Flowers in a Pop(ul)ist Paradigm

Spilled Reality, “One more on The 1975?”:

The 1975 bloomed late in pop critics’ multi-decade questioning of masculine-rockist values like authenticity and edginess. In the new pop(ul)ist paradigm, entertainment value and its near heuristic, melodic propulsion, are strong arguments for aesthetic quality in themselves. Authenticity is redefined, less a matter of sheer aesthetic originality (anxiety of influence) or economic identity (working class fetish) but of emotional confession or appearance thereof. The boolean fact of politicization, and the polarity of sympathy, matter more than the sophistication of approach. 

So as to not understate the extent to which high falutin taste in the pop-critical landscape has changed the past couple decades, here’s a description from Pitchfork that treats as failure the very qualities on which The 1975 is currently being lauded:

The Killers can’t figure a way to add resonance beyond adding more keyboards, more layered guitars, more cribbing of established tastemaking currency (check the intellectual-property-case-waiting-to-happen that is “Change Your Mind”)… fucking over an easily sippable blend of 80s and 90s British pop influences… lifestyle music for sheltered bloggers and female professionals who still wear cool hairstyles. But damnit if that demographic leaves little room for a life of The Killers’ own.

The Killers are just the latest band to be born too quick inside the popular music vacuum, where expectations for broad accessibility kill dudes’ potential for deeper creativity quite fabulously dead… Hot Fuss has no use for subtlety. It revels in its appearance as The Shit from day one, allowing for filler-type indulgences like the impossibly aimless—and quite possibly shitty—Everything Will Be Alright.

If there’s any act that would or should benefit from the shift toward a poptimist paradigm, it’s The Killers. Their biggest problem was always the lack of originality and bluecollar grit that comprised “keepin it real,” at least to the powers that be.

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People forget The Killers made an El Topo-inspired music video for a song that updates Bowie’s reflective “Time may change me” to a snotty defiant “changes ain’t changin’ me.” “All These Things That I’ve Done” opens with a supplication to God, what first appears to be existential humility (“Is there room for one more son?”) but is quickly unveiled as ambition (“I want to shine on in the hearts of men”). Sure, “I got soul but I’m not a soldier” pushes the track into campy territory, and the video’s mostly play-acting a Jodorowsky-inspired Hollywood set, but it’s at least as good as anything Lana or Matty are doing. At one point Flowers was Gaga-good at melody writing, and the lyrics—well, no one’s saying they’re not adolescent, but the passion of the delivery compensates.

“Mr. Brightside” is as psychologically complex as anything The Strokes put out, but that just earns them a cheap slam. Loftus is so busy haranguing the band for their commercial success that he can’t figure out a conceptual frame in which the sexy throb of “Brightside” fits its lyrical content. Naturally he dismisses the package: “[Brightside’s] relentless keyboard ‘n’ guitar racket shuns dourness altogether, as Flowers remarkably makes lines about a girlfriend getting off with some other guy resonate as some kind of weird triumph.”

Cue Mark Fisher doing psychoanalysis on Roxy Music:

[Bryan] Ferry’s sensibility is definitely Masochistic. (As opposed to that of the Sixties, which, as Nuttall, for one, suggests, was Sadean. Compare the Sixties-sired Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”—the Sadist apologizes—to Ferry’s reading of the song—the masochist sumptuously enjoying his own pain—for a snapshot of a contrast between the two sensibilities.)

“It was only a kiss, it was only a kiss” Flowers stammers, adrenaline pumping through the bassline, the combination channeling that weird chemical mix of arousal that gets read as desirable or repelling depending on context.

“Now they’re going to bed” escalates into full-blown sexual fantasy: “But she’s touching his…” Flowers is practically panting, ecstatic, as the pre-chorus kicks in “Chest now, he takes off her / dress now… [it’s] taking control.” Late-night alibis get described in terms of giving head, jealous nausea as a narcoleptic, and the constant promise of overcoming looms: “Gotta, gotta be down because I want it all.” Overcoming connotes surmounting, but it’s equally accomplished through tunneling, a boring straight to the other side. Flowers’ “eager eyes” await opening; revelation is the admission that confirms simultaneously his greatest fear & fantasy.

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Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town are a part of that great tradition of gothic overblowness, the rhapsodic songwriting and aesthetic decadence Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler and Queen excelled at. In the music video for “Mr. Brightside,” Flowers wears eye shadow and three-piece suits at an Eyes Wide Shut pleasure carnival, his religious and productive commitments facing off against his dionysian hometown. Wasn’t all this obvious at the time? It’s evidence as to just how large this schism in highbrow critical taste is—that old vanguard that spanned from Bangs and Marcus to Casablancas and Murphy, that propped up everyone from the Velvets to Patti Smith to Joy Division in the meantime. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.

The late oughts and early 2010s was a heyday for the critical recognition of major pop acts. But poptimism isn’t just a movement to establish Spears or Beyonce as worth of acclaim: it’s an attempt to dismantle an entire array of values like authenticity (i.e. a close relationship between public and private self), auteurship, grit, self-expression, and cool, that product of a kind of cultural-social gaming that maintains and perpetuates new social hierarchies and aristocracies, such that the cultural winner is chosen through competition and on the basis of his ability to turn himself into a desired but impossible-to-possess commodity. It’s to dismantle the kind of Nietzsche master morality of greatness where a cult of personality legitimizes power in a way bloodline no longer can.


All poptimism.