“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.

~s~

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“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.