Changing Faces of Pop Punk
In the popular imagination, the typical portrayal of pop punk often features a Caucasian male expressing discontent about high school challenges, venting frustrations about an average hometown, or yearning for an unidentified, faceless girl. This widely held perception has largely been influenced by the dominance of all-male bands like Green Day, Blink-182, New Found Glory, and Sum 41 in the 90s and 00s. These bands, characterized by Dickies pants and wallet chains, projected a Jackass-style aesthetic while incorporating a rebellious spirit in their music, albeit with a mild undertone. Nevertheless, the current landscape of pop-punk is witnessing a significant transformation. A new wave is emerging, diverging from the conventional mold, as a varied group of women takes center stage. These musicians not only uphold the genre’s inherent rebelliousness and enjoyment but are also reshaping it into something more youthful and nuanced. What distinguishes them is their dedication to injecting emotional maturity into the genre, a dimension often overlooked by their male predecessors.
In the present pop-punk scene, a noticeable change is apparent as contemporary artists adopt a more introspective approach. Significantly, they openly recognize the therapeutic advantages of seeking professional help, as evidenced in Pinkshift’s track I’m Gonna Tell My Therapist On You. This departure from the stoic bravado of the past is marked by a willingness to engage with personal struggles and sing self-reflectively about the complexities of relationships. Differing from the nasal tones characteristic of their male counterparts in the genre’s history, the vocal styles of these modern pop punk artists resonate more with the soprano gymnastics exemplified by Paramore’s 00s matriarch, Hayley Williams. This vocal shift not only demonstrates a broader range but also challenges the stereotypical sound associated with pop punk, adding a layer of diversity and emotional depth to the genre.
In the unfolding of 2021, pop punk has unequivocally emerged as a defining musical genre, encapsulating the spirit of the times with its fusion of catchy tunes and honest, relatable lyrics. A notable instance of its resurgence is exemplified by Olivia Rodrigo’s blockbuster Good 4 U, which impressively held the No. 1 spot in the UK charts for a remarkable five weeks, marking the longest reign for a rock song in 25 years. This triumph underscores the renewed significance of the genre and its capacity to connect with contemporary audiences. Edith Johnson, the dynamic lead vocalist of Meet Me @ the Altar, confidently asserts, “I am not your typical white, male pop-punk vocalist. I am very girly; no one looks like me.” Sporting an infectious smile, she embodies a distinctive presence in the pop-punk scene, challenging established norms. The trio, composed of women of color, stands out not just for their musical talent but also for their dedication to shattering barriers in an industry often dominated by a specific image.
Rewriting the Rules
As Johnson embraces her feminine neo-punk aesthetic, characterized by long, ever-changing neon braids, it becomes evident that individuality is celebrated in the new wave of pop-punk bands. In this evolving landscape, conforming to a particular stereotype is no longer a prerequisite for success. The genre is undergoing a transformative phase wherein artists, like Meet Me @ the Altar are rewriting the rules and advocating for the freedom to express gender and style without constraints. Johnson’s declaration that “We can be feminine, masculine–there are really no rules now” encapsulates the liberating ethos embraced by this fresh generation of pop-punk musicians. The traditional boundaries that once confined artists to rigid expectations are now being dismantled, paving the way for a more inclusive and diverse representation within the genre. The acceptance of a spectrum of expressions, whether feminine, masculine, or anything in between, is fostering a sense of empowerment and authenticity among pop-punk artists.
Edith Johnson surpasses the conventional boundaries of pop punk with her vocal prowess, introducing a soulful dimension that distinguishes her within the genre. Her resonant and rich voice adds a unique and emotive quality to Meet Me @ the Altar’s music. In contrast, Ashrita Kumar of Pinkshift offers a distinct sonic palette featuring a lilt and pouty quality reminiscent of the iconic Gwen Stefani. Kumar’s vocals, echoing Stefani’s distinctive style, inject a fresh and dynamic energy into the pop-punk scene. Yasmine Summan, an alternative culture journalist and co-host of the lifestyle podcast On Wednesdays We Wear Black, highlights the diversity in vocal styles among black and brown women in pop punk as both distinct and significant. Summan observes, “Black and brown women have a different vocal range and abilities and take inspiration from different places.” This insight underscores the depth that diverse influences bring to the genre, challenging preconceived notions and expanding the sonic tapestry of pop punk.
Summan further stresses that the essence of pop-punk is not confined to a single archetype, such as the male vocal stylings reminiscent of former Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge. Instead, she advocates for a broader definition, one that encompasses the expressive range of women in the genre. Summan articulates this by stating, “Pop punk is not just a guy who sounds like Tom DeLonge; it is a woman who sounds like Ashrita.” This statement captures the evolving nature of pop punk, highlighting the diversity of voices and perspectives reshaping its identity in contemporary music. Although these emerging women in pop punk may seem to have appeared unexpectedly, the genre went through a relative dead zone during the 2010s. This period was marked by legacy bands struggling to maintain relevance despite retaining and even gaining fans. These stalwart bands found themselves grappling with the challenge of staying at the forefront of a musical landscape that was rapidly evolving.
During this period, newer bands like State Champs and Neck Deep, though primarily consisting of white male members, emerged as torchbearers for the pop-punk genre. However, their contributions appeared to tread familiar musical ground, following the paths laid by their predecessors. It raised crucial questions about the evolution of pop punk, prompting the insightful inquiry posed by writer Dan Ozzi in a 2013 Vice article: “If pop punk is inherently this juvenile, is it meant to graduate into adulthood?” Ozzi’s question captures the inherent tension within the genre. As pop-punk continued to mature, both artists and fans found themselves at a crossroads, contemplating whether the genre could naturally transition into a more adult-oriented space without losing the youthful energy that defined its essence. The struggle to reconcile the roots of pop punk with the desire for growth and maturity became a central theme for both established and emerging artists.
The trajectory of pop punk seemed to take an unexpected turn. Adrian Choa, a devoted 32-year-old pop-punk enthusiast, vividly recalls his return to the UK at the beginning of the 2010s after an extensive stay in California, one of the genre’s spiritual homes. To his surprise, he discovered a changed musical landscape where pop-punk faced mockery, overshadowed by the rising dominance of indie music. The shift, he notes, was particularly noticeable against the backdrop of British culture, specifically the entrenched bravado of British males. Choa reflects on the cultural dissonance, stating, “There is something really at odds with British culture–and British male bravado especially–about squeaky voices singing about ‘going to the mall’ and skateboarding.” He suggests that the essence of pop punk, with its signature themes of adolescent rebellion and carefree activities, appeared incongruent with the stoic and often sarcastic nature of British masculinity. The inherently youthful and lighthearted narratives, centered around activities like going to the mall or skateboarding, were perceived as conflicting with the prevailing sensibilities of British culture.
As Choa explores the underlying dynamics, he emphasizes a prevalent sentiment: “Pop punk is so easy to satirize.” The genre’s susceptibility to satire becomes evident when viewed through the lens of British cultural norms, where its sincerity and unbridled youthful enthusiasm might have been perceived as out of step with the prevailing attitudes of the era. This cultural discord resulted in a phase where pop-punk became a target of ridicule, exposing it to mockery and potentially contributing to its diminished presence in the music scene. Unfortunately, the pop-punk community found itself contending with more troubling issues as revelations of abuse of power against fans came to light, exposing a darker side within the scene. The shocking disclosure of such misconduct highlighted the pressing need for the industry to address systemic problems and ensure the safety of its audience.
A notable case involved Austin Jones, a YouTuber recognized for his pop-punk cover versions, who faced severe consequences for his actions. In 2019, he received a 10-year prison sentence for his involvement in the receipt of indecent images of children, exposing a disturbing betrayal of trust with his fans. This case illuminated the potential dangers inherent in online interactions between artists and their susceptible followers. Similarly, Jake McElfresh, also known as Front Porch Step, admitted to engaging in inappropriate behavior by sexting underage girls, leading to his label severing ties with him. This revelation brought attention to the vulnerability of fans, especially those who are young and impressionable, emphasizing the necessity for robust safeguards within the music industry.
Impact on Well-Established Acts
The troubling incidents also affected well-established acts. Kenny Harris, the touring guitarist for Panic! at the Disco, faced accusations of inappropriate behavior, leading to his departure from the band. The aftermath of such occurrences prompted critical inquiries into the responsibility of artists and the broader industry to establish a safe and respectful environment for fans. Sexual misconduct became an issue even within bands with sizable followings, exemplified by accusations against Jesse Lacey of Brand New. Lacey apologized after allegations of inappropriate conduct from women and a 15-year-old girl, underscoring the urgent need for accountability within the pop-punk community.
The repercussions of these unsettling revelations resonated throughout the wider pop-punk landscape. The closure of the Warped Tour festival, a historical stronghold of the genre during the peak of the #MeToo movement, served as a symbolic response to the pervasive issues within the community. Kevin Lyman, the festival’s organizer, pointed to the reluctance of some bands to be associated with Warped Tour artists as a significant factor, highlighting the necessity for systemic change and a collective commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive space for fans. Amid the upheavals caused by the pandemic, distressing revelations of sexual misconduct within the pop-punk community continued to surface, casting a shadow on the industry. Joey Armstrong of Swmrs and David Desrosiers of Simple Plan faced accusations of such misconduct, contributing to a growing list of allegations that were challenging the foundations of the genre. These revelations prompted a profound reckoning, compelling both fans and musicians to confront the harsh realities of abuse within their community.
The troubling pattern expanded beyond individual artists to institutions within the music scene. Burger Records, a renowned California-based label, confronted a significant reckoning when allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against several musicians associated with it. The gravity of these accusations led to the label’s decision to cease operations. In a heartfelt apology, Burger Records acknowledged the harm inflicted on those who had suffered irreversible damage within the Burger and indie/DIY music scene. The closure of the label symbolized a recognition of the imperative for accountability and a commitment to fostering a safer environment within the industry. As these revelations unfolded, Generation Z, born between the mid-90s and early 2010s, displayed a growing interest in comprehending the pervasive impact of abuse within the pop-punk genre. The younger generation began questioning the ethics of supporting artists and bands implicated in such misconduct, signaling a shift in awareness. Ashrita Kumar, reflecting on this evolving sentiment, observed, “People actually started saying we should not support these bands anymore.” This sentiment underscored a broader acknowledgment that the industry needed to address its systemic issues and that the complicity of those in power could no longer be tolerated.
Concurrently, a cyclical fashion phenomenon with a 20-year cycle, combined with Generation Z’s distinctive fondness for nostalgia, has redirected the cultural compass back to the vibrant world of pop punk. This intriguing convergence has led to a resurgence in the genre’s influence, even among artists too young to have participated in the pop-punk scene of the early 2000s. The magnetic pull toward the aesthetics and sounds of that bygone era has become palpable, weaving a cultural tapestry with threads of both familiarity and innovation. Remarkably, many of the emerging pop punk artists currently gaining prominence were mere youngsters during the genre’s heyday in the ’00s. However, the allure of that period has transcended generational boundaries, drawing them into a realm that encapsulates the essence of a time they can only recall through the lens of nostalgia. Olivia O’Brien, an R&B and pop artist exploring the pop-punk sphere, expresses this sentiment by reflecting on her childhood aspirations. “When I was a kid, I saw all these teenagers who were so cool,” O’Brien shares, underscoring the magnetic allure of pop punk culture. “That is everything I wanted to be: a teenager in the early 00s.”
What characterizes the present era is the distinct influence shaping the creative expressions of young women—an exceptional aspect of 00s pop culture that often repelled or went unnoticed by many boys and men. In contrast to the prevailing narratives of the time, a group of young women drew inspiration from a specific niche within 00s pop culture marked by the convergence of Disney and Nickelodeon stars venturing into the realm of pop rock. Icons like Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Hilary Duff defied expectations by releasing pop rock albums infused with guitars, showcasing visually bold yet irresistibly cute aesthetics. Throughout the 2000s, a subtle revolution unfolded as Daisy Rock guitars gained prominence for their ostensibly girl-friendly designs, challenging traditional norms in the male-dominated world of rock. Simultaneously, the film Freaky Friday, released a year after Avril Lavigne’s 2002 debut, featured Lindsay Lohan leading an all-girl rock band. Lohan further embraced this trend by capitalizing on the wave of tween love, releasing a Disney rock-style album the following year. The cultural landscape was evolving, creating a space where femininity and the raw energy of rock could coexist, influencing a new generation of musicians.
The Disney Rock Influence
Reflecting on the understated yet profound impact of this cultural phenomenon, Edith Johnson shares an insightful observation. “Someone complimented me the other day, like: ‘Your voice is so sweet, it is almost Disney,'” she remarks. This sentiment resonates with the collective subconscious influence that Disney rock had on these emerging artists. The sweet yet assertive tones of that era have left an indelible mark, shaping their musical sensibilities in a way that bridges the innocence of Disney with the rebellious spirit of rock. Edith Johnson’s pursuit of female representation in the pop-punk landscape led her to the realm of Disney rock and the formidable influence of Avril Lavigne, a pivotal figure for this emerging wave of bands. Lavigne’s impact is so profound that even Willow Smith, a rising star in her own right, has found inspiration in Lavigne’s legacy, resulting in a collaborative effort that echoes the intergenerational connection within the genre. This acknowledgment of Lavigne as a trailblazer underscores the enduring influence of her musical and cultural contributions.
Bonnie Fraser, a vital member of the pop-punk band Stand Atlantic, holds a unique perspective on Avril Lavigne’s peak in 2002, having experienced it firsthand. Fraser reflects on Lavigne’s emergence as a manufactured pop star, acknowledging that this fact did not diminish Lavigne’s significance in the eyes of young fans like Fraser herself. In reminiscing about that era, Fraser underscores, “As a kid, you do not know about marketing; you take everything at face value. As manipulative as that sounds, the ends justify the means because she was there as someone to look up to.” Fraser’s viewpoint encapsulates the essence of Lavigne’s impact during that time. Regardless of the manufactured nature of Lavigne’s image, her presence filled a crucial void for a generation hungry for relatable female figures in the music industry. Lavigne’s authenticity and unapologetic attitude resonated with young fans, serving as a beacon of empowerment. Fraser’s recognition of Lavigne as a figure to look up to reflects the genuine connection that fans, particularly young women, formed with the artist during her heyday.
For the younger generation of pop punk artists, their formative years unfolded in the late 2000s, a period when Avril Lavigne transformed, shifting from her tomboy image to a more conventionally feminine style characterized by pink and black attire. This change in Lavigne’s aesthetic marked a departure from the earlier perception of a rebellious tomboy to a more girly woman, generating mixed reactions within the pop-punk community. Chloe Moriondo, a contemporary pop singer, highlights the stark contrast in how Lavigne’s evolution was received, noting, “People clowned Avril for being a girly woman in pop punk and doing her own thing, and now they are so heavily praised for doing that.” Moriondo’s observation underscores the evolving standards and perceptions within the pop-punk genre. What was once criticized as a deviation from the expected image of a pop-punk artist is now celebrated as a demonstration of individuality and authenticity. This transformation mirrors a broader societal shift towards embracing diverse expressions of femininity and dismantling rigid stereotypes.
While expressing a desire for increased representation of women in pop punk, Moriondo acknowledges the limited options available during her formative years. She reflects on the scarcity of bands led by women and underscores the importance of embracing what was available. In this context, artists like Hayley Williams of Paramore emerged as pivotal figures for Moriondo and others seeking relatable female representation within the genre. In the domain of girl-led pop punk, significant shifts have taken place over time, signaling a transformation in the landscape. Fefe Dobson, a black female rocker, surfaced during the era of Disney rock, but her impact faced challenges amid the overwhelming ubiquity of Avril Lavigne. Dobson’s experience provides a poignant glimpse into the complexities faced by artists navigating a genre often dominated by specific standards.
Frustration and Inconsistencies
Reflecting on the moment she first encountered Lavigne’s video for Complicated, Dobson felt a profound sense of disconnection. As a black girl with curly hair, a distinct physique, and a style that did not conform to Lavigne’s, Dobson found herself at a crossroads. She vividly recalls the panic, realizing, “I am this black girl, my hair’s curly, I cannot get it as straight as hers, I have a booty, I did not fit into my Dickies like that. I knew at that moment it was going to be a tough road.” This stark moment of self-awareness underscores the challenges faced by artists who do not fit the conventional mold within the pop-punk genre. Dobson’s struggles extended beyond the visual aspects. Her second album faced the unfortunate fate of being shelved by her label, which subsequently dropped her. The rationale behind this decision was perplexing, as the label deemed the material “too dark” and expressed uncertainty about Dobson’s identity. Feeling misunderstood and dismissed, Dobson remarks, “They thought it was ‘too dark’ and that I did not know who I was. They did not know who I was.”
In the subsequent years, frustration deepened as songs co-written for Dobson’s shelved album mysteriously reappeared as singles on Disney rock albums by Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. Dobson rightfully questions the inconsistency, asking, “Why was it not too dark for them, then?” This disparity underscores the systemic biases and challenges faced by artists who diverge from established norms, prompting inquiries about the industry’s willingness to embrace diversity and unconventional narratives within the pop-punk space. Within the domain of alternative music, the challenges encountered by artists of color (POC) are exemplified by the experiences of male artist DeWayne, drawing influence from pop punk. DeWayne sheds light on the demanding standards imposed upon POC artists in the alternative music scene, emphasizing that they are expected to excel not only in their craft but also in their demeanor and appearance. He states, “As POC artists in alternative music, you have to be 20 times as good-looking, 20 times as nice; you gotta walk the line, you cannot be too feisty or too straight-edged. You have to be perfect.” This candid assessment underscores the disproportionate expectations placed on POC artists within the industry, emphasizing the need for a more equitable and inclusive space.
DeWayne expresses a hopeful desire for change, articulating a collective aspiration to break free from the restrictive norms that have historically constrained POC artists in the alternative music landscape. The call for breaking these barriers reflects a broader movement within the industry to challenge systemic biases and foster an environment where artists can be authentic and embrace their individuality without facing undue scrutiny. As the industry grapples with these challenges, a notable shift is occurring. Fefe Dobson, a black female rocker who encountered obstacles in the earlier years of her career, has now become a recognized influence on the new wave of artists. Dobson’s impact is acknowledged not only by music journalists but also by a diverse range of contemporary artists, including Willow and Rodrigo. This recognition signifies a turning tide, where the contributions of POC artists, who have long been marginalized or overlooked, are gaining the acknowledgment and respect they deserve within the evolving landscape of alternative and pop punk music.
The resurgence of pop-punk is unfolding through two distinct yet interconnected paths: one within the realm of alternative rock and the other in the mainstream, led by non-rock artists. This dual resurgence represents a nuanced evolution of the genre, bridging the gap between alternative and mainstream audiences. Han Mee, the dynamic frontwoman of Hot Milk, a pop-punk outfit from Manchester, provides insightful commentary on this phenomenon. She observes, “Punk was the next thing to come around for pop to try on,” capturing the cyclical nature of pop’s exploration of various genres and its current embrace of the rebellious spirit of punk. Making a crucial distinction, Mee points out the diverse trajectories within the pop-punk revival. In the alternative rock sphere, bands like Hot Milk engage in the traditional aspects of the genre–loading amps, playing intimate shows, and selling merch–embodying the grassroots ethos that has defined pop punk since its inception.
In contrast, the mainstream revival led by non-rock artists introduces a different dynamic. Mee highlights Olivia Rodrigo, an artist who, despite her undeniable influence on the resurgence, has not undergone the traditional rites of passage within the pop-punk scene. Rodrigo’s ascent, marked by chart-topping success, reflects a reimagining of pop punk in a more polished and commercially accessible form.
Controversies and Concerns
To illustrate this point further, Mee contrasts Jxdn, a TikTok personality who collaborated with Blink-182’s Travis Barker on pop-punk tracks. Mee notes the distinction between Jxdn and a band like Hot Milk, emphasizing that the former’s experience is rooted in the studio culture of Los Angeles, devoid of the grassroots elements integral to the traditional pop-punk narrative. Jxdn’s trajectory, characterized by digital platforms and studio sessions, reflects a departure from the traditional DIY ethos associated with pop punk. The fate of financial gains and widespread recognition trickling down to DIY (Do It Yourself) artists within the pop-punk revival remains uncertain. The landscape is marked by ambiguous prospects, raising questions about the equitable distribution of resources and attention within the genre. Instances such as the controversy surrounding Tramp Stamps, accused of being an “industry plant,” and accusations of plagiarism directed at Olivia Rodrigo underscore a poignant message: while mainstream artists may draw inspiration from the pop-punk genre, the imperative is to approach it with genuine respect.
The accusation of being labeled an “industry plant” against Tramp Stamps reflects a broader concern about authenticity within the pop-punk resurgence. When artists, particularly those with significant industry support, adopt the aesthetics and sounds of pop punk, questions arise regarding their commitment to the grassroots ethos that has traditionally defined the genre. The call for authenticity becomes more prominent as pop punk, historically rooted in DIY culture, witnesses a resurgence on mainstream platforms. Similarly, accusations of plagiarism directed at Olivia Rodrigo underscore the delicate balance between homage and appropriation within the pop-punk landscape. While artists like Rodrigo contribute to the genre’s renewed popularity, the scrutiny surrounding issues of originality emphasizes the importance of approaching pop punk with a deep understanding of its roots and respecting its fundamental elements.
Gender Roles and Traditional Narrative
Despite Olivia Rodrigo’s undeniable popularity, the prevailing perception of pop punk remains predominantly led by males, with prominent figures like Machine Gun Kelly, the rapper turned punk, and social media star Lil Huddy taking center stage. The genre’s historical association with male-dominated bands from the ’90s and ’00s continues to shape public perception, reinforcing a narrative that upholds traditional gender roles within the pop-punk scene. Sophie K, a co-host of On Wednesdays We Wear Black, provides a critical perspective on the industry’s approach to the pop-punk resurgence. She suggests that record labels, in their pursuit of gauging the marketability of pop punk, may have conducted what she humorously terms a “dick test.” It implies systematic experimentation with male artists to determine the genre’s commercial viability before gradually incorporating female artists. The perceived reluctance to embrace diversity within the pop-punk resurgence is reflected in the initial emphasis on white male artists, such as Yungblud and Machine Gun Kelly, before gradually expanding to include figures like Rodrigo and Willow, who bring a broader spectrum of racial and ethnic backgrounds to the forefront.
Sophie K’s observation highlights the industry’s cautious approach to reshaping the image of pop punk. The intentional selection of artists based on gender and race prompts questions about the industry’s commitment to genuine inclusivity. It raises doubts about whether the experimentation with diverse artists is driven by a desire for authentic representation or merely influenced by market trends. Despite the ongoing debates and perceptions surrounding pop punk’s resurgence, mainstream acts like Olivia Rodrigo undeniably possess the potential to inspire a new generation of young women, reminiscent of how Disney rock artists did for the previous generation. The cyclical nature of influence within pop culture becomes apparent as each era introduces its trailblazing figures, shaping the aspirations and identities of young fans.
Inclusivity Through Language Choices
Taking a distinctive approach to their music, Meet Me @ the Altar deliberately avoids swearing words in their songs as a strategic move to appeal to parents. This decision stands in stark contrast to the explicit language often associated with punk songs titled Dirty Rotten Bastards and Dick Lips. It reflects a thoughtful effort to create a space that is both inclusive and accessible to a broader audience. The band’s consideration extends beyond musical preferences; it also takes into account the comfort and approval of parents, who may influence their younger fans’ choices. While the choice to avoid explicit language may seem contrary to the rebellious spirit traditionally linked with punk, Meet Me @ the Altar remains steadfast in its commitment to inclusivity. Edith Johnson, a band member, emphasizes their dedication to creating a welcoming environment. She expresses concern about a scenario where a young girl might be prevented from attending their show due to appropriateness concerns. Johnson states, “If a little girl was not allowed to go to our show because her mum was like: ‘It is a bit inappropriate for you,’ we just lost an important girl.” This commitment underscores the band’s dedication to ensuring that their music is accessible and resonant across diverse demographics.
With the anticipation of a new album on the horizon this year, the revived energy within the pop-punk landscape resonates harmoniously with Fefe Dobson’s excitement. Dobson, a figure who faced challenges and setbacks in her earlier career, now feels revitalized by the resurging enthusiasm within the genre. Her statement, “It has reignited a fire in me, for sure,” succinctly captures the profound impact that the current wave of pop punk has had on artists who have been integral to its evolution. This time around, there is a tangible sense that the momentum within pop punk is all-encompassing, leaving no one behind. The genre’s resurgence appears to be more inclusive and expansive, welcoming a diverse array of artists and voices. The shared passion and engagement with pop punk, evident among both established figures like Dobson and emerging talents, contribute to a vibrant and evolving narrative that transcends generational and stylistic boundaries.
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