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The 1975 make a strong case at Coachella for the death of rock ’n’ roll

The 1975 make a strong case at Coachella for the death of rock ’n’ roll
The 1975 during Coachella's first weekend. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The words flashed on the jumbo-tron screens in all-caps: “Rock n’ roll is dead God bless the 1975.”

When one of the most commercially successful rock bands in recent times make such a declaration on the main stage of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, even during the second of two weekends, it’s best to listen.

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Or at least attempt to make sense of the statement. With their word-salad lyrics, some of which were projected onto building-sized screens, it’s often tough to parse what singer Matt Healy actually means.

If rock is dead, does that mean the 1975 are zombies? Or rock is dead, but the 1975 isn’t a rock band? Is the musical form, born nearly 80 years ago when an explosive mix of country, blues, gospel and R&B combined to change the world, dead dead or just brain dead? Is there a God? If yes, is She listening to the 1975?

Perhaps the band means that they are thriving despite rock’s fate because they’ve risen, phoenix-like, from the husk of Motorhead founder Lemmy Kilmister’s decomposed body. Or Kurt Cobain’s, Lil Peep’s, Jim Morrison’s or whoever Healy defines as a rock-worthy corpse.

Or maybe he’s being specific about rock stars, echoing a truth he told Rolling Stone a few years ago: “The days of being a rock star without any kind of self-awareness are dead.”

Whatever the reasoning, on Friday the quartet was the only rock band to play either of the big outdoor stages, and they did so to a sizable crowd eager to sing along to a selection of the 1975’s musical flavors.

Like the Lifesavers they’ve deemed themselves, Friday’s set offered a mix-and-match roll of contemporary rock varietals. Lemony new wave. Cherry-flavored ballads. Pineapple pop songs. Lime rockers.

The band played a lot of stuff from their 2018 album, “A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships,” an album that, as Times pop music critic Mikael Wood affectionately wrote, “veers wildly among mechanized garage rock, ’80s-era soft pop, atmospheric dance music and lush acoustic balladry.”

The group bounced around with a kind of aimless glee, beaming out a kind of aggro-R&B for “I Like America & America Likes Me,” catchy retro-rock for the synth-driven “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You),” seductive house-inspired thumps on “Somebody Else.” On the victorious hit “Sex,” fans chanted every word to the lyric “She said use your hands and my spare time / We've got one thing in common it's this tongue of mine.”

Earlier in the night, a young fan was overheard trying to explain to a friend her affection for the 1975 by saying that they were one of only a few bands that she liked, describing them as “like an alternative band, but with synths.” But those fans were headed to the DJ- and rap-focused Sahara tent, where the energy was way more intense, rebellious and dangerous.

Maybe that’s what the 1975 mean when declaring rock dead. Healy and company were here to represent a music whose commercial variety no longer draws the thrill-seekers, a genre that no longer scares parents or freaks out cops.

Is rock ’n’ roll dead? A few bands performing Saturday afternoon, most notably post-punk band Shame, psych-rockers Ty Segall & White Fence and ska-punk band the Interrupters, will offer their rebuttals.

If the 1975 have any say in the matter (they don’t), rock certainly might be down to its final few beats.

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