Will “Indie Pop” Ever Become Pop, Period?
A lighthearted mid-’90s romantic comedy starring Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan, and Walter Matthau does not seem like the most obvious place to learn about the intersection of physics, math, and philosophy, but watching 1994’s IQ is how I discovered that, theoretically, you can never truly get where you’re going. Matthau plays Albert Einstein, who spends the movie helping an auto mechanic (Robbins) pose as a scientist in order to woo Einstein’s niece (Ryan), a Princeton doctoral candidate. There’s a scene in a bar where Ryan and Robbins are flirting hard, and Robbins beckons Ryan to dance. “Don’t be irrelevant,” she tells him. “You can’t get from there to here.” She proceeds to outline Zeno’s Paradox:
You can’t get here, because you have to cover half the remaining distance. I have to cover half of it. But I still have half of that remaining, so I cover half that. And there’s still half of that left, so I cover half of that, and half of that, and half of that, and since there are infinite halves left, I can’t ever get there.
By that time she’s moved so close to Robbins, and so many metaphorical sparks are flying, that it’s only a matter of time before they join hands and begin dancing around the room. “So how did that happen?” he asks her. “I don’t know,” she replies. “It’s not possible.” Here, watch it for yourself:
Zeno’s Paradox is pretty quickly disproved by the experience of everyday life, yet I find myself returning to the theory when I consider one of music’s most prominent longstanding trends. For the better part of a decade, so-called indie music has been making a concerted push toward mainstream pop. At first it was sort of like trying on a costume, self-consciously hip musicians making “pop” in scarequotes while distancing themselves from the mainstream machine. Then, as the concept of guilty pleasure started to melt away and commercial success lost its stigma in many corners of the underground, this kind of music became more aspirational. Indie-goes-pop became the rule and then the cliché.
As you track the hype cycle lineage from MGMT and Phoenix and Passion Pit to Sleigh Bells and Cults and Phantogram to Purity Ring and Haim and Chvrches and on to the present, a clear trajectory emerges. Ian Cohen hit on it at Grantland in 2013, and I attempted to articulate it in a review of Purity Ring’s Another Eternity last year: “With each subsequent hype cycle, ‘indie pop’ is sounding more and more like just plain pop.” But no matter how closely “indie pop” has started to resemble plain old pop music, and no matter how much influence this stuff exerts on pop’s mainstream, none of these bands ever quite make it to that world.
Given that “indie” and “pop” are such fluid words, a definition is in order, although if you follow critically acclaimed music to any extent you already know what I’m talking about. By “indie pop” I don’t mean twee or even pop music released on an independent label, but rather what Cohen defined as “chart-aspiring, populist music rendered with an ‘indie’ fashion sense and, typically, a band-like setup so it cannot possibly be confused with chart pop or any variation of Disney pop.” He added this helpful qualifier: “If ‘indie pop’ isn’t real, then neither is Nylon nor Urban Outfitters.” It’s a real phenomenon, and its latest exemplars arrive this month, appropriately enough, by way of Columbia Records.
Tomorrow the not-so-indie label will release Chairlift’s transformative, pointedly titled Moth, which finds the New York band plunging their artful ’80s synth-pop sound further into dance-pop and R&B. It’s a rhythmically and emotionally charged album, one that breathlessly conjures the joy and terror of falling in love. Moth was preceded by a fantastic run of singles: Together, the brisk burner “Romeo,” the syncopated groove “Ch-Ching,” the funky disco romance “Moth To The Flame,” and lead singer Caroline Polachek’s powerfully vulnerable self-disclosure “Crying In Public” imagine a more baroque but no less accessible answer to Taylor Swift’s 1989. And unlike the popular yet divisive 1989, Moth is Chairlift’s most impressive body of work by a long margin, the kind of album that could and should elevate them to a new place of honor.
A week after Moth drops, crystalline balladeers Wet’s full-length debut Don’t You will finally see the light of day more than nine months after its instant-classic lead single “Deadwater” first emerged. As you might deduce based on “Deadwater” or any of the project’s five(!) subsequent advance songs, Don’t You is a gentle shimmer extended to album length, one of the most conventionally pretty depictions of tenderness and yearning in recent memory. This is a band who understand exactly what they are and have gotten exceptionally good at manifesting it: Misty synth mirages, booming bass swells, and Kelly Zutrau’s delicate yet commanding vocals combine to slay you every time. Wet’s form, function, and mood never deviate — it’s just track after track of gorgeously sighing music that find strength in fragility.
Both albums are stacked with quality singles polished enough to ostensibly garner the radio airplay that would finally launch these bands into the mainstream. In contrast to idiosyncratic underground queen Grimes, whose “Flesh Without Blood” was decried as sellout radio bait by a (how shall we say this nicely?) less perceptive faction of her listenership, Chairlift and Wet could comfortably exist between Adele and Ed Sheeran hits on your local top 40 station. And either band would be a welcome salve in that context! So far, though, despite seeing major-label release and sounding more radio-ready than any previous generation of “indie pop” albums, Moth and Don’t You have accounted for 10 singles between them, and not one of them has cracked the Hot 100 or any Billboard radio chart. This stuff looks, feels, and sounds like pop, but it doesn’t pop.
Why not? The reason might be as simple as Columbia not promoting these bands to radio. It may be that after experiencing so much success with the likes of Haim and London Grammar that the label recognizes a different lane is opening up, one involving rave reviews and prominent festival sets and Twitter chatter. Or it may be that despite Columbia’s best efforts to give “Deadwater” the universal audience it deserves, radio gatekeepers are resistant to bands for whom professional music critics seem to comprise at least 50 percent of their fan base, regardless of how “pop” they might sound. Only a couple dozen songs can get spun with any regularity, so competition is fierce.
Or it may be that Columbia’s radio department just isn’t that skilled at securing airplay. This is the same label that only coaxed one top-40 hit (“Drunk In Love”) out of Beyoncé’s mega-selling surprise album (which Polachek worked on, by the way). Nor could they nudge another Hozier song onto the Hot 100 after “Take Me To Church” hit, or nab OMI a follow-up hit after “Cheerleader,” or foist another Foster The People single into ubiquity after “Pumped Up Kicks.” They even needed an assist from Meghan Trainor to get another John Legend song in the top 10 after the inescapably dominant “All Of Me.” Do you know how many Trainor songs Epic Records landed in the top 10 last year? Three (3)! And #14 “Dear Future Husband” almost made it four(4)! If the label isn’t getting Beyoncé on top-40 radio, they’re sure not getting Beyoncé’s producer’s band on the top-40 radio.
Columbia might just be more of an albums label, one that has generated recent #1 full-lengths by Adele and Beyoncé and J. Cole and, as of this week, the late, great David Bowie. Yet I’ll be gobsmacked if Moth or Don’t You debuts anywhere near the top 10. Even “indie pop”‘s budding big-font festival superstars Chvrches only got to #8 with Every Open Eye and quickly plummeted after the first week, and they at least had support from alternative radio stations — which also aren’t spinning Chairlift and Wet, ostensibly because they’re too poppy. You crazy for this one, Zeno!
Opposite the spectrum from Grimes, Låpsley, the young British singer XL Recordings appears to be grooming as its next Adele, makes for another useful contrast. Låpsley seems to exist on the other side of the invisible “indie pop”/pop divide from Chairlift and Wet. Despite her contract with an independent label, new single “Love Is Blind” isn’t “indie pop” — it’s pop. If it sounds hip, that’s secondary to its broadly populist objectives. Or consider Ellie Goulding: For all her cool friends and critical support, even her most tasteful songs have always pandered to populist instincts first. The woman broke through via EDM, for God’s sake! And “Love Me Like You Do,” which has become her signature song, is the lowest-common-denominator-panderingest of them all.
There’s the rub: It’s rough out there. If “indie pop” bands want to be pop artists in the commercially dominant, culturally saturating sense of the word, they almost certainly have to give up any pretensions of good taste and embrace profitable mediocrity. Have you seen the charts lately? Cool cachet might get you in the songwriting room, but it’s sure as hell not going to get you yourself to the top of the charts.
Now, Chairlift and Wet might not be actively courting that kind of success — and as one of the many professional music critics who comprise their fan base, I’d be happy if they stick to what they’re doing so well. Who needs Billboard success when you’ve got Metacritic success, right! Right?! But if they do want to close that final gap and become true-blue mainstream pop stars at last, it will probably be by setting cool points aside and making records that sound like mainstream pop, not by sneaking hipster music onto the radio via Trojan horse. If IQ taught us anything (besides Zeno’s Paradox, of course), it’s that no matter how well you disguise yourself, you can’t pretend to be something you’re not.
The silver lining from David Bowie’s death is that it sent lots of people rushing to his music. Thus, not only does ? (Blackstar) become the late legend’s first US #1 album with 181,000 equivalent units (174,000 in pure sales), Best Of Bowie shoots to a new peak of #4 with 94,000 units (51,000 in sales), and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars bounds back to #21. In fact, Billboard reports that Bowie’s catalog experienced a 5,000 percent sales increase in the wake of his death.
The rest of the Billboard 200 top 10 comprises familiar names: Adele, Justin Bieber, Twenty One Pilots, the Weeknd, Chris Stapleton, Bryson Tiller, G-Eazy, Fetty Wap. Shout out to Twenty One Pilots for bounding their way back into the top 10 after a prolonged absence, and to Tiller for working his way there after debuting at #11 last October.
Meanwhile, Bieber is completely dominating the singles game. Check out Spotify’s US top 10. “Sorry” logs a second week at #1 on the Hot 100, while “Love Yourself” is close behind at #3 (and #1 on US Spotify, where it’s followed by “Sorry” at #2). Plus former #1 “What Do You Mean?” is holding on at #10. Wouldn’t be surprised to see “Love Yourself” hit #1 eventually, giving Bieber three #1 hits on Purpose. This week’s Hot 100 also sees new peaks for Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” (#4), Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself” (#5), and Alessia Cara’s “Here” (#6). And with Drake’s “Hotline Bling” finally sliding to #7, its chances of ever going #1 seem officially kaput.
Kanye West – “Black Skinhead (Remix)” (Feat. Miley Cyrus & Travis Scott)
I’m going to take an unpopular stance here: This is great. I love that it contains elements of a fantastic Kanye West song, I love that it completely reimagines its source material unlike some remixes, I love that it mashes up that source material with what boils down to a Miley Cyrus Tears For Fears cover, and I love that Travis Scott’s presence is barely detectable.
Nathan Sykes – “Over And Over Again” (Feat. Ariana Grande)
Sykes is a former member of the Wanted, the UK boy band that will always be remembered as the Bravery to One Direction’s Killers (if they’re remembered at all). Despite the assist from Grande, this treacly piano ballad does not strike me as the song that will finally vault him to prominence. But it sounds like “All Of Me,” and “All Of Me” was huge, so you never know.
Miranda Lambert – “Sweet By And By”
Lambert can knock out wistful mid-tempo country ballads like this in her sleep, which is fine because I am a sucker for that stuff. But I’m hoping her next album gets deeper into the raw emotions associated with her divorce from Blake Shelton. If they’re going to break up, it might as well yield some powerful music.
Zedd – “Daisy” (Feat. Julia Michaels)
Just last week, I wrote about Michaels’ rising profile as a pop songwriter in partnership with Justin Tranter. The week before, I wrote about how the sound of electronic pop is getting smaller, and EDM producers would have to adjust to stay in the game. Zedd plays that game pretty well here, but it’s a catch-22 for him because without his trademark digital chaos, this song doesn’t have much going for it.
Redfoo – “This Girl”
“This girl has taken me over/ Like a Jedi, she’s a mind controller.” I never thought I’d say this, but can we have LMFAO back?
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ This Unruly Mess I’ve Made is out 2/26 with features from Ed Sheeran and Leon Bridges. [YouTube]
- Linkin Park are also teasing an album release for this year. [Loudwire]
- A kid spotted Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris at a restaurant and got an excellent Instagram out of it. [Radio.com]
- Sam Smith responded to the backlash over what some said were naive tweets about his friend’s experience with racism in London. [NME]
- Both Celine Dion’s husband and brother died of cancer last week. [CNN]
- Cher donated more than 180,000 bottles of water to residents of Flint, MI. [CBS]
- One Direction’s Liam Payne previewed a new solo song in extremely Bieber-esque fashion. [Billboard]
- Madonna had a little moment with Jack White at her Nashville show. [Instagram]
- Ellie Goulding broke down her beauty regimen for the Times. [The New York Times]
- J.Lo’s Vegas residency is in previews. [TMZ]
- Adam Lambert sings the latest Oreo jingle. [YouTube]
- Selena Gomez appears in the Neighbors 2 trailer. [YouTube]
- Katy Perry teased her upcoming Zoolander 2 cameo. [Instagram]
- Sia contributed an exclusive new song to the film The Eagle Huntress. [Billboard]
- Pharrell bought back majority ownership of Billionaire Boy’s Club and Ice Cream clothing labels. [WWD]
- Fifth Harmony have a new Candies campaign. [YouTube]
- Iggy Azalea dragged her label president on Twitter. [Ace Showbiz]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— Smash Mouth (@smashmouth) January 18, 2016