ATC (A Touch of Class)
US release date: 6 February 2001
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This is Pop?
“What do you call that noise
That you put on?
This is pop!”
WWhen XTC released “This is Pop” from their 1977 debut album, White Music, it was put out as a single with irony. At the time, XTC was a strange band that played something akin to punk music, as they were indeed labeled at the time, but a type of punk that had a bizarre science-fiction feel and little of the screaming political slogans that made 1977 a banner year for punk in music history. XTC’s music was drenched in frenetic organs, spoke to themes that made them more akin to the Talking Heads than the Sex Pistols, and although Andy Partridge’s gulpy singing sounded punk, it wasn’t and they weren’t. And yet, they weren’t really pop, either. XTC went on to perfect their songcraft, admit to and develop the influences of British psychedelia, Brain Wilson, the Beatles, and Captain Beefheart, and became modern day pop legends. Almost twenty-five years after the release of “This is Pop”, XTC have become intelligent purveyors of the pop that they were parodying.
What does this have to do with Asa Cruz or ATC? XTC’s song claimed knowledge of what the term “pop” implies, and through both album titles and songs that bear their name, so do Asa Cruz and ATC. Yet if you were to place ATC, Asa Cruz, and XTC in a musical line-up, you’d discover that “pop” is a veritable spectrum of sound and almost impossible to identify. By contrasting these three bands, the inevitable debate over the definition of pop begins anew, and there isn’t a simple resolution to it.
Part of the problem with this question of pop is the current musical climate. It’s become a common occurrence to hear devoted fans of music say, “Ugh! I can’t stand pop music!” When pressed for an explanation, they talk about hating the musical environment that N’Sync and Britney Spears have created on the airwaves. On the other hand, you find quite different fans of music talking about “indie-pop” and the Renaissance of underground pop bands flourishing in the musical press. And of course, there are still the handful of mainstream pop bands like the Barenaked Ladies who don’t evoke the same enmity as the Backstreet Boys, but are suspicious to fans of underground music due to their commerciality (and let’s not forget the ambiguity of U2’s slippery album simply titled Pop). Either we need an infinite regress of categories, which are both the pleasure, and the curse of music writers (teenie-pop, bubblegum pop, pop-rock, punk-pop, dance-pop, etc.), or we abandon all labels and simply rely upon “taste.”
It would be nice to take such a postmodern-esque turn and chalk up music definition to relativism, but albums like Asa Cruz’s Pop Star and ATC’s Planet Pop won’t let us: it’s impossible to talk about an album that carries “pop” in the title without confronting some concept of pop. And these two albums bring us back around to the same old debate because they don’t mean the same thing when they say “pop.”
If you avoid the Top 40 charts because you’re too old or too worldly to find over-sexualized children exciting, then you may have missed ATC’s debut. This is a group (calling them a “band” would be too kind) that falls squarely into the camp of the Britney-N’Sync genre. The cover features the group members, two men and two women, all wearing matching, garish outfits and posed to be magazine sexy. They sing songs like “Around the World (La La La La La)”—which was their breakout Top 40 international smash hit—and “My Heart Beats Like A Drum (Dum Dum Dum Dum)”. And dumb, dumb, dumb these songs are.
I listened to this album once, and I hope to give it away to some teenager with no taste in music. Planet Pop opens with the execrable “Introducing ATC”, which consists of the group each taking turns making the following declaration of planetary domination over some spacey keyboard beeps: “Hi everybody, we’re gonna take you on a journey through Planet Pop. This journey starts in Australia . . . and it goes to Italy . . . from England . . . to New Zealand . . . And all over the world. Our motto is: People of the world come together. A big welcome from ATC. Enjoy the ride.” The ride is all downhill from there.
ATC is, for the sake of classification, “teenie-pop”. The “journey” that the introduction alludes to relates to the international origins of each member of the group; Joe is from New Zealand, Sarah from Australia, Tracey from England, and Livio from Italy. They’ve each been singing and dancing since they were kids, and they met in the German production company of Cats. While this may be a more auspicious beginning than, say, the Mickey Mouse Club pop-factory of Orlando, it’s not enough to raise these twenty-something performers from cheese and crass commerciality. The liner notes are revealing of a band or group’s leanings; ATC’s list of writing and production credits takes up a full two pages of the insert, and of course, none of the credits are attributed to group members. And although the lack of an Alan Thicke credit was disappointing, they made up for it in one totally unique (at least in my experience) way: there is a credit for the shoes they’re wearing in the photo shoot! Yes, shoes.
ATC does have something at least ever-so-slightly different to offer than the average US breed of teen superstars: they combine the international Latin flavor of some world music into otherwise predictable drum machine beats and keyboard washes. But think Ricky Martin or Christina Aguillera and you realize you’ve been there before. ATC may be long in harmonies (which are typically well achieved) and leave the melody in the hands of techno-lite producers, but they’re still essentially pop.
Asa Cruz, on the other hand, concentrates equally on harmonies and melodies. While they use guitars instead of programmed rhythms, they still fall in the same pop realm as ATC. So why is it that they seem completely different from ATC? Is it simply the commercial aspect? Is it that Asa Cruz is trying to make it as a band - a good one at that—rather than allow themselves to be manufactured by the corporate pop music industry?
Asa Cruz is two singers from the L.A. area who, with their respective bands, competed with each other for gigs and fans until deciding to join forces and create a third band that was based around the dual lead singers. They get extra harmony points for that. Their debut album, Pop Star, sounds like a mix of Echo and the Bunnymen, with a bit of the Psychedelic Furs added, and then a bit of the Smiths, too, for atmosphere. This sound is filtered through the “poppier” efforts of Lenny Kravitz and groups like Vertical Horizon and Matchbox 20. Then add a distinctly Duran Duran element to top it all off and you get a mellow but upbeat combo of all that has straddled the fence between so-called alternative and Top 40 for the last five years or so.
Pop Star is, for all the comparative derivativeness mentioned above, a surprisingly good album. The title track brings out the sense of irony in pop that XTC alluded to, with it’s chorus of: “Pop star—yes we beseech you / Pop star—we need to be near you”. Even the ballads have a richness and energy that recall acts like The Mighty Lemon Drops and Flesh For Lulu, represented in songs like “Grey”, “Bleed”, and “Walking in Your Shadow”. Asa Cruz has the chops to rock with guitar-driven tunes as well, but they never trip into the area of what would be thought of as “hard rock”. This is the kind of pop-rock that has maintained a strong commercial presence alongside teen-oriented acts on the radio and on the charts.
An unfortunate aspect to Asa Cruz is that very little distinguishes them from what came before. But this also works in their favor. By placing Pop Star into a market that is saturated with ambivalence, and even anger, towards pop pabulum, Asa Cruz can appeal to fans of yesteryear’s musical trends. It’s not retro in the sense of being nostalgia pop. The guitars have a contemporary low-end tone and production approach that allows the songs to keep pace with what’s going on in music at the moment, thanks to the work of Rick Prasher (Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog, Alice in Chains). Yet the songs retain a sound that reminds older listeners what good music had been like when they were teenagers—when the gap between New Kids on the Block and Britney Spears allowed some great guitar pop and rock flourish, for a time.
Categorically speaking, Asa Cruz is a fine example of a new pop-rock band and ATC is a fine example of a teen-pop band. They provide examples of pop can be. Pop might be like Dada; meaningless and indefinable, yet very real. And that takes us back to relativism and matters of taste. I’ll never listen to ATC’s Planet Pop ever again, while I know I’m going to “pop” Asa Cruz’ Pop Star into my stereo every once in a while. When I do, I’ll lament the current state of the music industry that gives far more weight to disposable pop music like ATC, and short-changes better pop bands, like Asa Cruz.