Two Nights With The 1975
The 1975 at Revention Music Center. Photo: Matthew Ramirez
The 1975 are not an easy band to love. I know because I didn’t always love them. There was their name, for starters. (Somehow, they used to be called Drive Like I Do, which is objectively worse.) And what was the deal with the singer’s hair? The first time I heard them was their slightly corny intro to Travis Scott’s song, “Don’t Play.” When their record from February, the improbably titled I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, was released to critical acclaim and beaming praise from friends of mine, the word skeptical doesn’t even begin to cut it. I thought they were trolling.
One night a friend played their slow-motion, wide-screen, still-not-over-you jam “Somebody Else” for me in his car and the gears slowly began to click into place. The 1975 were aiming for a grand idea of what a rock band could be, and that feels so fundamentally uncool in 2016 that I “fell” for it — I didn’t want to allow myself to have feelings for an uncool rock band in 2016, even if that same band was writing some of the best pop songs around. Once you buy in, though, the world is yours. “Somebody Else” is the kind of ‘80s-inspired bop that, if it were performed by How to Dress Well, the indie music press would love it to death. However, How to Dress Well would not be bold enough to include the line “fuck that, get money” as an affirmative hook, turning a post-breakup slow jam into a life-affirming statement of independence. And they do it all with a straight face.
When their show was announced months ago, I immediately bought a ticket, later to discover a second show had been added at the last minute. Randomly I was offered a ticket to the show on Sunday, and the opportunity to see them twice was rare and perhaps a chance to form deeper insight into a band who has quickly and dramatically became one of my favorites.
If inherent in a grand idea of what a “rock band” can accomplish is a degree of world-building, something that goes beyond just songs, The 1975 have this down pat. From their aesthetic — heavy on rectangles and other hard shapes, clean lines and vibrant lighting (which blossomed from black-and-white through neon over the course of three years) — a traveling Dan Flavin/James Turrell installation that doubles as a concert stage, The 1975 are world-builders who moved from a post-One Direction pop-rock sound and basic stage setup into something entirely different. Lead singer Matt Healy began Sunday’s show with, “We’re The 1975 from Manchester, England,” and it was the first time it dawned on me that these are guys from Manchester, and they make music that sounds nothing like The Smiths or New Order. That’s terrific.
If we rewind ten-plus years ago when bands like Interpol were popular, a defining characteristic of all those bands was how cool they were. The 1975 are not cool. Even bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Killers, who had real radio hits and went on to crossover success, had a level of nonchalance about them — when The Killers were singing “I got soul but I’m not a soldier,” they were almost winking at you. They were a “rock band” delivering a “rock trope” (a shout-it-from-your-lungs anthem) and played it up accordingly. The 1975 are similarly self-aware, but to a different degree. They’re not trying to make fun of themselves or anyone else, rather, they are committing to their lofty ideals with utmost sincerity. Healy has proudly called himself “pretentious” and to back up his statement clumsily name checks Guy Debord in a sweeping love song (the glorious “Loving Someone,” which threatens to crumble under its own weight yet somehow doesn’t). All of this informs the theater of their live performances. Far from being inessential, their video screens and rectangular lighting rigs create a space for the band to operate, a statement about the artist working inside a canvas, or a muralist who must paint outside. There have been so many bands who privilege one aspect over the other — disposable pop-rock bands who are faceless hook messengers, or “arty” rock bands who go for the spectacle and forget how to write songs. And then there is The 1975.
“UGH!” is easily one of my five favorite songs of 2016, and it’s an unrelatable new wave song about a rockstar refusing to quit cocaine. “The kick won’t last for long/but this song only lasts three minutes,” works on a few levels, a statement about guilty pleasures both musical and some decidedly not. (For more meta-criticism of themselves, see their video for “The Sound.”) Elsewhere Healy is capable of lines that build up entire universes that then break your heart in the same breath: “She calls on the phone like the old days, expecting the world,” or, “your eyes were full of regret/and then you took a picture of your salad and put it on the internet.” These are wry, witty lyrics that are emotional and observational. Healy is rarely the romantic hero in his love songs, but he affords the people in them a rare sort of empathy, in that he loves them while also detailing their flaws. Every scene is remarkably human.
I don’t remember the last time I saw so many parents at a show, or so many teens and pre-teens. I forget that teenage enthusiasm is earth’s greatest renewable resource, and I am not the kind of person to find teenage girl fandom irritating. I welcome it. I welcome this band, introducing all kinds of ideas and older music in a way that is exciting to young people, even if it’s frequently repellent to people in their mid-20s and older. It’s a bizarre feeling to look at an arena of, yes, teenagers, but also a wide variety of all people jumping up and down to “Love Me,” the best INXS song never recorded. And it doesn’t feel regressive — The 1975 are not a nostalgia act, they’re the opposite, a band using musical language developed in the ‘70s and ‘80s but upgraded to a 2016 style. So few bands are capable of delivering this level of joy to such a diverse range of people.
The live show is pretty straightforward beyond that, and the differences between the two nights were insignificant, save for one: Saturday’s inclusion of the tender, double-take Police sound-alike “Paris,” before which Healy requested everyone put their phone down for five minutes, in order to make that five minutes the “most special time” of the evening. The teens obliged him. It wasn’t annoying or pretentious, because he was directing the energy toward a population who isn’t yet jaded enough to put up their defenses when artists request things of them. The song’s wistful chorus — “how I’d love to go to Paris again” — snaked its way through a darkened crowd suddenly not lit up by camera phone lights or front-facing selfie flashes. It was the moment Healy wanted, and received.
It’s hard for me, after having moshed my way through two nights of The 1975, to imagine a non-convert coming away from either show with a revelatory love for them, but The 1975 don’t speak to the non-converted nor do they have to. On Sunday I glanced over the shoulder of a mom texting a friend: “I didn’t know who they were but they have some chilled out songs.” I thought her take was perfect. Kim Gordon said we pay to see others believe in themselves at rock shows. The 1975 don’t need us to believe in them. As 2016 winds down, I found myself, two nights in a row, singing along to quietly sad character studies dressed in Tears for Fears like “She’s American” and “A Change of Heart,” as a different thought occurred to me: I went to these shows to believe in other people. And I was grateful for The 1975’s generosity, spread across the weekend.