Tame Impala Has Pop Aspirations That Don’t Make Sense

Kevin Parker's goal to "be a Max Martin" reveals his desire to be associated with trashy, mass-produced pop music.
February 6, 2020, 4:02pm
tame impala's kevin parker

Kevin Parker of Tame Impala is on the new cover of Billboard bearing a suspicious gaze that hides what is, in reality, his attempt at a star turn. His intentions are made more clear inside the magazine, where he says, "I want to be a Max Martin," giving Billboard the best quote it could possibly ask for. The story details Parker's unlikely ascent from Australian psych-rock loner to Hollywood taste-whisperer, but left to subtext is the immense cultural shift represented by Parker's goal, in which arguably the greatest rock auteur of an era reveals his yearning to be the sort of musician normally associated with trashy, mass-produced pop music.

Parker allows himself some wiggle room by saying he wants to be a Max Martin, as opposed to the Max Martin. The Max Martin is the sort of behind the scenes string-puller that makes it easy to demonize pop music, a man to whom songwriting is a math equation where the words don't matter. A Max Martin could write and produce songs for mega-popular artists—Parker's manager says he wants to work with Beyoncé—while still being cool about it. One can surmise that this is a hedge against the reason why the quote is so perversely transgressive in the first place, which is that Parker is positioning himself as the very thing he is supposed to be standing against.

Pop culture discourse is now frequently choked by arguments about the value, and values, of very popular art, and though Parker's desire to be something akin to Max Martin will not register as a flashpoint on the level of Martin Scorcese's excoriation of Marvel, it does tidily encapsulate the poptimist divide among music fans that is the germ of these conversations at-large. Parker is not a trailblazer—Bon Iver became so enmeshed in the contemporary pop industry that he ended up accidentally producing a homophobic Eminem song—but the nakedness of this specific ambition says all you need to know about our culture's shifting tolerance for the pursuit of popularity.

Alas, Billboard, as an industry institution itself, is not in the position to ask the most pressing question here: What, exactly, do Kevin Parker, and his fans, get out of him becoming a pop music mogul? For Parker himself, money would be one thing, but he does not seem to have an intense desire for, in the words of indie rock titans of yore, material things. His home in the Hollywood Hills is described in Billboard as being empty except for the recording studio where he has been "slaving away" at his new album, The Slow Rush. He also has a pretty solid hourly rate when he works: the magazine reports that last year, Tame Impala concerts grossed $6.5 million across just 18 dates, including a headlining slot at Coachella.

To Billboard he presents his pop dreams—which the magazine calls "a lifelong goal"—in bashfully simple terms. He says that "writing a catchy, sugary pop song that's like, three minutes long" is "the yin to the yang of psychedelic rock," but when you listen to Parker's forays into that Candyland world, you can feel the search for an identity among his new surroundings. Take "Find U Again," a collaboration with Camila Cabello and Mark Ronson from the latter's album released last summer. The song is a satisfying, sweet treat, the sort of idealized pop music you would normally find on a Carly Rae Jepsen album. Here, Parker finds his yin, but you would be hard-pressed to locate any of him in the song, save for some generic gestures towards lonesomeness. Conversely, "Skeletons," his celebrated appearance on Travis Scott's Astroworld, sounds like an Ai Weiwei art project that aims to publicly destroy a Tame Impala demo. Parker may be, in Billboard's words, "pop's next secret weapon," but based on early returns he still hasn't figured out how to artfully translate what people like about his music without it being either so imperceptible as to feel pointless, or so obvious as to be clumsy.

This conundrum has begun to infect Tame Impala, too. For one, as Parker has bent his main project more towards pop music, un-fun questions about genre, which he is understandably tired of answering, have begun to loom over his music. "Rock" and "pop" are aesthetic concerns, but they also have traditionally functioned as societal identities, and Parker is testing the loyalty of fans who fell in love with a different kind of artist. But more to the point, it's an open question whether his music can hold up under the weight of it all, too. The Slow Rush, which is out on Valentine's Day, stumbled out of the gates a year ago when Parker released the gleaming, disco-inspired "Patience," which unfortunately sounded like he had spent an hour or two remixing a Cut Copy song. (The track was left off the album.) Better among the singles are "Borderline" and "Lost in Yesterday," which retains the propulsion of Tame Impala's 2015 album Currents; "Posthumous Forgiveness," meanwhile, has the drowsy lope of a latter-day Bond theme. Uproxx's Steven Hyden, as much an authority on modern rock as we have in criticism today, said recently that The Slow Rush is able to meld Parker's pop future with his "tranced-out" past, and though that may be true, it still shows how much this question defines the reception to Parker's music.

For his part, Parker seems to be seeking something deeper, a connection to a group of people that he can't have just on his own. "I hope to one day be able to do what I do on my own in a room full of people," he tells Billboard. "That's the ultimate goal for me." He is speaking about the famously solitary nature of his songwriting process, and how most pop songs, especially on the scale of Max Martin, are often created with multiple writers and producers in the studio (or multiple writers and producers in multiple studios, to be precise). Still, it's a startling statement for a musician who began his humble psych-rock project in Perth, Australia and ended up selling out arenas across the globe. Sometimes, even Madison Square Garden screaming back at you isn't enough.