Deconstructing: HAIM, Lorde, And The Monogenre
The singularity is approaching. Not just the dystopian rule of sentient robot overlords as prophesied by every sci-fi movie ever, but sure, that too. (Have you seen what Google wants us to put on our faces? Resistance is futile.) I’m talking about the musical singularity, pop music’s convergence into a single unified style I like to call the monogenre. Coldplay collaborates with Rihanna, and the resulting highly compressed mega-chorus so effectively blurs the line between softhewn alt-rock and pop-R&B that it’s not immediately clear which artist’s wheelhouse the song inhabits. Avicii scores his biggest hit by managing to mash up Mumford-style folk music with digitized dance-club thump. Look at how far apart the young Nashville musical acts Paramore and Taylor Swift started, then look at how close they are now.
Speaking of young Nashville stars undergoing transformations: Miley Cyrus is a perfect example of the monogenre in action. “We Can’t Stop,” one of the year’s truest pop smashes, is steeped in EDM sonics, masterminded by the reigning hip-hop producer of our time and carried along by melodies that could just as easily have easily been sung by Cyrus’ father on country radio. As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan noted on Twitter, the follow-up smash “Wrecking Ball” is the same sort of composite: “New wave verses, blown-out country chorus, Adele bridge, Mike Will synth-bips, all comes together somehow.” This is typical of pop music in 2013. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always coming together.
That’s perhaps a surprising development if you buy the argument that our culture is splintering beyond cohesion into a world where even former bastions of universal experience like network TV and FM radio are reduced to oversized niches. (Who won American Idol last year again?) But maybe the monogenre is happening as a response to all that stratification. On a “pure” artistic level — the follow-your-muse argument — years of overflowing hard drives, the limitless feeding frenzy of online streaming and the death of the guilty pleasure could only result in a generation of music that crossbreeds disparate styles. We’ve been hearing about the internet’s power to forge new connections on par with peanut butter plus chocolate for as long as there’s been an internet. On an “impure” commercial level — the follow-the-money argument — why put all your eggs in one basket and pray that you’ll capture the attention of a small subset of the population when you can hybridize and appeal to many different cliques? Being all things to all people is a dangerous game, but it might be the only viable game going forward for those aspiring to rock stardom as a full-time job. Just look at the No. 1 rock star on the planet: He got to the top in part by insisting on blurred lines rather than settling for “Blurred Lines,” and he certainly didn’t do it without pissing anybody off.
Indie rock is caught in the monogenre’s gravitational pull too, from Vampire Weekend’s Ariel Rechtshaid-assisted flirtation with shimmering pop and R&B to Arcade Fire incorporating James Murphy’s entire record collection into their arena-conquering anthems. Giving in to centrifugal force is an inevitable part of indie’s gentrification, which, as Steven Hyden pointed out at Grantland this week, is also part of its death rattle. Hyden offered up the sisterly pop-rock trio HAIM as evidence that indie has merged so completely with the culture at large that it has ceased to exist as a separate entity. And while there are still plenty of bands campaigning on ear-searing guitar aggression, the fact that HAIM is now considered the forefront of indie rock (they scored our Album Of The Week, Pitchfork’s Best New Music rating, and SPIN’s October cover story, for starters) speaks to the monogenre’s vast reach. These women are so poptimist that when they cover Fleetwood Mac/Sheryl Crow/Miley Cyrus you suspect that not only was it entirely genuine, but the fear of cooler-than-thou judgment never even crossed their minds. And while “It’s all just music, right?” isn’t the same thing as “Let’s combine all music into one genre!” it certainly seems like one thought led to the other for these sisters.
More than any of the music cited so far, HAIM’s debut Days Are Gone, out this week, makes the case that the monogenre doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Their music ties together so many different sounds and styles — Wilson Phillips harmonizing transposed against digital rumble on album opener “Falling”; rootsy Shania Twain balladry on “Honey & I” (or is that Amy Grant?); the howling Dead Weather gurgle-stomp of “My Song 5″; the Eagles-repurposing brilliance of the year’s finest single, “The Wire” — but you can’t see the seams. The band also pulls off the time-honored trick of coming off like a neat and tidy pop group on record while wilding out rock ‘n’ roll style in concert. Days Are Gone is distinctly retro yet undeniably modern. Like the best pop musicians, HAIM is easy to enjoy but impossible to pin down.
So it goes with Lorde, the suddenly-very-famous New Zealand teen whose debut album Pure Heroine is also out this week. The first time I heard her breakout single, the shrugging, celebrity-skewering “Royals,” it was on my local alternative rock station. Last week, New York’s famed hip-hop hub Hot 97 added it to rotation after an informal Twitter poll. Somewhere in between, the song made its way to Top 40 stations as God intended and began its climb to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. What’s crazy is you can make a case for why Lorde’s songs, most of which operate in the same sonic territory as “Royals,” belong in all three of those arenas. The synth-heavy production and complex drum programming mirrors current indie production trends (hello, Purity Ring) as much as current rap production trends (hello, Noah “40” Shebib), and the overlapping hooks and harmonies are built for sing-alongs from Girl Scout camp on up.
Just as much as the music, Pure Heroine’s lyrics suggest Lorde grew up without genre filters, same as HAIM. Sure, she casually mentions listening to a Broken Social Scene song on repeat, but how would she so deftly critique the excesses of pop and rap if she hadn’t regularly immersed herself in such music too? She is, in other words, your average millennial casually kicking out music for her fellow millennials, an obsessive consumer of pop culture whose art can’t help but be multifaceted for that very reason. She’s not just a demographic slice, she’s the whole damn pie chart. And like the Haim sisters, she’s proof that such a confection doesn’t have to be unbearably saccharine — or worse, like throwing every available ingredient into the oven at once, pinching your nose and crossing your fingers. This is the kind of coalition-building that suggests we might be able to take down those robotic overlords after all.