All words: Jeb Gavin
All photos: Jason Bender
This past Sunday night, Fitz and the Tantrums headlined at Rams Head Live up in Baltimore. This was notable for several reasons, not the least of which being just a night before they’d opened for Bruno Mars down here in D.C. Setting aside the very likely possibility that Saturday night the opener was the better act, Sunday’s concert saw an impressive contrast in the catch-all we so frequently dismiss as pop music, starting with Sunday’s opener, Ivy Levan.
Levan, who seems to have tried a few Lana Del Ray-like persona shifts over her short career, has arrived at a sort of low key psychobilly pop schtick. It’d seem like a put-on, except she originally hails from Arkansas, so the Southern drawl and shockingly blonde bouffant requires no further effort. She has an excellent voice, but her songs seem underwritten, and the gimmicky nature of her band (who all appeared in black sleeveless t-shirts and plain black luchador masks) gives way to an image of a bunch of college kids trying to look interesting while mimicking Lucero. The thread of soul music connecting her to Fitz is unmistakable, but Fitz does it better.
The second opener, Saints of Valory, took a different tack towards pop music. Rather than reinventing themselves to find an authentic and unique (or mostly unique) sound, they’re an amalgamation, a conglomeration of sounds and motifs and themes of more successful indie pop acts already in existence. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Borrowing the soaring, alto vocal harmonies of more successful acts from the past 20 years is probably a good idea commercially. Playing up the folk aspect of your sound, leaning towards the almost forgotten Celtic roots of American string band music, and having an extra floor tom on stage is smart. Anyone who doesn’t need a keyboardist fiddling with knobs during each song? But it’s the feeling of calculation that throws me. Pop music has become a catch-all, which means you sort of have to accept a wide swath of it is mediocre–not bad by virtue of failing, but in no way transcendent. The extent to which pop music is commercialized means bands can and often do make a career out of generating muzak, rather than waiting for a Canadian company to strip out the vocals and sell it to elevator manufacturers. It’s not bad, the songwriting is solid, no one’s sloppy on stage, half a beat off and a full chord up, but nothing about their performance leads me to believe the music is vital. Whether this is intentional or not, I cannot say.
Now in contrast to the ambiguity of Saints of Valory, you have an act like the Tantrums. The music is indie pop only in so much as they had no major label support. The sound is a conspicuous homage to soul music running straight from Motown down to Muscle Shoals, but with a shiny veneer covering all the crags and crevices. It’s that polish that differentiates between soul-flavored pop and soul itself, and after such an impressive set, it’s an almost completely superficial distinction.
You could easily suspect the soul influence is just a facade given the simplified sheen of the music they play the same way Saints of Valory mimic fun. or Mumford and Sons, but earnest deference to a sound is far different than simply recombining successful elements of other acts. Actually, it’s vastly different, given Fitz and the Tantrums do borrow from other pop acts, but the roots run deeper, and are more tried and true. Singer Noelle Scaggs sings and dances (and bangs the world’s luckiest tambourine against her thigh) like a young Sharon Jones (I should clarify: like Sharon Jones now, only half her age). Multi-instrumentalist Jason King’s baritone sax solos are Bowie-esque, and would seem like an affectation if they didn’t routinely find and lock into the groove almost immediately every time. Throw in an overt reference to Elton John and a brief cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” and almost all suspicion one might harbor about the Tantrums’ commitment to both soul music and the history of soul in pop music is allayed.
I’m aware it’s pop music, and I want to dislike pop music for stupid reasons, but I can’t dislike Fitz no matter how much I’m hoping that dissonance comes from, say, an elaborate joke (check out their Live From Daryl’s House set with Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates sitting in, it looks like a Saturday Night Live skit cut for time.) Short of getting up on stage and actually recreating a Commitments concert, I’m not sure what else they could do to assuage fears about pop music being a put-on.
The reason so much falls into the category of pop music is because it is both specific and yet ambiguous in testing what constitutes pop music: it just has to be popular to fit the bill. Classical can be pop. Rap can be pop. Soul can be pop. Rock can, and often is pop these days. And this is likely why we are collectively so dismissive of pop: liking it means we like what’s popular. It feels as though we give agency to the opinions of people we don’t know, whose motives we cannot fathom. But somehow this also feels like the very reason we listen to music in the first place: to make an emotional connection between people otherwise unbound to one another.
Perhaps it’s the scale which frightens–you want to connect, you’re just not sure you want to connect with that big a group, this unknown majority of music fans. You simultaneously question the quality of creative opinions formed by groupthink, and yet yearn to drive that opinion in what you see as the best possible direction, whether it’s country-tinged, or folky pablum, or paradoxically light and poppy stone soul grooves. Once you get over your fear of pop music, it starts to make sense why a sold-out crowd would stand together singing along to an encore of “Moneygrabber” at 11:30 on a Sunday night, literally bathed in the pink, heart-shaped glow of the band’s love light.