bedtime for the kids who came to see the Linda Lindas open.
I don’t daydream about sticky, secret shows. I thrash and dance and sweat out all the things that hurt. I might not be a teenager anymore, but damn does it feel good.