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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“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.

“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.