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…

“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.