Rock and Roll Is Dead (May it Never Die): A Pop Revival Primer, Epilogue

Well, guys this is it.

I mean it. The very month, February 2014, is probably the end of Pop Revival as a viable genre. Most of the time, genres fizzle out, get buried beneath some new hot sound, or drag on for years beyond their natural lifespans; the point being, when genres die, people usually don’t notice.

Then, in a month that isn’t even over, three things happened. Dum Dum Girls released Too True, an album that stayed true to the attitude that made them a hit, while happily abandoning the original sound. Then, Vivian Girls performed their last show ever; saying as much themselves before pounding out a rocking set, and getting their pictures taken, sweaty and visibly shaken.

Third, Arctic Monkeys won best band and best album at the BRIT awards. Not living in Great Britain myself, I don’t know whether their win was expected, but it definitely wasn’t warranted. AM was a thoroughly mediocre affair that awkwardly utilized hip-hop beats; the few songs that didn’t get that treatment were alright. But then they came up to accept their award.

Immediately this was called “controversy,” and though it wasn’t immediately clear why, it soon began to make sense. Arctic Monkeys had been on a lot of minds leading up to the awards. Actor Robert Webb wondered aloud “didn’t Arctic Monkeys use to sound Northern?” Indeed, the band has lived out most of its existence in the Mojave Desert, and Alex Turner’s speech revealed an attitude that’s normal in America– hell, it’s cliché in America. The desire to keep British music British is understandable, but something has broken there.

All the way back in 2006, when Arctic Monkeys first infested the airwaves, the next big thing was being born. In returning to the pop standards of the 1960s, Pop Revival was finding a way forward. It had birthed something totally new, a defining sound for a new era. Nobody could have known when this decade began, but it was coming. It was coming from Los Angeles, from Perth, from rural Virginia, from Aix-en-Provence. In short, it was coming from everywhere but Britain.

To be continued…

“How Far We’ve Come:” A Pop Revival Primer, Part V (2012)

Sam France

In 2012, Pop Revival finally acquired mainstream attention. Bands of the genre were performing on talk shows, featured on magazine covers and the soundtracks to MTV’s more bohemian-minded series. Not since the heady, “Rock is Back” media push ten years prior had a subgenre of Rock and Roll so forcefully (but far less forcibly) arrived in the general consciousness. What’s more, Pop Revival in 2012 achieved what Garage Rock Revival never did: a number-one American single.

Of course, “Somebody I Used to Know” is not a song terribly indicative of Gotye or Pop Revival in general. But it was #1 for 8 weeks, and by the end cover versions were already being heard on the radio. In a period of regionalism and the decline of the music industry, when the best hope of a hit single was pure novelty, that meant something serious. It was one of perhaps three songs that year that absolutely everyone heard. But there were also trade-offs.

When a genre is in its infancy, it’s easy to pick and choose the best artists to represent it, but when popularity comes knocking, there’s a great fear among tastemakers that people will mostly choose the most artificial and unfortunate one of the lot. Just as Grunge had Temple of the Dog, just as the British Invasion had Herman’s Hermits, pop revival would get its first great villain.

Lana del Rey a.k.a. Lizzy Grant was an obscure but well-received 2010 album; unsurprisingly the titular artist re-released it after her second album, Born to Die, was panned by critics in a manner ranging from mildly favourable to startlingly vicious. Born to Die had none of the emotion of the original Lana del Rey; and amidst new rumours of plastic surgery and an unexpectedly dreadful performance on Saturday Night Live, Lana del Rey would serve as a shibboleth to distinguish Pop Revival’s newest fans from the rest.

Meanwhile, Best Coast released their second, (mostly) darker album, establishing Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno as the faces of Pop Revival worldwide. La Sera performed two tours and released a second album that was met with praise in the Western US and a footnote everywhere else. LA newcomers Allah-Las found a similar challenge with regionalism, though they did have an unexpected run-in with current events.

So what will come of 2013?

As discussed before, Pop Revival is the rare (perhaps only) non-niche branch of rock music dominated by female singers, leading AV Clubber Jonathan Shapiro to write: “There’s a huge number of amazing bands with female lead singers right now. If only today’s male vocalists didn’t sound so bland and interchangeable.” Mr. Shapiro’s complaint may have been answered this past July:

I first saw Foxygen open for Magic Trick, who opened for La Sera. The band comprises Jonathan Rado and Sam France, with accompaniment by Rado’s girlfriend Jaclyn Cohen (I very nearly hit on her earlier that night). Rado is a consummate professional and France is a flamboyant force of reckoning onstage. But all I could think of as I watched them perform was “they’re going to do really well when they transition to Dream Pop.

This is probably it, you see. This is where Pop Revival peaks. It’s daughter genre Dream Pop is already coming into its own and winning the hearts of critics and listeners through bands like Tame Impala and Wild Nothing. And as pop revival begins its inevitable decline, there will be a band who will, as Arctic Monkeys did seven years ago, lead us into the next step in Rock’s evolution. Foxygen may be that band.


“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.

Arctic Monkeys – Dance Little Liar

When I came back to SF, I already had my ticket to see Arctic Monkeys at the Fox Theater. They were one of the defining bands of my high school years, and I wanted to see them before they ran out of whatever creative energy they had left (as it turned out, quite a lot).

I got advance word from someone who saw them down south that the opening act was terrible. I didn’t agree, but I can say that The Like had the coldest reception of any opening band I’d ever encountered. It was extraordinary. After that was a 45-minute wait for the guys to take the stage.

As I talked to a girl standing next to me, she noted that Nick O’Malley was “the new guy.” Neither of us knew that he’d always been in the band, and that Andy Nicholson left before “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” ever hit American radio. Finally they took to the stage, as seen above, and Matt Helders started wailing and Alex Turner started crooning, and I was covered in beer and sweat and everything was as it should have been.

Arctic Monkeys are a band you see live.

Next: The Scene that Celebrates Itself

Arctic Monkeys – “Secret Door”

When: September 2009
Where: SF State, below the Cesar Chavez Center
Who: Nobody
Weather: Extremely foggy

Humbug was another dense, inaccessible album from 2009. In the face of the same hyperproduced late-noughties wilderness period that brought us Passion Pit, Arctic Monkeys retreated into the comfortable embrace of Josh Homme and his Palm Desert Sound. It can be argued whether or not the album is a failure, but I was going to see them in concert; I had to keep my hopes high.

Next: I am pleasantly surprised.

The Clash – “Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)”

When: 2 May 2008
Where: Lake Avenue at Walnut
Who: Nobody
Weather: Warm, clear

Considering she lived 300 miles away, Jeannie was the perfect high school girlfriend. She wasn’t the kind of girl I imagined being with up to that point, but I hadn’t really known or cared until I met someone who loved Arctic Monkeys as much as I did. She introduced me to a whole new concept– one-season wonders. It was she who introduced me to Firefly, and Pushing Daisies was still on, but she was certain it would be canceled. It was just that good, she said. It had to go.

Another thing we had in common was Doctor Who– everybody at my high school watched it, but we were an unusual bunch. I hadn’t imagined that what had previously been a cult phenomenon in the US might now have a further reach. I didn’t have cable at home, so I went to my Bubby’s on South Lake to watch it. It was Series Four– not the greatest moment of the show, but a valued experience nonetheless. But it was late at night, and Pasadena was going through a crime wave.

I cautiously made my way home nonetheless, and as I was going through my Clash phase, Sandinista was my soundtrack of choice. It was just about perfect, walking among the empty bank towers, listening closely to some of the creepier lines…

Next: “I am Gopher Boy, pondering reality.”

Arctic Monkeys – “No Buses”

When: Pre-dawn January 2008
Where: Sierra Madre Villa Station
Who: Nobody
Weather: Cold, wet

There I was, in the dark, waiting for the bus, when I pulled out my air-ukelele. Made everything much better.

After the Starbucks fiasco, my main concern was the primary election. Partly this was because of Obama’s upset in Iowa, partly because I treated elections like sport, partly because of my newfound interest in a show called The Young Turks, and mostly because Bosco is for gambling. My daily schedule was as followed:

Wake up at 4:30 AM, walk to the train, take the train to the bus, the bus to school, spend an hour in the library reading the Wall Street Journal and chatting with Jim Thompson, our school’s resident drunk (he kept a jug of vodka on his desk during class and it was awesome).

English class with Stremel the Republican Hipster, then free period courtesy of being a TA, during which I would either read, catch up on Lost or listen to RadioLab. Then lunch, then design with Big-Time Okeyo, and finally world religions with Jauregui, then home. A perfect blend of social time and solitude.

I was there at five in the morning, waiting for the bus, some drizzle left over that left black ice on the ground. Cenk Uygur was talking about Heath Ledger’s sudden death and posed a question: Accident or Suicide, which was more tragic?

I switched to music.

Next: The crowd is here.

Arctic Monkeys – “Do Me A Favour”

When: 5 January 2008
Where: Hastings Ranch Center
Who: Nobody
Weather: Raining

While the sense of brotherhood at Bosco had never been higher, one couldn’t blame me for wanting to think about other things. A month earlier, I’d noticed an article in the Star-News, written by my old friend Annie. It was about new-feminism and body image and the Rotary Club; it wasn’t totally lucid but it got my attention enough that I started to feel bad for blowing her off when her boyfriend dumped her in the eighth grade.

So, wondering what she was up to, I got a tip off my old science teacher and saw her at a local Starbucks’ where she worked. She told was embarrassed by the article, which she said she wrote in a fit of youthful rage that we’ve all had at some point.

When I came back the next week, the manager kicked me out and threatened to call the police. This was both horrifying and deeply, deeply confusing. I spent the rest of the morning moping around in the rain, listening to this album and a Radiolab special on Wagner’s Ring Cycle, neither of which improved my mood. I was horrified that an old friend would do such a horrible thing out of the blue, but for the most part my thought was “what the hell just happened!?” In the month or so following, my mind often wandered back to that incident.

It was deeply upsetting at the time, but of the five or so stories I usually tell at parties, people seem to want to hear this one the most. Because who the hell gets banned from Starbucks?

I do.

Next: Ukuleles in winter.

Arctic Monkeys – “Brianstorm”

When: April 2007
Where: My mom’s car, northbound on San Gabriel at Garvey on the way back from Parent-Teacher Conferences
Who: My mom
Weather: Warm, sunny

Jed the Fish again. “This is a band from Coachella,” he said. “It’s a very loud band. It’s Arctic Monkeys.” I was very confused. The Arctic Monkeys weren’t a Loud band!

Of course, they were very loud, but in 2007, “Loud,” capital L, was a genre, and garage rockers weren’t part of it. Metal was Loud. Post-Grunge. Loud music was supposed to be generic and ooze like molasses. Such had the term drifted that the loudest band on the radio wasn’t loud. It was indie. The danger of the nineties had come to pass; the terminology of music had drifted out of reality, and it wouldn’t change for a long time. But from then on, the Arctic Monkeys were loud.

Earlier that day, I visited the counselor’s office. My grades weren’t good, and certainly there was not enough money for me to attend any of the better film schools. But she disagreed.

“Have you considered San Francisco State?” she asked in an Oxford accent that suggested she was about to die. I had never heard of San Francisco State. But I’d just been in a tornado, and was compelled to make San Francisco State my first choice then and there, regardless of how little I knew about it.