Foxygen might be my least favorite band of all time. Their new record We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic is, much like its title, tacky, cutesy, and boring in equal measure. The record’s lifelessness and unoriginality serves a testament to the prolonged, post-Arcade Fire death rattle that indie rock is currently experiencing. They are a band whose popularity is founded upon the insipid economic conjecture that people will pay for the same unoriginal bullshit over and over again as long as it’s comforting to them. Foxygen is the Olive Garden; the perennially rebooted Hollywood superhero franchise; simply yet another link in the endless, cynical Doritos Tacos Locos Doritos chain that is our society. And yet, sometimes in order to truly understand yourself, you must confront that which you cannot stand. It is a character-building exercise of sorts; the psychic equivalent of walking on a bed of hot coals, and it is why I decided to watch Foxygen perform at Pitchfork 2013.
Performing early in the afternoon band took the stage to a field of enthusiastic fans, and almost immediately one could tell that something was amiss. Foxygen was playing sloppily, sarcastically almost, as if they’d lived with their material so long that they were beginning to hate it. As the band flailed about, lead singer Sam France decided to climb the side of the stage, got halfway to the top, and as if his spirit had been broken, listlessly climbed down in time to continue singing. I have never been more sad to see a dude give up in the process of doing a dumb thing than ever before. However, this spirit of aimless frustration permeated Foxygen’s set. After a few minutes of his between-song banter falling flat, France started making sarcastic comments about Lil B, who was playing the same stage later that day. Things got worse, with dead silence between the band’s songs hitting upwards of two minutes. Frank and Jonathan Rado (Foxygen’s primary instrumentalist) then began testily snipping at each other, and then the all-seeing ire of Frank turned to the festival itself. I can’t recall his exact wording, but he said something to the effect of, “Red Bull can go fuck itself, American Apparel can go fuck itself, and Pitchfork can go fuck itself.” It was damn near a psychic break. I felt as if I’d been confronted with the portrait of Kramer in that one episode of Seinfeld. On that day, Foxygen was a loathsome, offensive brute of a band. And yet I couldn’t look away.
While I wouldn’t call what I witnessed a full-on meltdown, the set was definitely colored by the same unique shades of disaster that characterized Wavves’ performance at the 2009 Primavera Sound Festival. Wavves, then in its 1.0 iteration, found leader Nathan Williams on a cocktail of drugs, squabbling with drummer Ryan Ulsh, and failing to actually perform any songs before getting booed off the stage. Nathan Williams recovered from his freakout, and it’s likely that their Pitchfork set won’t have too big of an impact upon the ultimate trajectory of Foxygen’s career. However, it’s in these singular, telling moments that one of the unfortunate truths about the music industry today is revealed: if you’re not careful, the buzz cycle will chew you up, spit you out, and leave you for dead.
When a band like Foxygen becomes very popular very quickly, a few things happen. One, they have to go on tour, perhaps for the first time. Touring is stressful—you have to hang out with the same people for long stretches of time with no breaks, and you have to go out in front of a bunch of strangers and play the same songs every single night. If you are lucky, touring will lead to your having unfulfilling sex with a stranger.
Since Foxygen was just two guys, they had to hire touring players to flesh their band out. More people means the dynamics of the band change. If you don’t have anything to talk to your bandmates about, there’s always the prospect of getting fucked up all of the time to relieve the monotony of tour. Inevitably, however, this only makes touring even more grueling because now your wasted, selfish bandmates are fucking each other over in fits of drunken/drugged-up rage. Playing material you’re sick of with people you don’t particularly care for is hell enough, but the structure of the buzz cycle demands product to sell: more shows, more interviews, and most importantly more music. When a band makes a great record—which, regardless of my feelings on the band, many people have anointed We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic as—they have all the time in the world to make that record everything they can. Even if Foxygen had an inkling that they were about to blow up, they were still solely motivated by ambition and a will to succeed. With all sorts of external pressures descending upon you, you tend to crack. Many forget why they fell in love music in the first place.
Foxygen are prisoners of their own buzz, and now they have to sleep in the bed they’ve made, trapped in a hideous machine they failed to understand until it was too late. With any luck, they’ll right the ship, but I won’t be there to find out either way. After 30 minutes, I left Foxygen out of frustration and disgust. Hopefully, their set served as a lesson to whichever unlucky bastards are in their spot next year.
Drew Millard had more fun watching Autre Ne Veut than he did watching Foxygen. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard
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