The Teenagers: Reality Check

[17 April 2008]

By Kai Jones

The Teenagers. Has there ever been a more evocative name for a pop band? Pop music owes its success to the obsessions of teenage fanatics who after its emergence in the 1950s dragged it through a thousand splintering sub-genres and into the laps of MTV executives and mega-brand-sponsored world tours. When the come-down of the last World War forced parents to grant their children more freedoms than they had ever experienced, it coincided with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and a new concept of youth. The story goes something like this: adolescent is given disposable income and a taste for 45s. Elvis is given a pair of hips so dangerous they could subvert a nation through a television screen. Pop music and teenager falls in love and they’ve been living a symbiotic relationship ever since.

So the Teenagers already have some living up to do, on name alone. Yet I suspect they’ve never let so much as a thought cross their mind about how iconic their existence actually is. They’re three gorgeous-looking scruff-bags from Paris via East London. The story goes that they stumbled across their own sussed version of danceable guitar-pop after posting a joke MySpace page. Their first friend request was from a girl called Nicole that they didn’t know. “Fuck Nicole”, they thought, and wrote a song called “Fuck Nicole”.

This self-deprecating wit is sprawled all over Reality Check, like favorite bands over a schoolgirl’s text book. Indie-cool and infectious, the Teenagers are dirty twenty-somethings masquerading, with fantasies of still being in their teens. With a tantalising grasp on the giddy highs and lows of adolescence and an obvious weak spot for the candy-pop drum machine and synths of ‘80s pop like “I Think We’re Alone Now”, they sound like a lo-fi New Order with three smutty Frenchmen on vocals. The influences on their MySpace page says it all: Sex, Love, Party, Vodka, Summer, Puberty, Red Bull. A statement of intent for most teenagers, it reads like a shopping list of ingredients for Reality Check.

Take, for example, the album’s first track, “Homecoming”. The filthiest slice of pop since Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg orgasmed through “Je T’aime Moi Non Plus”, “Homecoming” explores the memory of a sexual tryst through the eyes of an arrogant boy and naïve girl.  “Last week, I flew to San Diego to see my auntie”, he says in a dry monotone. “On day one, I met her hot step-daughter / She’s a cheerleader, she’s a virgin, and she’s really tan /… On day two, I fucked her, and it was wild / She’s such a slut”. And then, her version:

Ok, listen girls: I met the hottest guy ever.
Basically, as I was stepping out of my SUV,
I came face to face with my step-cousin or whatever, who cares?
Anyway, he was wearing skinny jeans, had funky hair
And the cutest British accent ever.
Straight away, I could tell he was a rocker
From his sexy attitude and the way he looked at me.
Mmm, he is totally awesome.
Oh my god, I think I’m in love.

What follows is the wildest chorus you will hear all year. Imagine Gainsbourg singing the first words, Kim Gordon the next: “I fucked my American cunt / I loved my English romance”. All this accompanied by an innocent summer-crisp beat, like Belle and Sebastian making out with The O.C. “Don’t forget to send me a friend request”, she says at the end, in what could be the first social networking reference in popular song. “As if”, comes the cutting reply.

It’s like John Waters reshot Grease with a Larry Clark script. The last time pop music seemed this subversive, Ice Cube was ranting about the police “Fuckin’ with me cuz I’m a teenager / With a little bit of gold and a pager”. If only we could get “Homecoming” to number one—it would be like a million teenage girls seeing Elvis’ grinding hips for the first time.

Most of the songs are delivered in the same sullen monotone, only allowing the choruses to fly along with the melody. The result is fascinating. It’s not just the lyrics, which move between melancholic reminiscing of drunken nights and bitter diatribes at ex-lovers. It’s the voyeuristic position it puts the listener in, like dipping into the pages of a secret diary. The prose is hardly Pinter, but the sentiment is instantly recognisable: secret crushes, embarrassing memories, summer innocence, mood swings, underage drinking, bored Sundays and wild Friday nights, putting the first band poster on your wall, slamming your bedroom door on arguments and telling the world you’re right, but secretly, bitterly, knowing that you might be wrong. “I don’t know anything / I don’t know anything / I don’t know anything,” the chorus to “III” repeats.

Of course, we’ve been here before. Pop stars recalling the rushes of their formative years is nothing new. Pulp produced fantastic observant pop music with a refreshing lyrical sting, and the Teenagers do not have the dexterical creativity of Jarvis Cocker. Yet the way they deliver a crushing harmony and then immediately slip back into that soft French accent is as infectious as anything by Franz Ferdinand or Bloc Party.

From the dreamy fan obsession of “Starlett Johansson” (“When I noticed for Jared Leto, I felt sad for 30 seconds / When I noticed for Josh Hartnett, I prayed for 40 nights”) to the skuzzy art-punk of “Fuck Nicole” and the delicious “Make it Happen” (which is begging to be added to the opening credits of the Breakfast Club), the Teenagers are Tiffany via Soulwax. They have a knowing appreciation of pop (à la Gwen Stefani), but with a sly cynicism and sassy attitude. The way their wispy accents make greasy sound like greezy on “Love No” is worth the album alone. That Reality Check draws it’s inspirations from the 80s, but also France’s über-cool Kitsuné and Ed Banger scenes (they are regular touring partners of Justice) shows that they have a Blondie-style ability to mix art, disco and pop.

Quite how the Teenagers have stumbled across themselves is an enigma. By rights they should be a fashion construct, carved out of teen-cool by Terry Richardson, stuck on the cover of Vice magazine, filmed by Gus Van Sant and sprayed across American Apparel adverts for the summer season.  With their too-cool-for-school, fashion-spread attitude, the Teenagers will annoy many people, but it’s been far too long since an indie band worthy of pinning them to your heart came along. Reality Check won’t change the world, but it will make the lives of new-found fans a little more special.

Like they say on “Feeling Better”: “Now that you’re a fan / You can write our name on your body / Take a pen / Write it down: ‘I love the Teenagers’”.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-teenagers-reality-check/