Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at email@example.com.
I’m really excited about the return of live music. But there’s one thing about concert culture I don’t really understand: Why is there a stigma against wearing a band T-shirt at a concert performed by that band? How did this taboo start, and do you agree with it? — Jamie from Philadelphia
I have been asked this a lot over the years, and to be honest I don’t know how this unwritten rule started. But I understand the reasoning behind it, and I think it really, really blows.
Before we proceed, it should be noted that the “no band shirt at the band’s show” rule doesn’t apply to all genres and music scenes. Go to a metal show and you will see scores of people repping the band who happens to be on stage. In some musical subcultures, a band shirt is an expression of identity and pride; of course you would stan for Iron Maiden or Metallica when in the presence of your fellow tribe members at a gig. The gig is the one place where you metal fandom is accepted and normal. Not wearing a band shirt is what seems odd.
However, in the realm of indie culture — where looking like you’re trying too hard has always been a magnet for mockery — it does seem like this unwritten rule still has some sway. The idea (I think?) is that wearing band merch when you’re already at the band’s show suggests that your entire personality is caring about this band and that (I guess?) is sort of pathetic. Like I said: This really, really blows!
As far as an origin story for the rule, the most cited explanation I’ve heard is the 1994 frat comedy PCU, in which Jeremy Piven plays the de rigueur party dude on a campus overrun with political correctness. (Given how the milieu could easily be applied to 2021, I’m perversely curious to re-watch PCU for the first time since the ’90s, back when it played on a loop on Comedy Central. Then again, I didn’t have a life back then and I thankfully have one now, so this would likely be a colossal waste of time.) In the film, there’s a scene in which Piven scolds another party dude (played by Jon Favreau, who sports some truly awful dreadlocks) about wearing a band shirt to a concert that night performed by the band.
“Don’t be that guy,” Piven implores.
Now, if it’s true that this unwritten rule originated with PCU — or at least was popularized by the film — I think we can all understand the ridiculousness of taking “cool” notes from a C-list ’90s comedy. In what universe is Jeremy Piven considered an arbiter of acceptable concert etiquette? Who in the world wants to be regarded as “Piven-esque”?
I should add that I’m not convinced that we can blame PCU entirely for this. We’re talking about a film that grossed a grand total of $4.3 million during its initial theatrical run. Even with home video and all of those Comedy Central spins, I’m not sure PCU has enough of a cultural footprint to implant such a ubiquitous taboo on live music culture. Unfortunately, there are a lot of judgmental, fun-hating, Piven-esque people out there who for decades have also projected enough influence to make the rest of us feel insecure about wearing a damn shirt at a damn show.
Here’s what I think: When you go to show, nobody cares about what you are wearing. If there is one quality that all humans share, it’s that we’re all too wrapped up in ourselves to think about the shirts on the backs of strangers. As for all of those Pivens out there, just remember that those people also truly despise themselves. That self-loathing is what they’re mostly focused on. So, pay them no mind and wear what you dig.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the coverage around Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour since you discussed it on Indiecast a recently. I was baffled by reviews at the time (Stereogum said “let it be your transition to indie rock,” Pitchfork recently said that the evolution of Paramore can be best heard in “Good 4 U”). But it’s pretty clear she/someone on her team has ripped off the entire image for the album rollout from an actual band, Pom Pom Squad, in addition to the co-opting of broader pop punk/indie rock buzz words. Sour is a serviceable pop album. But it is a pop album. The songs are pop songs, performed by a literal Disney pop star. What are your thoughts here? — Alex from New York City
Hey Alex, let me address Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour specifically first, and then the issue of indie-rock appropriation (is that the right way to put it?) by pop stars more generally.
Regarding Sour, I think I’m with you in thinking that some of the reviews have been a little hyperbolic. For me, the album peaks early with the opening track, “Brutal,” which is a really fun and quotable teen angst pop-punk song. I can’t get enough of that track. The rest of Sour is solid — I’ll go one step beyond “serviceable” — but it doesn’t have the same personality as that stellar first track. “Driver’s License” might be a genuine pop phenomenon, but I find it overwrought and even hectoring. However, because Rodrigo is so young, I am curious to see where she goes from here and anticipate that her second album could really be a major step forward.
As far as the accusation that she “stole” her act from Pom Pom Girls, Illuminati Hotties, and other lesser-known indie acts, I have two thoughts: (1) I don’t know about that; (2) I don’t care.
At the risk of lapsing into critical cliché here, it’s simply a matter of fact that popular music is built on borrowing (i.e. stealing) ideas from other people, and then putting your own spin on them. If the public digs it, you win. And you should win! Because execution matters! Reaching people matters! (That’s based on the assumption that Olivia Rodrigo actually did borrow from Pom Pom Girls and didn’t instead just draw on the well of teen angst pop-punk that’s existed for literal decades. That’s a pretty big assumption by the way! After all, it’s not like Pom Pom Girls invented the wheel here.)
Maybe that’s an annoying take if you love Pom Pom Girls and resent Olivia Rodrigo because you believe Rodrigo big-footed PPG. I would counter by suggesting that a musical ecological system benefits from having gateway artists. I don’t think there is any credible argument that says if Olivia Rodrigo didn’t exist, Pom Pom Girls would assume her place as the hottest pop act on the planet. There is something specific about Rodrigo — no doubt aided by her Disney connections, I’ll give you that — that has captivated millions. If anything, I would say that Rodrigo has likely helped Pom Pom Girls by acting as a gateway to snotty pop-rock with a young female perspective for so many listeners. She isn’t stealing an audience; she’s building one. And that’s good for everyone.
Have there been any recent additions to the 5 album test collection? — Tyler from London
Great question, Tyler! Actually, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately because there is a new War On Drugs album that was announced this week. It’s called I Don’t Live Here Anymore, and it drops on October 29. I was fortunate to get an early listen of the record, and for now I’ll just say that it’s already the 2021 album I’ve played the most by far. (I don’t want to get too deep yet into this since we’re still a few months out but I’ll definitely be going deep on The War On Drugs in the fall.)
With The War On Drugs, I need to figure out two things. First, is I Don’t Live Here Anymore a great album? Again, I can’t answer that definitively yet but I know how I’m leaning. Second, is their 2008 debut Wagonwheel Blues a great album? Because that album also needs to be great for TWoD to pass the test. I’ve lived with that album for 13 years and I’m less sure about that. If the answer is “no,” there’s another potential subquestion: Can I justify counting the excellent 2010 EP Future Weather in my five-album run?
I’ll need to get back to you on this one, Tyler.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.