As I'm writing this, my throat is scratchy and my arms are suspiciously sore because I saw Pup the night before. On Monday May 22nd, I saw the Canadian punkers play with Chicago indie-poppers Beach Bunny and Florida emo-poppers Pool Kids at Stage AE in Pittsburgh. That's our local 2,400-cap venue where I've recently seen everyone from Big Thief and Turnstile to Amon Amarth and Charli XCX. Later this summer, I'll be seeing Alex G and Alvvays there. It's a venue owned by American Eagle that people complain about because people like to complain about venues, but I think it's perfectly fine.
Anyways, I wasn't there to marvel at the structural efficiency of the room or to savor the overpriced refreshments. I was there to see all three bands. My friends and I got there early so we could all see Pool Kids, and we stayed through most of Beach Bunny's set even though I was the only one among us who knew their songs. That means Beach Bunny were the headlining act and Pup, who I was definitely most excited to see, were direct support.
As you can see, this article is already pretty long because I had a surprising amount of takeaways from this lovely experience, so I'll spare you the preamble and just get right to it. Here are 10 thoughts I have about the Beach Bunny/Pup/Pool Kids show. And it's in list form because lists are fucking readable and transition sentences are a waste of time on a burning planet. Onward.
1. Pool Kids! They were great. I had somehow never seen the Floridian emo group, but after last year's self-titled record, I was stoked to hear songs like "Conscious Uncoupling" and "Talk Too Much" live. "Talk Too Much" is like...woah. That's a fucking heater. They closed with it, and after a full set singing with a guitar in hand, Christine Goodwyne dropped her axe and leaped down in front of the stage, roaring into the crowd while she strutted across the front row. It was sick.
My friend Shawn Cooke mentioned how they're one of few younger bands in this space who seem to study stage poses and actually know how to move their bodies while they're playing. That makes all the difference for a band like them, whose songs are more shreddy and winding than they are instantaneous. The band never stopped squirming, and at one point, guitarist Andrew Anaya just dropped his guitar and threw his arms up to motion the crowd to get hype. Noodly emo bands: take notes.
2. Pup were up next, and good god. I can't say that I listen to Pup as frequently as I once did. Back in my college years, they were a go-to band. "Reservoir" was a pregame anthem, "DVP" was perfect for four or five beers in once I got yelly, and the entirety of The Dream is Over was a standard road trip soundtrack. I didn't listen to Morbid Stuff as much once it came out, but that record is fucking spectacular and I love it every time it comes on.
I've seen Pup several times over the last nine years. In late December of 2014, I saw them play their 250th show of the year to roughly 12 people in a freezing cold bar venue. They covered Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" and Stefan Babcock jumped off the monitor while people stared and smiled politely at his over-the-top gusto. Since then, almost every time I've seen them they've been headlining, and their crowds have always been wildly fun. Just some of the best vibes you can expect from a punk band who attract normies, emo kids, hardcore punks and orgcore beardos alike.
The thing about Pup is that all their songs are fucking amazing. And if they pulled out the rare dud in their catalog, it would still manage to go over well because their songs are designed to be consumed in a sweaty scrum of people. Sure, you could make that argument about all punk bands, or even all loud, physical musical acts. But Pup's songs take on a magical, spirited inertia when the band shreds them to a group of people who refuse to stand still.
3. I've seen a lot of bands who are faster or heavier or louder than Pup, but still feel kind of static to witness. Pup's songs are catchy enough that everyone's singing along, but also speedy and ragged enough that everyone's natural bodily reaction is to just ferally fall into each other in a state of blissful delirium. Their playstyle is technical and spikey, but their woah-oh's and oo-oo's provide everyone with something to cling to at all times. The kind of woah-oh's that make you put both hands into the air and stare toward the ceiling like you're awaiting deliverance.
The kind of falsetto oo-oo's that give you the confidence to bleat along, even if you're painfully off-key. But it doesn't matter because in your head, you're nailing it, because holy shit this song is so goddamn fun to be singing to right now while — WHAM! holy shit a crowdsurfer almost landed on my head and OHHH that person just got dropped but PHEWWW they're being helped back up and HEYYY that's my friend over there and haHAAA this is great! Those kind of oo-oo's.
4. I was pretty hard on Pup's album from last year, The Unraveling of Puptheband. I had loved their last three, and really loved the first two of those, Pup and The Dream is Over. Those are some records I'll be freaking out singing along to my whole life. And Morbid Stuff was as phenomenal a follow-up as they could've mustered. They did it. Three in a row. And while I wanted a fourth, I just didn't think that their 2022 record matched the quality of the other three.
I still don't, but I do like it a lot more now than I did when it first came out. "Totally Fine" is a perfect Pup song. "Robot Writes a Love Song" is impossible to dislike. I didn't like it at first, so I actually achieved the impossible, which is pretty cool in its own right. But now I'm abiding by the laws of gravity again and I just think it's charming as hell. "Waiting" is like popping a birthday balloon. The BOOM of that chorus never gets old. And of course, all of these songs are best served live, so I didn't have a single complaint hearing them slotted in alongside "Sleep in the Heat," "Dark Days" and "Free At Last."
5. The show made me think about the long-term viability of Pup's sound. Most punk bands don't usually change their sound all that much. They almost all get slower over time. Maybe they try out a different production style on their third LP. Maybe they some extra instruments into the mix for LP4 if they're feeling frisky. But for the most part, punk bands who've been around for 15, 20, 30 years usually keep doing more or less what they've always done, and I think Pup are the type of band who could just keep making Pup songs forever and never really worry about their core fanbase souring on them.
Even if you don't know the song, you can pick most of theirs up by the second chorus, and from what I saw last night, the old songs and the new ones got the same type of crazed reaction by the smiling Pupians slamming into each other on the floor. I couldn't really tell who had been coming to their shows for eight years and who was there for the first time. People were just there to sweat and sing and love Pup's songs as one big puddle of excited bodies, which is how most every Pup show I've ever been to has felt. At shows for bands of a similar stature, there's usually a rather obvious gulf between the long-timers sipping beers and nodding until their one or two older favs get played, and the younger kids losing their minds who just got into the band last year. If that divide existed at this show I didn't notice because I was too busy losing my voice to Pup, but I really didn't perceive it.
To me, that indicates that Pup are a band whose fans are growing with them. A band who can keep cranking out records that sound like Pup and never bother their audience. They're a band whose fans are all-in for whatever they're given. Even me, someone who was crankily skeptical of last year's album, but had to concede in the heat of the moment, when I was bellowing the hook to "Totally Fine," that those songs fucking rule. Few bands have the ability to be that persuasive.
6. I was really curious to see what Beach Bunny's reception would be like. The Chicago quartet led by singer-songwriter Lili Trifilio were one of the first indie bands to have unexpected viral fame on TikTok. Back in 2019, Beach Bunny were just an ordinary regional band with modest national desires when their 2018 song "Prom Queen" suddenly caught fire on the burgeoning social media app. This was before the brands, the millennials and the record labels infected TikTok, back when it was a Gen-Z wild west where a song like "Prom Queen" could inexplicably take on a viral new life and turn Beach Bunny into a breakthrough act without them, or anyone on their behalf, having to lift a finger. That still happens, but now it feels less exciting and more calculated. "Prom Queen" was the canary in the coalmine for career-making success on there, one of the first pieces of evidence that boardroom researchers presented to the marketing teams who would thereafter view TikTok not as an ecosystem for innocent fandom, but as an engine for making hits. A money-making system.
Through trending on TikTok, "Prom Queen" became a ubiquitous song among people six to 10 years younger than me, and then when Beach Bunny geared up to release their debut album, Honeymoon, in early 2020, music journalists my age and older salivated over the group's novel arc as small-time indie band-turned internet superstars (? — at the time we had no idea how far they'd go) with the ticket sales and festival slots to back up the hype. It was an interesting story! And one that Trifilio frankly seemed uninterested to repeat for the hundredth time when I interviewed her in 2020 and asked her to walk me through the timeline of her band's sudden popularity.
I thought Honeymoon was a really solid record. Short, snappy, sugary, relatable songs about breakups, insecurities and falling in love. These were plainly produced indie-pop tunes that didn't have the sheen of a conventional mainstream crossover, but in the time of TikTok, that didn't matter. The record's ebullient, heart-eyed closing track, "Cloud 9," became their second viral smash, and now it and "Prom Queen" each flaunt a hulking third-of-a-billion streams on Spotify alone. (Beach Bunny's first full-band single, 2018's "Sports," also boasts a whopping 178m listens on Spotify, but I'm not exactly sure when that song had its viral moment.)
It still floors me to see the attention those songs have received. And that has nothing to do with the quality of the songs; I think they're great indie-pop songs with melodic tendrils and lyrics that are easily assuring in their diaristic candor. I can see why people like them, but it's wild to me that that many people like them. It's wild to me that "Prom Queen" has over 100m more Spotify streams than Phoebe Bridgers' "Motion Sickness." Well over 100m more streams than my favorite Taylor Swift song, "Mirrorball." And this is a band who are playing a show with fucking punk and emo bands like Pup and Pool Kids! Not some Glass Animals-adjacent normie band who live in mansions and play to thousands of people every night even though I couldn't pick them out of a lineup with a gun to my head.
I was fascinated to see what Beach Bunny's crowd would look like and how, what I imagined would be a sea of very young, excited fans, would react to those veritably gigantic internet hits. The realist music journalist in me was also curious to see if the new record had a tangible impact on their fanbase. Beach Bunny released their sophomore album, Emotional Creature, last year, and none of those songs have taken off online the way their previous stuff has. The album treaded over much of the same ground lyrically and musically as Honeymoon, but the songs didn't feel as immediate. I literally forgot that it came out by the end of 2022 because I didn't see a single person big-upping it at the end of the year. Sophomore slump? It seemed like it.
But did that have any impact on Beach Bunny's inertia as a career band? Would a record that failed to produce another skyrocketing single like "Prom Queen" or "Cloud 9" still land with their fanbase the way Pup's The Unraveling of Puptheband seemed to have landed with their fanbase, even though it, too, treaded along the same lyrical and sonic ground as their previous works, and also failed to generate a song with as much streaming wind in its sails as "DVP" or "Kids"?
OK, that was definitely more than one thought, but those were the questions knocking around my head as I scaled the stairs to go old-guy mode and watch Beach Bunny from the balcony after a tiring Pup set. As much as I wanted to sing along to "Promises," I was equally interested in observing the crowd participation and treating the set as a test case for how a "legacy TikTok band" (oof) like Beach Bunny are received on a Monday night in a second-market city like Pittsburgh.
7. Beach Bunny were good. They were fine. They were maybe a little underwhelming, if I'm being honest. Compared to Pool Kids, who ran all over the stage and shredded and screamed like their lives depended on it, and after Pup had just done what Pup always do, which is utterly destroy with an unrivaled combination of energy, technical ability and charm, Beach Bunny were a little dry.
Their songs are simply not as loud and bombastic as either of the opening bands, and while Trifilio has a friendly persona and her guitarist was rocking out with some shreddy leads, the other two members were pretty low-energy. The songs just don't have any bulk to them, and they sounded tight, but a little empty floating over the crowd. And again, this was right after two bands went all out up there with songs that are inherently denser and noisier than even Beach Bunny's crunchiest jams. Before they went on, I wagered that no matter how they played, Beach Bunny's fans would go so apeshit for the songs that it wouldn't matter what kind of energy was coming off the stage. But...
8. ...Throughout the entirety of Pup's support set last night I was thinking, "Damn, there're a lot of people losing their shit to Pup right now. Are all these people also here for Beach Bunny? Are there an equal amount of Beach Bunny lunatics who I'm just not seeing right now who are going to lose their mind when that band comes on after? Hm." Well, by the time Beach Bunny were halfway through their set, it still felt like a Pup show. By that I mean the audience size had dwindled a bit, and the energy was sucked out of the room.
Beach Bunny took the stage and played through a few tunes before Trifilio remarked on how quiet everyone was being and asked if they were tired from moshing to Pup. Don't get me wrong, the floor was filled and there were definitely people having a visibly good time in that room. But looking down upon the crowd from the balcony, it looked like the sort of pleasant reaction the audience gives an opening band when they want to save their voices for the headliner. The deafening woah-oh's that sprung from the crowd during Pup's set weren't there. I barely heard the crowd's singing penetrate my earplugs.
9. Six songs into the set, Beach Bunny busted out "Prom Queen." It was time. I could finally witness what I came to see. When the opening chords sounded off, the middle school girls giddily jumping up and down next to me let out a yelp of excitement, and there were definitely people singing and bopping down on the floor. But it did not look like a room reacting to a song with more streams than every single one of Pup's songs combined — and then multiplied by, I don't know, at least two or three. By the main metric the music industry has used to quantify popularity in the last almost-decade (streaming numbers), "Prom Queen" is a titanic hit. Not "Blinding Lights" big, but big. Bigger (on the internet, at least) than anything Charli XCX has released since "Boom Clap."
When Beach Bunny played "Prom Queen," it did not feel like when Charli XCX played "Boom Clap" in that same room eight months earlier, when half the crowd woke up and started singing to the one song they came to see. If I had just walked into the room last night totally blind, without any knowledge of who Beach Bunny were or what the song they were playing was, I would've assumed they were playing an album cut from their first record. A song that people liked, that maybe was a fan-favorite in some circles, but was not a single. Was not a song that has been used in hundreds of thousands of internet videos where people mime the lyrics and bop along to its breezy beat.
I expected rapturous applause and thunderous sing-alongs. The reaction was nothing of the sort. To be clear: I'm not using this observation to criticize Beach Bunny's performance. They played the song well! I'm not criticizing the song or its content. It's been well-established that this song has resonated with millions of people! And I'm not saying that because this particular audience didn't tear the venue to shreds while "Prom Queen" played, it wouldn't elicit that sort of reaction in a different setting. But I don't know. I was kinda shocked!
10. I mostly go to small club shows or shows at mid-size venues to see bands who, even if they're popular in some circles, have never had what anyone would consider a "hit." I don't really go to many concerts that cost more than $40 a ticket. I'm not used to seeing artists with extremely popular songs perform live. So it was kind of novel for me to see a band like Beach Bunny, who have these ostensibly massive tracks in their catalog that've provably connected with hundreds of thousands of young people (particularly high-school girls, given that "Prom Queen"'s lyrics tackle eating disorders and body image issues from a feminine perspective).
There were some younger folks at this show, for sure. I noticed a bundle of teens huddling near the front right of the stage during Pup in order to avoid the sweaty, beery free-for-all beside them. To be honest, it seemed like there were a decent number of twenty-somethings there for Beach Bunny as well. At one point, a guy who appeared to be about my age, and seemed to be at this show with his girlfriend, also about my age, shouted out, "Play 'Cloud 9!'" This couple looked like people I might see at a brewery on a Saturday afternoon, but apparently they rolled out to hear the hits, presumably the ones they were introduced to by flipping through TikTok videos.
Most of the crowd looked more or less like them. Ordinary indie band showgoers, not a sea of jubilant teens pouring in to devour their favorite band. Maybe I was naive to suspect a much different crowd. Maybe in a different city the demographic would've been completely different. Maybe this show wasn't promoted well enough to Beach Bunny fans, or maybe the bulk of them had school the next day and their parents didn't let them come out.
But I also think this show was a fascinating reminder that "streams" only mean so much. Pup have been a band a lot longer than Beach Bunny and they've toured a lot longer than Beach Bunny. They've put out twice as many records as Beach Bunny. They've had more opportunities to connect with and forge a lasting audience with fans than Beach Bunny. But Pup never had a song — or songs, as Beach Bunny do — that could be considered mainstream crossovers by today's standards. And nevertheless, at this one show in Pittsburgh where Beach Bunny headlined because, by so many metrics, of course they would headline, of course they'd have the bigger draw, Pup, with an internet listenership that's genuinely marginal by comparison, were the actual headlining band.
Is this one random show enough evidence to conclude the dwindling material impact that a couple TikTok hits have on an artist's career two to three years after their viral takeoff? No, of course not. And again, none of this is intended to be a qualitative criticism of Beach Bunny's music or their career trajectory. They didn't ask for the TikTok hits. They're really just a normal-ass indie band who stumbled into unprecedented internet notoriety and are just going where the wind takes them. Godspeed. The music industry is fickle and cruel. Fame is fleeting and nonlinear. The internet is only real to an extent. Sometimes, bands have off-nights!
But to me, the most reassuring takeaway of the evening, in an industry landscape that only seems to deliver bleak reports, that's only getting harder for artists to make a living in, was the comforting reminder that the hollow digital metrics we weigh artist's viability against (Spotify monthlies, streams, social media followers) are sometimes purely cosmetic. Sometimes, great music and hard-ass touring and life-affirming live shows still win out, even against the leviathan TikTok clout that every label suit, band manager and, yes, probably destitute touring musician, prays for. To me, there's something reassuring about the lasting value of a tangible experience. Moreover, there's something reassuring about a great, great fucking Pup show.