Curious Listening

Play Something Good


in Pop Studies • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


There’s a familiar refrain from an older generation speaking to a younger one: Why isn’t there any good music these days? It’s often posed like that, as a question, and accompanied by an insincere request for the younger to show the older something good. I can expect to hear it every holiday when I hop between gatherings for each of my parents, extended family, and my partner’s family. They all seem to imply that I am the resident musical expert and might hold an answer as to where the good music is, but that’s not what any of them mean. They all want affirmation that their era — the ’70s or ’80s — was the true peak of culture. None of them see parallels to complaints about synthesizers or rock and roll from their own parents. 

Today’s culture may be especially perplexing to those longing for the glassy coherence of their youth. Music — and fashion, and film, and comedy — has reached a maximalist roar, irreverent and hyperactive yet avowedly sincere. The days of limited radio stations or TV channels have been replaced by the limitless catalog on the internet. It can seem as nonsensical, ultraviolent, and uncivilized as Anthony Burgess’s future culture in A Clockwork Orange: “civilized my syphilized yarbles,” as the protagonist puts it.  

At the turn of the century, many artists followed postmodernism’s ironic and self-aware lead but adapted it to the internet age. If anyone could become an expert on culture, philosophy, or theory with relative ease, then the goal of much art of that time was to prove not a depth of knowledge but a refinement of taste. Enter the hipster.  

If anything, the hipster was good for advocates of past cultural supremacy. The hipster appropriated readily while glossing over some of the more radical and inventive edges of its sources. It was easy to point to the original, it was easy to find complaints. The Strokes, a talisman of the era’s tastemakers, played a much-softened CBGB’s brand of rock but dressed in thrift shop couture (and had parents from elite fashion and musical backgrounds in contrast to their bohemian aesthetic). At the same time, there was plenty to appreciate: The Strokes were like The Velvet Underground without the noise, television with fewer guitar solos and tighter hooks. 

But the music of today has grown up on the internet rather than adapting to it. Instead of using the infinite archive to show superior, selective taste, it takes influence with ambivalent abandon. Hyperpop, the most extreme example. A single song by 100 Gecs can oscillate between ska, chiptune, and a faux-sample of the EuroTrip soundtrack’s “Scotty Doesn’t Know.” But that’s an extreme. For those paying attention, there are trends. Pop music in particular — The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, Carly Rae Jepsen — has looked toward the ’80s, while the indie world — Mitski, Alex G, Jay Som — has veered closer to the ’90s and an affinity for knotty guitars and grungy aesthetics. 

Most references to the aughts, on the other hand, note the decade as an inspiration (or at least a laughing point) for hyperpop, but the years of low-rise jeans and the mp3 have been discreetly and increasingly spreading influence in more sincere ways, leading to a resurgence of what might be called indie aught rock. The trend isn’t new, but its subdued rise is now gaining prominence.  

When Bea Kristi released “Coffee,” her first track as Beabadoobee, it rushed to viral acclaim. Just half a year later, she’d landed a record deal with Dirty Hit, a label best known for raising The 1975 and backing other ’80s-inspired acts. Beabadoobee soon pivoted from the lo-fi acoustic pop of that first single to a sound that merged throwbacks to distorted ’90s rock with ambitiously over-sized pop.  

But “Coffee” came with a clue to the coming wave of aughts influence: an accompanying cover of aughts indie rock icon Karen O’s “Moon Song.” Both songs, like much of Beabadoobee’s early recordings, sound far closer to Kimya Dawson or The Moldy Peaches than Stephen Malkmus or Pavement. And despite a 2019 single asserting “I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus,” her debt to the aughts has proven more lasting. For her 2022 album, Beatopia, Kristi cites Broken Social Scene, Corinne Bailey Rae, Nelly Furtado, and Stars as influences. “It sounds very 2006,” she told Alternative Press in a pre-release interview. 

She’s far from the only one paying homage to the aughts. Wet Leg made glorious landfall this past year, following their own viral moment with “Chaise Longue” in summer 2021, awash in aughts nostalgia. And it’s not hard to hear the twitchy, quirkily palatable sound of indie aught rock seeping throughout Wet Leg’s self-titled debut album. If “Wet Dream” wouldn’t quite fit in on a Franz Ferdinand record, it could certainly make the cut for an iPod commercial circa 2005. Vocalist/guitarist Rhian Teasdale’s witty speak-singing isn’t so far from the Ting Tings — who appeared in a 2008 iPod ad — either. 

The similarly critically adored, though not as commercially successful, Geese dig further into the aughts’ post-punk revival. The hypey Brooklyn teens merge an affected and effected Julian Casablancas drawl (“Fantasies / Survival”) with Interpol’s moody, staccato antics while looking toward more pop-friendly efforts from later in the decade (think Arctic Monkeys and Foals). 

The return of the aughts has been a gradual progression, long-present but rising now in popularity and prominence. Take The Strokes as a temperature check. Ever since the band arrived fashionably dressed on the scene with 2001’s Is This It, imitators have followed. For a few years, acts like The Libertines and The Killers were well-received, but as the decade wore on and the thrift store aesthetic began to look store-bought, Phoenix, The Kooks, and a legion of others had to more significantly adapt the style (the former) or polish it up and sacrifice credibility (the latter). 

The Strokes’ influence never really went away, but by the mid-2010s it was regaining relevance in the critical eye. In 2014, The Guardian hailed Deers as a new band of the week, describing the Spanish quartet as “kids bashing away at The Strokes’ back catalog with more passion than finesse.” (Deers changed their name to Hinds the next year following a legal threat but publicly joked about simply renaming the group “The Strokes.”) The band’s influence could be heard more subtly in the rise of Car Seat Headrest and Twin Peaks. 

Beyond a revival of the post-punk revival, interest in aughts indie rock has expanded to other sounds from the era. Pop-punk has become credible again with Lil Uzi Vert, Olivia Rodrigo, Willow, and a host of others leaning into the sound. Even Taylor Swift took a turn toward the atmospheric indie folk that dominated the aughts (though the influence was heavier in the marketing than the actual sound).  

One of the more nuanced approaches comes from Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, Lucy Dacus, and other songwriters looking toward the condensed immediacy of aughts pop songs and adding in lo-fi-tinged indie rock and contemporary production. As much as those acts cling to a sincerity and emotional resonance prominent in the worlds of bedroom pop and emo, they’ve done so while assimilating the anthemic, belt-at-the-top-of-your-lungs choruses that followed the cooling of grunge’s angsty heatwave.  

Bridgers seems to take as much from Coldplay’s airy, slow-building songs (see the band’s four-album streak from 2000’s Parachutes to 2008’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends) as she does from Elliott Smith’s melancholy folk, though the latter resemblance has earned more attention. Dacus more or less embodies the careers that might have been had Vanessa Carlton or Natasha Bedingfield been labeled alternative rather than breaking through with hit singles.  

The cover selections of these songwriters leave a clear trail of influence. Boygenius — the supergroup of Bridgers, Dacus, and Julien Baker — has covered The Killers’ deep cut “Read My Mind.” Baker has taken on the Postal Service, Manchester Orchestra, and Pedro the Lion. Bridgers and Soccer Mommy lean heavy on turn-of-the-century pop: the Goo Goo Dolls, Sheryl Crow, “Teenage Dirtbag.” Those choices in particular, at the tipping point between decades, illustrate a shifting reference point for contemporary artists. It’s not that all acts are looking toward the era of skinny jeans, MySpace, and mix CDs — there’s plenty of dream pop and yacht rock to go around — but the boundaries of what’s worth revisiting do seem to be moving. 

In Chuck Klosterman’s The Nineties, a book-length study of the decade, he upholds the validity of a popular 20-year theory of retro influence: “In the seventies, people loved the fifties . . . In the eighties, people fixated on the sixties,” he writes, explaining the recent interest in nineties culture. “The pattern is dependable: Every new generation tends to be intrigued by whatever generation existed 20 years earlier.” 

In a strict interpretation of the 20-year theory, musicians have just concluded listening back to 2002: Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People, Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things. On the more pop end: Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane, Avril Lavigne’s Let Go, Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head. That would put this year in relation to Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell, MF Doom’s Vaudeville Villain, and The Strokes’ Room on Fire

Most of those artists have moved on to other projects (Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis), changed direction drastically (Coldplay), or padded continued attempts with anniversary tours (Death Cab for Cutie). There are few acts from that era that have truly maintained relevancy without abandoning their approach. Writing for The New York Times, Adlan Jackson cites Beach House as “one of the last pillars that remain where the estate of old indie rock once stood — icons of a music that has been, to hear some tell it, made obsolete, hopelessly out of step with today’s internet music culture.” 

Beach House’s continued success may have more to do with the band arriving before its time — call it prescience, if you will. When the duo’s swirling organ soundscapes first echoed in 2006, there wasn’t much of an appetite for shoegaze revivalism. But the band stuck through to increasing acclaim that peaked with 2012’s Bloom. The album arrived right in between the 20-year anniversaries of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Slowdive’s Souvlaki, the twin pillars of shoegaze. Both of those bands announced reunions around the time and, as happened in the nineties, swarms of basement punks picked up fuzz pedals and cranked the reverb. 

What’s kept Beach House at the forefront of acts branded with the shoegaze tag is the band’s distinction from pure revivalism. The Baltimore duo still has roots in the creativity espoused by indie aught rock, particularly in the band’s use of electronics and modern effects. Where others chased hopelessly after My Bloody Valentine’s impenetrable guitar tone, Beach House invested in cheap keyboards — a notable difference from Kevin Shields’ explicit avoidance of synthesizers on Loveless

There’s a similar ingenuity behind some of the best callbacks to the aughts, likely part of what’s kept the renewed interest fairly under the radar.  

Black Country, New Road made its full-length debut in 2021 as a volatile and experimental art rock act, but 2022’s Ants From Up There found the band obsessing over Arcade Fire and pursuing a similar brand of lushly arranged, off-kilter, and occasionally anthemic indie rock. To pigeonhole the album in that niche, though, would be misleading, as the seven-piece band (vocalist/guitarist Isaac Wood has since left the group) cascades through high-concept musical suites led by Wood’s mumbling baritone — though the dramatic dynamics and aching lyricism also recall the Antlers 2009 landmark Hospice

In the case of Nation of Language, the influence of the aughts is hidden behind a much more prominent borrowing from the gothic edges of ’80s new wave. But frontman Ian Devaney sings and performs with a striking resemblance to the National’s Matt Berninger, lurching about the stage while intoning about “reading through the same old books but you’re reading less” (“September Again”) and “begging at the altar of the grey commute” (“The Grey Commute”). 

Bartees Strange made an EP covering the National and has cited TV on the Radio and Bloc Party as influences, but his stylistic touchpoints are liminal. “Heavy Heart” builds on a National-esque drumbeat and arrangement, but wanders into noodling emo territory. A few tracks into the same album, he’s moved to a gothic trap rap on “Cosigns.” His music embodies the eclectic maximalism of Gen Z tastes and mines the library of Babel that the internet offers, but does so without the tongue-in-cheek irony of hyperpop.  

The turns toward the beginning of the century, both explicit and discreet, point toward a renewed perspective on the aughts that once again value its ideas as culturally important. That makes sense, as, in the U.S., the global trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic mirrored the national turmoil that followed 9/11, first with unity and then with division. Likewise, the end of the aughts offers the clearest memory of a looming economic crisis.  

Beyond all that, the aughts can appear as a simpler time, one when the internet seemed to be exploding but, in hindsight, was just starting to bud. The decade offers lessons on coping with the pressures of presentation, but in comparison to the constant, multi-platform demand of social media today and the hyper-focus on image, the aughts were almost naïve, and that’s echoed in the simplistic photo editing aesthetic that’s come to dominate album art and social media presences. 

In truth, a look toward the past isn’t evidence of a desire for better days though. It may be a desire for inspiration, for answers as to how another person managed to live and create in their own uncertain world, but inspiration isn’t evidence of a lack. What the current interest in the aughts — and the interest in the ’80s, and ’90s, and any other period of the past — shows is a curiosity, a belief that there is good music there for those willing to listen.•


Cameron Carr is a writer from Ohio. His work has recently appeared in The Missouri Review and March Xness. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona and a nonfiction editor for the Sonora Review. He is currently working on an essay collection about amateurism, art, and creativity.