“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.

Franz Ferdinand – “Dark of the Matinee”

When: January 2005
Where: Montebello Route 20
Who: Several classmates
Weather: Cold, raining

During the storm, I’d started the habit of keeping my discman in my backpack for the long trips back and forth from school. I was on the way back when I was absorbing Franz Ferdinand, passing by the Avon factory when this song suddenly stood out from the rest. Possibly because I’d never heard it before, possibly because I had.

Every other Saturday, my Algebra teacher offered math help, and I needed it. I’m not a math person, and my father has always resented my inability to perform calculus from a young age, which is strange because he is not Jewish, Arab, or Asian. And I heard it again.

When I say it was raining, I mean it had not stopped raining since before he took me to Devil’s Gate a week earlier. For the most part, it wouldn’t stop for a long time.

Next: Here comes the sun (for fifteen minutes)

Franz Ferdinand – “Take Me Out”

When: May 2004
Where: Foothill Boulevard westbound between Highway 19 and Michillinda Avenue.
Who: My mother
Weather: Hot, dry

And so we have arrived at the end of middle school. The first time I heard this song, it was brand new and I hadn’t heard anything like it. Suddenly I had a feeling where things were going musically.

The second time I heard it was a few weeks later on the way to graduation. I’d brought my friend Chris Macquarrie as a guest and we arrived mid-song. I imagined us walking into the Santa Anita Church in slow motion to it. After a particularly awful rendition of “Drive” by Incubus I was out there with my classmates. It was over, I was going to Bosco.

I don’t know what it is about my memory that makes the first half of the year seem so colorful. I can remember sunsets with purple and green, and it’s possible I wasn’t imagining it, because many of my drawings from that time show the same thing. It was a good time to be fourteen. After graduation, my family, Chris and I went to Bella Italia to celebrate. The Lakers were playing, and Chris was not enthused. “We’re all Americans,” he said, missing the point. The Lakers wouldn’t win the playoffs this year either.

Next: The final goodbye (for now)