The use of the term “pop” to refer to carefully constructed, harmony-laden guitar rock in the mode of Cheap Trick has always seemed strange to me, since this music is not actually popular, and hasn’t been since at least the last time the Raspberries hit the Billboard charts. Since “pop” became a genre, it has spawned lots of contenders apparently anxious to become the next Big Star, and ride waves of critical kudos straight to mainstream obscurity. Devotees of the genre often wonder why the masses aren’t stirred by these bands’ impeccably crafted songs the way throngs of fans once were by the Beatles songs the new bands expertly emulate. The recent Mercury Lounge appearance of Philadelphia’s Bigger Lovers, one of power pop’s new luminaries who have been attracting some considerable press, afforded an opportunity to consider this question in some detail.
The Bigger Lovers + The Damnwells
2 Mar 2003: Mercury Lounge New York
In concert, the Bigger Lovers sound a lot like the db’s. Fans of power pop would probably assume this is a compliment, but it’s not, exactly. Like the db’s, the Bigger Lovers play competent, detail-oriented songs that seem written just to be well-written songs, and nothing more. Though the songs all tend to be about troubled love in one way or another, they don’t inspire much feeling beyond respect for the performers’ craftsmanship. The requisite minor-key changes and middle-register harmonies are in place, and live the musicians conducted themselves with consummate professionalism: their stage moves were confident without being ostentatious, their banter functional without being embarrassing. Bassist Scott Jefferson and rhythm guitarist Bret Tobias traded lead vocals, but it made little difference who was singing: both of them had the Peter Holsapple whine nailed perfectly. Neither was going to make you think of Alex Chilton, or even of Ken Stringfellow, for that matter. Lead guitarist Ed Hogarty generated some interesting guitar interplay during the first half of the show, but abruptly switched to a rinky-dink organ that sounded like a broken merry-go-round at a firehouse carnival. But overall the Bigger Lovers achieved a remarkable consistency with their set, such that you could go to the bathroom, or to the bar, and return without feeling you missed anything. Likely you wouldn’t know if they were playing a different song.
After a few songs, the polish of their performance began to give their show an air of insincerity, but not because they themselves seemed insincere, the way some of the posturing fake-garage bands do. Bands like the Mooney Suzuki and the Cherry Valence make you feel like you’re seeing a hard-rock version of Sha Na Na, where the hallmarks of a moribund style are being exploited for audiences who missed the real thing. The Bigger Lovers, and power pop bands in general, don’t practice that kind of phony revivalism. If the Bigger Lovers come across as insincere, it’s just because there’s nothing in what they are singing about which to be sincere or passionate. They are evidently passionate about songcraft, fitting in middle-eights with the loving attention cabinetmakers lavish on a dovetailed joint. Perhaps if there wrote songs about perfect pop construction there would be some congruity between their interests and their subject matter. But as they go through the motions in their love songs, love itself is rendered formulaic, reduced to a pretense for a pop song and nothing more.
That brings us to the question with which we began, of why power pop never actually becomes popular. One explanation may be that power pop practitioners are too consumed with craft, making their music accessible only to the specialists (e.g. rock critics) who can become enthused over their subtle adjustments of the formula. Power pop bands deliberately detach themselves from living, evolving musical styles and the social concerns they reflect, choosing instead to play ossified music reflecting the social concerns of a bygone generation. Thus they can only attract the interest of those who want to reject the culture they live in, and are willing to forfeit their say in in what direction that culture moves.
That said, there is no reason to begrudge any attention the Bigger Lovers garner from the press. It’s a small miracle a band this pretense-free, without important haircuts or fake arena rock poses, attracts any notice at all. Brooklyn’s the Damnwells, on the other hand, frequently attract attention for their looks without especially deserving any for their music. Naturally they drew a larger crowd for their utterly bland set in the manner of the Gin Blossoms or the Goo Goo Dolls. While their music is saturated with a transparent earnestness, I’m guessing the only thing these guys are in earnest about is making money.