STORY BY SAM BLOCH
At the dawn of the Napster age, sociologist Tia DeMora wrote eloquently of the relationship between commerce and pop music. “Consumption behavior can be understood as a kind of dance,” she wrote. And in a retail environment, it's the “faster-paced, snappier music that may serve as inspiration for snap decisions.”
Ten years later, major labels are unable to provide for independent-minded bands the financial security that once came so easily for them, and retail companies have picked up much of the slack. Last year, for example, Target provided a free “indie rock” Christmas album to its shoppers, and Converse opened a well-publicized recording studio in the heart of Williamsburg. The influence on artists is subtle. The bands that benefit from these partnerships aren't obliged to drop band names, but they sure are producing great shopping music.
So who's the face of this new mall pop? It's not Justin Bieber or Katy Perry — it's Best Coast, the recording alias of Glendale native Bethany Cosentino. Herself a participant in both Target and Converse's indie campaigns, Cosentino appeared before thousands of fans at the Indie Rock Stage at Saturday's Make Music Pasadena.
Make Music Pasadena was conceived as innovative approach to promoting local businesses: once a year, area residents are invited to see free performances from jazz, world music, and folk bands in restaurants, cafes, libraries and spas. Now in its third year, the festival included the massive Indie Rock Stage, engulfing blocks of the vibrant commercial drag of Colorado Boulevard, and yes, several smaller stages in mall plazas.
A professed former mallrat, Cosentino gave a quick shout-out to the Cheesecake Factory before indulging in another honorable mall tradition: sticking it to the pigs. “Don't listen to what anybody tells you,” she said. “Just have fun.” Her uniquely Southern California tales of smoking weed at the beach and spying on cute boys resonated with the crowd, and “Boyfriend,” from last year's Crazy For You (Mexican Summer), absolutely soared in the summer sun.
Cosentino appeared after a set by Brooklyn trio the Morning Benders was delayed by Pasadena police. Fans waited for twenty minutes while security cleared a jammed sidewalk, citing fire hazard concerns for neighboring businesses. When the Morning Benders started up again, the crowd delighted in their crisp pop/rock, interrupted only by an excursion into processed funk (“I Wanna Be Your Man”) that sounded like Vampire Weekend without their arch idiosyncrasies.
Other acts playfully toyed with the aesthetics of commerce. In One Colorado Plaza, Silver Lake-based singer-songwriter Dean Vivirito hosted an interactive music installation. By removing all the white keys from a bank of synthesizers and thumb pianos, Vivirito said his piece “ensured harmonic consonance, as opposed to dissonance.” It was an inviting gesture, one that enables curious shoppers to create “pleasant sounds.” Taylor Morosco, 19, of Laguna Beach, was delighted. “We're supposed to make it sound bad, but it won't?” Much later in the night, the unrelenting grind of industrial duo Zola Jesus played like melodrama as she writhed under the light of a beaming Johnny Rocket's logo. “Feed my heart, feed my body,” sang Nika Roza Danilova.
Troublemakers at heart, LA Weekly wandered to a less heavily patrolled area and found Long Beach-based Tijuana Panthers nestled between a Corner Bakery and a Macy's on Lake Avenue. “Rocking the mall!” they shouted from under a carnival tent. “Let's go buy some luggage after the show.” An employee of said luggage store, quietly taking in their set, asked this reporter if the Panthers were playing “old songs.” Underneath the heavy distortion, he had noticed their quaint R&B chord progressions. Buzzcocks cover notwithstanding (“Everybody's Happy Nowadays”), their set felt more like a high school dance than an extended middle finger.
So what remains of this genre we still call indie? For Rolando Marin of the Downtown Music Project, it's not about independent production, but rather, it's a genre that lands somewhere between '90s alternative and softer folk rock. In the ivy-covered plaza of the Majestical Roof art gallery — usually the site of monthly poetry and wine salons — he'd booked a handful of Echo Park and Silver Lake bands that trafficked in this musical terrain. But it was Seasons, from Highland Park, who really nailed it with their earnest, swirling lullabies in the tradition of Mazzy Star. On the roof of the gallery, festival volunteers slumped in the corners clutching pizza boxes and tall boys, while down below wordless choruses and glimmering synthesizers snaked through the trees.