Willow Smith’s Pop-Punk Pivot Is Fun, and That’s What Matters

Willow doesn't have to pass the True Punk exam. It's just nice to see Black women making punky songs getting some attention

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Willow Smith’s Pop-Punk Pivot Is Fun, and That’s What Matters
Image:Jerritt Clark (Getty Images)

“I definitely wanted to have that classic pop-punk bite, that’s almost like a rap,” Willow Smith said in a recent video for Genius, going over the lyrics of the single “Transparent Soul” from her new album, lately I Feel EVERYTHING. “I knew I wanted to have that vibe, and I knew it needed to be aggressive, and angsty.”

Twenty-year-old Willow delivers on this vision, snarling as she sings, “I don’t fucking know if it’s a lie or it’s a fact/all your little fake friends will sell your secrets for some cash.” The lead-up was a cacophony of electric guitar, drums, and a good ol’ punky “one, two, three, four!” I was hooked, and so, apparently, were millions of others: Combined, the official music video and performance visuals have racked up over 11 million views on YouTube since May.

I wrote about the track when it first dropped, urging listeners to consider that Willow’s song isn’t an argument for Black women in pop-punk so much as it is a reminder that we’ve always been here. From Poly Styrene to (early) Fefe Dobson (yes, the very same), Black women in rock have been regarded as anomalies despite having invented the genre, and Black women who are fans of punk are usually thought of as outliers.

It’s one reason why “Transparent Soul” is such a treat: Black women in the scene know that there are Black women in punk bands (take Ganser, for one), but still—it’s not every day you see a Black woman with mainstream clout making fun punk music.

While this is certainly Willow’s most popular release since her debut single, “Whip My Hair” nearly 11 years ago—or since her song “Wait a Minute!,” which became a sleeper hit years after its 2015 release—lately I Feel EVERYTHING isn’t earth-shattering. But it doesn’t need to be. Clocking in at just over 26 minutes, lately I Feel EVERYTHING is a solid venture into angst, love, and coming of age, the three emotional pillars of pop-punk.

“Transparent Soul” is inarguably the album’s highlight. Featuring Blink 182’s Travis Barker, it’s the perfect opening song, promising an exciting album ahead. There are a few other noteworthy tracks as well: “Gaslight,” also featuring Barker, is a perfectly frenzied love song, and while“¡Breakout!,” featuring Cherry Glazerr, feels like a bit of an afterthought, the instrumentals and vocalizations fondly reminded me of Chicana punk band Go Betty Go, so much so that I ended up wishing that sound was more prevalent throughout.

Willow is perhaps most striking in “Lipstick,” with arresting vocals matching equally striking drum beats. Maybe it’s Willow’s inner Amy Lee jumping out during the chorus that seals the deal, but this is the track I keep going back to.

Seemingly the most beloved punk pastime—at least among the most annoying kinds of people—is quibbling and gatekeeping over the meaning of punk. Many of these same people relish debating the legitimacy of pop-punk as a genre, despite its sonic influence in punk for nearly 40 years. These are tedious questions, which Willow has not been entirely immune to. But it is worth asking: Did Willow even make a pop-punk album? Not entirely. There are a few solidly pop-punk songs, certainly, but Willow can’t shake off the R&B and neo-soul sound that dominated her last two albums.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’d argue that Willow’s track with Avril Lavigne, “Grow,” is actually one of the album’s most underwhelming, which does dampen the buildup of Willow’s Pop-Punk Era™ ever so slightly. Listeners should go in knowing they’re not going to get Paramore—and be OK with that.

Willow seems to understand the nostalgic associations and expectations people will bring with them when they listen to the album. She’s had to be strategic when crafting this new era for herself. In May, she even told W Magazine that she felt that she needed to get that “pop-punk co-sign.”

First, I hit up Travis Barker, because I was like, “Yo, I know that you would kill this.” So we got in the studio together, and I let him listen to “Transparent Soul,” and he loved it; I was shaking in the studio, worried about whether he would think it was lame. Then I wanted “Grow” to sound like it was on Radio Disney in 2007, so I hit up Avril Lavigne; I wanted that 2007 Avril angst.

Willow is a talented woman who also happens to be the daughter of two talented and beloved celebrities. She has access to Barker and Lavigne that most musicians don’t, and she benefitted in terms of sound and clout with their participation on her album. This alone can make it easy to dismiss Willow’s foray into pop-punk as little more than cosplay, latching onto the pop-punk revival trend while it’s hot.

But to be frank, who gives a shit?

If anything Willow is at her weakest when she seems like she’s trying to prove how punk she is. “F**K You,” the second song on the album, is a 36-second expletive-filled track with cutting room floor audio, and even if it was coming from the heart, it felt a bit put on. I, for one, am not interested in Willow passing the True Punk exam. I just want to see a Black woman making some punky songs getting some attention.

My knowledge of Willow is limited to what I see on social media. What I know about her has developed over the last decade of watching her first as the “Whip My Hair” girl; then as the low key pop-R&B singer; then as this young woman who oozes with empathy on Red Table Talk, the talk show starring her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her grandmother, in which the three discuss tough topics from a multi-generational viewpoint. In short: She seems cool and smart, and there’s nothing wrong with her using her cool factor or her intelligence to put together an album that is reminiscent of the genre’s early-2000s peak with some uniquely Willow touches.

It’s worth remembering that some of Willow’s formative memories involve her mother performing in the nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom. Gatekeeping in rock is bad enough without the infusion of racism that Pinkett Smith experienced as a Black woman in yet another genre dominated by white men. But even mentioning this biographic detail feels like an attempt to grant Willow a pass she doesn’t need.

In July, Willow told Nylon, “I just want all of the Black girls who were bullied in school for liking punk and metal, and for trying to perm their hair and flip it to the side and do all of this shit — I’m here for them and I want them to feel seen and want them to feel heard.” At the risk of sounding cringe, as a Black woman whose formative musical influences as a teen were Blink 182, NOFX, The Distillers, Green Day, and The Descendents and was told that these interests were for white people: I felt that.

In a decade or two, Willow’s album might not be the most prominent reference point for punky Black girls, but if it exposes the genre to Black girls who may otherwise not have ventured into punk, I have no complaints.

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