You’re not supposed to vote for the same song in your annual best-of list three years in a row, but “Sex” is an exceptional song and, as such, I will need to make an exception. The song of which I speak has been recorded three separate times by, for all intents and purposes, three completely different bands. All three of these bands have two things in common — the same four people and the same inability to look cool no matter how hard they try.
And lord, do they try. In late 2011, I had no idea who T H E S L O W D O W N was when their only single was sent my way, but judging from available information — which is to say, none at all — I figured they were some Weeknd knockoff trying to copy its template. Hence, the absurd stylization of the name, the complete absence of information, and without actually hearing the song first, a similar obsession with sex.
What resulted wasn’t some predatory R&B mood music but rather the greatest emo-pop song of the past decade, Jimmy Eat World circa Bleed American plus the blue-balled yearning of Frightened Rabbit, multiplied with the fervor of early U2. There was no chorus, but all kinds of hooks — the singer yelped “she’s got a boyfriend anyway” after every line and during the big crescendo: “now we’re on the bed in my room / and I’m about to fill his shoes / but you say noooooo!” It sounded like Bono had decided to divert his humanitarian efforts toward occupants in the Friend Zone. And instantly, the whole anonymity gambit looked very silly: I thought the whole point of being in an emo band was to meet girls. It sounded way too slick not to be bankrolled by major money, and yet the band's manager made a point to thank me for “my support,” which essentially boiled down to tweeting about them. His name was Ed Blow, which reminded me of the fake names unsigned comedians give themselves when they want you to talk to their “booking agent.” I would’ve found the amateur approximation of a mysterious major-label rollout hilarious if I wasn’t so desperately seeking more. The only “more” I found was that these guys may have also been known in the past as T H E S L O W D O W N, The Slowdown, or Bigsleep, or Drive Like I Do.
But if you doubt the sellability of a couple of cute, nonthreatening Brits who can string together a catchy tune about not getting any, you have no clue how popular Two Door Cinema Club and Bombay Bicycle Club really are. They soon changed their name to the 1975, inspired by scribblings that singer Matthew Healy found on “a book of Beat poetry,” and were signed to Vagrant Records in America. It makes a lot of sense if they planned on following in the vein of “Sex”: Vagrant is now a label that includes the likes of the Hold Steady, PJ Harvey, and AlunaGeorge, but will require at least 30 more years of signing critical favorites before it’s known primarily for something other than turn-of-the-millennium emo as defined by Saves the Day, the Get Up Kids, and Dashboard Confessional.
Instead, the newly minted 1975 were trotted out with a spate of severely titled EPs with severely titled songs with spooky covers and no real sense of direction. They were either a revamp of Simple Minds or they were a careerist post-punk band like Editors or they were a bunch of synth-pop moaners with very negative attitudes toward women. This somehow worked, seemingly in spite of itself, as the 1975 started garnering actual hits. But they bore no similarity to “Sex”; “The City” was borderline post-millennial electronica-pop and “Chocolate” was a squeakier Bombay Bicycle Club bubble-funk song. At this point, the band was becoming a “thing” and I wish I could remember who said that if the 1975 was ever going to release an LP, it would either be the greatest mall-emo record of the past 10 years or sound like Third Eye Blind. Both possibilities were definitely on the table.
And yet, they returned to “Sex” for their third EP, which contained a refurbished, definitive version of the song with slightly upgraded production. And a video that made it clear the 1975 really cared what you thought about them. As expected, it was four ridiculously coiffed young men shot in stark black and white in a garage that looks like nobody’s garage, ever. The most notable visual was an expertly placed Johnny Cash poster; laid over this strident emo-pop that bore no resemblance in any way whatsoever to the Man in Black, it just made me feel like they were those kind of guys, the ones who’d probably tell you Johnny Cash was the first real gangsta rapper or something. People who understood the coolness of Johnny Cash but didn’t want to, y’know, actually listen to country music.
That brings us to the present moment, when “Sex” is the fifth track on The 1975, which was the no. 1 album in the U.K., at least until Arctic Monkeys sent them packing. “Sex” sounds like nothing else on this record, which has been criticized as soulless, prefab pop for its keen ability to recall the past couple of decades of prefab pop — it alternately sounds like Duran Duran covering Living Colour’s “Glamour Boys” (like on “Girls”), the Wanted, the Killers, and also has been likened to Ed Sheeran gone haywire or One Direction, something which has been confirmed by their mutual admiration. “Sex” is now (over)produced to fit the 1975’s current aesthetic, amping up the synthesizers, giving an extra goosing to Healy’s pubescent pipes, and now we have their first colorized visual, a video that’s totally NSFW, bro, starring people who say things like “Do you know when they’re done with all those neon lights, they dump them in a graveyard in the desert … do you think that’s sad?”
That said, The 1975 is a ruthlessly catchy album, quite possibly the most verse-chorus intensive pop-rock record since Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet. It’s almost entirely free of bridges, middle eights, solos, or anything that might dislodge the hooks out of your heads once they get there — and they all get there by the end of the first chorus. But the inclusion of “Sex” and its attendant backstory ends up defining the record, reminding you of how the 1975’s entire existence is predicated on being uncool people trying desperately to convince you they’re cool. And as such, The 1975 is an accidentally interesting record because the band has made what is probably the only teen-pop record meant for actual teen males.
Let me just clarify and say the 1975 isn’t a necessary counterbalance to Carly Rae Jepsen or Ariana Grande or whomever. You’re free to listen to whatever the hell you want and I’m not suggesting that the horny, hetero white male has any problem being heard from in pop culture. What the 1975 manages, however, is unintentionally filling a void that’s hard to discern, but a void nonetheless at the nexus of prevailing trends: teen pop that gets listened to by discerning adults, “indie rock” on major labels, and music-criticism-as-cultural-studies in which nearly every single writer had to offer some opinion as to what the VMAs “meant” this year.
The most crucial part about the 1975 is that they unwittingly fill this void. Because really, that makes it all the more convincing. Over and over again, the 1975 flip the title of the Arctic Monkeys’ similarly sex-drugs-misanthropy-driven debut: Whatever they say they are, they’re not. The main difference is that Arctic Monkeys tackled the same topics with cynicism and cleverness. They sang about youth, while being pretty much over it. Healy is the guy trying too hard to convince you he got laid at the after-prom party; Alex Turner is the guy who ditched it entirely to go hang with some college kids.
Healy often sings about living in a “small town,” probably because it rhymes with a lot of other words. But he absolutely nails the cognitive dissonance of being told you have the entire world within reach, yet here you are as a cock-blocked teen in the suburbs. Healy has claimed that all these songs are autobiographical, and all these real songs are about being fake. “The City” becomes a depressing reminder of the excitement unavailable to you. You might have the ability to talk your way into a club, but because you’re young and have a big mouth, you’ll end up with your ass kicked and no weed and also, you’re broke as shit (“M.O.N.E.Y.”). You dress in all black and call your drugs “chocolate” and your paraphernalia “guns” like you’re the only person who’s ever thought of that. Your older brother tries to put you onto some game (“Girls”), but you don’t listen, because when you actually get the girl, you can’t keep your hands off her (“Settle Down”). Oh, and then there’s “Sex,” which is the centerpiece of The 1975 because it’s the only sound you can give to the impotent yearning associated with the most unfortunate of formative teen male experiences: getting absolutely played by a girl because she knows she can get away with it.
There’s also a ridiculous power ballad called “Robbers” — not “Gangstas” or even “Gangsters.” Not even “Criminals” or “Villains.” It tries to hearken to some of their literary ideals by teasing out some adrenalized sexual fetish attributable to a crime spree. It just mostly reminds me of the plot engine of the video for “High Enough,” the enduring hit from finely mulleted Ted Nugent/Styx offshoot Damn Yankees, which couldn’t have possibly been the intent. But it’s a key track since it underlines how they fancy themselves as outlaws, when in reality, they’re just misfits. And that gives The 1975 something most records of its ilk lack, which is a discernible personality. Yes, it’s fumbling for an identity, but let’s remember that when you’re 18, that’s not a character defect.
And the 1975 really live that life when you consider their position among their peers. It’s not just the acts that have in spades what the 1975 endearingly lack: composure and confidence. The same goes for the sort of Gallic arena synth-rock acts that serve as the templates for bands like the 1975 and to much, much lesser extent, their soon-to-be neighbors on KROQ like the Neighbourhood and Bastille. Oddly enough, Phoenix’s new album had a song called “Trying to Be Cool” on it, but that’s funny because Thomas Mars is a wealthy rock star and married to Sofia Coppola and thus doesn’t have to try to be cool. Cool tries to be him. The 1975 are trying to be cool, but they’ll never, ever, ever admit to such insecurity no matter how obvious it is. Meanwhile, “Heart Out” and “Settle Down” have enough “hey!” punctuation and sax soloing to ride M83’s coattails, but Anthony Gonzalez’s John Hughes fantasias are strictly PG — a lyric from “Heart Out” goes “Your obsession with rocks and brown and fucking the whole town are a reflection of your mental health,” and that’s territory on the complete opposite side of the map from “Midnight City.”
Most of my colleagues don’t like this record at all and I don’t really blame them. I think back to Grantland writer Rembert Browne explaining why he was the only person who voted for 2 Chainz’s Based on a T.R.U. Story in the 2012 Pazz & Jop poll — sometimes, you have to sidestep your learned, “professional” critical faculties and listen like a teenager. How else do all these filler-packed, but still kinda classic alt-rock and hip-hop records endure in our iPods? How does the economy of Stone Temple Pilots and Fountains of Wayne and Black Rob jokes sustain itself on Twitter?
Ask a teenager what their favorite records of the year are, and if they can muster it, it’ll be the ones they’ve listened to the most. This hardly seems radical until you think about how many other factors infiltrate a discerning adult listener’s evaluation — the assumed importance, pacing, its relationship to genre, etc. I’m sure Deafheaven’s Sunbather will top my own albums list come December, but there’s almost no way I’ll listen to it more than The 1975. I need 50 minutes of my full attention for Sunbather; you can’t give it 25 and come back later, nor can you listen to it twice in a day without taking an ice bath in between. The 1975 is just as long, but meant to be heard in fitful, 15-minute chunks, which is usually the time it takes a teen to get from one place to anywhere they truly need to be. (One of the 1975's EPs was titled Music for Cars, which, duh.) And it’s structured like a hip-hop record, which makes sense since they’re on Interscope now: You’ve got the singles that have been around forever (“Sex,” “Chocolate,” “The City”) pushed right to the front, a couple of pointless skits, and a couple of total duds. Which is sort of formatted like teenhood itself — you remember the good stuff, try as hard as possible to cut out the biggest embarrassments, and forget just how much time you spent doing nothing. Maybe your experience was different, but The 1975 is pretty much like my 1995 as a 15-year-old: It’s pissy, pissed off, victimized, and entitled, saddled with an unyielding urge to do something, and somehow doesn’t realize it’s full of shit even with its head stuck up its own ass. But damn if I can’t relate and love it like a little brother at the same time.