Despite what the Frenchy name suggests, Bastille (or BΔSTILLE if you’re willing to go along with their preferred styling) are an alt-rock band from London. According to Wikipedia the group started out as the solo project of front man Dan Smith, and from my limited exposure to them the whole endeavor has the typical singer-songwriter-with-a-band kind of feel. Nearly a year ago they released a single called “Pompeii.” It was a full-blown smash in the UK, but in the States it’s had more of a slow buildup. After 22 weeks on the charts it recently reached number 12 on the Hot 100, its highest ranking yet.
I had high hopes for Bastille and “Pompeii” before listening to it, most of them inspired by the impressive pompadour that Smith rocks in some promo photos. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting based on his hairstyle—maybe something XX-ish?—but I was disappointed to discover that it’s just another ambitiously large-scale piece of Coldplay-style arena emoting. Worse yet it has at least 12 tracks of wordless backup vocals doing an “ay-ayo-ayo” bit throughout the entire thing.
Pop music in general and mainstream rock in particular have over the past decade become obsessed with creating grand, sweeping vistas. Rock isn’t about rocking anymore, but about generating uplift. It’s supposed to overwhelm the listener, make them consider their place this great big universe we all inhabit, and more than anything else to encourage them in the same bland, unchallenging way as an inspirational text tattoo.
Coldplay is obviously the big influence behind this, but the Arcade Fire has contributed to this trend quite a bit as well, and along with crossover cornballs like Bastille there’s a thriving business in providing even rawer, somehow even more intensely earnest feelings-rock aimed for indie types. Underground and above, songs with wordless group vocals, the most recognizable signifier of emotional content almost too massive and majestic for one person to handle on their own (along with cymbal washes, tamed-down versions of the Pixies’ quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, and chord progressions that unhurriedly climb major scales), are the norm.
As rock becomes increasingly irrelevant to the contemporary pop discourse this kind of stuff has started making up a greater proportion of the genre’s representation on the pop charts. Ironically it seems increasingly likely that a style born out of raw-dog fucking is doomed to end its life in an undifferentiated blob of twinkly pianos and sentimentality. It’s a tough time to be a dedicated rock fan, but things have never been easier for the people who cut movie trailers and are in need of a quick shortcut to “epic.”