“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.

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“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.

Metric – “Help I’m Alive”

When: 28 November 2009
Where: Font Boulevard, San Francisco
Who: My mom
Weather: Cold, windy

My mom came up to see me after Thanksgiving, and knowing I would never go there myself, I asked if she was interested in going to San Jose. Nobody wants to go to San Jose except me, and only then because I’d been once before but didn’t have time to check everything out– I was busy.

But actually getting there felt like trespassing. I walked around self-consciously, almost expecting to be caught. It was a familiar feeling that wore off with time. This song was on a lot; I hadn’t listened to the radio so regularly as I had in the car that day, and I must have heard it three times, a fact I pointed out repeatedly because my mom continued to insist she’d never heard it before.

Next: The bad times will continue, but the ugly times are almost over.

MGMT – “Kids”

When: 28 May 2009
Where: The southbound 605
Who: Assorted people
Weather: Mild

I was invited to a beach party by the girlfriend of an old neighborhood friend, and I decided to go. Unexpectedly I found myself with more than a few girls I’d known from middle school, but the Pasadena area catholic school circuit is a small world.

That spring was my britpop phase and I was on my way out, but it was a shock to hear contemporary music on the way down to Orange County. They alternated between KIIS-FM and KROQ, and was surprised to hear this song. Wasn’t it already pretty old? The whole ordeal made me feel very out of place, and I decided that once I got my composure and got back to San Francisco, I’d make more of an effort to be in touch with current culture.

It would be a while.

Next: “Take it on the run.”

Kaiser Chiefs with Lily Allen – “Always Happens Like That”

When: January 2009
Where: Gold Line southbound (Lake Station)
Who: Assorted strangers
Weather: Mild

Welcome to 2009. I should warn you that things are gonna get rough. The decade from hell might be at a close, but they’re going out with a bang. The economy is getting worse. Jersey Shore is premiering, and Dubstep has taken over the world. What little quality music does exist for the “hipster” crowd is high-pitched and difficult. And despite the fact that everyone seems to enjoy my company, I’m far from having a good time, at least until November.

I had almost all of January off for winter break, and I spent it as an intern at The Young Turks. Mostly, I filled out Excel spreadsheets, but occasionally I selected music and got to meet famous people. Like the Evolution of Dance guy.

But it felt wrong. I didn’t belong there. And I was didn’t know how to feel about a broham like Cenk, who I’d only previously known through my computer screen and a few chance encounters. “I’m sick of doing fucking pop culture stories,” Ana said to Dave when she didn’t know I was listening. I couldn’t blame her; the pop culture segments are to me the most depressing part of the show. On the other hand, I got to be there for the Obama inauguration, and occasionally showed up onscreen, so I’d probably speak more favorably of the experience at the time.

Anyway, I had a very long daily commute, so I had plenty of time to listen to albums, but this song gave me pause.

“That looks like a letter that I don’t want to open.” Sounded like a personal warning. My mom claimed she got my grades in the mail from college. She was thankfully wrong.

The Kooks – “Come on Down”

When: late August 2008
Where: Stairwell, Mary Ward Hall, SF State University
Who: Nobody.
Weather: Contemptuously cold and windy, with fog and no heater

“Where do you think this relationship is going?” The eight scariest words I had ever heard.

In the immortal words of Popeye Wynn, “Shit, I just got here.”

So we were on a break now. Jeannie was spooked that I helped her move into her dorm. She mistook my effort to do the right thing as an act of creepiness, which nobody I know can understand. My efforts to figure it out at the time only made things worse.

And the question was completely out of the blue. So she let me off easy. We were on a break. But not really. After every effort I’d put in to get this far, up to San Francisco, only to have it blow up on the second day. It went badly, and I spent the remainder of the week in a sour mood. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to The Kooks for a very long time.

My confidence hadn’t worn off, but suddenly I felt as if I had no reason to be at SF State.

But I thought to myself, “shit, I just got here,” and I stayed anyway. It went badly.

Next: The SF Years.

The Kooks – “Tick of Time”

When: 18 July 2008
Where: Mountain View-Winchester (VTA) northbound
Who: My girlfriend at the time
Weather: Warm, clear

One of the few songs that will make me cry.

I was planning a sojurn up to San Jose to see my girlfriend when I dropped my wallet on the ARTS bus. I was wearing a mischievous pair of pants with wide pockets, and things often fell out. As soon as I realized what happened, I called ARTS dispatch so I could pick it up. Of course, I had to walk.

On the bus ride back from retrieving it, I just flat-out lost it. No sign. Two weeks later, all of the contents of the wallet were found in a post office miles away in Sierra Madre. The wallet itself was gone.

So I found myself without a wallet, still sick to my stomach from stress, riding the long, slow Coast Starlight. All I did was listen to music and watch The Colbert Report on the way up. My cell phone was old, and lost battery fast. We arrived at San Jose late at night; and the weekend that followed was pure bliss. I got to meet Jeannie’s friends, family, her sister’s fiancée who was worryingly reminiscent of Tobias Fünke. And I’d never thought I’d love San Jose itself, but I did.

We were riding the streetcar up to Mountain View for lunch when I put this song on my iPod. I’d been thinking about it for months; how perfect it was that this was the song. It was our song. I gave her an earphone and she leaned against me. And then my phone rang. My cat died. But it was a long time coming and I didn’t let it get in the way. Right there, it was just about perfect.

Next: And now, for real this time.