The Curious Case of The 1975, the Most Hated and Loved Band in the World
Arguably, no other album released so far in 2016 has captured critical focus the way 'I Like It When You Sleep...' has. Why?
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Don’t bother trying to box The 1975 in—they’ve already done it for you. In the video for “The Sound,” a throaty diva-pop single from the Manchester outfit’s brilliant new album I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It, frontman Matt Healy and his charges do their nouveau-retro thing while literally trapped in a glowy, pink-hued, box-shaped performance space. Eventually, a cadre of starchy-looking types approach the box with skeptical looks, and the screen flashes all-caps, especially specific insults that could only be directed at The 1975: “DO PEOPLE STILL MAKE MUSIC LIKE THIS?,” “THEY’RE ESSENTIALLY MAKING ROBOTIC HUEY LEWIS TUNES,” “THIS BAND THINKS IT HAS A CHARISMATIC SINGER…”. The gambit is obviously directed by the band’s critics and naysayers, and ends with a revenge fantasy that even Donald Trump could appreciate: the band’s unboxed, and the dissenters are the ones confined.
The conceit of artists playing target practice with their critics is time-tested and well-worn, and when considered in The 1975’s case, it increasingly resembles a total work of fiction. Arguably, no other album released so far in 2016—no, not even the one where the critically contentious black male megastar fantasizes about balling the critically contentious white female megastar—has captured critical focus the way I Like It When You Sleep... has. (Whether Kendrick Lamar’s surprise-released untitled unmastered. will surpass this benchmark remains to be seen, but it sure seems possible.)
At the risk of sounding like someone for whom some martinis shaken not stirred are definitely in order, Music Writer Twitter—perhaps the last public space for unfettered music criticism in an increasingly anti-critical landscape—has been losing its shit about The 1975 to the extent that it almost seems like they’re getting paid to do so. Through this collective lens, the band has been tagged as underrated and overhyped, although the needle has far more often swung towards the former direction to the extent that, in conversation, several colleagues have wondered if I Like It When You Sleep… is this year’s Music Critic Cause Célèbre a la last year’s entry, Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-MO-TION.
If you’ve been living your life inside a bubble, the comparison isn’t especially hard to arrive at, but American reality tells a different story. E-MO-TION debuted in the lower reaches of the top 20 of the Billboard 200—an accomplishment that mere mortals wouldn’t sneeze at, sure, but enough of a perceived commercial disappointment to trigger multiple musings on why, exactly, the buying public weren’t flocking to purchase an album in which the lead single barely cracked the Top 40.
I Like It When You Sleep, on the other hand, debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 charts with a whopping (for this day and age, anyway) 100,000 copies sold—twice as much as the new album from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a duo who have been critically maligned in the face of their once-perceived ubiquitousness. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have long been seen as “post-critical” in that no amount of seething could possibly stop their core fanbase from appreciating their extremely bae and incredibly woke status; The 1975 are “post-critical” too, b ut in a different way. Critics love them, but as Andrew Unterberger’s recent SPIN profile of the band proved multiple times over, the real-deal record-streaming public loves them even more, to the point that all our little words—yes, even the ones you’re reading right now—are rendered even more meaningless than usual.
Perhaps the reason why critics are so fascinated by I Like It When You Sleep is because its spacious, sonic microcosm contains absolute multitudes to discuss and pore over. The 1975’s self-titled debut from 2013 was largely a straight-ahead rock album cut with a soft-focus and especially British sensibility, but I Like It When You Sleep is “rock” music only in so much as our collective definition of “rock” music is in constant flux. In these modern times, Healy is as much of a rock star as Grimes is, and I Like It When You Sleep shares Claire Boucher’s impeccably detailed approach to particle-separator pop music, in which every element is as sharp, detailed, and permanent as a laser-etched tattoo. And just as Boucher’s instant-classic Art Angels from last year invited endless sonic comparisons—Cyborg Fleetwood Mac! Loop-pedal Sarah McLachlan! Nihilist Donna Lewis!—The 1975 have combed through pop’s resplendent history to fashion a collection of songs that could only exist in the here and now.
“UGH!” imagines how Scritti Politti would sound if Vampire Weekend was Green Gartside’s backing band; “This Must Be My Dream” takes the shape of Haim covering Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”; the throbbing Regret&B of “Somebody Else” drives a stake through the career of every cool-obsessed smooth-talker that preceded it (I’m looking at you, Kindness), and so on. The lyrics ridiculously and perfectly convey the type of sexual frustration that plagues 16-year-olds, with a creative enthusiasm typically conveyed by a grade-school art class (this is a compliment); for maximum glibness, The 1975 are the closest thing to INXS for a generation set up to potentially mistake Michael Hutchence in name alone for the guy who played Steve Jobs in that movie last year.
What do you even call this music? On the surface, the answer’s easy and negating of further discussion—it’s pop, stupid, so sit back and enjoy it—but it’s worth taking genre into consideration here regardless. For all intents and purposes, The 1975 exist squarely in the realm of Alternative, the still-not-so-secretly-thriving genre that, in the 2010s, is in constant competition with “indie-pop” as the music industry’s most misappropriated non-hip-hop sonic descriptor. If the music industry is a group of horny, money-loving Congressmen (notice the gender distinction, it’s intentional), then the Alternative genre provides them with a constant opportunity to gerrymander.
In the 90s, Nirvana was Alternative, and so was Candlebox and the Flaming Lips; around the turn of the century you may have seen “rock is back” bands like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs affixed with the tag; these days, Alternative comes to define everything from Lana Del Rey’s narcotic West Coast pop, to Halsey’s soporific Lana Del Rey playacting, to Xerox-rockers ranging from Capital Cities to Imagine Dragons to Walk The Moon. The music made by these aforementioned acts shares the ability to be translated easily into something resembling EDM, the only largely Caucasian industry-created genre that’s more youth-obsessed than Alternative—and that’s exactly where The 1975 divert from the pack.
Their music is remix-proof, not so much in that people won’t try to remix them (they have) but more in that there’s nothing in their music that screams “remixable.” You can dance to The 1975—lord knows Healy himself tries to—but it’s easier to imagine the furry-boots set vibing out to “Safe and Sound” than it is to envision people raving to the lyric “Even Guy Debord needed spectacles.”
This doesn’t mean The 1975 are totally averse to electronic music. Far from it, in fact: The 1975 cut “Menswear” was a curious outlier on its respective record in embracing subtle textures and rippling electronic patterns, and I Like It When You Sleep’s six-minute-plus title track goes whole-hog with the bleep-bloop stuff. A practical update of Jamie xx’s “All Under One Roof Raving” for those who have no interest in watching Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It” is a small-scale fantasia of elided vocal processing, feather-soft arpeggios, and a stuttering rhythm that’s equal parts propulsive and winsome.
Even considering The 1975’s musical omnivorousness, it’s a shocking left turn for the band, as well as another callback to the past—but this time, a more recent past. Specifically, the early-to-mid-2000s, a time when “indie” as a term was starting to lose all sense of meaning but the culture it was affixed to had a sense of sonic adventurousness. “Lap-pop” was borne out of this environment, a genre initially affixed to the Postal Service but equally applicable to aesthetes such as the Notwist, Lali Puna, Caribou, and, hell, even Radiohead circa Kid A—artists who merged pop sensibilities with tricky electronic programming in a way that, in a pre-streaming era, expanded a certain subset of listeners’ minds as to what could be done outside the confines of traditional songwriting.
If that sounds almost utopian when considering the battle lines that are constantly being drawn today in musical culture, then perhaps you’ve unlocked the reason why people are going absolutely apeshit over The 1975 lately. Their sonic ambitions and adventurousness, as impeccably stylish and of-the-moment as they are entirely out-of-step with trends, don’t just sound sublime—they give hope for a future in which genre-based boundary lines dissolve to the point where they’re not even worth discussing. Talking about music is fun, yeah, but simply shutting up and listening doesn’t hurt, either.
Larry Fitzmaurice is just with his friends online. Follow him on Twitter.