“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.

Franz Ferdinand – “Lucid Dreams”

When: Late January 2009
Where: Font Boulevard, San Francisco
Who: nobody
Weather: Cold

If I had to pick the defining song of 2009, that wasn’t by Lady GaGa, I’d easily pick “Sleepyhead” by Passion Pit. It’s a high-pitched, difficult song in a year of high-pitched, difficult songs. Electrified melodrama.

But the album version of “Lucid Dreams” went way beyond that. It took a normal pop song and electrified it to hell, made random key changes, switched around parts of the songs, and rearranged the lyrics from the single version. It’s buzzing and droning, screeching and beating. It’s like a waking nightmare when you have the flu.

It’s bloody brilliant.

Next: Exchanging records wasn’t about music.

Franz Ferdinand – “Outsiders”

When: 1 March 2006
Where: My house
Who: Nobody
Weather: Raining

I had Lost fever, and nothing could stop it. After watching a particularly fascinating episode, I took a shower, which not coincidentally is where I come up with most of my ideas when I write scripts. Probably because there’s nothing around to think about, and also because I always get my best ideas when I am unable to write them down.

Anyway, I was thinking about the episode, and this song just popped into my head. I had never thought too hard about it before, but my human mind, always searching for patterns, decided to put the two together. Suddenly, I loved this song and I had to hear it. I got out, put on my headphones and gave it many listens before I finally fell asleep.

As a side note, anyone who is interested in Television history should watch Lost. Even though the ending was a total cop-out, the concepts and style were revolutionary and extremely influential.

Next: Anarchism?

Franz Ferdinand – “Walk Away”

When: 15 November 2005
Where: Lake Station
Who: Nobody
Weather: near-freezing

At the end of October you were happy just to be able to wear a jacket. Aside from Thanksgiving, November in Southern California had no personality to speak of. That is, until I was old enough to go out in the dark.

It was after a particularly damning trek home that I found myself exiting Lake Station in total darkness– black skies, no stars, none but the homeless wandering about– and in the midst of listening to this song I began to replay the year in my head. The endless storm that nearly cost me my sanity. The labored infatuation I destroyed in the process. The girlfriend I tried to steal from a friend before someone else did. The many classes I’d nearly failed before rescuing myself at the last minute. The massive fight I’d started.

I began to wonder what horrible trouble I would get myself into in the year to come. I was accustomed to being short, weak, unsocialized, and humorless; and that November it didn’t once occurred to me that I wasn’t even like that anymore. I was tall, strong, nice. People liked me. I’d even developed the ability to make jokes on the spot. People liked having me around.

On the verge of turning sixteen, it was as if I had become a real, full person. But who was he? And what was his name?

Next: Birthdays.

The Killers – “On Top”

When: August 2005
Where: Somewhere on the central coast
Who: My bubby
Weather: Foggy
Book: The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

It was a good trip, despite the serious amount of bickering between my mother and myself, and it was clear that I shouldn’t go places with my family anymore. I think we got in a fight over the withdrawal from Gaza that was going on that very week. She went out for a walk that ended up taking a very long time, leaving me in the car with a book and my CD player. I was hungry. If you don’t know me, I’m very skinny, and must eat like crazy the moment I’m hungry. This was not great.

Next: What’s in the hatch?

The Killers – “All These Things That I’ve Done”

When: May 2005
Where: Classroom
Who: Several classmates
Weather: Cool, foggy
Book: Animal Farm

Mr. Ortiz came into class following a midnight showing of Revenge of the Sith.

“What was it like?”

He beamed. “Best of all Six.”

For a while, I bought it because of expctations. Unfortunately, the movie was only better than the other prequels because it what it didn’t fuck up. It wasn’t a bad thing to like Star Wars, but George Lucas certainly made it a lot harder. My appreciation wore off quickly. So whenever I think of this song, I remember the shared experience of my friends and I marveling at our lowered expectations. It isn’t bad.

Next: Aggravation

The Bravery – “An Honest Mistake”

When: April 2005
Where: Orange Grove Boulevard eastbound at Sierra Madre
Who: My mother
Weather: Cool, foggy

Somebody on KROQ was holding a contest for people who heard the song when it came on, and to explain what it was, somebody called in and sang it. It was embarrassing, and I began to tire of dance punk by anyone not called Franz Ferdinand.

Next: “Best of all six”