With summer fast approaching, so too are those summer tunes. And, unless a new wave of musical sentiment overtakes 2012, the past half-decade’s sunshine-and-Ray Ban rock should again dominate airwaves: Summer 2012’s playlist will sound wistful. It’ll feel nostalgic. It’ll be Urban Outfitters-approved, clad in a tank top and something vaguely Aztec. And it’ll be heavy on the reverb, low on substance. (Here’s looking at you, Beach House.)
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with such musical descriptors — mostly, they describe atmospheric musical qualities over thematic ones. It’s music that recalls eras that never existed, possibilities that’ll never arrive and serotonin rushes that could only be artificially induced. And, undeniably, many of the chilled-out yacht pack, which cover a genre expanse from lo-fi garage, to soft rock, to chillwave, are exceptionally talented. (And here’s to you, Smith Westerns. Or, from a local perspective, Feel Alright.)
Thing is, such musical tropes don’t feel like a cultural phenomenon — even if many of these bands have earned a place in the western musical canon. Popular? Sure. Good? Perhaps. But relevant to, or reflective of, the esprit du temps? Hardly.
Rather, 2012’s reverb-infused relaxo-indie feels like denial rock, music that wilfully ignores the material conditions of the generation producing it. For bands of Beach House’s age, the music industry is collapsing — it’s long on free distribution methods, like Bandcamp or Soundcloud, but short on monetization. Elsewhere, precarious labour (or, the disturbing trend towards temp and contract work) has stripped workers of the benefits, security and pensions previous generations enjoyed. Education costs are rising, yet Generation Y increasingly views school as a competitive advantage or a right — and if the student riots in Quebec, the province with the lowest nationwide tuition rates, serves as a precedent, other provinces could follow suit.
In short, for the young, life sucks. So, why do Real Estate, or Cousins, or Cults choose denial? Are such bands purely an exercise in escapism?
The answer: Likely. To wit, last week, Toronto weekly magazine The Grid published a story called “Got champagne tastes on a milk-money budget? Why young people are too comfortable with debt.” In it, writer Carley Fortune describes a phenomenon she calls “premature affluence” — despite crushing debt, rising education costs and the spectre of global economic collapse, she writes, Gen-Y still has the “expectation that their incomes will catch up to them.”
Here’s what The Grid was getting at: We’re living in a credit bubble, with the expectation of a rosier future — one that’ll never come. (Fortune, for her part, backs it up with the staggering stat that Canadians possess $150.60 of debt for every $100 earned.) And here’s what I’m getting at: 2012’s pop-music tastes exist in a similar bubble, and the ongoing popularity of these breezy groups is proof. For all their whimsical, nostalgic qualities, bands like Beach House hardly represent the day-to-day lives of their listeners (a fact evident even in their band name). It’s aspirational, perhaps, but more likely, it’s delusional.
So, what do such bands represent? Nothing, aside from, perhaps, well-executed fantasy fiction. And such denial might be a pure artistic exercise, sure, but it’s largely lacking in cultural value. When future archeologists find M83’s Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, they’ll have a tough time discerning anything about life in 2012. But hey, it’s a heckuva record.
Denial rock’s bubble, as all bubbles, will burst. And that’s not because Neon Indian is a terrible band, either; and it’s not because political music will eventually prevail. Hard times don’t always produce fiery socio-political fare — 1980s Brit-punk, for example, had bands built around apathy, the crushing result of a future devoid of optimism. Early American hardcore, on the other hand, had no central political intent; it was centrally defined by its fury. Great Depression-era blues was, in many cases, strictly observational. (As are some current bands erroneously painted with political strokes, such as Toronto country band One Hundred Dollars. When I spoke to their singer, Simone Fornow, earlier this year, she added that “I don’t believe in the song as a tactic. A lot of art makes people reflect on their conditions and their context, but that isn’t activism. It isn’t going to change anything.” She’s right: music that’s contextually telling needn’t be political. It needn’t be didactic.)
What we’re talking about, then, is honesty: early punk and hardcore, Depression-era country and heck, even Hall and Oates’ ’80s soft-dick opulence were reflective of an era, a class, a culture. Beach House’s Bloom, sadly, isn’t. Because in 2012, we’re all fucked, but that’s hardly news. We just need our art to acknowledge the fact.