The Anniversary

We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic Turns 10

Jagjaguwar
2013
Jagjaguwar
2013

Urban Outfitters helped make Foxygen, but Urban Outfitters also almost destroyed them. “I think it possibly killed my interest in playing live,” Foxygen multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rado said on a 2020 episode of the Dante Elephante Podcast, recalling one of his band’s earlier shows, which took place in an Urban Outfitters as part of a CMJ festival. There were just four of them on stage, he explained, with twinkly lights set up for ambiance—”brutal image…it looked like an Urban Outfitters ad,” he groaned—and Rado’s vintage Vox amp broke during the performance, leaving only drums, bass, and other main Foxygen member Sam France’s vocals. The show couldn’t go on.

Rado told this story as an illustration of how stressful and straining it is to perform with retro gear—but it wouldn’t be the only way Foxygen had to deal with the risks of embracing the machines of the past. By Rado’s own admission, a key part of what made the group rocket to buzz-band status was the way that their breakthrough album — We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic, released 10 years ago this Sunday — mined the sounds of the ’60s. “21st Century hit at such a specific point in time—it was right when people were getting interested in turntables again,” he said later on the same podcast. “So that record sold a lot of records because people wanted to buy this old, ’60s-sounding record and play it on their Urban Outfitters Crosley thing.”

The Kinks/Rolling Stones/Bob Dylan sound was only part of what made the album such a sensation, earning the coveted Best New Music designation from Pitchfork at the tail end of the period when that had the power to fundamentally transform a band’s career. It certainly didn’t take a pop-music scholar to notice how much France is channeling Mick Jagger on opener “In The Darkness” or Ray Davies on “No Destruction,” but for many, especially upon initial listen, that didn’t obscure the point that the songs were remarkably endearing and smart in their own way.

Maybe I wasn’t challenging myself enough at that time to journey to the cutting edge of pop music, but when I think back on my first impressions of 21st Century, playing the singles on my crummy little laptop speakers in my crummy little apartment in San Francisco, I don’t recall anything other than the fact that I enjoyed it for what it was. It was sort of like watching a period-piece movie — both a modern commentary on a certain era and a de facto embrace of its charms.

But the vintage aura, expertly cultivated by producer Richard Swift, simultaneously tethered a bell-bottom-clad albatross to the band’s neck. The sonic touchstones on the record are so clear that no contemporary review — and I mean no review, good or bad — failed to fixate on them, and this gave detractors easy ammunition. “[The album title] is a big fat lie,” read The Quietus’ scathing review, “given that the closest this has come to anything post-1970 is the fact that I am listening to it on the modern technological wonder that is Spotify.”

Over at Vice, in a blog post plainly titled “Here’s Why Foxygen Sucks,” the author wrote, “They are a band whose popularity is founded upon the insipid economic conjecture that people will pay for the same unoriginal bullshit over and over again as long as it’s comforting to them.” After the novelty of their act started to wear off, it felt like the tide began to slowly turn on Foxygen. At the end of 2013, Pitchfork didn’t include 21st Century on their 50 Best Albums of the Year list; by 2021, they would retroactively downgrade their score from an 8.4 to a 6.3.

2013 was the year Foxygen arrived for most, and 21st Century is in some sense their first proper LP. But the band existed for a surprising amount of time before then, especially when you consider the fact that Rado and France were only just able to legally drink when their “debut” came out. The origins of the band go back to around 2005, when they were both theater kids at Agoura High School outside Los Angeles and the impetus of their music was creating art that could be performed at 1,000 miles per hour, making people laugh, or move, or squirm. “We’re forever kind of lumped in with [the psych/garage-rock wave of the early 2010s],” France said on his own episode of the Dante Elephante Podcast, “but I think of Foxygen as like Beck or Flaming Lips — that kind of era, in that whimsical, colorful sort of attitude that all those bands had. That’s what I think Foxygen is.”

They spent their teenage years self-recording deliberately absurd projects with ridiculous titles like Jurrassic Exxplosion Phillipic and only first put together something truly resembling a rock record in 2011, when they released the 35-minute “EP” Take The Kids Off Broadway, a structurally unpredictable set that’s sort of like if they made the whole Beatles out of “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)” — and if the Fab Four preferred Adderall to weed. The point is, it was a far cry from an attempt to make their own version of “Waterloo Sunset.”

This is the trait that people sometimes seem to miss when talking about Foxygen: For all the comparisons that can be made to classic-rock titans, the band is never nearly as self-serious as most of those acts. (Aside from Lou Reed, it’s hard to imagine anyone the band has been likened to singing the infamous line from “No Destruction,” “There’s no need to be an asshole, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore.”) “[Foxygen is] not a joke, it’s not comedy rock,” Rado told a French television reporter in 2014, “but it’s not, like, ‘serious songwriter, here’s my deepest feelings’ music. It’s somewhere in between that. I think that’s what people kind of like about it.”

In this sense, it’s helpful to think about 21st Century as both a legitimate attempt to emulate a style that Rado and France adore as well as a postmodern put-on about the ridiculousness of two dorky drama-club kids from the suburbs pretending they’re Keith and Mick. That’s perhaps easier to process from the distance of being able to view the whole Foxygen output to this point—an over-caffeinated tongue-in-cheek discography that careens and bounces around the room in ways equally beguiling as entertaining. When considering it in the context of a platter-spilling double album like 2014’s …And Star Power or an orchestral fever dream like 2017’s Hang, 21st Century feels almost quaint. And in a career that would soon become bogged down with chaos, breakup rumors, and upsetting interpersonal drama involving assault accusations and a restraining order, it’s hard not to wish that quaintness had stuck around.

Rado and France recorded 21st Century in just nine days at Swift’s home studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and Rado has since said that the experience inspired him to pursue his own home-studio operation. “I always say we can’t take 100 percent credit for that record,” Rado said in 2020. “So much of the sound of it is Swift. We had a really good idea of all the songs and went and demoed, but he instilled that sound onto that record. We didn’t engineer anything.”

In the years since, Rado has become his own Swift-like entity, producing/co-producing great records like Alex Cameron’s Forced Witness and Weyes Blood’s recent landmark And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow. The 2019 Foxygen album Seeing Other People landed with a bit of a thud, though, and now that the band is semi-credibly suggesting that it’s really, seriously over, their future is one big question mark. But as long as Rado’s production presence in the indie scene continues, the legacy of Foxygen — and 21st Century — remains undeniably tangible.

It’s a strange feeling to be nostalgic for an album that is itself nostalgic for a different era. One benefit that distance has provided for me in looking at a work like 21st Century is some clarity on how little it matters what era certain music sounds like it’s from, in the big picture. In Foxygen’s case, would it really have been better if they sounded more like their contemporaries in 2013, rather than less like them? (Does it bother you to listen to the ’60s band the Dukes Of Stratosphear, even though it’s actually XTC and they made it in the ’80s?) And anyway, when you put the album on now, it doesn’t make much difference. Sure, the schtick is laid on a little thick at times — and, sure, “On Blue Mountain” does ape “Suspicious Minds” — but either you like it or you don’t. It’s not the job of every musician with a guitar in their hand to reinvent the wheel of rock and roll.

In February 2013, I went to see Foxygen at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco — which felt more poignant at the time than it actually was, given that one of their singles was called “San Francisco.” (“I left my love in San Francisco,” France sings on that track, referencing the Tony Bennett song, sounding less like he’s pining for someone in SF so much as he forgot someone there at a reststop.) It was a split bill with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and toward the end of their set, someone puked in the center-middle area of the general admission floor. People distanced themselves from the nastiness as best they could, but once Foxygen started playing, there was no way for attendees charging through in the dark to know why there was an opening in the floor area until they were already stomping through the mess. Those poor souls would register too late, and then shove their way out, until the cycle would repeat itself again and again, as Foxygen were singing about “a hilltop in the wind” and “the door of consciousness.” It was disgusting, it was hilarious — but most of all it was just plain memorable. I couldn’t have asked for more.

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