Just Like Heaven: Thoughts From The Ground At The Blog-Rock Nostalgia Festival
Woodstock 50 is imploding before our eyes, but the latest attempt to harvest summer of ’69 nostalgia was always going to be a gamble. Obtaining proper licensure in an upstate New York nature reserve and coordinating hundreds of the biggest acts of the past century is probably a logistical and financial nightmare, and Desert Trip already pulled off something closer to a proper Woodstock throwback three years ago, albeit across the country at the Coachella grounds.
But Woodstock 50 at least had the Woodstock brand name going for it. Though Just Like Heaven’s gamble was smaller, it’s just as risky in the current climate: They went all in on indie rock and assumed 2009 was your idea of heaven. No one has yet penned a romanticized ode to the summer of ’09 — “I got my first real Tumblr!” over palm muted guitar, just imagine it — yet last weekend the festival was able to trot out the same lineup two days in a row and sell out both by essentially restaging Pitchfork Music Festival 2009 in Long Beach.
In a recent Ringer article detailing Vampire Weekend’s status as the “last of the mega indie bands” (with apologies to Tame Impala, I guess), Rob Harvilla wrote that, “2009 brought one last burst of indie trailblazers crashing the mainstream.” Just Like Heaven’s topline bookings of Phoenix, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Grizzly Bear account for 60% of “GAPDY,” the acronym that hardcore ILX users remember as the shorthand for indie rock hegemony in 2009; Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors had other plans, I suppose. Save for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, these bands all slowly grew in stature during the “post–Napster crash but pre-streaming boom,” abetted by an unprecedented level of influence wielded by web-based music publications like Pitchfork, Gorilla vs. Bear, and of course, Stereogum — most of whom were primarily focused on indie music (“rock” being an optional modifier).
My colleague Larry Fitzmaurice, one of the most trustworthy scholars in longitudinal indie trends, tweeted an objective truth last week about the state of critical affairs: “All you need to know about how much music criticism has changed this decade is that Beyoncé’s 4 didn’t even crack p4k’s top 20 of that year and was bested by an Atlas Sound album that I regularly forget exists. Imagine that happening now.” It was predictably taken the wrong way in both directions, so let’s think of it this way: Regardless of the critical acclaim granted to U.F.O.F., imagine Jay-Z and Beyoncé at a Big Thief show in 2019 saying “what the indie movement is doing right now is very inspiring.” Though “My Girls” and “1901” and “Heads Will Roll” and “Two Weeks” and “Stillness Is The Move” share almost no sonic commonalities, their concurrent success was viewed as a coronation for indie rock culture — which was as synonymous with “popular culture” as “alternative” was in the 1990s.
The rest of the festival lineup accounts for the previous eight or so years that got us to this point and the slight hangover into the next decade. MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular was a legitimate game changer in 2008, while the likes of Tokyo Police Club and Ra Ra Riot made strong Rookie of the Year bids they’ve parlayed into surprisingly resilient careers. You can catch Ra Ra Riot opening for Jimmy Eat World and Third Eye Blind this summer. Peter Bjorn & John are here entirely because of “Young Folks,” the Star Spangled Banner of mid-2k indie nation whose whistled hook is in some way responsible for Foster The People. Writer’s Block was their third album; they’ve made many since, and neither on either side is even remotely in the same galaxy. The Rapture’s reunion served as one of Just Like Heaven’s biggest selling points, having topped Pitchfork’s best albums of 2003 list with Echoes and releasing two lesser albums in 2006 and 2011 that were more popular than you probably remember. And just for kicks, the presence of She Wants Revenge and Louis XIV (?!?!?) confirm that Just Like Heaven may have kicked the tires on the Killers and/or the Strokes but discovered they’re way out of their price range. For now.
There were other things going on in 2009 as well and I’d argue that nascent sensations like chillwave (represented by Washed Out and Neon Indian on the lineup) and the xx’s debut album were more accurate predictors of what the next decade would look and sound like. Just Like Heaven was not concerned with that. The only band that could be considered “new” in any sense of the word was local act Greer, and even they sorta sounded like a more garage-y version of the Morning Benders, who made a pretty good album in 2010 produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor and rebranded for a memorably awful poptimist pivot as POP ETC.
But in sealing off their daylong time capsule with the release of the first Tennis album, Just Like Heaven didn’t have to acknowledge any of the major shifts that have occurred in indie music and culture in the new decade — no rap, no R&B — not even PBR&B — no EDM, no country, no emo, nothing with even the faintest hint of politics (except for that Passion Pit song about selling the capitalist American Dream to first-gen immigrants that was eventually used to sell AM Crunchwraps). From a purely objective business viewpoint, this was Just Like Heaven’s greatest marketing point — it’s incredibly rare for a festival of this nature to have such a fully-formed identity, even if that identity is “washed 30-something indie music fan.”
Feel free to reductively throw “white ppl” in there, but Southern California tends to confound that pat assessment. If you look at the demographics of the crowd during the Faint, it’s very clear that a couple of gangly dudes from Nebraska are able to tap into a powerful cross-cultural appeal. Whenever a newer festival tanks, it’s usually because it’s attempting to compound the experience of algorithmic, genre-less music consumption, replicating Coachella without the name recognition, destination appeal, or resources. Just Like Heaven was modestly planned as a one-day affair, and it sold out so quickly, they were able to repeat the same exact thing the Friday prior and sold that out too. Mock its concept all you want, but a lot of people clearly felt seen.
Or, mock Just Like Heaven and feel seen at the same time. I know I did. I’m 39 years old and most of the IRL friends around my age with whom I discuss music are not very online. Not surprisingly, when I tell them about the places I write for nowadays, the general response is a minor variation of “Oh, I used to read that in college.” Most of them at least like the National and all are able to formulate some opinion about them.
When these conversations occur, there’s a collective sorrow that doesn’t quite find its direction or target — they wish they had the time and energy to keep up with new music the way they used to and I kinda wish I could love music as truthfully and uncritically as the days when I thought Sunny Day Real Estate’s The Rising Tide or Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 — extremely uneven albums from legendary artists — were among the true masterpieces of the 2000s. I not coincidentally lived mostly on Lean Pockets and Steel Reserve at the time.
But you know how that goes if you don’t make the decision to dedicate yourself to being a curator or critic of music, and that decision really needs to be made with monocultural conduits like MTV and radio almost nonexistent in most people’s lives. Once college is over, maybe your career has advanced to the point where you can’t really waste time scrolling through reviews or Metacritic or Twitter just to find ideas of what to listen to, let alone finding time to do so. Let alone deciding whether to dedicate the finite resource of your free time to new music when it’s competing with the immediate availability of literally every album you’ve ever already liked.
And then going to shows — music writers seem to forget that non-industry people have to actually pay for concert tickets and maybe a babysitter and probably a few drinks and a Lyft. A few years as this steady decline goes by and all of a sudden, these new genre names start to look weird and none of these bands have guitars or even vowels in their name and everything sounds like pop. You used to be with it, then they changed what it was.
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Think about whether there are people in your life like this and ask yourself, can you blame them for wanting to spend just one day where something like Tokyo Police Club was it? If there was any doubt over whether Just Like Heaven would fully commit to its vision, here’s an incomplete list of songs heard over the PA between sets: “Walking On A Dream”! “Odessa”! “Hate to Say I Told You So”! In a 15-minute span, I heard Pretty Girls Make Graves’ “This Is Our Emergency” followed by Bloc Party’s “Banquet” followed by Black Lips’ “Bad Kids” followed by “Crimewave (HEALTH vs. Crystal Castles),” a brief history of cocaine’s increased influence on indie rock tastemaking throughout the 2000s.
So there are two ways to approach Just Like Heaven: Dig in my heels as a critic and responsible consumer of music living in 2019 with the requisite online poisoning or cave to the part of me that can connect with virtually every other single person at the festival who knows within their soul that Twitter isn’t real life and it’s not that deep. It is possible to reappraise Tokyo Police Club in 2019 as inherently problematic, a relic and beneficiary of a more blinkered time, when the buzziest bands were just expected to be four or five white dudes making snappy, hooky, apolitical pop-rock while looking like they could play bit parts on The O.C. It is also just as possible and probably easier to appreciate these guys having a total blast playing “Tessellate” and “Your English Is Good.” More likely, people were able to hold both their treasured memories simultaneously with their awareness (newfound or otherwise) that a lot of people probably felt marginalized at the time. My main takeaway from the T-shirts in the crowd, usually the best barometer of a festival’s mindset: Bikini Kill must’ve made a fortune at their merch tables during this reunion tour. And my own eyewitness account can tell you it’s possible to heed the message of “Rebel Girl” while holding up the line for $18 grilled chicken wraps by taking selfies during “Electric Feel.”
While most of the crowd was more than happy to enter this time warp, I’m not sure every band was particularly thrilled. With the exception of the Rapture and Louis XIV, the career of every artist on the lineup has continued apace into the current day. But it took some of them a lot longer to accept their fate as a band stuck in sticky, Sparks-y amber — consider post-fame freakouts from Just Like Heaven acts such as Living Thing, Congratulations, and Wet From Birth. For bands like Beach House and MGMT and Phoenix, playing new material was perfectly reasonable and richly rewarded — they all released well-received new records in the past two years and had some flexibility in their setlist. An inflatable penis found its way to the MGMT stage, and it took up maybe two minutes of stage banter — maybe they thought it was a slick way to delay having to play “Kids.”
But Just Like Heaven was tightly scheduled, insinuating to the likes of Peter Bjorn & John, Tokyo Police Club, and Ra Ra Riot to play the damn hits. Some didn’t listen. Tokyo Police Club tempted fate by opening with their nearly nine-minute “Argentina (Parts I, II, III)” and got through two-thirds of it. PB&J played four(!!!) newer songs before getting to “Young Folks,” which they at least seemed happy to play, even if birthday girl Victoria Bergsman flubbed the lead-in to the second chorus and sang almost an entire verse with her mic off (the crowd was more than happy to sub in). “We have a show coming up where we play for two hours instead of five minutes,” Peter harped from the stage, as if anyone seeing them in San Diego the next night isn’t going to want more than two songs from Writer’s Block.
I feel for these bands — it can’t be easy to play “Young Folks” or “Ghost Under Rocks” or “Nature Of The Experiment” the 500th time and make them feel urgent, especially when they’re currently touring and this isn’t a festival that’s inherently newsworthy. Not surprisingly, the bands that pushed the tempo fared best — the Rapture made a convincing rebrand as a Greatest Hits act, playing only three songs from Echoes and a collection of their later, uplift mojo party planners whose goofy energy compensates for some of the dumbest lyrics I’ve ever heard to tape. I absolutely love what the Faint stand for: electro-trash that’s both fashion-minded and highly unfashionable, big ideas rendered in the most blockheaded language and a steadfast commitment to reducing a catalog that’s somehow wildly uneven and also kinda samey to a combustible half-hour. These guys always kill it at festivals. Neon Indian would too if dude put out more music, but he still remains an underappreciated festival act, possibly because he’s forever linked to a genre with a notoriously poor live translation. (Washed Out has improved substantially since their earliest days, but even Sunn O))) have a livelier stage presence.)
That said, absolutely no band came anywhere close to nailing it like Passion Pit. Though Just Like Heaven took place in the middle of a 10-year anniversary run for the bulletproof classic Manners and Michael Angelakos’ recent endeavors inside and outside of Passion Pit indicate he’s trying to navigate far beyond the strictures of the music industry, he performed like someone starving for a record deal on a sunny, stakes-free afternoon in Long Beach. The cramped set time didn’t leave room for much else besides his most ubiquitous songs — we got the first three tracks from Manners, “Eyes As Candles,” “Sleepyhead,” the vastly underrated “1985 (Lifted Up),” and the two big hits from Gossamer. Still dressed in his trademark outfit — an untucked oxford and tie with blue khakis and Nike Killshot 2s, looking and emoting like a junior ad exec five drinks into karaoke night after a 70-hour workweek — he prowled the stage, performed spinkicks, his eardrum-puncturing falsetto shockingly muscular. “I’ve been asleep for a year and a half,” he huffed after “Sleepyhead,” potentially nodding to the well-publicized, darker aspects of his very public struggles with bipolar disorder. Or, it was just a clever segue into the zero-gravity “1985 (Lifted Up).”
There isn’t a single second of Passion Pit’s music that isn’t extra as fuck, and it put the rest of the day into stark relief — with the possible exception of “Maps,” none of these bands made anything as devastatingly confessional as “Constant Conversations,” let alone as boldly declarative as “The Reeling” or deliriously exuberant as “Little Secrets” or as slyly confrontational “Take a Walk” or “Carried Away,” which are basically overcaffeinated Vampire Weekend-style cultural critiques. Much like “boat shoes,” Passion Pit still inspires weirdly superficial “kidz bop” criticism, but I can’t think of any other act this weekend that could inspire such divergent, divisive opinions — note that it was the wildly non-controversial Phoenix who walked out to Prince’s “Controversy.”
But thinking about how Passion Pit was a source of aggression made it clear how the arc of history rarely has a clean break. You think “kids just don’t listen to rock music” is a hot take in 2019? Have you really looked back at 2009? At some point, Phoenix and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were rock bands defined in some way by their relationship to the Strokes — Phoenix’s 2006 album It’s Never Been Like That had been accurately described as “soft rock Strokes,” while YYYs were one of the earliest beneficiaries of the post-Y2K NYC gold rush. But if we’re thinking about what exactly Just Like Heaven is celebrating, recall that their 2009 albums Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and It’s Blitz skewed heavily towards dance music textures. Guitars are present within the set up of MGMT and Passion Pit and Beach House, but mostly people remember the synths and the vocals. Luke Jenner’s wildly erratic vocals and proclivity for tapping riffs make the Rapture honorary emo, but Tokyo Police Club might’ve been the closest thing to a band that actually rocks. That said, Chris Taylor’s unusually distorted bass tone brought Grizzly Bear sorta closer to Death From Above 1979 than I ever thought possible.
For all of its nostalgic appeal, Just Like Heaven was more educational for helping me recognize the ways 2009 parallels the present. Surely, it’s near impossible and maybe even negligent for both musicians and critics to not consider identity politics, intersectionality, and a host of other socioeconomic concerns in their line of work in 2019 — all of which can make the previous decade feel like a time of empty escapism. But whether it’s the druggy hedonism and NYC exceptionalism that arose in the wake of 9/11 or the pastoral whimsy and humanist warmth of freak-folk and Funeral serving as a utopian ideal after the morally reprehensible invasion of Iraq and re-election of George W. Bush or chillwave’s balmy nostalgia taking root alongside the Great Recession…there was something inherently political in all of it, albeit reactionary and somewhat naive about how bad it can really get.
There will always be garbage music to suit the needs of the time. She Wants Revenge were a post-Interpol/DFA cash-in that were fucking terrible and it didn’t take a reassessment of that era’s (or really any) questionable gender dynamics to find “These Things” to be an abomination, unless it’s meant as a Ween-style 4D checkmate of Paul Banks’ catatonic sex toy talk. Does anyone actually miss Shiny Toy Guns or Louis XIV? STRFKR are fun live, and apparently “Chromeo, except wearing NASA suits” is what the game’s been missing. And I don’t really know who BreakBot is, but dude looked like every DJ at a Cobrasnake party and got his fingers dusty diggin’ in the crates for obscurities like “Music Sounds Better With You,” “Le Freak,” and “One More Time.” My only wish is that Just Like Heaven would’ve done a full-on Johnny Rocket’s style recreation and sell American Apparel T’s and cans of Sparks with a Hipster Runoff recap.
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Honestly, I don’t know if I’d ever need to go to Just Like Heaven again when I could just play the home version and imagine my own lineup for next year that shoots for “2010.” Anything sort of dance-y or goth-y and possibly British (or British-sounding) always plays well at these things, which explains why the Faint should always be on the lineup and Franz Ferdinand and Foals would absolutely kill this thing. Booking Sleigh Bells should go without saying, and I can easily picture myself impatiently waiting in line for an Afters Cookie Monster milky bun as Yeasayer runs through “O.N.E.” Hell, maybe Arcade Fire are chastened and diminished enough to consider something like this. And, once again, if the T-shirts are to be believed, this thing would sell out in maybe two minutes if Interpol headlined.
There’s absolutely nothing strange about Interpol and the Strokes and Grizzly Bear and Vampire Weekend sharing space on any honest “00s Indie” playlist, but try telling that to anyone quoted in Meet Me In The Bathroom. For example, Har Mar Superstar: “The whole Grizzly Bear scene, MGMT, do they even party? … They just never lived that grimy thing. I don’t think they even came to the East Village until after we were done with it, until we destroyed it.” That’s one of the kinder things most people in that book have to say about the blog-era bands that typified Just Like Heaven — most proposed a one-step solution to bringing back real rock, which is beating the shit out of Vampire Weekend and possibly the people who like them. Though many of its presumed heroes played a formative role in my youth and I breezed through the thing in a weekend, I couldn’t help agreeing with flamboyantly mustachioed Hold Steady keyboardist Franz Nicolay as he described Meet Me In The Bathroom as, “the peculiar spectacle of one book containing successive generations’ curdled nostalgia pouring downhill in five-year increments.”
I thought a lot about Meet Me In The Bathroom during my downtime and considered how much of it was shaped by a preexisting agenda and if anyone lacked the slightest modicum of self-awareness that might’ve prevented deifying a bunch of NYU kids in business suits as the guardian angels of Real New York Rock, while calling a bunch of Columbia kids in boat shoes villainous gentrifiers. I also thought about Meet Me In The Bathroom a lot because these days, I’m becoming more aware of how much I might sound like Tim Goldsworthy or one of the many others in the stiff competition to be the most embittered asshole in that book whenever I grouse about the current state of things. You know, except that “blogs” are like my version of Brooklyn or whatever, something pure and real before these kids fucked it all up with their earnestness and private-school degrees and social decorum.
“It also seems possible that the apparent prudishness of younger musicians is the natural decency, or discretion, of a generation raised on new language about sexual propriety and fearful of online public shamings for off-the-clock behavior” — this would be an astute observation about the current leading figures of indie rock, except it’s Nicolay talking about the ones from a decade ago. And I’m sure any grousing I do about younger writers or bands or whatever are eerily similar to the things I was told when I was a blogger on the come up in 2006 who thought Blueberry Boat and Deerhoof were unlistenable bullshit. Maybe some of the arguments I might make against the way music is made, covered, analyzed, or remunerated have merit, but I can’t deny they’re all shot through with a corrosive thread of fear. It’s understandable to take cultural shifts as a personal affront when they immediately affect your livelihood, and as much as the grieving process has been documented, I’m not sure it’s any help. “Losing My Edge” made James Murphy rich and famous, but I don’t know if it made him any easier to be around. Enjoy Just Like Heaven while you can — 10 years later, it might be your personal hell.