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How TV on the Radio Influenced Popular Rock Music

Photo: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic

After a half-decade of facing declarations of its total obsolescence, modern rock — specifically, the drifting, melodic, mid-tempo pop-rock that regularly appears on radio stations, streaming-service playlists, and advertisements — is everywhere again, and it’s more critically loathed than ever. Part of this negativity-laden phenomenon can be credited to the desire for a common enemy; Nickelback are little more than harmless meme fodder now, EDM and the folk-focused “real music” revival are both things of the past, and even the Chainsmokers could barely stoke collective outrage when their second album, Sick Boy, saw release at the end of last year.

Recently, Washington Post music critic Chris Richards was at bat to take the latest swing at our sleepy-sounding modern rock overlords — specifically, Las Vegas outfit Imagine Dragons, who have achieved ubiquity over the last several years and shows no signs of receding from view any time soon. “What are they listening to?” Richards asks rhetorically about the headphone-wearing denizens of society, before concluding cheekily, “Maybe they’re trying to block out the sound of Imagine Dragons.” Effectively representing a tipping point in which such takedowns themselves have inspired their own separate discourse, Richards trots out a few well-worn and varyingly accurate critiques of Imagine Dragons’ oeuvre, such as have previously been lobbed at toothless rockers of days past: the music is sexless, aspirant, made for mass consumption, frictionlessly loud.

“How can this band be this famous?” Richards asks, leaving the question hanging without providing a concrete answer — a shame, because offering a potential explanation for how society has arrived at a particular pop-cultural moment is as important a critical function as separating the kind-of-bad from the really, really bad. He gestures at a few causations previously mentioned elsewhere — the Voldemort–like specter of the streaming algorithm, Coldplay’s decades-spanning pop-rock dominance — but there’s a weirder, more surprising musical precursor to our current moment of modern rock malaise: Brooklyn avant-rockers TV on the Radio, whose career dates back to the halcyon days of mid-2000s indie culture (when “rock” was still a term that was commonly used to describe the sounds of the increasingly diffuse scene) and whose most recent album, the pleasant and streamlined Seeds, saw release a full five years ago.

There’s actually not much of an equivalency between Imagine Dragons and TVOTR. For one, the emergence of the latter marked the arrival of a non-white presence at a time when the racial makeup of 2000s indie music was still overwhelmingly Caucasian; Imagine Dragons’ perceived representation of whiteness, on the other hand, has practically become a meme unto itself. TVOTR’s music has frequently and pointedly taken on political stances, while Imagine Dragons’ own addressing of social concerns have more frequently taken on extra-musical guises.

Both as an exceptional live act and in the studio, TVOTR have more than proven their capacity to rock out with a capital R; with gauzy synths, soft rhythmic touches owing to hip-hop’s cushy low-end, and tempos that barely register a pulse, no one could ever accuse Imagine Dragons and their musical colleagues of shredding a hot guitar lick or two. But large swaths of TVOTR’s catalogue thus far — an impressive decade-and-a-half-spanning discography that kicked off with the Young Liars EP in 2003 — have also taken on a certain atmospheric weightlessness that’s shared with the denizens of late-2010s rock.

“Staring at the Sun,” their breakout single — which also appeared on their 2004 debut LP, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes — hangs in percussionless limbo for much of its run-time, the ticking of a drum machine its eventual metronomic pulse; the opening cut from 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain, the dissonant “I Was a Lover,” pairs jarring loops and barroom piano chords in a manner that resembles a more abrasive precedent to the gently anxious electronic grooves of Twenty One Pilots’ Trench, from last year. The soothed-out “Will Do,” a highlight from TVOTR’s fine 2011 album Nine Types of Light, is a practical dead ringer for Imagine Dragons’ 2017 hit “Thunder;” clean up the distortion and fuzz underneath Seeds centerpiece “Test Pilot” and it’d be right at home amidst Delta’s subtle, swelling anti-anthems. More generally, the band’s 2010s output has trended away from their harder-charging early days and toward the type of sleeker, more explicitly melodic pop-rock that dominates the genre’s overground confines today.

TVOTR’s perceived influence on this subset of pop music may be surprising by pure virtue of the fact that, since the band’s gone a whole half-decade without releasing any new music, they’ve been removed from the increasingly accelerant conversation surrounding pop, rock, and everything in between. But the notion of today’s arena-ascendant acts taking influence from their music is far from ridiculous. For one, TVOTR have long enjoyed a level of visibility exceeding that of many of their Brooklyn contemporaries; from Cookie Mountain on, they’ve been firmly situated within the major-label system and have proved able to coexist within it, as their sound has achieved greater accessibility over the last decade.

What’s even more interesting is the band’s lack of sonic legacy within indie culture at large. Until last year, there wasn’t really a band in the 2010s whose sound even halfway resembled their indelible art-rock alchemy — a dry spell of influence that more or less dates back to the emergence of Brooklyn contemporaries Yeasayer, the last act that could claim direct inspiration. 2018 saw the release of two albums in the indie sphere that, if they did not explicitly resemble it, at least recalled TVOTR’s unique and slippery sound: after two albums of sturdy, emo-leaning rock music, St. Louis outfit Foxing’s third effort, Nearer My God, was a thicket of tangled electronics, falsetto-led anxieties, and odd, prog-y touches. And singer-songwriter Trevor Powers stepped out of the warm psych-pop of his now-defunct Youth Lagoon project with Mulberry Violence, a spiky and often tense-sounding album that resembled a natural extension of TVOTR’s frequent juxtaposition between shimmering beauty and the bubbling-over of complicated emotions.

Despite this recent spate of influence, TVOTR still remain largely peerless in one particular aspect. Dear Science, their third full-length from 2008 that arguably stands as their to-date masterpiece, found the band getting funkier, looser, and prettier-sounding than ever before — all the while exerting a specific and hard-hitting socio-political perspective on the cusp of the second Bush administration’s messy, dismal conclusion and the promise that Barack Obama’s eventual ascendancy represented.

Dear Science represented a pitch-perfect mix of rage and positivity at a time in American culture when it was uncertain where the political pendulum would swing next; in an interview with Pitchfork last year tied to the record’s 10th anniversary, vocalist Tunde Adebimpe claimed that sessions for their next album included a potential song about “eradicating Nazis” while acquiescing to the tricky task of making political major-label rock at a time in which major-label rock is largely apolitical: “If the whole thing is on fire, not addressing the fire feels disrespectful to the people who are burning.” The general absence of such a progressive perspective in modern rock at the close of the decade is as deeply felt as that of the band’s recent inactivity — as good a reason to look forward to their return as any.

How TV on the Radio Influenced Popular Rock Music