The 1975’s Brief Inquiry

1. The 1975

“One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T.S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover… [W]hat  perspective of culture is large enough to enable us to situate them in an enlightening relation to each other?”

—Clement Greenberg, “Avant Garde & Kitsch”

When I was nine or ten I heard “We Didn’t Start The Fire” in my grade-school music class and was assigned to write a poem in similar cadence. The bulk is lost but I remember clearly couplets like “George Bush/ brain mush” (it was 2004). Sentimental, then, to hear The 1975’s “Love It If We Made It”: “Consultation/ Degradation/ Fossil fuelling/ Masturbation/ Immigration/ Liberal kitsch/ Kneeling on a pitch.” This is Dombal’s “Anthem for Our Time,” a “mirror up to our collective faces.” Zoladz over at The Ringer calls it “one for the time capsule” right after mentioning the quoted lyrics took two years for Healy to write. Both Dombal and Zoladz seem the type who’d think the climate change scenes in Schrader’s First Reformed were its finest moments (and who couldn’t accept its ending in redemptive if wholly a-contemporary grace), where relating to the present and the political are inherently valuable as ends, aside from quality, nuance, or integratedness of commentary.

“Fucking in a car, shooting heroin / Saying controversial things just for the hell of it”—didn’t MGMT already sing that over a shimmery pop hook in “Time To Pretend”? Is the difference an ostensible Eric Garner reference? Is the Garner reference a jaw-dropping revelation that the lines’ tone is designed to be serious? (More important, is “Poison me daddy” a Phantom Thread reference?)

“Give Yourself A Try” opens well with a Bernard Sumner guitar riff and an appropriately delivered dried up man’o’rock act (“You learn a couple things when you get to my age […]/ Getting STD’s at 27 really isn’t the vibe”). But it blows it all up with a cotton-candy Postal Service chorus spouting self-love.

It’s fun there’s 2000s pop nostalgia on the record, but there’s also so much eighties that it just feels like one more throwback band, one more Foxygen-style costume-rock act except this time with a “Modernity has failed us” tagline to make the personal politically viable. Before anything else, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships appears to be a mixed-bag pop album full of aesthetic and political nostalgia. Sometimes compelling and charismatic, often generic, it invokes postmodernism as a shield to accusations of genericism or retro re-hashing. But one wonders if its claims to conceptual justification are like a knock-off clutch advertising wealth—an illusionary stamp of artistry which some critics have taken too quickly at face value.  

TOOTIMEis “an uppercrust appropriation of several other cooler musical styles that have been blended to the point that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.” The fact this band could write “Be My Mistake,” or that Healy could pen the words to “Married A Robot” (“The internet looked at him and said/ Yes I love you very very very very very very much/ I am your best friend”) is evidence enough they lack the pallette needed to bring up the bottom end.

No doubt Matty has Wallace’s “literary rebels” quote pasted into his guitar case, in which case he’d call these accusations sneer. But the egomania’s gotten him lost inside his own image of depth, an album whose visceral failings, libidinal impotence, and weary blandness are waved away by theory, an alibi most music critics have been all too happy to take at face value if it means temporarily forfeiting the responsibility of taste. A lack of interest in original and a complementary interest in cliche, both sublimated into a belief in audience as ultimate arbitrator, appear to constitute a legitimate, coherent ideological-aesthetic agenda in theory. Whether aesthetic products made out of such an ideology stand the test of time, or prove able to sustain (rather than zombify) a culture, is another question.

2. Glamour

“I remember seeing him in Swindon just a few weeks before ILIWYS came out and he drank at least 2 bottles of red on stage and definitely had a spliff half way through, even though he said he was having a fag. He was silhouetted by the lights whilst posing on top of a giant amp, ‘paint me like one of your French girls’ style.”

—The 1975 fan post

Watch Healy perform, the way his stage presence lacks affective coherence. In the place of composure or grace is a constant look-at-me neediness, an obsession with being liked that leaks into his songwriting and partially explains all the stoner-philosophy conceptualism. The bluntness of Healy’s aesthetic sense means sometimes he hits, sometimes he misses, but there’s never much quality control. Hackneyed Ian Curtis moves, stripped of all pathos, stand in for glam monumentalism; the performance is pervaded with a philistinism usually reserved for karaoke bars. Healy gives you exactly what you want, which is exactly the problem: “satiation [isn’t] succeeded by tristesse, it was itself, immediately, tristesse.” The desired intersects with the immediate state to immediately gratify, but its absolute fitness to the present dopaminergic state means the audience can only be exploited, never developed the way a more parental—and perennially rockist—attitude toward music fandom can.

I should pull back; values change and it’s more productive to inventory than bash. What are the new qualities of presence? Anxiety, intimacy, populism, the active undermining of mythos (Healy mid-show in the dark: “I’m putting these [sunglasses] on for purely ego-stylistic reasons”). This isn’t bad; it’s just a serious departure from the ethos of rock and what makes The 1975 a clearly a pop act with rock trapping (instead of a rock act comfortable with celebrity and pastiche). An endearing but telling exchange from the end of a smallish, billed intimate set from this year, in which Healy tries to quiet his audience down for an acoustic rendition of “Be My Mistake” while distressed: “Not because I really want to do it, because the idea is actually making me sick now… alright well I’m gonna do it now obviously… This is gonna be hard because like, it’s very… Higher… Hold on, just a second, just let me figure out if I want to do it, if I don’t want to do [indiscernible] I’m not gonna embarrass myself in front of a group of people… And this is kinda the point of this whole thing, right? Sorry, I’m trying to [indiscernible; tunes guitar]… There’s no point in like, playing to 200 people and just playing sets. Alright here we go then, right so be quiet or I’ll fuckin shit myself, yeah?”

3. Camp

“In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp.”

“When self-parody lacks ebullience but instead reveals (even sporadically) a contempt for one’s themes and one’s materials… the results are forced and heavy-handed, rarely Camp. Successful Camp… even when it reveals self-parody, reeks of self-love.”

—Sontag

It’s embarrassing for the music-critical establishment that the elevator jazz of “Mine” or the wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee horns of “Sincerity Is Scary” have been lauded as examples of the group’s musical polyglotism. The group can pull off a pop song but little else, and their attempts as pseudo-black music on Brief Inquiries is as substantial a treatment as your average Norah Jones cut. Everything is pushed to its corny limit, the tasteless realm where subtlety and sensibility are bulldozed by an all-women’s choir.

The three-album stint that makes up The 1975, ILIWYS, and A Brief Inquiry hasn’t been an ongoing conceptual project, culminating in a paragon of postmodern self-awareness, but a bellwether for the trends of the moment, from bland guitar rock in 2012 to the eighties retro wave we’re all submerged under now. Those who point out “Fitter Happier”-style “Man Who Married His Robot” as evidence of the albums’ OKComputerish depths are falling for the cargocult trap of image over essence, designer label over designer construction: the track is designed to explicitly summon that comparison, and to import in whatever connotations of experimentalism and conceptual seriousness a spoken-word track signifies. (Healy’s a type to cargocult rock stars all the way down to the junk habit.) Nevermind “Married A Robot” epitomizes vapidity, an infantile extended parable against Facebook. No, The 1975 is decidedly costume-rock, with Foxygen’s eclecticism and literally everyone else’s eighties mania. They’ve been doing this since their last record; in theory this album might be postmodern but in practice, it’s plain old nostalgia, undead rock.

This gap between aspiration and actuality, between claimed concept and demonstrated delivery, shows up constantly on Brief Inquiry. If only it were more ebullient, more self-loving and less focused on being loved. All of The 1975’s LPs are structured in quasi-frametale, each opening with a track titled “The 1975” whose lyrics remain as its music changes. Which sounds good in theory, but then the lyrics are nothing-fluff: “Go down / Soft sound / Midnight / Car lights / Playing with the air / Breathing in your hair / [repeat] / Step into your skin? I’d rather jump in your bones / Taking up your mouth, so you breathe through your nose.” The scale of the concept outstrips the ability to execute—Sontag doesn’t say it, but the “seriousness that fails” and yet “cannot be redeemed as Camp” goes by the name of pretension.

The theory of the New Sincerity and its cousin Poptimism are sound. But recent products of its implicit worldview— Rupi Kaur, Mitski, The 1975—can’t stand up to theory’s promise.

 

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