The 1975: their 'disappearance' was a stunt, yes – but it was brilliant
Removing themselves from social media for 24 hours set their fans ablaze, but was the kind of play that would have had critics swooning had it been played by, say, the Clash.
Well, the disappearance didn’t last long. Twenty-four hours after they went dark, the 1975’s social media accounts were reactivated – at midnight on Monday night. And now something new has appeared on them: a squared image that reverses the cover of the group’s debut album. Where there was black before, now there is white. And a dash of pink. And that’s it. Given the shape and the design, it looks as if it might be a cover for a forthcoming record.
There was a certain amount of rolled-eyebrow-scepticism about the 1975’s withdrawal from social media: that it was just a publicity stunt, that it was taking the mickey out of the group’s fervent fanbase (and this is a particularly fervent fanbase: within a couple of minutes of the Instagram post that announced the band’s disappearance, the image had more than 4,000 likes. It was trending on Twitter all through Sunday evening). I don’t really get what the problem is with publicity stunts – yes, this was one, of sorts – given that every single pop star back to Elvis has engaged in publicity stunts of one sort or another.
Speaking to people close to the 1975 on Monday, it became apparent that what motivated the temporary disappearance wasn’t a desire to withdraw, so much as a desire to recalibrate the conversation around the band – not to discourage their fans from talking about the group, but to give them a new means to engage. As I understand it, the image that went live on Tuesday morning will be the first in a series, all of which are meant to be downloaded for fans to create their own archive for the 1975.
At this point, I’m pretty sure, there will be a certain number of readers tutting, and claiming that 1) the 1975 are rubbish 2) it’s silly music for teenage girls and 3) that why does anyone care what a band does anyway? To the first I’d say, that’s your prerogative, but I think they’re a much undervalued and surprisingly inventive and clever group. To the second, I’d point out that people said exactly the same about Elvis and the Beatles and T Rex and scores more artists who now make up the canon: rock’n’roll was invented for teenagers, and to dismiss a group because teenagers like them seems to be particularly crabby and middle-aged. And to dismiss them because it is, especially, teenage girls who like them seems like nothing so much as sexism: are the opinions of teenage girls actually worth less than those of other people?
But the third point, in many ways, is the most intriguing one. A crucial part of rock’n’roll is its mythology; it’s what makes it more than just grooves in a record or the series of ones and zeroes that make up digital music. And rock fans embrace mythology: they adore the four symbols of Led Zeppelin, regardless of the fact that they are arrant nonsense; they applaud the memory of Pink Floyd flying an inflatable pig over the Thames at Battersea power station; they gush over the hugely self-conscious self-mythologising of Prince or the aesthetic purity of the Ramones. For some reason, though, when the 1975 choose to play with mythologies and aesthetics, an awful lot of people choose to sneer (I can already imagine what the comments thread beneath this is going to say).
Had the cartoon-strip announcement the group put out on Sunday come from, say, the Clash in 1977, it would have had people having orgasms of delight. Look at it: playful, gently teasing, genuinely homemade – this came from the band, not from a record label or a marketing firm – and owing a clear and explicit debt to Guy Debord and the situationists. It’s fantastic. It’s more punk rock than anything the Libertines have done: it’s a brilliantly witty way of signalling a clean break. And making that break on 1 June plays into the group’s internal mythology – they take their name from a book of poetry singer and de facto leader Matthew Healy came across on holiday in Majorca, in which was inscribed “1st June the 1975”.
Healy is a sharp and clever young man. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, met him a few other times, and it’s never less than interesting: he’s a hell of a lot more interesting than, say, Jimmy Page, regardless of Page having a career no one disputes as being among the greats. He’s acutely aware of pop and rock history – and mythology – and has a significantly wider frame of musical reference than his detractors would credit him with. He’s spoken of the Blue Nile and the British Expeditionary Force being big influences on the music the 1975 have made, and it’s true – if you listen to the Blue Nile’s Hats, you can hear he borrowed that approach to sound and texture on his group’s music. He sometimes gets ahead of himself, and starts writing intellectual cheques his music can’t quite cash, but I’d far rather that – someone striving and believing he can achieve greatness – than someone who says they’re just making the music they like and if anyone else likes it, well, that’s a bonus.
Healy displays a frame of reference that’s far wider than most of his contemporaries, even the ones who are regarded as more intellectually respectable. He’s a patron of the British Humanist Assocation; he’s tweeted often about the perils of organised religion, about freedom of speech. He gives interviews in which he doesn’t shy from talking about a hedonistic lifestyle. Yet people suggest he’s just the pretty singer of a boyband. Well, show me where Harry Styles or Ronan Keating or Gary Barlow have ever been half as interesting. If he’s really a boyband frontman, then he’s going about it in a shockingly stupid way. The alternative view is that perhaps the 1975 aren’t a boyband. They just have some of the same fans.
If you set the 1975’s presentation, ambition and sense of self against their largely dreary rivals among UK guitar bands, it’s like contrasting the Beatles with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. They’re an art pop group, who happen to have bypassed the art crowd, because they write songs that kids want to sing along to, and because Healy is about 26 times better looking than anyone who’s ever been embraced by the art crowd.
Having got the fanbase they have, though, should the 1975 have disavowed them? That seems a little short-sighted. Instead, they take unusual care of them. When the band released a limited edition 7in single of the song Medicine late last year, and copies started popping up on eBay, their management began buying those rogue copies back, so they could go instead to fans who’d ordered them. In what strange parallel universe is that not a wonderful thing to do? The 1975 camp tell me the process that is just beginning is part of that engagement with the fans – or engaging as closely as one can when one risks being torn limb from limb.
If you want to despise the 1975, do so, by all means. But maybe stop for a moment to consider that there’s rather more to them than the prevalent pop snob view would suggest. I don’t know if they’ll end up being one of the truly memorable groups. I don’t know if they’ll end up crashing and burning. I don’t know if Healy has a second set of songs in him as good as his first. But I’m intrigued to see what comes next; and that’s because the 1975 know how to create intrigue. That’s what they did on Monday, and long may that sense of fun and mischief and – yes – self-importance continue.