“Meet Me in the City:” A Pop Revival Primer, Part IV (2011)

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While Vivian Girls continued in their success, their position as critical darlings had been taken forcefully in late 2010 by another girl group, Dum Dum Girls. They were louder in both sound and sight, and more importantly, they were from Los Angeles, not New York.

Los Angeles had the nation’s foremost indie music station in KCRW, an NPR affiliate, at a time when New York no longer had even a rock station. It had The Echo, a small but venerable modern-day version of Manchester’s Haçienda. And nearby Pasadena had a new music festival, now poised to be one of the most important in America. So it is no surprise that Los Angeles rapidly became the new center of the genre.

As local scenes became more diffuse, national exposure became more diffucult. La Sera is a great band, but its first album, immensely popular in the scattered western cities, was so obscure in Chicago that the AV Club only managed to write about them once the second had come out. They’re doing much better now, but it’s telling that even their most recent tour was most concentrated in California.

Though Pop Revival today is at its peak of popularity, it is limited by a problem of parochialism. It is dominated by local bands, popular in their native region and among a handful of devotees elsewhere. Every once in a while, a Gotye or Grouplove will achieve nationwide success but few other bands will.

This is a challenge to every prominent music genre today, except for Dubstep, which the behemoth record labels took as their own: Mumford and Sons have made it big in bluegrass while Trampled by Turtles remain a purely midwestern phenomenon. In the days before the internet, keeping in touch with contemporary culture meant living in (a) New York, (b) Chicago, or (c) wherever the music was being made. Now the music is being made everywhere,* and it’s getting awful crowded.

Ironically, the band that stands to dominate Pop Revival nationwide is Best Coast, who have made a veritable gimmick of their provincialism. The title track off most recent release, The Only Place, was described by KCRW as sounding “as if it had been written by the California tourist board.” The reviewer said that’s what he loved about it, but for others that was they hated. The rest of the album is good though.

Next time: Number-ones are made as a genre reaches its peak– and gets its first villain.

*The sole exception to this appears to be Northern New England, which is culturally silent. Probably for the better in a region where Keane is still taken seriously.

“Don’t Look Back:” A Pop Revival Primer, Part III (2010)

Living in 2010 it was easy to see that things were changing. Florence and the Machine had a hit album; Mad Men was finally getting the mainstream attention it deserved. Straight storytelling was taking the place of stand-up comedy, wayfarers had replaced aviators as the sunglass of the masses, and neon was king again.

It was a victory for good taste, but at the same time America saw the debut of Ke$ha, Jersey Shore, and those weird shoes with the toes. To be a hipster meant living with the fear that every new and exciting cultural phenomenon would be quietly crushed. But they weren’t.

The term Pop Revival was coined by the Fling in May of 2010, who described their sound as sixties pop mixed with nineties technology. In faraway Australia, Dream Pop* was being born. And driven by Mad Men, the aesthetic style of the 1960s came back in a big way. Television had displaced radio as a cultural catalyst, and the success of Pop Revival owes as much to Don Draper as it does to Alex Turner, Jon Fratelli, Cassie Ramone, or Ezra Koenig.

Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of the action.

*The term “dream pop” is thirty years old, but the original usage relates the the same naming problem that gave us the troublesome terms “post-punk,” “new wave,” and worst of all “indie.” If you are curious what the problem is, I can explain it all in the comments.

“The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance:” A Pop Revival Primer, Part II (2008-09)

Cassie Ramone (left), Frankie Rose, Katy Goodman. Courtesy of The A.V. Club.

2008 was a strange year for music. The New Wave revivalists were on their way out, and many bands began to experiment. Among them were Pop Revival pioneers Vampire Weekend and The Last Shadow Puppets, the latter being a side project by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. But those were just one of many incipient movments that were touted as the next big thing. By December music critics were declaring 2008 a disappointment, but this is the year when Pop Revival truly began.

Vampire Weekend and The Last Shadow Puppets would never have been connected in the public consciousness of that time, the former aping Paul Simon and a few others, the latter seen more as a goof loosely attached to the more “important” work of Arctic Monkeys. But both were critically acclaimed, and anticipated the flood of new bands that began that year.

Vivian Girls, like Vampire Weekend, were from New York City, but while Vampire Weekend were Manhattan beaus, the Vivans were from Williamsburg, an ultra-hip Brooklyn neighbourhood that rose to national prominence during the screenwriters’ strike of 2007-08. When the TVs went off, Williamsburg provided America’s entertainment, and it is perhaps because of that national exposure that the Vivian Girls set the standard for what Pop Revival should sound like. As for the girls themselves, we’ll get back to them later.

If the Vivian Girls were Pop Revival’s answer to Joy Division, The Like was A Certain Ratio. They had originally been new wavers from the mid-2000s, but they are infamous today for their tour opening for Arctic Monkeys in 2009. The Like weren’t booed because of their music. Elizabeth Berg always opened one of her songs with “Do you ever find yourself in a room and think to yourself, ‘I’ve dated all of you!?'” They were still hampered by the noughties mentality that the people watching were trying to put behind them. What’s more, they were the children of music industry royalty, signed to a record label with shitty post-grunge bands, representing everything Arctic Monkeys weren’t. They had the right sound but the wrong idea.

Though it now had a sound, the term “Pop Revival” still hadn’t been coined. That would arrive with a new decade, one that would see the genre and all its attachments explode in popularity. It was also a decade when popular music’s newest challenge would actually be a very old problem.

“A Certain Romance:” A Pop Revival Primer, Part I (2006-08)

If you look at the rock landscape of the mid-2000s, you might be confused. Sluggish post-grunge continued to be pumped out by the big record companies, but most everyone had moved on to sneering pop-punk, twee, and garage rock revival. Indie stations liked to play New Wave revivalists and Dance Punks like Franz Ferdinand, which received little airplay but were frequently heard in film and television. At this point in the decade, film and television were dictating musical tastes in a way radio no longer could. If this sounds like complete chaos, it wasn’t. The boundaries between genres–and the people listening–would never be more clear than they were then.

Pop Revival is the result; a genre blending classic pop and rock with contemporary sensibility. Pop Revival had the good fortune of sharing a common aesthetic with other cultural phenomena–Mad Men, American Apparel, Tumblr–that arrived just at the right time. But back in 2006, the future of rock wasn’t nearly as certain.

I say 2006 because to understand the genre you must understand two bands, both of which debuted that year. Arctic Monkeys began in the same vein as the “Rock is Back” bands of a few years earlier, but early on they possessed a defiantly “retro” touch that got stronger with time. Arctic Monkeys also made history as the first band to become a huge success by giving their music away for free. Not only did it number the days of Sony and their ilk, it demolished the wall between the band and the audience. Whereas bands in previous eras were untouchable Olympians in gold mansions, it would be no great surprise to turn a corner in your own town and see Alex Turner buying potatoes. Rock stars became musicians, idolatry was now admiration.

While Arctic Monkeys had more name recognition, The Fratellis were a sleeper hit. In the six years since their first album Costello Music was released, I’ve heard no fewer than six of its tracks scattered across innumerable movies and television shows. But more than success, The Fratellis had a look, an unforgettable aesthetic typified not only by Costello Music‘s content, but it’s album art:

Most of all, these two bands had heart. In the decade that gave us Apple Bottoms, The Pussycat Dolls, and Paris Hilton, The Fratellis said “no, not us,” and reminded the world that it was possible to be sexy, not slutty, even while the Arctic Monkeys bemoaned that the chavs had taken over in their epic song “A Certain Romance.”

Arctic Monkeys and the Fratellis arrived long after the other garage rockers, making them fresh voices in a declining genre which the smart set, the early hipsters, propelled to runaway success.

While Arctic Monkeys helped create Pop Revival, the transition into a new genre was not smooth. Their third album Humbug, as well as the back half of Favourite Worst Nightmare, tell the story of a band looking for direction as its contemporaries fall by the wayside (the Fratellis broke up in 2009). Luckily, other bands arrived to pick up the slack.

Next time: Neomodernism comes to New York.