Foxygen, Authenticity, and Retro-Mania: What Has Become of Rock & Roll?

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By Caitlin White

I like Foxygen’s music, but I don’t think it belongs to them. After an initial EP in 2011, the duo of Sam France & Jonathan Rado were quickly scooped up by Bloomington, Indiana-based independent label Jagjaguwar. They released the bands debut full-length album We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic earlier this year. Wistful, lo-fi yarns strung around the fingers of classic rock like a cat’s cradle game slowly unravel as modernity claws at the reusable strands of the songs’ tropes and sonic composition. Let me be clear, I don’t think their music is bad, but elements of the band feel worn-thin and pilfered in 2013.

If we continue to laud bands like Foxygen for successfully aping the music of the past, we will never arrive at a place that allows us to imagine new and innovative sounds—specifically in the genre of “indie rock.”

The immovable sounds, feelings and aura of the ‘60s continues to be exalted by the current generation (I’m talking ‘bout my generation)—and the basis for this feels faulty at best. A backward-glancing set of aesthetic principles seems unavoidable in certain ways for any art form. Indeed, the most exemplary art goes unnoticed while in the climate of its own present moment. This happened for painter Van Gogh and poet Emily Dickinson, we see the awe that deceased artists like Kurt Cobain, the Notorious B.I.G., Ian Curtis and even Janis Joplin have curried in the wake of their untimely deaths. But it seems that fawning over the retrospectively-gilded age of that pivotal decade has reached a point of saturation—one that is fully characterized in Foxygen.

Dragging a long history of unheard and vividly named tapes and unreleased records from the past in their wake, Foxygen have created a mythology that imbues them with the vast “back catalog” that so many classic rock groups possess. But in reality? France and Rado seem to have copped their very lifeblood from the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Bowie and The Stones. What does this mean for us, a world desperate for meaningful music that pushes the creation of new and entrancing art forward? It means a closed feedback loop, it means entrenchment—it means retrogression. Regardless of the group’s compelling musicianship, obvious energy and relentless passion, in a way they are puppeting sounds and ideas that were enacted—and came to fruition—years ago.

The phrasing style, tone and even melodic composition of “No Destruction” is far too similar to Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” to not immediately call Bob’s precursor to mind. Put on The Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning” and compare France’s vocal stylings to Lou Reed’s—the two styles are too close for Foxygen to cite Reed as a mere influence, which interestingly enough, they do. Claiming themselves as the “de-Wes Andersonization of The Rolling Stones, Kinks, Velvets, Bowie, etc” that declaration can be a hard pill to swallow after watching their music video for “San Francisco” which viewers would be hard-pressed to tell apart from a scene in Anderson’s latest film Moonrise Kingdom. They even bring a Neko Case stand-in female vocalist to cool alongside the refrains in that track. In hip-hop, there’s a term for stealing the vocal style of another rapper, it’s called “biting the flow” and if either Reed or Bowie felt like pressing charges here, Foxygen would easily be convicted of this crime.

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“Indie rock” if one may even be so bold as to take that nomenclature in hand and dub it a genre, has reached a stand-still in original thought. While other genres like hip-hop, electronic, and even country/folk music progress in new and fascinating directions, what has become of rock & roll? A genre predicated on rebellion, individuality and fiery indifference has melted into a slew of packaged action figures in lieu of in-the-flesh heroes. Why does their own label have to invoke monumental, creative figures who changed the flow of culture like Wes Anderson or The Kinks to describe Foxygen’s art? And to further claim that the duo is separating the quirky, side-eyed naiveté from the classic rock sounds they are nicking is even farther off-base.

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  • Chase

    I can not disagree more with this article. I found Foxygen’s album to be great because of the past influences it drew from. Honestly, I feel like a band such as Foxygen is needed to “bring back” rock and roll. Believe it or not, many young people won’t listen to Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones simply because they are old. Foxygen can bring the sounds of the past to a new generation and act as a spring board for these younger listeners to discover the great acts of the 60s and 70s. Personally, after I listened to Foxygen’s album, I went back and listened to my old Stones and Kinks material. Was I annoyed that this new band sounded similar to these older ones? Absolutely not. There are many artist that already push music forward in new, exciting directions (such as James Blake and Animal Collective) and I am sure that there will be many artist in the future who will do so. As a person who grew up listening to these classic rock artist, I find myself looking forward to a revival of there sounds. Who cares if its nostalgic if the music is good. I’m sure that I will enjoy hearing your “monster” in 2013, but in the mean time I will listen to “San Francisco” and smile.

  • Dead

    Fuck A Genre

  • PJ

    I disagree with this article, not because of the author’s stance on Foxygen (I actually wrote a piece saying essentially the same thing: that they were outright copying songs, sounds and styles from The Velvet Underground – especially “Rock and Roll” – The Animals, The Stones, etc.) but because she seems to have a very myopic idea of what “rock” or “indie rock” even is. I get annoyed when people point to groups like Foxygen as harbingers of the end of rock & roll (or, at least, its stagnation). There are PLENTY of bands out there, even some with notoriety, pushing the boundaries of the form. Let’s talk LCD Soundsystem. Let’s talk Radiohead. Let’s talk Arcade Fire, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Les Savy Fav, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, and hundreds of lesser known but equally progressive rock bands. Let’s talk the hundreds or thousands of MORE progressive rock bands who are doing some brand new, plain weird shit that’s not reaching your earballs not because they’re not good, but because they’re too out there right now to even garner a proper audience. While you might point to any or all of these bands as not “rock” in the traditional sense – “LCD Soundsystem is dance music!” you might say – the idea of progression necessarily involves mutating with and coopting other styles. The alarmism might be good for getting readers and stirring the pot, but it’s certainly not reality.

  • Sergio

    “early dawning
    sunday morning
    it’s all the wasted years
    so close behind

    watch out the world’s behind you
    there’s always someone around you
    who will call
    it’s nothing at all”

    http://youtu.be/3qK82JvRY5s

    “The ancients represented Venus, the morning star, by the figure of a youth bearing a torch. Translating a passage of the Gospels where Jesus speaks of Satan as “a spark fallen form heaven,” St. Jerome used the word that designated the morning star: Lucifer. Lucifer (lux, lucis: light + ferre: to bear). A felicitious shift of meaning: to call the rebellious angel, the most beautiful one of the heavenly army, by the name of the herald that announces the first light of dawn was an act of great moral and poetic imagination. Light is inseparable from shadow, flight from fall. In the center of the toal darkness of evil a hesitant reflection appeared the dim light of dawn. Lucifer-beginning or fall, light or shadow? Perhaps both. Poets appreciated this ambiguity, and we know the advantage they took of it. Lucifer fascinated Milton and the Romantics, who turned him into the angel of rebellion and the torchbearer of freedom. Mornings are short, and those illuminated by the light of Lucifer are shorter still. That light appeared at the dawn of the eighteenth century, and its reddish splendor faded in the middle fo the ninteenth, although it continued to illumine the long dusk of Symbolism with a tenuous and pearly light, a light of thought rather than of the heart. Toward the end of his life Hegel conceded that philosophy always arrives too late and that the light of dawn is followed by twilight: “the owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk.”

    Modernity has had two mornings: the one live by Hegel and his generation, which begins with the French Revolution and ends fifty years later; and the one that begins with the great scientific and artistic awakening that preceded the first great war of the twentieth century and ended with the outbreak of the second. The emblem of this second morning is, again, the ambiguous figure of Lucifer. The anger of evil—his shadow—engulfs both wars, and Hitler’s and Stalin’s camps, and the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And his is the spark—he the rebel angle of light—that kindles all the great innovations of our era in science, ethics, and the arts. From Picasso to Joyce and from Duchamp to Kafka, the literature and art of the first half of the twentieth century have been Luciferian. The same cannot be said of the period that followed World War II, the last stages of which period, according to all the signs, were are still living through. The contrast is striking. Our century began with great revolutionary movements in the domain of art, such as Cubism and Abstractionism, which were followed by other passionate revolts. Surrealism was remarkable for its violence. Every literary genre from the novel to poetry was the scene of successive changes in form and meaning. These changes and experiments also affected works for the stage and films, and they, inturn, influenced poetry and the novel. Simultaneity, for instance, a device in poetry and the novel of those years, is the child of film montage. Nothing like this occurred after World War II. The rebel angel, Lucifer, abandoned the century.

    I am neither pessimistic nor nostalgic. The period we are living through is not sterile, even though serious damage has been done to artistic production by the scourges of commercialism, profiteering, and publicity. Painting and the novel, for example, have been turned into products subject to fashion—painting by means of the fetishism of the unique object, the novel by mass production. Nonetheless, since 1950 noteworthy works and personalities have appeared in poetry, music, the novel, and the plastic arts. But no great aesthetic or poetic movement has appeared. The last was Surrealism. We have had resurrections, some brilliant and some merely ingenious. Or, rather, we have had, to use the precise word in English, revivals. But a revival is not a resurrection: it is a sudden blaze that soon burns itself out. The eighteenth century had neo-classicism; we have had “neo-Expressionism,” a “trans-avant-garde,” and even “neo-Romanticism.” And what were Pop Art and Beat poetry if not derivations, the former from Dada, the latter from Surrealism? The New York school of Abstract Expressionism was also derivative: it gave us a number of excellent artists but, again, it was a revival, a sudden blaze. As much can be said for a postwar philosophical-literary movement which first appeared in Paris and spread throughout the world: existentialism. By its method it was a continuation of Husserl; by its subject, of Heidegger. One more example: from 1960 on, essays and books on Sade, Fourier, Rousesel, and others began to be published. Some of these studies are clever, perceptive, at times profound. But they are not original: those authors were discovered forty years before by Apollinaire and the Surrealists. Another revival. There is no point in going on. I repeat: the works of the second half of the twentieth century are different form and even contrary to those of the first half. They are not illuminated by the ambiguous, violent light of Lucifer: they are twilight works. Is the melancholy Saturn our numen? Perhaps, although Saturn is fond of nuance. Mythology paints him as the sovereign of a spiritual golden age whose strength is sapped by black bile, melancholy, a mood partial to chiaroscuro. Our time, by contrast, is simplistic, superficial, and merciless. Having fallen into the idolatry of ideological systems, our century has ended by worshiping Things. What place does love have in such a world?

    -The Morning Star-Octavio Paz from The Double Flame

    “There are problems in these times
    But none of them are mine
    Baby, I’m beginning to see the light.
    Here we go again,
    I thought that you were my friend.
    Here we go again,
    I thought that you were my friend.
    How does it feel to be loved?
    How does it feel to be loved?”

    http://youtu.be/7s3BMPxZQcs

  • http://twitter.com/bechatman Brian

    Not to join on the negativity bandwagon, but I think the author of this piece is conveniently forgetting the history of music. Rock has ALWAYS been about taking sounds from the past. Everything Led Zeppelin ever put out was their spin on someone else’s work, if not a direct rip-off. It’s still great. Punk was a throwback to early rock, but they had a DIY, blue-collar aesthetic that changed the sound. Indie rock is just that same movement 30 years later. The sound has changed for some bands who have been influenced by other genres. Other bands have stripped down the sound back to basics to try and put a modern feel on it. Others are simply not bands that are going to move the sound forward. The same can be said of hip hop (which has a resurgence of “old school” beats) and electronic (dubstep being a regurgitation of dub reggae filtered through more modern genres). Country’s “progress” is to do two things: 1. Incorporate current pop styles into the genre (which they do every decade) and 2. Do what mainstream rock did in the 90s and pull on the underground that is outside of machine. Those Alt-Country acts that have heavily influenced country are part of the real independent music underground. Underground music is where true invention occurs because it is music no one knows how to classify. In that world, there are no solid genre boundaries, just influences. Everyone pulls on their influences and, from time to time, someone combines what they like in just the right way to make something new and different that will set the tone of music for the next decade … at least until the backlash starts. The reason it feels like there is no progress: You are too used to the narrative structure of the mainstream, where music that finally finds an audience is packaged and sold. Post Napster, the mainstream doesn’t control as much of what you see, so you are seeing some of the bands that are good, but would never have risen to the top.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ksegriff Kable Segriff

    Listen to Hot Cakes by The Darkness. That’s some fucking rock n roll

  • gjkl;;;lkjhgb

    hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

  • gjkl;;;lkjhgb

    shut the fuck up

  • http://twitter.com/Chris_brancato Chris Brancato

    Couldn’t have said it better myself

  • http://www.facebook.com/Fever00 Jeffrey Whitelaw

    They mine pretty much the entirety of rock in a way that moves the genre forward. This record is the revelation the author of this piece is looking for, but he’s too blind to see it. http://themidnightwire.com/?p=919

  • Mike

    Thanks for writing this. I just heard No Destruction for the first time and couldn’t believe the reviews (Pitchfork) kept lauding it when it seemed so completely and obviously derivative. Anyway, you very keenly put into words the annoyance I was feeling.

  • JMonsterface

    to the author: you sir (or maam), are not a cool dude (or lady)

    one needs look no further than your use of the term “biting the flow” for evidence of that

    its like saying that hip hop singers do a thing called “rapping the rhyme”

    its just called biting

    also, your references to van gogh, emily dickinson, kurt cobain, biggie, and janis joplin are pedestrian, and mark your writing as unrefined and uncreative

    more to the point though,

    there is nothing new

    and there is nothing about any sound that happened in the sixties that belongs to that era exclusively

    one could extrapolate your thesis so far as to say that musicians should stop using the guitar, bass and drums because that peaked with the beatles

    or even that things like rhythm, melody, and tone are outdated and overused

    your interest in hearing “new” sounds is not the burden of any particular musician or the impetus of “music” as a whole

    which is besides the point, because foxygen is as “new” as anything, simply because it did not exists before and now it does

    even the most earth-shatteringly forward thinking music takes more from the past than the future

    any art, exists through the form of its medium, and is defined by its infinitely possible variations thereof

    ps-as an act of kindness i will recommend you listen to two of foxygens earlier releases: “kill art” and “ghettoplastikk!”, both of which are phenomenal, more experimental than their current work, and can be found on youtube

  • Shane

    A few important facts to note:

    The lead band members, Sam France and Jonathan Rado, are 22 years old. They have made more music, both good and bad, than many of us ever will in their lives. They are obviously a cut above most people in this music thing in that, not only can they actually play an instrument but write a good song too.
    Now, as for your criticisms of Foxygen being a nostalgia act at a time when indie music should stand symbolically as harbringers of change and innovation, it must be asked: why is this their responsibility? And why make art an external duty as deemed by the critic? This is very similar in spirit, not context, as when Dylan was attacked in Sing Out for his musical changes. Granted, the issue was Dylan changing his style, whereas your criticism of Foxygen is due to their pilfering (and do they pilfer) of his generation’s style, but the philosophy is the same: the critic tells the artist what they need to do, as if the artist has any external responsibility to move a movement (either artistic, political, religious, or whatever else) forward.

    Is music that references that past really bad? And who’s to say it’s bad? And also, why is referencing the sixties bad? Is it worst than referencing the eighties? Better? Why are Foxygen’s choices bad? Should Sam France not snarl like Mick Jagger? Or sing in his strange voice like Lou Reed? Do these guys have the copyright on certain vocal tics, which they themselves admit to having copped parts from old records? What is the alternative? Should everything sound like Yeezus? Like Bon Iver?

    Or perhaps Bruno Mars, whose recent hit “Treasure” should have been a hidden track on Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall.” Or Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which not only evokes band Chic, but has Nile Rodgers laying down a beautiful bassline in his trademark style.

    Popular song has reached great heights in both experimentation and range, and the issue now is what territory is left to explore musically. The older generations were fortunate in they got to be a Columbus, a Magellan. We are now at the point where we have found the Americas and Australias of popular song, and what we area we now innovate has take much more time and expense then our forebears could ever dream. We have to, in other words, go to musical Mars. This can be accomplished in different ways:
    (1) new instruments
    (2) new recording methods
    (3) new song structures
    (4) etc.

    To accomplish such an ambitious goal, I recommend an album of fart noises sung to complaints about Gawker. Very modern. Until then I’ll probably keep on listening to Foxygen.