Before reading this piece, I highly recommend watching the music video for The 1975’s The Sound.
Music video culture has increasingly become the space for dialogue around not only the song it is made for, but the holistic image and sound of a particular musical artist. Artists increasingly use videos as branding and advertising strategies, presenting themselves as the spokesperson for a particular commercial brand or as the figurehead of a social movement. Music videos have moved away from being pieces of art and have increasingly become social media and branding spaces, a ‘look at me being a superstar with my Beats Pill and super expensive sneakers that only my true fans can afford while I talk about racial issues’.
With this sort of commercial pop music, and its associated video media, being churned out in mass form, it is clear that artists who are actively seeking to push against this wave of heavily branded music are being forced to become increasingly abstract and weird in order to stand out.
But the 1975 is taking a different approach.
The British band is taking a stand against the criticism they have faced as being a strangely generic reproduction of old synth pop styles, as being somehow unoriginal and inauthentic in their image as an alternative rock band. In a bid to challenge and push back against these comments, The 1975 have channelled their reaction into their work. Their newest music video, The Sound, is a piece of protest art.
“We’re not a pop band, and it feels like a really pop video, the whole scenario is not really what we’re about. It needs to be black and white for a start…”
– Opening dialogue to The 1975’s Girls music video
The 1975 are known for their tongue in cheek music video commentary, reacting to criticism or questions about their authenticity as a band by making videos that deliberately subvert the audience’s expectations. “We’re not a pop band” say The 1975 in the opening of the music video for Girls, a music video designed to address rumours about the change in their music video aesthetic since being signed to their record label. Questions about the band’s change in style from black and white music videos to colour music videos were raised with the release of the music video for Sex, with audiences condemning both the band and the label for the seemingly pressured slide into a generic pop aesthetic, as though somehow removing the black and white colour scheme removed the band’s whole music style.
So the band reacted. They made a pop music video. In colour. Looking immensely bored.
And they laughed at the critics.
Whilst using a music video as a platform for pushing back against critics is not in any way a new phenomenon, it is the use of this form of protest that makes The 1975’s message potentially more discrete to viewers. Unless you know the politics behind the aesthetic choices of the band, you may miss the cleverly chosen elements that construct the band’s protest style, as hidden behind the veneer of a seemingly pop-alt-rock sound.
The 1975 have a firm grasp on their aesthetic, on their music, styling and image – and they like to play with it, tease their audience and their critics with their art. The 1975 have become true masters of artistic expression in music videos, even if it does not appear this way to the casual viewer.
And you say I’m such a cliche,
I can’t see the difference in it either way.
-The Sound, The 1975
The 1975 have characteristically pushed back against the idea that they are a ‘pop’ band, to disentwine themselves from the work of all-male pop bands, despite their seemingly pop-influenced music style. There is lingering feeling in the music industry, that anything popular is not ‘good’ music, that good music can only exist outside popularity. But I think there is an important distinction to be made between pop music, and pop-art music.
The pop-art movement, which took elements of popular culture and reconfigured them into pieces of art that doubled as a critique and examination of popular culture consumption, and ideas of ‘good’ art
I would place The 1975 in the same sort of category as the pop-art movement, or at the very least, they are heavily influenced by it, playing with the dynamics of popular art consumption as part of their own aesthetic, toying with their audience as they both encourage consumption of their own image and critique the very nature of popular music consumption.
So it is fitting that the electro-pop-synth beat of The Sound is The 1975’s new platform for pushing back against music critics. To use The Sound as the backing track for this alt-rock-protest, whilst seemingly obvious, does all the work it should to play into the band’s music-as-pop-art agenda, the lyrics spinning around in rhythmic repetition, whilst playing with the idea of a sound, “the” sound, as a singular regulated art form, with only one right answer in the industry.
The music video itself is brilliantly devised. The band are placed in a lone large glass box that sits in a dark room, the box lit at the edges by the signature pink neon glow that the band’s image has become synonymous with. They quite literally centre themselves as a framed artwork, seemingly open for inspection. Clad in all black, the band perform “The Sound” whilst being viewed by various uniformed critics with clipboards and silent discussion. The staging of the band’s black and white visualisation is deliberately framed by the neon pink and pastel of the scene – a visual marker of their disgruntled protest against their leather clad alt-rock image not being considered realistic next to their neon bubble-gum synth pop, as though the two must be mutually exclusive.
The performance footage is intercut with pale pink title cards, with common comments from both critics and hipster type audiences, trying to be cool in a world that conflates ‘popular’ art with ‘bad’ art:
“This band thinks it has a charismatic singer…they are mistaken” … (translation) Somehow charisma is a fixed objective concept.
“There’s no danger in this music at all” … (translation) Of course alt-rock has to be dangerous to be authentic.
“I only heard Chocolate once, but I hated it”… A single song can speak for a whole band’s image right? Plus I am waaay too hipster to like something mainstream.
“Boring. Recycled. Wannabes.” … (translation) Music can’t be good if it uses other work as a basis for influence. Anyone who doesn’t do what I think is right is lacking imagination.
These plain text intercut title cards are a simple but powerful element of the music video, positioned almost as silent film dialogue cards for the critics that stand around the band’s glass casing. These voiceless critiques of the band’s aesthetic vision, their lack of ‘pure alternative rock’ style, their 1980s synth pop influence, are hardly protest pieces alone. Yet, just by placing them in between shots of the band performing with total disregard for the critics with their clipboards and matching uniforms, these placards become pieces of statement art that shout ‘you are calling us out for calling you out, you are telling us we are unoriginal, so how about we talk about what you are saying, and how unoriginal your comments are’.
And then, a shift, a moment’s pause as the camera shows the band sitting in an almost judge’s panel set up as the smoked up neon box is shown to have the critics of the last few minutes trapped inside. Now, it is the band looking at them, finding them to be cliché masters of regurgitated commentary.
And then in the final shot, the frame snaps back to the band’s original black and white. They are The 1975. They are their own brand of hybrid music and aesthetics that create a unique piece of pop-art-music style out of their alt-rock origins. And they don’t care what you think.
The truth of it is that we are involved in an industry and a culture where alternative music is becoming increasingly mainstream and more popular than ever. To condemn this very music for its commercial successes seems unnecessarily harsh when it is the interest in the new, different and alternative that this genre actively sparks that is making people notice and care for it. The 1975 are making people rethink their approach to consumption of popular alternative music styles.
Art is all about mixing things that would not normally be construed as successfully collaborative forces, and The 1975 are masters in pulling apart this dynamic. The Sound is just a glimpse of their work in challenging notions of what art is in relation to popularity and consumption, and their open championing of the aesthetics of hybrid art forms and styles. I can only hope that they continue to challenge the music industry’s measures of success and popular ‘good’ music, because the music industry and its critics really need a reality check.
© Hayley New 2016
The 1975’s new album I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it is available now.