I’m writing this piece about the debut album from the 1975 — released 10 years ago this Saturday — because I was, ostensibly speaking, the right demographic to have taken it seriously at the time. That mostly means I was a 16-year-old girl and avid Tumblr user in the fall of 2013, but I was initially skeptical of the aesthetics of the band. The black and white videos and Matty Healy’s overwrought haircut reeked of a band that could only be enjoyed by the girls at my high school who would sneak off to the bathroom to buy Lollapalooza tickets with their parents’ credit cards every year. That reaction reeks of internalized misogyny, but I was far from the only skeptic making fun of the semi-unintelligible lyrics to “Chocolate” in 2013. I’d change my tune over the following year as my initial rejection turned into curiosity about the contexts of the lyrics littering my Tumblr dashboard and why Matty Healy liked so much ’90s emo.
On its surface, the 1975’s self-titled album is a synthy pop-rock album about sex and drugs and girls. It’s an album about loving those things and being equally depressed by them. If you’re sympathetic to it, The 1975 is danceable and full of aspirationally messy vignettes that paint a portrait of a singer who is equal parts cool and tragic. If you’re not, it’s a bloated album full of unimaginative reference points genetically engineered to garner teenage fans written by a man with TV stars for parents and his three friends from school. I think, in truth, it is all of that at once.
The moments where they shine can’t be touched. “Settle Down” is the height of the shimmering bounce that the 1975 is synonymous with. “Menswear” is quietly home to some of Matty Healy’s most effective scene-setting. The music video for the endlessly catchy “Girls,” where the lads, clad in all black, pretend to hate the poppy, cartoonish color of their model counterparts, is a delight. But it is sort of corny and saccharine. Fan favorite “Robbers” is probably the worst offender, even if Healy’s cracking voice at the end as he attempts to croon “babe, you look so cool” is, admittedly, charming. Knowing what George Daniel will create as a producer after their debut does make this album come off as a bit unimpressive and derivative. There are all-timers in there, but it’s a debut and it feels like it.
The question around the band has remained constant over the years: What is the appeal of this? It’s usually said as a challenge to the positioning of the band as important or genius or experimental as their career has gone on, but it was the question I was asking at 16, too. Why this?
There are layers to the why of it all. It starts with the fact that this is a debut album that came preloaded with history. Any basic fan could tell you that the members of the 1975 – Matty Healy, Adam Hann, George Daniel, and Ross MacDonald — began playing together in 2002. They played under varying names — Drive Like I Do, the Slowdown, Bigsleep, Me And You Versus Them, among others — and everyone would tell you they actually listened to Drive Like I Do way back in the day. “Sex” was originally released as the Slowdown, then re-released on an EP under the new name, then redone for the album. Fandom is as much about loving the song as it is having an opinion on which version is best and knowing the timelines of the band. It’s about feeling more attached to the tracks on the EPs that show up on the Deluxe Edition than the album tracks. It’s about knowing how long the silence between “You” and the hidden track “Milk” is. It’s about being a band with details like that built in.
But fandom — in this case and in most others — is not really just about the songs at the end of the day. Of course, the belief that the songs are great enough to defend is necessary, and you have to know about them. But you cannot understand what sparks fans to devote themselves to any band on that alone.
A second layer to the why is that the 1975 were presented like a boyband. They had a highly orchestrated social media marketing strategy that created a frenzy by simply deleting all photos on their Instagram accounts. The members wore coordinated black and white outfits. Fans picked their favorite members and used the band’s // O F F I C I A L T Y P I N G S T Y L E O N L I N E // on their own social media accounts to indicate their interest. They had music videos full of easily gif-able shots of Healy in a leather jacket with a beautiful woman.
The 1975 would move away from the branding of the early part of their band’s life — branding that feels distinctly mid-2010s in color scheme alignment sitting next to the monochrome of the Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend albums of the same year and the Lana Del Rey album from the next — but starting there was a shortcut to capitalizing on teen fan obsession with aesthetics and websites like Tumblr and Instagram. To be into the band was to feel like you could be a part of it. It was easy to post like the band and use those aesthetics to be involved in fan community.
Fandom is often as alienating as it is unifying and the extra-musical aspects are why. Those insisting on being told in purely objective terms why a band is inspiring undying devotion will never get it. The ask with the 1975 is to buy into the marketing hype, buy into Matty Healy, and buy into the friendship. The why of the first 1975 album is really in all of those things as much as it’s in believing the lyrics are truly impressive — though I think detractors have long gotten lost in the belief that it’s all earnest genius worship and no humor — and it can be a tough sell.
At the center of that tough sell has always sat Matty. His persona was defined at the start. It was sort of a bad-boy character: charming and charismatic but messy and inevitably disappointing. He does drugs and sleeps with girls who have boyfriends. He wins the ill-fated hearts of 17-year-olds and nearly throws up in a woman’s mouth at a wedding. Like many shitty dudes before and after him, though, he’s funny and has these big, affectionate friendships that can convince anybody he’s probably not that bad. He gets away with lyrics that verge on slut shaming and misogynistic and edgy because he’s softened by the context built around him. The genius of the early Matty Healy persona is that it was always rooted in the feeling of faux-closeness in a way that’s commonplace in social media driven music marketing today, but was just ramping up 10 years ago.
He managed to close the distance between himself and his fans enough by using social media that not only is he a type of guy his fans might know, he feels like he is someone they know. The guys in the 1975 weren’t the first to use social media to make their fans feel like a part of the world they live in – the concept of parasociality isn’t that new – but they did it well from the beginning. Over the years it’s become obvious that centering their fans in the way that built their early success is something Healy flips between being grateful for and resenting, but it’s not something they can take back. It’s Pandora’s box. It’s selling your soul to the devil.
Maybe the album is not as good as the teenagers of the time thought it was. Maybe Matty Healy isn’t actually as smart or cool or cute as they wanted everybody to believe. Maybe the British kids standing against the fence in their soft grunge outfits deserved to be made fun of for 10 years. At the end of the day, though, it has always been about the spectacle of buying in, so how much does the why really matter anyway?