By Courtney E. Smith
How serious are you about music? Do you think an artist is more authentic if they write their own songs and play their own instruments? Should the music speak louder than the personality? Is the musical taste of a teen girl worth less than that of a middle-aged man?
These are the questions music critics wrestle with and that, of late, have generated a virtual ton of think pieces on ‘poptimism,’ a term defined by Slate music critic Jody Rosen as referring to people who think that “[p]op (and, especially, hip-hop) producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act.”
If you haven’t heard of Rixton just yet, you will soon enough. The band’s single “Me and My Broken Heart” is currently at No. 14 and rising on Billboard‘s Hot 100 and at No. 8 and rising on the Mediabase Top 40 radio airplay chart. The group is managed by Scooter Braun, the man behind Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. The four bandmates play their own instruments and write their own songs, but their work is produced by pop mastermind Benny Blanco (Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Kesha).
When we ask them to talk to us about the objectification that’s inherent in the marketing of boy bands, they are thoroughly surprised. “That’s a deep question,” they say, almost in unison. “We’ve never been asked that.”
“We did the ‘Make Out’ video, where we were kind of nude,” singer Jake Roche admits. But, he says, “hopefully, eventually, the music will speak for itself once people hear the other songs on the album.”
The amount of nudity in “Make Out” is actually relatively small and not as impactful compared to the videos the band is spoofing. Roche is mainly nude, for instance, because he’s re-creating memorable scenes from Miley Cyrus‘ “Wrecking Ball.” And seeing the guys dressed in drag as recognizable female pop stars like Perry, Cyrus and Nicki Minaj serves to emphasize the lengths women are expected to go in terms of personal presentation, versus the very ‘normal’ clothes the guys don for their performance shots.
“I definitely think it’s harder for females,” Roche agrees. “I think we can wear what we want and say what we want to a certain extent.”
While Roche half-jokingly tells us that in interviews he is most often asked where he gets his hats, it’s unlikely that anyone in this band, or from similar acts like One Direction or the Jonas Brothers, will ever be asked if they are feminists.
What they will be asked, time and time again, is details about their relationships and to dispense love advice to their fans, based on the fact that they sing love songs. When we ask if they feel qualified to dole out advice, Lewi Morgan is quick to say he does, to the relief and amusement of the other guys.
“I’ve had enough experience. Big time,” Morgan says. “Most stuff is common sense anyway. Once we get past the fact that men and women are on the same team, then life becomes easier.”
“I’m great at giving advice, but I’m not good at living by my own advice,” Roche adds. “I’m always like, ‘Mate, don’t worry about it.’ Then I’m at home just going [mimes shaking and distress while the guys laugh]. But qualified? I’m not sure. I’d like to think I was. My mum’s my teacher. My mother, she taught me a lot about ‘love’ as such so I feel like I can pass that on to whoever, really.”
“She taught me a lot as well, mate,” Morgan deadpans, making himself and bassist Danny Wilkin crack up. “I’m sorry, I had to get that in.”
If their camaraderie seems familiar, that’s because it’s cut from the same model as a boy band you’ve seen before: the Beatles. The unusual thing about Rixton’s dynamic, though, is that they consciously put Roche forward as their frontman. There is even a small debate with their representative before the interview begins filming about if Roche should be in the middle, because he will speak more.
And he does, telling us he’s been watching Beatles documentaries lately and that their individual personalities have caught his eye. “There was always the shy one, the loud one, the quirky one,” he says. It’s a model many boy bands have followed, one that creates a type of guy for every type of girl to have a crush on.
For the members of Rixton, who all found each other long before Scooter Braun’s management company did, it’s just the way they are.
“We don’t go out of our way to be more energetic or funny, we [go] on stage and be who we are,” Wilkin says.
Modern boy bands try to avoid the pecking order discussion, as established by the genre’s original Svengali, Maurice Starr, with New Edition and New Kids on the Block. With that model, someone is established as the ‘heartthrob,’ and he may or may not also be the lead vocalist. That differential (along with the fact that they play instruments and write songs) pushes Rixton out of the boy-band category and into the band-band category.
They’re still very much a pop act, but one working on the bleeding edge of the new guitar-based pop from acts like with Imagine Dragons, Bruno Mars and the Lumineers — all who made it to the Top 20 of Billboard‘s Hot 100 for 2013. The difference is that those three acts each started with a wide demographic and then found that women under 25 came to them, eventually. Rixton’s primary audience out of the gate is women under 25.
And that’s a powerful demographic, not to mention one that is often underappreciated — teens in particular. Rookie published a piece in January of 2014 blasting the adult “mansplaining” about the music that teens listen to, characterizing it as “always condescending and insulting, and never itself much of a surprise.” For whatever reason, it’s commonly accepted in music writing that the opinions of grown men are more valuable than those of teenage girls.
As Wilkin points out, however, from the Beatles to Beyoncé, girls pretty much run the music world, and they have given their seal of approval to almost every respected mainstream artist ahead of older listeners.
“With the different artists who’ve been put on that kind of pedestal [by teen girls], it’s made a huge difference to society,” says Wilkin.
“If you take someone like a Justin Timberlake, girls go absolutely crazy for him, and guys seem to like him as well because he’s cool and his music’s really good,” Roche adds. “I think if you find that balance, you’re laughing all the way to the stage.”
Musically, the four bandmates are aware of the changing tides in pop — that the pre-produced stuff seems to be floating out of favor in this post-Adele world. With that in mind, they put authenticity and songwriting at the top of their own list.
“There’s a huge change coming, I think,” Wilkin says. “Where that’s going to literally flip. With people like Jake Bugg coming through, or the 1975, where it’s the music that matters. These guys are going to be the next big stars, I think, rather than [good] looks and pop songs.”
“And people like Ed Sheeran as well,” Roche jumps in. “Because he sings and plays guitar and has a great personality, girls do find that attractive as well. The same is true with Tori Kelly. She wrote a song about not being sexy just because a label told her to. That is sexy, in and of itself.”