On the titular track of mainstream sellout, Machine Gun Kelly begins by reflecting on his alleged critics: “I heard the feedback, I’m a poser / With a guitar and a choker / Hidin’ under sunglasses / I made an album, they hate the tracklist.” Across the next 15 songs of the musician’s sixth studio album, he in no way disproves any of these criticisms.
As of late, Machine Gun Kelly, real name Colson Baker, seems to be the object of media attention for anything but his music. Baker’s bizarre relationship with Megan Fox has in many ways stolen the spotlight, a relationship which the actress once labeled a connection of “mythic proportions,” akin to a “tsunami or a forest fire.” After reports emerged that Fox and Baker drank each other’s blood following their engagement last January, the pair might seem akin to Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and actress Pamela Anderson in their unsettling brand of outrageousness. But despite Baker’s nosedive from rap to pop-punk on his 2020 album, Tickets to My Downfall, these rockstar comparisons have not exactly been earned.
On mainstream sellout, an unexciting and repetitive second attempt at encapsulating the style of early 2000s pop-punk, Baker sounds more like a blink-182 cover band rather than an emerging voice in the genre. Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker’s major production credits on Tickets to My Downfall and mainstream sellout might explain this ill-fated foray into emo nostalgia best.
On the opener, “born with horns,” Baker barrels into the project with a three-chord melody and vocals saturated in the whiny angst of a classic pop-punk accent. Halfway through the track, the rapid drum beats falter and synthy strings emerge in a moment of apparent contemplation. Baker sings, “Price you pay for entertaining / Can’t decide what is fake / Mercury is retrograding,” a moment that kick-starts a chain of fake-deep musings that continues for the rest of the album.
“die in california” banks on similar themes of rocky adjustments to fame and Hollywood superficiality, this time with a strange cacophony of features from Young Thug, Gunna and Landon Barker, Travis Barker’s 18-year-old son. Baker once again serves up empty criticisms of wealth and stardom, singing, “I’m miserable even though I made it / Got a house in the Hills and I fuckin’ hate it.” The song’s generic hip-hop beat and lackluster verses from Gunna and Young Thug vaguely harken back to Baker’s rap lineage, beating the listener over the head with the same melodramatic sentiments of his older work, now under the guise of punk.
Baker’s lyrics run the gamut from trite declarations of suffering to half-hearted jabs at the American government and Big Tech. On “god save me,” another cut-and-paste pop-punk track, he lazily drifts into this activism with the lines, “Say hi ’cause the government tapped the phone / Fuck cops, read me my Miranda rights / Poison the brain, follow along.” Baker’s questioning of authority isn’t fortified with any solid social critique, attempting to capture the same rebellious spirit of pop-punk predecessors without their ingenuity.
The track “WW4” wrestles with “the establishment” with comparable clumsiness, as Baker declares, “The zombie apocalypse is not too far away / I think iRobot is real, but I’m kind of afraid to say / Any thoughts in my mind / They wanna monitor us / Let’s go and find the mainframe / And blow the monitor up.” With close to 10 million Instagram followers, one has to wonder whether Baker would enthusiastically blow up this theoretical mainframe if actually presented with the opportunity.
It’s probably fair to assume that most fans are not listening to Baker’s music for his cutting wit or hard-hitting political commentary. Yet these haphazard attempts at talking about “real shit” seem to signal the musician’s aspirations for more substantive content. Nonetheless, when Baker presents cerebral quips like, “Everybody’s so nice lately (Everybody’s not nice),” on the track “papercuts,” this lofty goal seems only more out of reach.
On “sid and nancy,” a track referencing the 1986 film that chronicles Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and girlfriend Nancy Spungen’s tumultuous relationship, Baker places himself in the shoes of the legendary rockstar. He sings, “Count to ten and see if I die / Write it in blood and we both sign / Sid and Nancy, another suicide,” alluding to the mysterious circumstances surrounding Spungen’s murder and Vicious’s own subsequent death. Just like his unsuccessful incorporations of nonconformist punk themes earlier in the project, here Baker is attempting to insert himself into a punk heritage to which he doesn’t belong.
Mainstream sellout brings nothing new to the table of pop-punk given its almost untouched instrumental inspiration from the genre’s early 2000s heyday. Baker seems to believe that because he has production credits from Travis Barker and boldly begins songs like “maybe” with a count of 2, 3, 5 because he’s “sick of 1, 2, 3,” that he has mastered the revolutionary ethos of pop-punk. Yet his half-baked references to societal problems and woe-is-me outlook are not enough to actually enmesh him in its history. As the last track of mainstream sellout plays out, the listener is only left thinking that the album has been very aptly named.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.