Will the real Matty Healy please stand up
On performative sincerity and the impression of intimacy
Last Saturday I saw one of Taylor Swift’s former boyfriends, and, ostensibly her new one perform in Scotland. My friend and I trekked with thousands of people through the canopy of leaves leading to Camperdown park to attend BBC 1 Big Weekend. The sprawling park transformed itself into festival madness: food trucks, porta-potties, vintage clothes pop ups, and a giant ferris wheel. It was a perfect mixture of breezy and sunny, the only bearable temperature, I think, for a ten hour day outdoors. It was a good thing we wore sunscreen.
The lineup was promising landing from the Jonas Brothers to Thirty Seconds to Mars, to lesser known but rising stars in the music industry, but the most anticipated act was announced at the beginning of every other show: The 1975. This headlining performance happened to align with rumours that Taylor Swift allegedly starting to date the front man of The 1975, Matty Healy. It’s been a funny experience witnessing the brouhaha of the past month over. People are up in arms: she just broke up with her old boyfriend, it’s too fast, this new bloke is problematic, but more fundamentally, who is this new bloke?
I first listened to The 1975 my junior year in college in 2013. I was attending Bible School in sunny Los Angeles. On the face of it, I had little in common with grungy school-boy band from drizzly Manchester who smoked pot. Nonetheless, I would ride in my friend’s shiny red convertible through the sea of concrete on the way to the ocean through Newport and Huntington Beach and Laguna, the top down breathing in the Santa Ana winds that gave me asthma and singing about “Chocolate” (whatever that was) at the top of my lungs. I really didn’t have much in common with the heroine chic motley Mancunian crew that made up the mysteriously named boy-punk-band The 1975, but there was something about their music that deeply resonated in me, something sickly and freeing.
My initial attraction, of course was that The 1975 produced prodigiously danceable bops! The vibe for The 1975 is very cool—almost overproduced, but with enough instrumentation that you know it wasn’t all dreamed up on a computer. And the lyrics (when I could understand them) wafted between a too-clever-by-half arrogance, and a dissolution into self referential mockery that was enjoyable to parse. I think what I liked most about The 1975, was their out-of-jointedness. I felt in pain when I listened to the music. Or maybe I knew that I was in pain. And I liked knowing it. Despite the manifold ways in which I shared almost nothing in common with Matty Healy, there was something that Matty Healy wanted (and didn’t have) that he felt achey and cynical and sarcastic and desperate about, something that I wanted too. Their music made me feel very honest. Or like I was being very honest—those are not always the same thing.
I think this feeling was put forward most poignantly in “Love it if We Made it.” One of their most striking (and explicit: be forewarned) songs, it builds through an almost cathartic recitation of (post)modern sins, from police brutality, to environmental destruction, to masturbation, only to break into an exasperated “Jesus save us, modernity has failed us. And I’d love it if we made it.” The music video for this song has a photo sensitivity warning because of the neon strobed 4 minutes and 25 seconds of a mixture of contemporary horror with the faces of young people, this generation, the people who would, indeed, love it if we made it.
For most of that time, despite winning many awards and reaching number one on UK charts multiple times, The 1975 remained fairly obscure. Matty Healy has been known to say“We’re the biggest band in the world that nobody’s ever heard of.” And I think part of that is that they try a little bit too hard, are a little bit too meta, too clever to always been straightforwardly enjoyable. Part of this is that, despite the feeling of earnestness which pervades their ouervre, there is also a persistent self-mockery, deflection, even misdirection, which leaves the listener thinking: which part of this is actually real? any of it? is it all an act?
What are The 1975? What do they stand for? Who is Matty Healy?
This question is one which I think Matty Healy—or perhaps the whole band though it’s hard to parse the two—want their listeners to ask. In a recent profile on The New Yorker Matty Said to Jia Tolentino, “I’m not trying to make myself famous,” he said. “I want to be known for what I do. But now fame is about being known for who you are. And people are complicated.” Girls were camping out on the sidewalk beside his hotel, stalking him all over the city. “If people are going to make me this famous, I’m going to make people work for it.”
What does it mean to make people work for it? That brings me back to their show last weekend. They were the last act of the evening. After thirty minutes of stage technicians fussing around on stag, laying down a carpet, a couch, houseplants, lamps, the band finally began to come on stage, one by one, Matty the last. Then something interesting happened: the camera projected a huge live feed of Matty Healy backstage, getting his mic adjusted, having a drink of water, lighting a cigarette. The way it was filmed implied that Matty Healy did not know he was being projected on a screen to a crowd of tens of thousands. Eventually, he came onstage to the riotous screams of the crowd, and performed. In the energetic and technically perfect show that followed, Healy kept introducing doubt about what was “real” and what was “a bit.” He did this at a show I went to a few months ago. Drinking a cup of Lemsip (cold medicine) in between songs, he remarked, “Is this a part of the show or real life? You’ll never know.” A similar dynamic is at play with the bottle of wind Matty conspicuously guzzles over the course of the concert, stumbling and mumbling, as though he’s getting drunker, and yet somehow hitting all his marks and notes. Is it really wine?
In a way, these questions are nothing new. Performers have taken on personas from time immemorial: from the hypocrites on the Greek stage with their masks, down to the Real Slim Shady. Matty Healy is performing a persona, too. But he wants you to know it. Perhaps the difference is one of culture. I think in times past we were more likely to relate to performers as that: performers, rock gods, distant heroes. Their real lives, the insides of them, were the subject of fantasy, tabloids, speculation. Social media has given us the impression that we have a window into people’s real lives, who they are offstage. We like them not only for the fantastical shows they put on, but for the reel on instagram of them drinking iced coffee. As Healy puts it, “Fame is about being know for who you are.”
It seems to me that Healy and the band play with this tension of “being known for who you are” and being famous in their recent round of shows. By setting the stage like Healy’s own living room the audience feels invited into a personal, authentic setting, as though we’re getting the “real” The 1975. But this very action is, itself, a performance, carefully curated and thought through. They are performing sincerity, but does that make it less sincere. In a sense, by reminding their audience that they are, in fact, watching a performance, they are hammering away at the illusion that we are witnessing “real life.” Who Matty Healy really is to most of us is a performer. And perhaps in a time of para-social relationships, where we feel a false sense of intimacy with social media stars, this is a good reminder. Matty Healy is performing. He wants us to know it’s a bit. And in a way, inviting us to know and remember that is not less sincere, but more.
That reminds me: The Jonas Brothers were the opener, which was pure delight. The three brothers, united for the The Album tour, bounded around on stage, their shiny gold wedding rings glistening in the sun, a reminder that all of the former boy band pop stars have settled down, married, and produced five nieces and nephews between the three of them. They really are solid performers and good instrumentalists. We laughed when we looked around, realising that most of the people singing along to the lyrics were our age, millennials in jeans and tea shirts amongst the fashionably bedecked Gen Z’ers in monochrome outfits of green and pink. It was a thoroughly wholesome experience, singing along in the sunshine.
In the 1975 show, Matty Healy gave a shout out the Jonas Brothers, saying “they are the nicest people I’ve ever met.” And as I sat on the bus home near 1AM I wondered if perhaps part of the charm of the Jonas Brothers is the sense, now at least, that “who they are” is truly off stage. Their dads, husbands, and brothers now off screen. What we get is a performance, but their shining wedding reminds us that there is a life we can’t see; we have no illusion we’re witnessing it.
Oh, I have a lot of other thoughts about things like why Matty was wearing a doctor’s outfit when he first emerged on stage, whether he is in fact problematic, and what the mysterious “Atpoiam” displayed on the screen near the end could possibly mean, but I have a life and it’s sunny outside. So for now, I’ll leave you with a video from the concert. See if you can spot in the in audience…
Wishing you all a sincerely lovely Saturday…