In mixed company of years past, I would often make the public claim that, while I wasn’t a die-hard fan of Lady Gaga, I was at least glad she exists. By this point in time (let’s call this two-thousand-and-late or so), the pop zeitgeist was recovering from the years Britney spent with a shaved head and wondering what it was all worth. In arguments with baby boomer rockists, I would often claim that thanks to her — for the first time since at least early ‘90s Madonna (if not the late ‘70s Bowie that Gaga so expertly riffed off of) — it seemed like a freak was calling the shots of what it meant to be pop. And under such circumstances, pop culture is always far, far better off than when it’s run by straights (the Spearses, the Timberlakes, etc., you know the kind).
Having arrived at Barclay’s holding Flo + her Machine in a bit higher regard than Gaga, I find myself arriving at a similar conclusion. But I also wondering why it feels like this Florence Welch hasn’t gotten enough credit for making music freakier (and building a fan base big enough to fill two nights at Not-Madison-Square-Garden-But-Close along the way). More on this in a moment.
There’s this trope in music I’m slowly getting really tired with. I call it “Pop Song: THE POP SONG!” This is after my girlfriend who works in the film industry and when she sees marketing for an upcoming movie that seems a tad too meta, we joke that said advertisement is “Now introducing… Movie: THE MOVIE!”
The basic tenants of the trope are this: If you’re writing a song that doesn’t already sound like it’s own club remix, chances are it opens with lots of people stomping and or clapping. A lead vocal with lots of reverb envelops the mix and spouts words that make the average American laborer excited to endanger their existence on the morning commute. The stomping turns into a hypnotic club bass drum track and the clapping into some form of marching band percussion, probably a rolling snare drum. The remaining arrangement usually involves a large horn section, something to allow for anachronistic fashion choices in music videos, and moreover, is meant to court both the greatest response from a festival audience along with the interests of the greatest number of licensing directors for the ad departments of high profile tech companies as possible.
I’ve basically just described every song in Imagine Dragons’ discography, and that’s okay. Every era has to have their cliches. The point is this is a thing, and I’m not really sure it has its own distinct pejorative yet. (Besides the ‘monogenre’? But that can get messy…)
And the thing is, Florence Welch is a very gifted writer of many great “Song!: THE SONG!”s, at least in texture, anyway.
In execution however, combined with her sheer olympian vocal talent and her finesse as a lyricist, it’s hard for even a naysayer to resist their power, forget about in front row of a place like Barclays. In fact, as Flo so delicately explained to her audience that night before performing “Rabbit Heart: Raise it Up”, more than one of her songs in this vein are (apparently) inspired by recovering from various hangovers.
(Sidenote: Flo’s so-called Machine also apparently knows how to party. While explaining which songs in her set were inspired by hangovers, the singer outed one of her keyboard players, frequent collaborators, and first of the Machine cohort, Isabella Summers for getting sick behind her instrument mid-set.)
Which is all great because recovering from a sordid night of substance abuse is really the only time I can imagine listening to anything that sounds like Imagine Dragons and being inspired. So it’s a plus that the Machine, while so remarkably consistent in arrangement especially between bigger songs, is one of the most unique sounding ensembles in pop today.
What’s even more unique about all this is that all of her Song!s are not necessarily her ‘hits’. No, the actual Florence & the Machine songs that end up on the radio tout the full force and fury of said Machine: this austere ensemble whose intrigue oscillates between a dark, seductively jangly new wave rhythm section and the supporting cast of backup vocals and horns worthy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”.
That such a format is a commercially viable thing in 2016 and has been for nearly a decade is actually a pretty mind-blowing accomplishment when you think about it. And again, why does Gaga (or her music overlords’ hand-chosen replacement, Sia, or really anyone else) come to mind when we think of the people who are keeping pop music as weird as it should be?
On the one hand, whatever. Keep doing you, Flo. On the other…
Seriously, why do people call Taylor Swift the new Stevie Nicks? Like I get it, blonde hair, intrigue over personal lives. But still?
In speaking of folks keeping music weird, Grimes is also here. She’s slowly entering that status of musician for whom no writer may need to write another word for another think-piece about. But she did perform a brief and interrupted opening set for this concert, so here it goes.
As I mentioned before, the “Song: THE SONG!” trope tends to find a home in festivals and tech company TV ads. Strangely enough, Grimes — whose music is (appropriately) lofted for being so transcendent of both modern pop and indie while elevating both genres with her two excellent full-length records — has only achieved any notoriety in the public sphere via festivals and tablet ads but it is more likely you know her from that Microsoft spot.
In which case, it should be more difficult for me to dispel the notion that her music negates rather than trivializes the exact trope I’m describing. Either way, the whole conundrum does make this otherwise strange billing between her and Flo pretty synergetic. The fact that there’s a Calvin Harris cover in the headliner’s set really throws up the whole checkers board here.
In reading a dismissive review of the last Gwen Stefani album in Pitchfork recently, my mind kept running to comparison the writer made of Stefani being to mid-90s pop what more or less what Grimes represents today. If positing the reverse leaves a bad taste in your mouth, I get why. I’m not really sure if having the song in a tablet ad is the equivalent of scoring a first hit titled “I’m Just a Girl”, as with so much beyond either musician’s control.
On the other hand, was No Doubt opening for anyone five years into their commercial breakthrough? Could we call what Grimes has a commercial breakthrough in terms No Doubt’s A&R person in 1994 would understand? Was that Gwen Stefani had a rocky relationship with the act that made her famous what places her on par with a now staple indie music act of the last five years opening for one of the most interesting acts in pop today?
No to that last one, but she is arguably the biggest operating artist today who started out making beats on Garageband. Perhaps a more appropriate analogy might be saying Grimes is to marginalized voices in the realms of music production today what Joey Ramone was for little boys in the ‘70s who could barely play guitar: they make the whole endeavor of musical creation not just as frantically awesome as it should be, but a realistic possibility for anyone interested too. Or perhaps only when juxtaposed by the free flowing siren of Florence Welch can the spunkiness and sophomoric temperament that is Grimes be fully realized.
Can music please stay this weird, under this big of a tent? History chuckles and asks “sure, but for how long?” As long as these bad ass queen bees are saying so, apparently.