Rock and Roll Is Dead (May it Never Die): A Pop Revival Primer, Epilogue

Well, guys this is it.

I mean it. The very month, February 2014, is probably the end of Pop Revival as a viable genre. Most of the time, genres fizzle out, get buried beneath some new hot sound, or drag on for years beyond their natural lifespans; the point being, when genres die, people usually don’t notice.

Then, in a month that isn’t even over, three things happened. Dum Dum Girls released Too True, an album that stayed true to the attitude that made them a hit, while happily abandoning the original sound. Then, Vivian Girls performed their last show ever; saying as much themselves before pounding out a rocking set, and getting their pictures taken, sweaty and visibly shaken.

Third, Arctic Monkeys won best band and best album at the BRIT awards. Not living in Great Britain myself, I don’t know whether their win was expected, but it definitely wasn’t warranted. AM was a thoroughly mediocre affair that awkwardly utilized hip-hop beats; the few songs that didn’t get that treatment were alright. But then they came up to accept their award.

Immediately this was called “controversy,” and though it wasn’t immediately clear why, it soon began to make sense. Arctic Monkeys had been on a lot of minds leading up to the awards. Actor Robert Webb wondered aloud “didn’t Arctic Monkeys use to sound Northern?” Indeed, the band has lived out most of its existence in the Mojave Desert, and Alex Turner’s speech revealed an attitude that’s normal in America– hell, it’s cliché in America. The desire to keep British music British is understandable, but something has broken there.

All the way back in 2006, when Arctic Monkeys first infested the airwaves, the next big thing was being born. In returning to the pop standards of the 1960s, Pop Revival was finding a way forward. It had birthed something totally new, a defining sound for a new era. Nobody could have known when this decade began, but it was coming. It was coming from Los Angeles, from Perth, from rural Virginia, from Aix-en-Provence. In short, it was coming from everywhere but Britain.

To be continued…

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“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~

“Don’t Look Back:” A Pop Revival Primer, Part III (2010)

Living in 2010 it was easy to see that things were changing. Florence and the Machine had a hit album; Mad Men was finally getting the mainstream attention it deserved. Straight storytelling was taking the place of stand-up comedy, wayfarers had replaced aviators as the sunglass of the masses, and neon was king again.

It was a victory for good taste, but at the same time America saw the debut of Ke$ha, Jersey Shore, and those weird shoes with the toes. To be a hipster meant living with the fear that every new and exciting cultural phenomenon would be quietly crushed. But they weren’t.

The term Pop Revival was coined by the Fling in May of 2010, who described their sound as sixties pop mixed with nineties technology. In faraway Australia, Dream Pop* was being born. And driven by Mad Men, the aesthetic style of the 1960s came back in a big way. Television had displaced radio as a cultural catalyst, and the success of Pop Revival owes as much to Don Draper as it does to Alex Turner, Jon Fratelli, Cassie Ramone, or Ezra Koenig.

Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of the action.

*The term “dream pop” is thirty years old, but the original usage relates the the same naming problem that gave us the troublesome terms “post-punk,” “new wave,” and worst of all “indie.” If you are curious what the problem is, I can explain it all in the comments.

“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.

“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.

Vampire Weekend – “M79”

When: November 2009
Where: My student apartment at SF State
Who: Possibly my roommate
Weather: Cool, clear

Vampire Weekend had loomed over me for at least a year. My first roommate, the more eclectic of the two so far, had their album, and at least one of the guys pirated it back in high school. Probably Marc Meehan.

But I was faced with the challenge of coming back into contemporary, 2009 society from a long hibernation, and thanks to a recommendation from the MacQuarrie sisters I started here. I also started listening to SF’s local rock station Live 105, which was somewhat better than KROQ down south but still in the same vein.

I was coming back from buying groceries at the Stonestown Trader Joe’s while listening to this song, and as I returned to my room the same song was playing. I smiled approvingly. I was already on my way.

Next: Was Flight of the Conchords darker, or was I?

Travis – “Selfish Jean”

When: after sunset, 24 May 2007
Where: Westbound on East Orange Grove Boulevard
Who: My mom
Weather: Warm, clear

By the end of the school year, I’d come to realize I was on a roll. I had accomplished everything I wanted to do; I’d published some films (well, a vlog, but you have to start somewhere) and established a stage persona. I’d chosen a college, passed my SAT’s with flying colors, I’d been in a goddamn tornado, and I had a schedule. Now I was coming into school an hour early. Maybe I’d go out for breakfast, maybe I’d just like the peace and quiet of an empty bus and library. I could have gone either way.

It was during my morning downtime that I discovered something amazing– the Cold War was back on. I’d heard rumors after the Polonium incident, but this was thrilling news. By now the Cold War was a nostalgic memory, more straightforward and understandable than what we were going through at the time. I got my analysis on the situation from The Daily Show, which I watched every morning with my friend Wyatt. This led me to Demetri Martin, which led me to this:

I watched it when I woke up, before dawn. I couldn’t get it out of my head, but I didn’t care. This was a different kind of song. Rather than a soaring quality, painful angst or a certain sleaze, it was fun. It was like a feather. It could have been at home in the early sixties, and there was nothing else like it out there. Today we call that pop revival, but it won’t show up again here for a long, long time.

When I got home, I downloaded it, before meeting some friends in Lamanda Park. As my mom picked me up, we passed the globular street lamps of the wide boulevard, the song enveloping the car, and thinking, “this would be a great season finale.” I was living my dream, however modest it was, and wasn’t going to stop any time soon. But before the real weirdness kicked in, I at least had that moment of accomplishment. I had become the man I wanted to be, the man for his time and place. For the first time, I was proud to be me.

Next: Soaring guitars have their downside.