Why, Exactly, Are The 1975 So Successful?
To understand how the hell they've achieved this, we need to lean in closer, to the intricacies of their songwriting.
Lead image courtesy of PR
There is something about The 1975 that makes me look. I did not ‘grow up’ with them – their self-titled debut was released five years ago, and I’m in my mid-twenties. Still, their music ignites a fierce nostalgia in me when it plays. They sing about drugs, sex and adolescence with thick-knit rock instrumentation and emotionally charged, retro synths. Their general aesthetic – leather, neon and wordy album titles – has a hint of recklessness that keeps it from being *too* clean. Frontman Matt Healy exudes a sort of chaotic rockstar aura, too. Bound up in all this, there’s an appealing combination of glamour and realism that keep them interesting.
I’m clearly not the only person who thinks this. They’re monstrously successful. Their debut album is certified platinum in both the UK and US, having sold nearly half a million copies in each. Their last album, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It – yeah, I wasn’t joking about the wordy titles thing – debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart and reached number 1 in five countries. They’ve got another album, A Brief Enquiry into Online Relationships, coming out in October, and another, in May 2019, called Notes On A Conditional Form. There’s something calm and confident about announcing two albums at once, but they’re probably aware that both are likely to do well.
Still – despite this – I can’t help but think most people file their music under “good but also very average pop music.” We’ve already spoken at length about how they are the most loved and hated band in the world, and this dichotomy persists today. Pitchfork have never given their albums more than a ‘6’ rating. The Guardian once described them as having “contracted a raging case of the Serious Artists,” with the implication that they aren’t. There are probably a lot of people out there confused about why the hell people like them. From the outside, they’re just a standard pop-rock band with a frontman who has floppy hair. But I’m here to explain that there’s more to them than that – it just takes some rigorous digging to unearth it.
To better understand their successes, it’s worth leaning in a little closer – towards the intricacies of their music, and what tends to elevate pop songwriting. The melodies that stick inside our brains for the longest, for instance, are often the ones that make use of larger intervals (i.e. notes that are further apart than just one step up or down a scale, like in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Happy Birthday”) – and The 1975 use this exact device in a large portion of their choruses (take “Love Me" or “Somebody Else”). They’re obviously not the only pop group to do this (you can read Gavin Hayne’s brilliant dissection of the “Millennial Whoop” in the Guardian to see how artists like Katy Perry and Frank Ocean make use of hopping between the fifth and third notes of a major scale in particular), but it’s a key component in their consistently catchy choruses.
On 2013 hit “Chocolate,” this technique is amplified by a distinctive rhythm. When the opening line of the chorus unfurls, the long gaps between each line make those words sound extra punchy: “Oh we / go / nobody knows / guns hidden under our petticoats”. Also, the melodic jumps are intervals of a third (meaning the notes are two steps apart in the scale), which is a pattern the band use in their music a lot (you can also hear it in “Girls”). Simply put, the melody and rhythm work together in such a strange, specific way that it becomes instantly recognisable; it embeds into your mind the same way a nursery rhyme might. Not only do you want to sing along as you hear The 1975, but you also find yourself humming their music later.
But, unlike “Happy Birthday”, the way Healy and co play with melody does more than make the music memorable – it makes it emotional. Just have a look at “Sex,” an early track from their 2012 EP of the same name. Healy’s vocal is always emotive, but when stretched over a zigzagging melody, it sounds extra raw and vulnerable. The opening line – “And this is how it starts” – rises by a sixth on “starts” and has the effect of plunging us straight into the narrative at the moment of the leap. The verse then continues at a similar pitch, which is vocally comfortable for Healy, but still makes him sound like he’s overwhelmed with feeling. Then in the second verse, he sings “all we seem to do is talk about sex”, returning to the original lower register of the melody on the word “sex”.
This detail might sound like overkill given that all melodies go ‘up and down’ to some degree, but the way “Sex” unfolds is particularly expressive. The rising and falling sounds like pining and resignation. And even within the space of the climax lyric – “but you say no” – there’s a sort of desperate, tragic leap upwards to “say”, and then a slight fall of disappointment to “no”. In a similar way, the theatrical chorus – already cushioned in power pop chords and over-the-top drum thwacks – is punched up by the ascending melody. In other words, it’s within these trademark musical gestures – which they constantly return to – that The 1975 are able to take a bunch of emotions and weave them in tightly. We hear desperation, disappointment, acceptance and nonchalance, all melted and blended into one glistening pop song.
But the appeal of The 1975 – for those who don’t hate them – lie in more than these sonic flourishes. They’ve created a stamp with their lyrics, too. Whether Healy is singing about someone who “took a picture of your salad and put it on the internet” (on “A Change of Heart”) or how “getting STDs at 27 really isn’t the vibe” (on “Give Yourself a Try”) their words are consistently casual, funny, direct, often relatable. In essence, they sound like they’ve just torn a page out of any 20-somethings diary in the UK right now and is spinning it into music. Again, other acts have done this – to give a random example, UK rappers like Dave and J Hus write casual, meaningful lyrics that people can relate to all the time – but it’s not often a band takes that style of writing and merges it with glossy, 80s-leaning pop music. The 1975 are completely unique in that sense.
Basically, The 1975 might just seem like four “boys with guitars” making music that sounds a bit like “Urban Outfitters but make it rock” – and in some ways they are. But they’re also more than that. It goes without saying that behind every successful artist is a degree of songwriting prowess, but The 1975 have pushed that to its furthest degree and that’s worth acknowledging. In that way, they’re more than what people think. Their lyrics are relatable. Their tunes are huge. They somehow spark nostalgia for what is happening right now, which is a feat in itself. So whether or not you believe the hype, they’re here for a reason – and that makes perfect sense.
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