from the mess to the masses
on privilege and dance culture’s forgotten indie darlings
Pitchfork’s Best New Music article for Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix sort of sums up the collective confusion of the indie world by noting that “these guys are just a few Chris Martin-isms away from staggering ubiquity. They’re a bona fide ‘should be bigger’ band.” And this seems roughly correct, speaking as (I suppose) a member of the indie world; probably the weirdest thing about Phoenix is that they’re antecedents of nothing, kings of a specific cultural moment that was quickly moved on from in order to usher in a wave of Billboard hits checking in at about 100bpm and deeply concerned with what I guess you might call nebulous malaise. It’s strange that a collection of commercially polished once-poised-to-become-universal sugary bleeps and bloops from only a little more than ten years ago can feel so immensely nostalgic, like a relic from a time long past. Seriously, those late-2000s Taylor Swift hits feel like they belong to roughly the same moment as the present; Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009) might as well be from the dungeons of prehistory, in terms of sonic relevance.
Let’s back up a minute. If you don’t know who Phoenix are (maybe due to those missing Chris Martin-isms, I guess), a brief synopsis: They’re a bunch of French dudes who started making 80s-inspired indie pop bangers right around the beginning of the new millennium and quickly rose to a place of relative prominence in the indie dance scene. For an idea of their cultural context, tracks from their full-length debut United have been known to crop up in my dad’s running playlist. Lead singer Thomas Mars croons on top of relatively inoffensive reimaginations of new wave beats. Their whole thing is comfortable synth-washed saccharine glory paired with faux-mysterious reticence to talk about what their lyrics mean (Mars and bandmates get straight-up ornery in interviews when people try to press them for explanations). Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth LP, can pretty fairly be called their most successful effort; “1901” reached the low 80s on Billboard charts, which isn’t anything to be scoffed at from a band operating in the venerable tradition of pretentious hipsters making intentionally esoteric tunes complete with idiosyncratic beats, lofty metaphorical goals, and synth flourishes that can really only be described as smug. Or maybe sanctimonious. Either way, you know the type, and they don’t usually hit it big.
For me, at least, Phoenix soundtracked much of middle and high school; I grew up with them, spinning Wolfgang on perpetual repeat, absorbing the world with rose-colored glasses and, I guess, through rose-colored headphones. Because that’s the thing about Phoenix: They’re way too happy. Almost annoyingly happy. There’s often something sort of tongue-in-cheek at play with that happiness, admittedly—Wolfgang self-consciously draws equivalencies between itself, Mozart, and Franz Liszt, enfolds 20th-century wartime imagery both in its album art and its subject matter, and adopts a generally skeptical attitude about life writ large—but there’s still something damningly optimistic about it, possessed as it is with this pink-washed joie de vivre. As that same Pitchfork article puts it, “it’s truly universal—everybody live, love, die.”
Lately, Phoenix has been on my brain again after a long post-high-school hiatus; call it what will you will—a lust for nostalgia, maybe—but with warm days and sunshine beginning to sneak into my final semester’s weather reports, I find myself spinning them yet again in an attempt to recreate that cloying sensation of genuine laissez-faire that Wolfgang used to conjure for me back in my teen years. It’s sort of a resurrection of an old defense mechanism; life is scary, I have no idea what’s going on, so let’s all be post-ironic and dance. This worked wonders for me while I was worrying about who to ask to prom, where to apply to college, studying for the SATs…you know, all that pain-in-the-ass shit that seems weirdly appealing now when held up against the pressures of making enough money to not die and deciding what to do with the remainder of your life. The hope, these past few weeks of Phoenix revisitation, has been to turn the pressures of the present into the pressures of the past, to don those rose-colored glasses again and remind myself that, even in the face of great uncertainty, there will always be flip white French dudes with quaint indie beats to placate me.
The problem with this strategy is that it isn’t working. As hype as I might get when “Lasso” shows up on my shuffle playlist, there’s something sort of empty about its sonic promise that everything’s going to be okay. And I think I’ve sort of figured out why this is, and in the same fell swoop as to why Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix never delivered the legacy that indie publications promised it was poised to. The answer, simply put, is privilege. Or, perhaps, an increasing awareness of that privilege. Look, I won’t lie to you: When I was fourteen years old I thought my problems were leagues more significant than anyone else’s. I thought the only other person in my grade who seemed to really understand the hype surrounding Phoenix not returning the crush I had on her was the Mount Everest of adversity. I figured the B+ I’d been given on my latest examination on Dante’s Inferno was a sign that god had forsaken me. I was a dead-middle-class cishet white kid coasting through a high school experience where opportunities were handed to me on silver platters day-in and day-out, and I figured that was just about the hardest life anyone could possibly be put through.
I don’t want to minimize high school Griffin’s emotional turbulence as being entirely irrelevant; we’ve all got stuff to deal with, after all, and there were times in high school when Phoenix served as a real emotional refuge for me. But the problem is that they were reflective of a refuge of privilege, and as I’ve wizened up over the years (and grown increasingly aware of the fact that my earthly problems, though existent, are pretty low on the list of “worst problems”), the solution that Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix provides doesn’t really hold up as satisfactory anymore. The ethos more or less rings as: Worried about war and death and suffering and shit? S’all good, dude—grab a jamba juice and hit the rave. And yeah, in an empty, rose-colored, synth-infused way, that can feel kind of good. But there’s a reason the music scene left the ostensibly prodigious sound of ’09 Phoenix behind in the last decade; that Pitchfork bit about true universality? Yeah, that’s a load of shit. Not everyone’s problems can be wished away with some ironic references to 20th-century European politics or a cute little drawing of pastel-colored bombs (see album cover).
I’ll always be grateful to you, Thomas Mars, for the sunsets your music gave me the space to watch. But as I stand upon the threshold of graduation and emergence from the bubble of Brown (a privileged refuge in itself), I think it’s time I find better solutions to concerns both personal and global than a super-cazh shoulder shrug. Time to bust out some realer shit to dance through the hard times with.