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Indie poppers Wallows stake out a new middle ground between alternative and pop and prepare for the streaming era on Tell Me That It’s Over.
The second album by indie-pop band Wallows, Tell Me That It’s Over, stakes out a new middle ground between alternative and pop. Following up their pop-leaning debut Nothing Happens (2019), Wallows embrace a mix of synthpop, acoustic strings, and percussion arrangements that reflect their penchant for the eclectic. However, Tell Me That It’s Over also shows Wallows’ versatility in entertaining mainstream sounds, but only when they want to.
Led by 13 Reasons Why actor Dylan Minette, Wallows, beyond their sonic palette, is a harbinger of the music industry’s future. Revenues of music acts have plummeted over the last decade as streaming has taken over, comprising 80% of music industry revenue in 2019. For many, the traditional ways to generate income as a career musician - streams, sales, and touring - are not enough. Minette’s role on 13 Reasons Why emphasizes the difficulty for independent musicians to succeed without a preexisting platform or alternative income stream. Even Spotify, the current dominant force in streaming with over 180 million paid subscribers, is branching out into the podcast space to secure additional revenue, signing a 100 million dollar deal with conservative commentator Joe Rogan. However, the music industry’s pivot to streaming has impacted Wallows artistically as well as economically.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, low-fi indie pop, also known as bedroom pop, was becoming more popular. This trend had accelerated due to the intimate music-listening experience created by headphones and the infinite possibilities for individual curation provided by streaming. Additionally, the internet itself bolsters this process by making it easy for anyone to go viral. In 2017, Claire Cottrill, known professionally as Clairo, produced and uploaded “Pretty Girl” to YouTube from home as a teenager. The quiet, understated song that challenged traditional beauty standards received 17 million views. The COVID-19 pandemic fostered this musical economy by trapping people inside, keeping them away from clubs, bars, and FM radio, which curate a communal and upbeat listening experience.
Throughout lockdown, the lead single for Wallows’ first album Nothing Happens, “Are You Bored Yet?” featuring Clairo, gradually gained popularity. After Tik Tok influencer Charlie D’amelio featured the song in a Tik Tok video in May of 2020, the song became a trend, racking up 200 million streams by September of that year. (On Spotify, as of writing, it sits at 508,000,000.) This song, and its success, is a product of the early 2020s in several ways. Its Tik Tok virality underscores how the social media app has become a breeding ground for surprise breakout hits. (“Old Town Road” comes to mind.)
“Bored Yet?” melds mellow bedroom pop with top-40 catchiness, making indie music accessible to a broader audience. Additionally, the pairing of Wallows and Clairo creates an outsider narrative indicative of the Gen-Z insurgency on the Top 40’s ubiquity. However, were any of the obstacles that independent artists faced in 2020 - conventional beauty standards, the demands of Top 40 radio, a pandemic that slashed incomes further than streaming already had - really obstacles for Clairo and Wallows?
Many propose that Wallows and Clairo are catfish independent artists, planted in the near-mainstream by marketing executives looking to sell the myth that indie artists can still succeed in the music industry climate of the 2020s. Although it underscores this myth, Minette’s role on 13 Reasons Why supports the idea that independent artists cannot currently succeed without a preexisting platform. Additionally, Clairo’s father, George Cottrill, a marketing executive affiliated with Rubber Tracks recording studio, allegedly directed her to all the right places when she took an interest in music.
Although no artist could tour during the lockdown, it seems doubtful that COVID-19 had a significant effect on the bank accounts of Wallows and Clairo. During the pandemic, Clairo recorded her debut album Sling with super-producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde) in upstate New York. Minette became incredibly wealthy for his role on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. Although they sonically encompass the recent indie-pop renaissance, Wallows and Clairo don’t embody the lives of their genre peers. It’s a tale as old as time: the rich pander to the not-rich, using relatable qualities to solicit even more money from them. No one denies the talent of Wallows or Clairo. But no one denies their bottom line either.
Jack Antonoff, Clairo’s producer and former frontman of Fun., would have seemed like an obvious collaborator for Wallows. Antonoff shifts alternative music towards the Top 40 or can give pop music an indie flair. But it’s possible that a collaboration between him and Wallows would have been a clash of sad white boy egos. For Tell Me That It’s Over, Wallows sought out Ariel Rechtshaid (Adele, Vampire Weekend, HAIM) who helped them craft a sonically diverse record that strayed farther from pop than their previous album, even when a breakthrough seemed imminent.
On Tell Me That It’s Over, Wallows adapt to the streaming climate and bet the music industry will continue on its current trajectory. An artist’s second record often proves pivotal because it can capitalize on the first record’s success. Additionally, a second record often improves on the commercial value (read: Top 40 appeal) of the first record to build a fanbase. However, on Tell Me That It’s Over, Wallows accomplishes the sophomore album goals of proving they can produce quality work and build a fanbase, but through different means. They retrospectively examine their place in pop culture to assert their status as trending artists.
This examination began on their first album with the single “Scrawny”, which establishes the self-awareness necessary for Wallows to experiment on their second album. “Scrawny” alludes to the physique of the band members (“I’m a scrawny motherfucker with a cool hairstyle”) and creates a discussion about male body image. In the bridge, Minette sings, “I’m a mannequin you can dismember.” This line satirizes the band members, who fit the description of a “twink”, which The Atlantic coined as “youthful scrawniness characterize[ing] a new class of celebrity male dreamboat”. Wallows’ self-awareness in matching this physicality shifts the discussion of body objectification away from women to men. This is a good thing for Wallows: they want to be examined, and they want to be portrayed as sad and tortured. On the opening track of Tell Me That It’s Over, “Hard to Believe”, Minette asks, “I just want to breathe / Is that so hard to believe?” They’re called Wallows for a reason.
The cultural allusions on their first album allow their second to exist in a self-contained universe. Tell Me That It’s Over follows a consistent narrative thread about a breakup. This narrative takes up most of the album’s space, leaving little room for references. This lack becomes a reference through Tell Me That It’s Over’s opposition to current trends: in this case, a conspicuous lack of anything that could skew towards FM radio or even Tik Tok virality.
However, the album isn’t entirely devoid of pop hooks. On track eight, “Hurts Me”, Minette, Lemasters, and Preston (all of whom co-wrote the track) animate the inner dialogue of a narrator who wants to return to an ex-lover but knows the relationship will cause harm. “I don’t need it / But I’m obsessed when I don’t have it,” Lemasters and Minette sing back and forth to each other, like two voices inside the same head. The chorus concludes: “I don’t need this / ‘Cause it hurts me.”
The journey of this relationship begins and ends on the album’s opening track, “Hard to Believe”, which foreshadows the narrative of the rest of the album. “What age would you call your prime?” Minette asks in the second verse, connecting with the album’s themes of “life-changing decisions” and the high stakes of adulthood, which Minette mentioned in an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe (New Music Daily, Episode 277). That frames the relationship at the center of the album as one of those “life-changing decisions”: after breaking it off, will the narrator look back and realize that was his prime? However, he prioritizes self-actualization, singing, “And I can finally breathe, is it so hard to believe it now?”
This confession maps out the journey the rest of the album will take: from stubborn wallowing on “I Don’t Want to Talk” (“I’m not alright / But I don’t need comfort”) to the process of letting go on “Guitar Romantic Search Adventure” (“I’m way too in my head…Could you hold it instead / And tell me that it’s over now?”).
The album’s final track, “Guitar Romantic Search Adventure”, alludes to an inspiration central to the Wallows’ sound: The Exploding Hearts, an alternative rock band who released their debut album, Guitar Romantic, in 2003. According to Minette, the title of “Guitar Romantic Search Adventure” alludes to hunting for a rare vinyl copy of the Exploding Hearts’ only album. Tragically, the band members died in a van accident on tour. Wallows references this tragedy in the music video for “OK”, a single from their first album, in which the band members parachute from a claymation van that drives off a cliff and sails through the air. Miraculously, the members of Wallows survive.
In their reverence for the band that came before them, Wallows portray themselves as unlikely survivors of this crash: the video’s absurdism emotionally anchors it for the viewer. Wallows don’t pretend to think they do justice to the band they pay tribute to. Instead, their playful nostalgia indicates that life goes on for them. It’s often the rest of the world that is wallowing. Minette told Zane Lowe he likes to bait negative reviews with album titles: Nothing Happens, Tell Me That It’s Over. The band’s name could serve the same purpose: Wallows. But for a band called Wallows, it doesn’t seem like they’ll be staying in the same place for very long.