This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.
We talk a lot about British guitar music being “dead.” With varying fervour dependent on how far away we are from an Arctic Monkeys album cycle, music writing seems to be always racing along a hamster wheel of asking whether guitar music is dead, declaring that it is, before announcing that a new band (always made up five lads who look so much like they went to Goldsmiths that even making the joke feels lazy) has resurrected it.
Like episodes of The Chase and anything involving YouTubers, the guitar music ‘conversation’ is something I both find tedious and can’t help getting sucked into. This is probably because I’m given to hyperbole (of course a dip in mainstream popularity doesn’t mean an entire, global genre has ceased to exist, but I’ll read seven think-pieces about it anyway babyyyy), but also because I’m interested in where it takes root right now.
It seems fairly obvious questions about guitar music’s position in the mainstream arise so often and so loudly because it's a genre inextricably linked to the album format. And that's suffered at the young, smooth hands of streaming services and their specially curated playlists. We often talk about guitar music within the context of the album, which we tend to see as its most wholly realised form (think about how people wax lyrical over The White Album or Dark Side of the Moon, for example). Younger listeners, however, don’t have the hallowed significance of The Long Player impressed on their musical psyches, and as such, raised with streaming, they seem to prefer playlists to full albums – in fact, only last month, Noisey spoke to some music fans who, in general, cited a preference for the ease and variety of streaming playlists over sticking on an album and pressing play.
Some genres have weathered the change: now that the internet rules music, hip-hop seems to have evolved alongside technology, with artists releasing new work more frequently (and less formally). Rappers in particular are constantly working on new projects, and their albums seem to be getting longer, potentially to provide more opportunities for listeners to find something they like (take Nicki Minaj, for instance, who just dropped 20 songs with nine big name features on Queen). It also doesn’t hurt that streaming data now contributes to US and UK chart positions, meaning that more streams equals more revenue.
Guitar music, though, seems mostly constrained by the album and traditional release format, presumably because musicians still see it as the best way to present their work – we basically never see rock artists straying outside it, other than to release an EP or seven-inch. But at a time when streaming has (positively!) enabled the diversification of tastes like never before, given how easily you can flick between genres and artists on Spotify or Apple Music, maybe albums simply can’t hold some listeners’ attention in the way they once might have.
One of the music fans interviewed in the Noisey article I mentioned above said that for her, one of the advantages of streaming over listening to albums was that “it’s more like tasting different things,” and gave examples of that as “Spotify’s Daily Mixes and all these playlists.” If people long for variety, guitar music can certainly find a way to adapt its traditional album format to the mores of streaming. And there’s one band – whose pop stature already towers, in fairness – writing the blueprint for how it can be done.
In 2016, the second album by The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It topped both the US and UK charts, and this November, the band’s third album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships will be released. In May 2019, their fourth album Notes on a Conditional Form will follow. The jam-packed release schedule looks more like that of a rapper than a rock band, and The 1975 are the biggest British rock band by far to try anything quite as productive and streaming-friendly.
So far, we’ve only heard three of the songs from the bumper offering, but if the pattern the band are establishing is to be believed, it seems both volume and eclecticism factor into their strategy to make the albums work in a streaming landscape (at the time of writing the three songs have been played on Spotify a total of almost 45 million times). Deeply in touch with their audience, which lies at the centre of the millennial and Gen Z Venn diagram, The 1975 seem to have identified what it wants – variety über alles – and have set about making songs which keep what defines them at their core, but which branch out much more widely than anything that is being attempted by their peers.
It helps that The 1975 have only ever been defined by elements of a sound, like the angular guitars and rising, poppy synths that appear on the majority of their tracks. Really, vocalist and lyricist Matty Healy’s poetic sensibility beams out the recognisable light across their catalogue. If you’re not a fan, you might call his writing style fake deep; if you are it’s straightforward and manages to be winningly earnest. Three new tracks proudly display that subsequent ability to shapeshift a little: “Give Yourself A Try,” “Love It If We Made It,” and “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” all released within the last few months. These songs pursue various musical styles, despite the fact that they’ll appear on the same album, but are tied together by a recognisable voice, and maximum appeal for their intended audience.
“Give Yourself a Try,” the first of the three and released in late May, is big on synths. It features Healy speaking from a position of authority – a sort of millennial elder statesman – doling out advice to his listeners, who are generally quite a bit younger than his almost 30 years (“You learn a couple things when you get to my age / Like friends don't lie and it all tastes the same in the dark”). The next track, “Love It If We Made It,” is a more bombastic rock song, shot through with the clean guitar tone most closely associated with The 1975, and verse lyrics that read like a Twitter timeline at 3AM. “A beach of drowning three-year-olds / Rest in peace Lil Peep / The poetry is in the street / Jesus save us / Modernity has failed us,” Healy sings, delivering the words tunelessly and rhythmically, straying from the gentle croon and less abstract sentiment of “Give Yourself a Try.”
Finally, a couple of weeks ago came the band’s biggest departure. “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME” is a tropical pop song about habitual cheating and the loose boundaries of modern relationships between young people, as mediated by technology (“I only called her one time, maybe it was two times / Don't think it was three times, can't be more than four times / Think we need to rewind, you text that boy sometimes”), and it was followed last week by a bright but minimal music video featuring Healy among a diverse group of Cool and Aspirational Teens™. Speaking to the Guardian in July (in an interview which foreshadowed the broad sonic scope of A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships) Healy described the track as “Drake-y” – Drake, of course, is one of the world’s most-streamed artists – and predicted it would be the album’s biggest hit.
It’s interesting that one of the things these tracks have in common is the album title A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, because so far, the songs we’ve heard from it seem to be making that inquiry at every level. Lyrically, as I’ve mentioned, they’re interested in how technology infiltrates our relationships with each other, with language, and with ourselves.
On top of that, in their multifaceted generic preoccupations, these songs highlight our altered online relationship with music and our consumption of it. While the band’s attempts at different sounds could be read as pandering to streaming (something that guitar music, more than any other genre, has resisted), there’s a reason The 1975 occupy the position they do. Though many might not like it, they’re one of the biggest bands in the country, and this is because they listen to their audience and understand their habits: that audience likes playlists, so perhaps they'll give it an album that sounds like one. It seems as though on A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, they’ll show how valuable flexibility is, and demonstrate that in expanding what The 1975 means, they can challenge and renew guitar music’s relationship with the internet, too.
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