When Blink 182 first became big in the late ’90s, you would be excused for not predicting that in a little over two decades, its most famous and relevant member would end up being Travis Barker. Blink 182’s two main guys, bassist Mark Hoppus and guitarist Tom DeLonge, had kind of a dirtbag Lennon-McCartney thing going on, dueling lead singers pushing nonstop sunny melodies and good-natured fuck-you energy. The duo took the fast, melodic pop-punk template established by Descendents, Screeching Weasel, Bad Religion et al and innovated by adding in things like “blatant careerism,” “not giving a shit about politics,” and “being hot.” Unlike their contemporaries in Green Day, DeLonge and Hoppus were down to play the game: Their music video for “All the Small Things” found them parodying groups like Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC, but between DeLonge and Hoppus’s looks and all those Platinum plaques, the not-so-secret secret was they were basically a boy band themselves.
Barker, meanwhile, always seemed out of place. Where DeLonge and Hoppus mugged for the cameras in publicity photos, he maintained a severe expression, nearly blank. Hoppus and DeLonge were children of executives and academics; Barker’s father had been a mechanic. They were the jocular skaters next door; he was a former garbage man with a thin frame and a seeming ability to spontaneously generate tattoos. Hell, he wasn’t even the band’s original drummer — that would be a guy named Scott Raynor, whose existence surely would have been lost to history if not for the fact he has a Wikipedia page. Barker was also, it seemed, more invested in the underground than his bandmates, and not just because of all the tattoos. Prior to joining Blink in 1998, Barker had played in the goofy ska-punk group The Aquabats! (exclamation point optional but spiritually necessary); soon after coming aboard the S.S. 182, he took a month off from the band to tour with the West Coast punk O.G.’s The Vandals, and in 2002, joined up with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong and a rapping roadie named Rob to form the kinda incredible rap-rock group Transplants.
On paper, there are a million people like Barker in the world of punk: style-agnostic journeymen who bounce between bands, playing their parts well and collecting their checks until somebody else needs them (Brooks Wackerman, who DeLonge and Hoppus initially recruited to drum for the band before offering the kit to Barker, is literally one of these guys). But what sets Travis Barker apart is that (A) he turned out to be significantly more talented than your average Joe Fugazishirt, with diverse rhythmic influences and an ability to play really fast and really hard, and, (B) for some reason, he is now probably one of the biggest celebrities on the planet.
While Blink 182 is still a thing and Travis Barker is still in it, he does not necessarily seem of it; at this point it’s more Mark Hoppus’s band that he happens to be in. (Tom DeLonge, of course, is no longer with the band and is instead hunting aliens.) Instead, Travis Barker transcended Blink 182 some time ago, inexplicably evolving into one of the two drummers in hip-hop — along with ?uestlove of The Roots — who most music fans can name off the top of their heads. Even more inexplicably, he has since parlayed this status into his current role as an elder statesman of the sort of post-genre face-tattoo music that replaced mall-punk as the preferred soundtrack of punky kids in malls across the world. (R.I.P. Lil Peep.)
Barker has always drummed with a borderline-Ted Nugent intensity, which makes him an attractive collaborator for hip-hop artists, whose records are generally mixed so that, if you play them at full volume in a car, the low end and percussion bits should blow at least one of your speakers. But for years, he was simply a curio within the rap world, a novelty who you brought in to inject a nonspecific air of “rawk” to your song, usually with underwhelming results. The growing pains involved flirtations with dubstep, aiding and abetting a collaboration between Tom Morello and LL Cool J, and teaming up with Yelawolf to create a deeply regrettable reggae song. But, if there is anything we know about Travis Barker, it is that he is a survivor. He has survived an addiction to Oxycodone, a plane crash that burned two-thirds of his body, and this very unfortunate remix of Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat.” There was basically no way that the guy wasn’t going to hold out until he either got better at collaborating with hip-hop artists, hip-hop artists got more interested in alternative rock music, or, ideally, both.
Last year, the other cymbal finally crashed when Barker oversaw Machine Gun Kelly’s transformation from “pretty good and very trashy Midwestern fast-rapper whose jawline was so perfect that the music industry basically had to keep trying to make him a thing or else risk losing him to Hollywood or modeling or whatever” to an Actual Star, by producing Tickets to My Downfall. On an artistic level, that album was a pleasant, out-of-nowhere surprise — it was basically a really good Blink 182 album but with MGK playing the parts of Mark and Tom — but on a career level, the album was like a rocket ship for Barker. In January of this year, he gave Trippie Redd’s album Pegasus the Warped Tour treatment, getting together with the rapper to reissue the record with an entire new disc of material created in collaboration with Barker; that one kinda sounds like a Deftones record. Also this year, he drummed on three tracks on the new Willow Smith album, produced one full-length record for a TikTok influencer named jxdn, another for an artist named KennyHoopla (jxdn and KennyHoopla opened for MGK on his summer tour), joined Young Thug for both his NPR Tiny Desk Concert and his performance on Saturday Night Live over the weekend, put together a Halloween pay-per-view concert, and, ah, yes, got engaged to Kourtney Kardashian. Last month, he took a plane with Kardashian for the first time since his near-fatal 2008 crash and told reporters he now felt “invincible.” Which, like, fair.
There are a couple things going on here, I think. One, the music industry is riddled with survivors of the MySpace emo era, from former screamo dude Skrillex to Tyga, whose debut album came out on Fall Out Boy’s old label. So it’s not that surprising that Travis Barker, though decidedly pre-MySpace, would similarly just sort of hang around looking for interesting stuff to do. Two, because he was just kind of around, he was perfectly positioned to capitalize when the pop-punk revival crossed into hip-hop in the past couple of years, since nostalgia is a very real thing, and after all, Travis Barker is the drummer for Blink 182.
In a sense, Barker making pop-punk albums with Machine Gun Kelly and Trippie Redd isn’t all that different from that time in the ’90s when Neil Young cut a record with Pearl Jam. But on another level, the concept of genre is eroding by the day, and the new 100 gecs record hasn’t even dropped yet. And for many young people, the idea that a person’s aesthetic, whether “punk” or “goth” or “rave” or whatever, must necessarily correspond with their actual lifestyle and belief system is self-evidently facile in ways that older people have a hard time conceptualizing. Personas have always been costumes in pop culture, we’ve just largely stopped pretending otherwise. Instead, the notion of “authenticity” has become largely tied to someone openly admitting that this is all a put-on, and the distinct visual signatures and over-the-top theatrics of early-2000s pop-punk and emo make these styles the ideal sandbox into which young performers can jump and play. Maybe the key to being a famous person is never actually being the star; all that pressure might make you crack up and become an alien hunter or run for president. Instead, true power lies in the journeyman, the second banana who’s got the chops and charisma to be the star but plays the long game, exchanging the outsized accolades, and their corresponding falls from grace, for a bit less of the spotlight. The tortoise wins the race, y’know? And nobody knows how to just hang out, beating a slow and steady rhythm, like a drummer.
Drew Millard has written for The New York Times, Vice, The New Republic, and The Outline and is currently working on a book about golf.