Mirroring a Generation's Psyche : Why The 1975 are a better pop band than you think
Updated: Jan 6, 2019
Published in London Runway Magazine, 2018
The 1975 are an English pop band who are two steps away from being a rock band and one step away from being a hipster boy band. Their music is pop but they use rock as a sonic and visual influence. Musically they share a lot of common ground with contemporaries like Francis and The Lights, MUNA and HAIM, drawing on 80’s electric guitar riffs, heavily laden pop synths and vocoder reverberations. The result is a sound that is a direct call back to people like Cyndi Lauper and Hughie Lewis and the News. Their image is one that is remindful of emo bands from 2006, with a healthy dose of irony and self-deprecation thrown in for good measure.
As a band, they have polarized listeners and critics. They have been described as "soulless", having “no danger to their music” with “unconvincing emo lyrics” and a sense of style that is “punch your tv obnoxious”. They've also been described as being “Timeless” with a discography of “memorable songs and sharp lyrics” possessing a taste for song writing that is “uncompromising” and “commanding”.
They draw inspiration from the British mod and skinhead aesthetics that dominated underground fashion in northern British cities in the late fifties that came to fruition in the 1960's. The style is comprised of tightly tailored jeans, loose fitting t-shirts, grungy black biker boots and knee length long black wool coats. In addition to adopting this style The 1975's clothes are minimal, androgynous and often entirely black ensembles with the occasional appearance of a Fred Perry polo t shirt or a ruffled white office shirt shoved halfheartedly tucked into into black skin tight jeans.
Their hair is often in the form of an undercut or closely quaffed. Matt Healy's sad, self hating persona is certainly typified by his curly emo quiff kept in place with brill cream. Finally, their somber, stripped back approach to fashion is complimented by their approach to set design (often modernist and basic) and their album art which is remindful of contemporary installation artists like Mark Dion and Dan Flavin who use a lot of pale glass and pink and yellow glow lights.
I should go on the record right now and say that I love the 1975 much to the chagrin of my too- cool-for-school friends. With all of their success, liking the 1975 is not a popular opinion outside of pre teen circles and such an admission will most likely be received with an eye roll or a groan about the decline of modern music. But I personally think they get a bad rap. I find their albums consistently good, their music production creative and accessible and their lyrics intelligent, observant and nuanced.
But, to an extent, I can understand the general dislike. To begin with, they are outsiders of both pop and rock. True rock fans find them wishy washy and insipid whereas true pop fans find them hypocritical, confused and pretentious. I do think this polarization is precisely the band's intent but this is probably inconsequential if one doesn't care for the music to begin with. Matt Healy, the band's front man, seems to have a perpetual sour puss expression on his face that comes across as childish and irritating for a grown man and their songs have been on more than one occasion described to me as watered down and generic which, especially to a serial rock fan, I can understand.
This article came to mind solely because while I can objectively get on board with this criticism, I don't think they get enough credit for shrewdly mirroring the millennial psyche through their lyrics, their image and their nostalgic music production.
The calculated approach to their fashion sense coupled with their minimalist "arty" image brings forward the interior logic of their lyrics which is really where their image and style become crystallized.
It’s not a case of the band Pale Waves where their image is subversive in contrast to their musical style. Rather, in the case of the 1975, by taking inspiration from traditionally edgy aesthetics like mod and skinheads to paying homage to the sad boy myspace emo aesthetic of the early 00's, their image manages to act as a blank canvas for their music and lyrical intent. It acts as a neutral backdrop that compliments the music in a way that results in a band that, from every possible angle, is very generationally indicative. To put it simply, The 1975 could only be a product of the millennial generation.
That being said it’s not simply a case of The 1975 being quintessentially millennial. There are plenty of contemporary pop artists who fit that mold- Taylor Swift, Rhianna and Anne-Marie, among others. It has more to do specifically with the intimacy of their lyrics. They tap into a psyche and interior intimacy that is distinctly theirs and feels very familiar to the millennial ear. Lyrics like “Jane took her own life at 16. She was the kid who had a box tattooed on her arm" (Give Yourself a Try, 2018) have a conversational component that sounds like a conversation happening between two millenials.
In describing people we know or how we feel and act in small ways every day, they access our train of thought, the way all good music does. Their lyrics tend to be structured as small stories with characters that the protagonist either knows or is quietly observing- this dynamic creates an interior world making their lyrics suitable for introspection and escapism. Within tapping into a specific type of familiarity, their lyrics manage to reflect the things that millennial's talk about at five in the morning after several bottles of wine with the people they know the best. This, in my opinion, is what sets them apart from other bands directly reflective of their generation.
The way that the band tells stories mirrors the way the 21'st century Brits converse and joke with one another. "I've been so worried about you lately. You look shit and you smell a bit...she said I'm full of diseases. Your eyes were full of regret. Then you took a picture of your salad then put it on the internet." (Change of Heart, 2016) There is a melancholy self awareness to the way Healy describes characters. They are are sad, self-involved, superficial and yet somehow deeply complex - just like millennials.
Millennials have a tendency to be nihilistic, sarcastic, emotional, creative and politically engaged. Our entitlement is predicated on the idea that that we are somehow the greatest generation to ever live because our formative years were defined by the technological boom, global terror, economic recessions, weekly school shootings and corrupt politics. We have lived through progressive highs like witnessing the first black president, the transgender movement, the legalization of gay marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana. We have also lived through 9/11, The Iraq War, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Brexit and Donald Trump.
It should therefore come as no surprise that this cluster of paradoxical events has made us neurotic, confused and discouraged. It has also made us resilient, in touch with the world's pulse, creative and outspoken. We are the last generation to remember a time before You Tube. We know how to work a VCR and we spent our childhoods riding bikes and talking in our kitchens in hushed tones because the landline phone wasn't cordless yet. This bridge that only we know how to walk has made us potentially the most nostalgic generation of the 20th century.
If this is our context, then it makes sense that our music encompasses a lot of these values and feelings, whether it's the political resonance of Kendrick Lamar's DNA, the exhilarating defiance of Lady Gaga's Born This Way or the child like simplicity of The 1975's Chocolate. Like every generation, our music has commodified our feelings towards the world and each other. And in this case, what is special about the 1975 in my opinion is that they do a really meticulous job of explicating the internal narrative that this generation rides on.
Everything good and bad about the 1975 I agree with. In spite of my fan girl status, I do agree that they are pretentious, narcissistic, self-indulgent, self congratulatory and angsty in a way that often comes off as juvenile. But what interests me about this is the parallels between the adjectives used to describe them, and to describe us In terms of our generation, aren’t these the very same negatives that people often throw in our face? And with all that said, I believe the positives to describe them, and us as a generation, are even more true – nostalgic, ironic, emotional, vulnerable, creative, maybe a little sad but very in touch with the times.
After attempting to discern what it is about the 1975's approach to fashion and music that I am so fond of, I was left with an affirmation of sorts. Are they pretentious, up themselves and somewhat infantile? Oh, absolutely. But they are also creative, vulnerable, ironic and emotional. In the same way that I am proud to be a millennial, I am also happy to say that the reason I like the 1975 is valid- in their visual homage to the iconography of British rock and roll, their nostalgic 80's music production and their sanguine, intimate lyrics they remain a band that successfully convey the interior life of a millennial in a clean, funny, original way. This, in my opinion, is what makes them a better band than general opinion would have you believe.