Sex, Chocolate, Coming of Age and The 1975 at 10

How the Manchester quartet pushed boundaries, transformed rock 'n' roll and soundtracked what it was like to grow up in 2013

Music Features The 1975
Sex, Chocolate, Coming of Age and The 1975 at 10

The year 2013 marked an interesting time in music and pop culture. Miley Cyrus was rebranding from a squeaky clean Disney star to one that swung on a wrecking ball, while New Zealand’s newcomer Lorde was setting a new precedent in Top-40 radio with her debut single “Royals.” British bands were flocking to America—One Direction was at their peak and Arctic Monkeys’s AM would help catapult them into mainstream success. For those itching for a band that would be the soundtrack of their own coming-of-age stories but wanting a grittier band, they could find it in rock group The 1975. Somehow, days before their debut album’s release, they would prophesize their own legacy: “We’re a band that defines a certain generation at a certain time.”

In the span of ten years, The 1975 have been able to go from playing small clubs in Manchester to selling out arenas in North America. Some bands that followed, who attempted to mimic their sound and vision, have already hit their peak. Somehow, even with the controversies and being called the “Most Hated and Loved Band in the World,”, the quartet have been able to skillfully create a body of work that is equal parts reflective and provocative. The 1975 built the foundation for the albums to come—the ones that showcase their knack for blurring and pushing the boundaries across genre, visuals and storytelling.

The band, consisting of Matty Healy, Adam Hann, Ross MacDonald and George Daniel, released their eponymous debut on September 2nd, 2013 after four EPs and tirelessly playing gigs as a support act on tours across the UK. Working with producer Mike Crossey—most known for producing for Arctic Monkeys at the time—the album was a result of five years spent perfecting their sound, opting to craft sonically succinct EPs rather than release multiple singles over a year. This helped listeners hold more context about the band and their qualms while also allowing the four members to test themselves and determine whether or not they actually could express themselves properly..

Last year, while the band was playing across America last year during their At Their Very Best tour, it seemed like every time you refreshed Twitter there was another abnormal or socially unacceptable act that Healy would be doing as the rest of the band played along. First, it was kissing fans in the crowd which made people question the power dynamic at play. Then, there was eating raw meat and playing with himself onstage. Those outside of The 1975 bubble were questioning the fans’ allegiance to the band, pondering why this would be the one they’d hold in such high regard. But like with Taylor Swift and other artists that create music that resonated with teens, The 1975 is no different.

The first time I remember hearing about The 1975 was, naturally, on Twitter. I had my own reservations about the band, mostly because they seemed like the aesthetically pleasing version of One Direction, the other big British boy band at the time. Much to the disdain of the diehard fans, this tweet by Harry Styles would be the push for me to download the album. At surface level, reading the tracklisting was slightly cringing—a song titled “Chocolate” seemed ridiculous and one called “Sex” even more so. By the end of release week, the album would be playing continuously by me on Spotify.

The 1975 struck a chord with their fans at the exact time they needed them. Over 16 tracks, the album charts their own time growing up, touching on everything from feeling uncomfortable in their skin, mental health, and sex and desire. All of these experiences and feelings are what lead singer Matty Healy describes as “the apocalypse”—a period of adolescence when everything that happens feels very life-and-death or black-and-white.

By writing about their own experiences and touching on themes that weren’t exactly explored in other artist’s discographies at the time, The 1975 helped solidify the band as true provocateurs. Even if a 15-year-old girl had never smoked weed before, “Chocolate,” which serves as a euphemism for the drug, speaks to the universal feeling all small-town bored kids face of the desire to get out. For younger listeners struggling to connect with some of the more surface-level songs that were popular on mainstream radio, The 1975 provided the sonic palette for fans to lean into big emotions and deeper themes in a safe and accessible way.

Culturally, The 1975 came at a time when there was a shift in how audiences consume music and pop culture. Attention spans were (and still are) fleeting, and The 1975 was aware of this—explaining to The Guardian that no one consumes media “in a linear, straightforward way […] You can expect a 17-year-old girl to be listening to Kendrick Lamar and Carole King.” With that in mind, the band embraced a mentality of “no rules,” capitalizing on whatever genres they felt like—evidenced in the saturated synths on “M.O.N.E.Y.” and “Menswear” and even a sax solo on “Heart Out.”

As The 1975 has grown, so has their characters. The first time I saw the band was in the now-demolished Kool Haus in Toronto in 2014. At the time, Healy seemed frantic and miserable, clutching a bottle of red wine and waving it around as he sang. I remember turning to my friends and asking if they, too, felt like he was on the verge of something unpredictable. Yet, almost exactly eight years later, during their most recent tour, I’d see that he still had the red wine still affixed to his hand but his persona had changed. Instead of a glum drunk, he was method-acting a hyper-masculine man, doing pushups on stage and touching himself and, again, the band played along. I remember leaving the gig and thinking, “How does that exactly fit into their album, Being Funny in a Foreign Language?” I’m still not entirely sure, but creating personas and storylines is something The 1975 have spent a decade formulating.

Film has inspired the band for a decade altogether, so much so that the medium has informed how they approach the mindset around songwriting and visuals. In a conversation with NPR, Healy explained that ‘80s brat pack films zeroed in on the same things the band thought about—“love, fear, sex and a longing for something beyond. A longing for something bigger.” Healy found that his brain was based around the things that he’d seen and, because of his affinity for characters like Bonnie and Clyde, “Robbers” the song and video evolved into an ode to those types of intense, all-or-nothing relationships and initially inspired by the band’s love of Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance.

One of the reasons why The 1975’s self-titled debut might be considered their magnum opus is because every song is an intentional selection to best represent who they are as a band. When approaching the tracklist for the album, the four members aimed to strike listeners hard with every song rather than boast a few hit singles and then a bunch of filler tracks there for the sake of checking certain boxes or appeasing different audiences. Even the album’s interludes “An Encounter” and “12” embody the band’s desire to “soundtrack” their lives, something that they cited John Hughes as being an influence for when crafting and curating the record and their overall aesthetics.

During a stop on their tour last year, Healy said “Tumblr, Dr. Martens, Taylor Swift, The 1975” as the band began to play “Chocolate,” referencing what is now described as 2013’s “Tumblr aesthetic.” The era—full of indie pop, black and white outfits, and pretending like you’re an extra on the British show Skins—was influenced by The 1975. With the band’s music videos, overall aesthetic and general perspective on the world helped bleed them into the zeitgeist.

They even had an influence on mainstream acts like One Direction who brought Healy in to hear a song called “Change Your Ticket” that was inspired by The 1975. Healy noted the similarities between their song and The 1975’s infectious pop song “Girls,” stating that they clearly pulled from the “vibe” of the track. Why exactly did One Direction, one of the biggest bands at the time with all of the producers and songwriters at their feet, feel the need to allegedly rip off a smaller act? The 1975 had a unique way of creating music that was both fun and introspective, blurring the line between what a pop/rock song could be. We hear angst, apathy, and acceptance all in one shimmering track. A song like “Pressure,” a song that juxtaposes peppy and upbeat ‘80s-influenced sonics with lyrics about struggling with drug dependency, is the prime example of the way The 1975 creates music that dives into their own psyche while keeping listeners engrossed.

When listening back through the album now in 2023, there is nothing really utterly groundbreaking. Everyone blends genres now; everyone tries to give nods in their lyrics to whatever is happening culturally and politically at the time. Still, The 1975 conjures nostalgia. It’s why, as problematic as Healy can be at times, it’s difficult for fans to detach themselves from a band that was so integral to their personal journey. It’s not so much about why The 1975 were able to embed themselves into the DNAs of teens and 20-somethings everywhere 10 years ago. Instead, it’s about when they did it. Timing for this band was integral to their success; a perfect mixture of word-of-mouth social media—the need for a band that is the right amount of reckless—and teens that wanted someone to put lyrics to their feelings and experiences.

The album’s closing track “Is There Somebody Who Can Watch You” was both a deviation from the project sonically but also became a striking picture of how the band processed their own feelings alongside one another. The secluded vocals and piano represent the emotional response the band had during Healy’s parents selling their home—the space where they held every rehearsal and recorded all of the EPs. They describe the track as one with “the least amount of lyrics but with the most amount of meaning,” and the band as a whole felt there was something on the album that was missing until they realized they needed to write about that transition as a final chapter for that part of their history—and as a bridge to what was inevitably coming on future albums.

Recently a friend re-shared the band’s 10-year anniversary post, proclaiming “This is the first album I’d ever bought with a parental advisory sticker on it.” When listening back, it’s better to view The 1975 not as a snapshot of 2013, but as a time capsule—a way to dip into the things we preserve and keep close that eventually become a part of our own origin stories. The music you listen to as a teen is both personal and formative, and with The 1975, the band helped mark a right of passage for listeners, bringing them from one chapter of adolescence to the next. They didn’t exactly reinvent rock or pop, but they did explore the themes and experiences many artists at the time were shying away from. In turn, they garnered a fanbase that, despite the controversies, is still choosing them to be the soundtrack of their lives.

Check out our ranking of the 30 greatest The 1975 songs here. Watch the band’s Paste session from 2013 below.

Kelsey Barnes is a freelance writer from Toronto who focuses on music, film, and culture. Her work appears in outlets like The Independent, i-D, Nylon, The i and MTV. She’s interviewed and profiled the likes of David Harbour, Suki Waterhouse, Anya Taylor-Joy, and many others, and has served as a pop culture commentator on the BBC and CBC.

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