Joyce Manor emerged from the beer-soaked ecosystem of basements and bowling alleys that has sustained SoCal pop-punk for nearly a half-century. But Barry Johnson knows who was truly responsible for the legend of Joyce Manor, ten entirely quotable, all-hook songs in 18 minutes, megaphoned by the new vanguard of punk tastemaking: “16-year-old and 17-year-old girls, with septum piercings and green hair,” sharing gifs, lyric quotes, and glitchy live videos. In other words, “Tumblr,” in case it’s unclear what exactly he’s getting at. And in being the first definitive punk album of the Tumblr era, Joyce Manor set the course for its foreseeable future, anticipating a decade of social media and streaming trends that rewarded immediacy and the perpetual bite-sizing of attention spans.
In 2011, they were simply a band that everyone could agree upon: The hardcore kids appreciated Joyce Manor blasting through at least three songs by the time they refilled their Solo cup, while the nerds latched onto the early forays into folk-punk, ska, and songs that wondered if fish have periods. The Defend Pop-Punk and emo revivalist wings were unified by a band who viewed Jawbreaker, blink-182, Green Day, and Weezer as equals in shaping the sound of California pop-rock.
All of these typically warring sub-factions would deem Joyce Manor “elder statesmen” at this point, a band dignified by their longevity. Yet they already sounded over it on Joyce Manor, resignation the subtext of every song—resignation at being post-teen, post-punk, or, if you prefer, just too old for this shit. Johnson was already in his 20s when Joyce Manor formed in the South Bay suburb of Torrance, shaped by its provincial adolescent Americana: He first met bassist Matt Ebert through a local bowling league, not far from Del Amo Fashion Center, once described as “America in mall form.” They later reconnected on an Orange County Ska message board. The initial bond with guitarist Chase Knobbe, then a 16-year-old employee at Gable House Bowl, was consecrated with ill-gotten Joose in a Disneyland parking lot.
Three years later, Joyce Manor begins like most SoCal punk albums, with another shitty day in high school. “Orange Julius” is a quintessential Joyce Manor song, just one long verse that modulates in intensity, allowing a brief glimpse of gang vocal catharsis before cutting it off. Johnson has explained it as a song about “falling in love with your bully/tormentor,” and falling in love with something you hate might be the most consistent throughline of Joyce Manor’s music. When Johnson writes about a crush, it results in “See How Tame I Can Be.” There are many, many Joyce Manor songs about the fear of being stuck in the South Bay and none that really consider what it might feel like to leave.
Johnson and Ebert saw firsthand the futility of using SoCal punk as a proxy for full-scale revolution or even a vision for an escape. To this day, Joyce Manor practice in the same converted garage in a quiet, residential patch of Torrance. The availability of this space could be seen as an act of kindness from the homeowner, the former guitarist of the Last, a Los Angeles power-pop act that released three albums on SST, the legendary label run by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn. When Lost royalties weren’t paying the mortgage, the homeowner eventually took a corporate job at Hewlett-Packard and attended the sort of national conferences attended by Hustler Honeys. The garage walls are still plastered with dozens of centerfolds autographed for his teenage son.
In 2011, the thought of getting a corporate gig or, say, being three albums deep on a legendary Los Angeles punk label like Epitaph was equally unappealing to Johnson. Most of the band’s origin story leading up to Joyce Manor rests on Johnson slowly being prodded into action against his will. Three years prior, folk-punkers Andrew Jackson Jihad (now AJJ) asked Johnson if he was available to play a gig with his erstwhile hardcore band Fever Kids. They had just broken up, and Johnson bluffed when asked about his new project’s name (“Umm…Joyce Manor?”). He quickly cobbled together a couple of songs to play Joyce Manor’s first gig, as an acoustic duo. Johnson had a formidable work ethic as a songwriter but no interest whatsoever in the grunt stuff of DIY punk; it was Ebert making the flyers, inviting friends to shows, booking gigs, and ultimately convincing Johnson to take Joyce Manor as seriously as the rest of the band did. “That was a stupid fucking idea as far as I was concerned [back then],” Johnson reflected in 2018. “I’ve got rent and shit. We’re not gonna go on some Tom Sawyer adventure with my life, I’m 24.”
It’s kinda surprising that Joyce Manor even made punk music at all. They repeatedly cited Morrissey and Weezer as primary influences; artists that are invariably discovered by teenagers who think they’re too clever to be miserable but feel miserable because they’re too clever. But Joyce Manor were either uninterested or incapable of trying to be among the hundreds or even thousands of SoCal bands actively trying to sound like either of them; the jaunty shuffle of “Ashtray Petting Zoo” is vaguely reminiscent of “Is It Really So Strange?” and that’s really about it. The Weezer comparisons are almost entirely attributable to “Leather Jacket’ and “Beach Community” trudging at a midtempo 6/8 time, slumping along like a nerd saddled with an overstuffed backpack on one arm because that’s how the cool kids wear it.
They also exclusively wrote very short songs and spiked alt-rock melodies with day-drunk surrealism, like a SoCal Guided By Voices that exclusively drank alcopops. While searching for a lost Nokia cell phone in “Beach Community,” Johnson is taunted both by police and streets that “count backwards.” The non sequitur titles of “Ashtray Petting Zoo” and “21st Dead Rats” also function as their hooks, working equally well as images of corporeal decay or just phonetically cool words to shout. None of Joyce Manor’s previous songs scattered throughout demos and splits and Johnson’s notebooks were off-limits, so Joyce Manor ostensibly could’ve been their Bee Thousand, a clearinghouse of ideas for a prolific songwriter who just couldn’t bear to let any idea go to waste. But Johnson was skeptical about anything that passed for a “lifestyle,” whether dictated by indie’s self-deprecation or punk’s self-delusion. When asked about Guided By Voices’ tendency to stuff several dozen tracks on each album, Johnson scoffed, “Don’t you wish they wouldn’t?”
Joyce Manor fit the demands of slapdash shows that could get cut off at any time—every part had to be the good part. Any other band that wrote a chorus as sticky as the one on “Beach Community” would’ve repeated it at least a second time; as is, it’s the big chorus and the big coda all at once. “Leather Jacket” might as well be all chorus, but the real hook is the rare Ebert lead vocal on the bridge that drives home the tremulous anger borne of high school betrayal.
Even after a decade of consistently escalating acclaim, I can’t think of too many bands that sound like Joyce Manor because how would anyone go about doing that? Their songs are almost impossible to parody because no one element feels separable from the whole. Like every album that came after, Joyce Manor is a testament to their excellence in un-punk qualities of editing and restraint. This is most evident on the songs that Joyce Manor salvaged from the “maybe” pile. On their 2/15/09 demo, “Stir Crazy” was a frenzied folk-punk burner about a friend lapsing into cocaine addiction. Two years later, they slowed it down, put it to an assured shuffle, sanded off the grit on the vocals, and it became “Ashtray Petting Zoo.” “Constant Nothing” and “Leather Jacket” are culled from the previous years’ Constant Headache EP and given tidier production. The band’s signature song, “Constant Headache,” itself did not appear on that EP.
There’s a possible alternate history where Joyce Manor, like many punk LPs of its ilk, ends after nine songs and about 15 minutes—and I have little doubt that it would still be an album we talk about 10 years later. But Joyce Manor aren’t headlining 3000-capacity rooms without “Constant Headache,” which portended much bigger things despite being the least ambitious song on Joyce Manor. There’s a single melodic line that repeats throughout the entire thing and it sounds like someone trying to remember “Don’t You Want Me” and failing to get past the second bar. Most of it requires no more than two chords at a time, played in a strumming pattern and tempo suitable for a teen within their first three guitar lessons. It peaks with Johnson shouting “entirely fucked” as the band drops out. But “Constant Headache” is exactly the song it needs to be in order to fully convey the persistent, nagging resignation that high school memories of getting drunk or getting laid for the first time have set a standard you will never, ever live up to.
The early and still persistent comparisons to Jawbreaker make sense thanks to “Constant Headache”—a California band making gruff, quotable, and sticky songs about being in the scene, but not quite of the scene, hovering slightly above it. Yet, that analogy always felt like projecting a bygone era’s ethics onto a band that never had much use for scene politics or politics of any sort. “Yeah, your dad/He was a cop who punched you right in the head/You said, ‘Fuck you, Dad! I hate you!’ and that’s just what you meant,” Johnson shouted on early single “House Warning Party,” which eventually got resurrected as a “lead single” of their rarities compilation Songs From Northern Torrance in 2020. In the current moment, “Your dad was a cop/I bet his dad was a cop/Yeah but you’re no cop, you see” can be read as an astute observation about genetic pathology, or that cops are state-funded shitty dads equating violence and discipline. Judging from Joyce Manor’s earliest shows, it served as a cathartic prompt for wimps finally gaining the confidence to tell their dads to fuck off.
Joyce Manor’s lyrics weren’t intended as words to live by, but lifestyle accessories in their own way—readily available for high school yearbook quotes, inside jokes, or content for the emergent forms of microblogging that were instrumental in their success. Throughout the previous decade, emo and pop-punk had become synonymous with the logorrheic, proudly overdramatic and Blingee’d garishness of Friendster, LiveJournal, and MySpace. As the leading figures of that era were starting to recede from rock radio, grittier and more nimble scenes were emerging alongside social media platforms that favored short, pithy expressions of manageable anxiety. Or, as Johnson described the subject matter of Joyce Manor: “Boredom, repeating the same mistakes over and over, eating too much candy, sexual depression, regular depression, fifteen VHS tapes for five dollars, that sorta thing.”
But these trivialities served as a jumping-off point for Johnson’s gift of capturing the casual cruelty of social interaction. Or, he’s just very good at writing about jerks (Exhibit A: “The Jerk”). In books or movies, jerks are given space to slowly accumulate microaggressions, to let social facades chip off until their true colors are revealed. But Johnson can cut right to it, beginning “Call Out” with the unofficial motto of The Jerk: “I would say I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry.” “The one you are ain’t the one that I’m after,” he sneers later on, and yet, he was able to spend years of his life playing the part: sitting by the ocean, riding on the handlebars of her bike. Joyce Manor spends most of its time in that precarious space between high school and confirmed adulthood, where people look at the relationships they’ve made, fostered mostly by proximity and superficial interests, and judging whether making new friends is even worth the hassle.
Nearly a year removed from their most recent gig, Joyce Manor took requests on Twitter to offer a one-sentence synopsis of each song—examples from Joyce Manor included “riding in a car going to a party feeling bad,” “unable to change,” and several of them were just: “not sure.” The 10 songs were built from this kind of exercise from the start, each concentrating itself into a tagline: “I walked in to find what’s worse than the worst of all time,” “I realize it’s true, everything reminds me of you,” “I rode a wave of emotion I can’t begin to place,” “I’d really like to know what it takes to say ‘I am strong,’” and the line that has prompted more Tumblr quotes than any other, “I just lay there in protest entirely fucked/It’s such a stubborn reminder one perfect night’s not enough.”
Less than a decade later, they got awfully close to that perfect night: Joyce Manor headlined the Hollywood Palladium as a career capstone in 2019, joined by Jeff Rosenstock and AJJ, the first guy who paid them for a gig and the guys responsible for their first gig, period. They were all preceded by emo upstarts awakebutstillinbed, hyped by Johnson as “a once-every-ten-years band.” Joyce Manor alone wasn’t a revolution when it arrived in 2011. It was simply one of the first central nodes amid the interrelated scenes of “feeling stuff” music that was still bubbling underground before they displaced finicky art-rock as the primary form of guitar-based indie rock—emo, pop-punk, confessional singer-songwriters, all of the things that teenagers are supposed to get out of their system. As thousands of emo teens and indie rock 40-somethings shouted along with Johnson about feeling totally washed on the encore-closing “Leather Jacket,” it’s abundantly clear why Joyce Manor will endure when TikTok and whatever replaces it goes the way of Tumblr: feeling too old for this shit never gets old.
Get the Sunday Review in your inbox every weekend. Sign up for the Sunday Review newsletter here.