The Branding of Best Coast
Los Angeles indie-pop duo Best Coast has become a veritable phenomenon. The act consists of Bethany Cosentino — singer and public face — and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno, and its sunny, fuzzy 2010 debut record, Crazy for You, sold very well and won great reviews. Cosentino, 25, has become an underground celebrity in her own right, appearing on the cover of this paper in late 2010; to give you an idea of just how famous she is, her cat, Snacks, has almost 10,000 Twitter followers.
But along with that quick, thunderous success came an intense level of scrutiny, loads of vocal Internet haters and some serious venom from selected critics, some of whom view Cosentino's material as anti-feminist. In an interview with Impose Magazine, lauded guitarist Marnie Stern called Cosentino's lyrics — which are full of lovelorn platitudes like "When you leave me, you take away everything" — "unacceptable," stating, "You might as well then be an '80s hair-metal band saying, 'I want pussy.' "
Elliott Sharp wrote in a 2011 Philadelphia Weekly article that she "makes Sarah Palin, like, seem like a fucking, like, Rhodes Scholar."
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Bruno, who is 38, was born in the same Glendale hospital as Cosentino. He helps mold the songs and plays drums, bass and other instruments on Best Coast's recordings. Largely removed from the public eye, he's more focused on the music; Best Coast's sophomore release, The Only Place, due out May 15, has a much cleaner sound than its debut.
On the title track, everything in Best Coast's sound that wasn't ready for the radio — the woolly guitars, the off-kilter choruses — is replaced by friendly hooks.
The album was recorded at Capitol Studios with superproducer Jon Brion, who co-produced Kanye West's seminal hip-hop record Late Registration and a beloved early version of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine.
Working with Brion is a huge deal, since he often makes classic albums, but early reviews for The Only Place have not been good. Like Crazy for You, it is an ode to California — the cover shows a bear hugging an outline of the state — told through poppy riffs that are unapologetic about being poppy. Again the lyrics remain regressively banal, such as: "We have fun, we have fun, we have fun when we please" and "I'm always crying on the phone because I know I'll end up alone."
Bruno defends the work and insists context is needed. "Our biggest influences are bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Beach Boys. In that music people don't sing in metaphors," he says. "We're not trying to be an exclusive band for a certain kind of people."
By "certain people" one suspects he means the writers and readers of publications that heaped praise upon the band's first record, such as Pitchfork, which awarded it its "Best New Music" stamp.
There are hundreds and hundreds of indie bands in Los Angeles, and Best Coast is among the most famous. If it weren't for the considerable backlash, its ascent might seem like a fairy tale. Cosentino is an easy target: She's beautiful, she has a well-known boyfriend (Nathan Williams of Wavves) and she got really famous relatively quickly. Some outlets have been particularly cruel; for reasons that aren't entirely clear, the snarky website Hipster Runoff trashes her often, even posting drawings of her beloved cat, skinned and with worms coming out of its eyes.
"I don't read any of that anymore," she says, speaking on the phone while waiting for a photo shoot to start. It's clear that she's very busy. "It took me a long time to get past all of that. But I just don't care anymore."
The issue may be one of perception — there is an idea floating around that Best Coast is trying to be something other than what it really is. That could have something to do with the scene Cosentino emerged from, full of noise-punk acts like No Age and innovative bands like The Mae Shi. And Cosentino's previous project, Pocahaunted, featured experimental droning as opposed to sunshine pop. But Best Coast is a band that writes nice, simple songs you don't have to think about too much. And its appeal is not limited to just the musical realm.
"Best Coast is a brand," Cosentino says. "I'm a businesswoman."
It's true, and she has been particularly busy in that regard: She has partnered with Converse to create promotional tracks and video, and Urban Outfitters streamed Crazy for You on its website.
In fact, she just finished designing a line of apparel for Urban Outfitters' Urban Renewal imprint, part of its vintage line. The clothes are cutesy, a collection of skirts, dresses and blouses that are just in time for summer.
Like most everything Urban Outfitters produces, they look as if were designed to seem edgy yet in a totally accessible way. The chain is in the business, after all, of commodifying fringe trends and reappropriating them on a massive scale. Making matters worse to its critics, founder and acting president Richard Hayne has donated tens of thousands of dollars to conservative ex-presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
For these reasons and others, Cosentino's collaboration with the company has been heavily scrutinized. Flavorwire referred it to as another step in "Best Coast's endless journey of monetization."
Cosentino doesn't see any problems. "People need to chill out about Urban," she says. "I would be surprised if a lot of those people don't own something [from it]."
She isn't alone in working with the company: Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth designed a line for it in 2009, and retro-rocker Nick Waterhouse just released the music video for his new single, "Some Place," on Urban Outfitters' site.
In general, Cosentino isn't nervous or reserved when talking about these issues. It seems likely that, despite everyone else's hand-wringing, the decision to enter into the Urban Outfitters partnership was not a difficult one for her to make.
And why should it be? You can't sell out if you never bought into the idea of selling out in the first place. In fact, upon further reflection, Best Coast seems to be the approximate musical equivalent of Urban Outfitters — much more mainstream than the people patronizing it might believe.
"I honestly don't give a fuck," Cosentino says when asked about her frustrated indie critics. Her attitude is refreshing and a little bit empowering; she's willing to own her marketing savvy, not unlike another Southern California singer who's been accused of playing dumb. An "indie-budget Katy Perry" is how The Guardian has referred to Cosentino; the BBC, on the other hand, prefers a "Valley girl Patsy Cline."
So which is it? When it comes to Best Coast's music — at least if the disappointing The Only Place is any indication — the group's artistic development seems stunted, veering at this point a bit closer to Perry than Cline.
Best Coast plays May 18 at the Wiltern.
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