“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.


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.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Red Eyes and Tears”

When: After dark, 15 October 2008
Where: Stonestown Galleria
Who: Nobody
Weather: Cold, foggy

The situation with Caitlin hadn’t gone well. I’d invited her to see Christian Lander in the Haight, but she never got back to me. To SF natives, the Haight is the most loathed neighborhood in the city, not because it’s dangerous, but because relatives from out-of-town will always ask you to take them there, and there isn’t much to see. Christian Lander was super-cool.

My rebound lasted about half as long as my first relationship, and even then we never saw each other. It’s a peculiarity of this short window of time that I had the lingering confidence to hold onto her for so long, but for no real reason. My dreams of dating a Jewish girl were dashed, and my thoughts returned to Jeannie, constantly crossing my path, refusing to fade into myth like the others, and I always fell into the trap of pining for her all over again.

Instead, I decided to take on some of the music of San Francisco, something that would cheer me up, and naturally I picked Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The first time I listened to the album, I had extreme difficulty picking it up again, but I could never forget that initial spin. I took a walk outside, unprepared in my windbreaker for the cold and dark of the furthest, most inhospitable edge of San Francisco that one could imagine. I wandered into the mall, not seeing anyone or anything of interest, The words repeated over and over I began to feel sick before the song descended into a dark, dizzying jangle of mad guitars.

Next: A dream of Thanksgiving

The Vines – “Landslide”

When: February 2008
Where: My house
Who: Nobody
Weather: Cold, raining

I believe I’ve referenced Monkees equals Monkees before. It’s the game where you match a band to a TV show based on time period, popularity, critical approval, longevity and overall aesthetic soul. I didn’t know anything about Chuck Klosterman’s game, but almost exactly a year from this point, I would.

I bring this up to say that perhaps no TV show is so perfectly comparable to The Vines than Heroes. Both drew me in at their peak, before gradually devolving into a complete mess. Heroes’ second season was already over due to the WGA strike, now entering its fourth month. And while that season had been inferior, I still wanted more in the hope that I could get something good out of it. Hence “Landslide.”

One morning before dawn, I was sitting at my mom’s computer jonesing for more Vines when this song showed up. It was only a piece of the song but I couldn’t stop listening. Furthermore, it was only available on the other side of the Pacific, so I sent away for the Japanese EP Ride with the Vines! It was a fair disappointment, but my inner fanboy denied it for a surprisingly long time.

Next: One last chance at an inside joke.

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.

The Strokes – “Someday”

When: 16 December 2007
Where: My dad’s car
Who: My dad
Weather: Cold, intermittently cloudy

“And now my fears, they come to me in threes.” I’d heard the song countless times for years, but it never struck me the way it did that icy December. It was the sound of things getting worse. It was the sound of the horrible feeling in your stomach when you feel as if the walls are closing in. And, considering the timeframe, it was just about perfect.

Older people had always complained that Bosco lacked unity, that we as a school disparate and apathetic, but while the school’s rapidlt declining state left something to be desired, as students we had never felt closer. To the outside world that was all that mattered; so long as we wore our ties and said intellient things, people thought highly of us.

We were like-minded, mostly in good standing, and no girls to fight over. It came as a shock to the state government how open we were to gays; California public schools at the time might as well have been Saudi Arabia. We made money off each other, we gambled, we got along. And it was at this most crucial moment that everyone started dropping dead.

First it was Victoria in the front office, cancer. And then Brother Gene, cancer again. Coach Yurak was old, to me was just an irritable eccentric, a real Ron Swanson type, but he turned out to be much more, and when he died there was a big outpouring but it wasn’t completely unexpected. Two weeks later, my design teacher of four years died. Alex Chavez was 32, with more friends than you could count, a young son, and an undiagnosed heart defect. For him, we broke out the green ribbons. We didn’t sell them, we just gave them out. It started to feel as if anyone could go, and he wasn’t the last.

People showed up to his funeral from the old days, film club, old teachers, even Mrs. Plummer, who was supposed to be my english teacher back in freshman year but left. I couldn’t make it to the burial. Tomorrow was the beginning of finals. As my Dad picked me up, it played on the radio. A song of desperation hidden behind careful hooks and Motown-style production.

“And now my fears, they come to me in threes.”