The Albums That Defined 2015 explores how this year's most influential records have shaped and reflected the wider music landscape. Today, how pop and indie are blurring together. Or at least meeting in the middle.
I'll admit, it feels a bit disingenuous to finish out our Albums That Defined 2015 series with I Love You, Honeybear. If Father John Misty defined 2015 in any way, it was by not fitting in. But Josh Tillman knows this, which is how he was able to play his outdated Gen X counterculturalism into so many pageviews, whether he was premiering his album in a MIDI streaming service he called SAP or covering Ryan Adams covering Taylor Swift while possessed by the ghost of Lou Reed. He was commenting on the clickification of music while actively participating in its discoverness and sharehood.
“I’m a person who upholds certain dualities that I think a lot of musicians now view as being quaint,” he told Billboard in a characteristically self-reflective interview this year at Pitchfork Paris. “I’m very suspicious of the mainstream, which is definitely the height of quaint. I think that the lines have blurred in superficial ways, I think certain dualities still exist and that there’s value in judging something as objectively as you can based on its sophistication or its beauty or its dignity.”
He's right about one thing: that attitude is definitely quaint in 2015. Though he spent the year poking and smirking at pervasive cultural phenomena from behind his novelty sunglasses, as a cultural figure himself Father John Misty is actually very, very conservative. Yes, I Love You, Honeybear offers a sharp take on courtship and infatuation that includes ugliness and jealousy. But what's more conservative in 2015 than a beard with a guitar? What's more old-fashioned than wordy folk-rock about love, boredom and the (white, male, middle-class) human condition? At this point "the next Dylan" is almost sounds a curse. Even if the music is clever or insightful, it feels boring by default. It feels done to death.
What's more old-fashioned than wordy folk-rock about love, boredom and the (white, male, middle-class) human condition? Even if the music is clever or insightful, it feels boring by default. It feels done to death.
Snarling over heavy guitars and drums feels like an expression of frustration and rebellion, and artists are no longer ready to accept that as a mode owned by angry young men. Just like the riot grrrls did in the '90s when guitars were still the primary instrument of the counter-culture, bands like Dilly Dally, G.L.O.S.S. and Speedy Ortiz have refreshed the genre by changing its perspective. Their growling frustration comes from lifetimes of lived sexism in the music industry, of being harassed or assaulted at shows, of being mistaken for groupies or girlfriends just because they are in bands.
One solution is to turn up their amps and reclaim that space as loudly as they can. Another is to reject it entirely, which might explain why so many new artists from all over the spectrum are stowing those guitars back in the garage and instead reaching for their production software.
As much as rock has, until relatively recently, largely been a boy's club, pop has been a billionaires club. But to create good pop music you no longer need access to A&R or studio time or the latest Swedish songwriting apprentice of Max Martin. You can be an anonymous British club kid with a Warhol complex. You can be a McGill neuroscience dropout rising out of Montreal's Mile End loft scene. Or, like The Weeknd, you can take that Max Martin leap, but reject his prefab songs-for-sale model for an unheard-of bespoke collaboration that elevates your underground-honed aesthetic to Thriller-level heights.
Tillman is right about one thing: since "poptimism" stopped being a contrarian critical stance and became the default mode of most working music writers, we're living in a strange bizarro world where Justin Bieber is the most streamed artist in Williamsburg and cultural studies candidates risk ostracization if they don't yell "YAS QUEEN" every time Beyoncé comes up in conversation.
But those “700-word Sasha Frere Jones Katy Perry reviews in The New Yorker" that drive him so nuts have also contributed to a landscape of better, more interesting pop music. Things like Chilly Gonzales' Pop Music Masterclass, the Switched on Pop podcast and John Seabrook's new book The Song Machine have showed there's a desire to deconstruct and understand the mechanics of pop music, and it's not just coming from record execs with dollar signs in their eyes.
Those pop conventions were shunned or inaccessible until very recently for many grassroots artists, and so now as rock seems more and more like the music of their parents, those are the ones they're reaching for. For many new musicians, the goal isn't to generate a goldmine hit, but just to make good music. That little shift has opened it up to new and different perspectives and opened the (streaming) door to many pop songs that otherwise would probably die on radio.
And, sometimes, that slight skew gives them the potential to become actual hits. If the key to musical pleasure is familiarity plus novelty, as many psychologists have said it is, weirdos like Grimes are in the best position to produce it. And sometimes putting themselves behind it is as exciting and radical as screaming over a guitar.
As it always does, the music industry sees that trend and is looking for ways to exploit it for profit. That's where artists like Halsey come from (get this: a pop singer with blue hair), and it's why artists like Selena Gomez are suddenly enunciating like aliens (or at least Alanis Morissette). It's also given erstwhile indie artists like Dev Hynes, Ariel Rechtshaid and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij new careers as pop producers for the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX and Tinashe.
Pop artists are coming from both top down and bottom up, but they're meeting somewhere near the middle. And that middle is the playing field for all them: YouTube, Spotify, even Pitchfork.
So where's the duality? And does it make a sound?
More of THE ALBUMS THAT DEFINED 2015: