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13 January 2023

Not even Taylor Swift can overshadow the 1975

Joined by a special guest at the O2, Matty Healy mused on masculinity as his band paraded their irresistible brand of clever, hyper-polished pop.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Halfway through the 1975’s show at the O2 arena in London on 12 January, Matty Healy delivers an off-the-cuff, meandering monologue about masculinity in crisis. Men, he says, need something, but he’s not sure what it is. He felt responsible in the “whole woke 2010s”, but now he feels wokeness proved ineffectual. While the right can offer 12 simple rules for living to lost young men, the left have little more than “me in a dress – and it’s bullshit”. So men remain lost. “All I do is sit in my house and watch stuff and wank – and so do fucking you!”

It’s hard to know how literally to take this, given it comes just before a surreal sequence in which Healy writhes and thrusts shirtless on a sofa, eats a chunk of raw meat and does a series of furious press ups before crawling inside a TV that had previously beamed an image of the YouTuber Logan Paul’s face, all while blaring classical music gives way to distorted noise.

This is a pop show as imagined by the 1975 – full of meta-commentary on male idols, the attention economy and contemporary culture. The band emerge on a stage dressed to look like a 1970s sitcom set with all its artifice. The drum kit and piano are dotted between an assortment of retro lamps, old-fashioned TVs and mid-century armchairs; staircases lead nowhere; doors open into nothingness. Healy saunters out in a suit and is soon swigging from a hip flask and half-empty bottle of red wine, playing piano with one hand, smoking with the other, delivering rambling asides in a faux-drunk slur. “If you make a show of songs about your life, is it technically method acting?” he says to the on-stage camera, before pretending to fluff his lines. A clapper board appears. “I will get it,” he reassures us. This is deliberate messiness sprinkled on top of a hyper-polished musical performance, in which saxophone, an array of percussion and guitars blend effortlessly into a shimmering pop sound. 

The 1975 are a band of contradictions – verbose, self-aware lyrics are paired with sparklingly earnest pop melodies. So the show is split into two halves. The first act is called “Being Funny in a Foreign Language”, the title of their latest record, and contains mainly songs from that album, with meta-theatrical asides. “It was poorly handled / The day we both got cancelled / Because I’m a racist and you’re some kind of slag,” Healy sings in a sweet voice on the musically straightforward love song “When We Are Together”. “I like my men like I like my coffee / Full of soy milk and so sweet, it won’t offend anybody,” he speak-sings with an eye-roll on “Part of the Band”.

The second act is called “The 1975: At Their Very Best”. Healy returns to the stage in a leather jacket, dragging out the first syllable of “very” as he re-introduces the band, and proclaims this “the best rock and roll show in town”. Irony gives way to sincerity, ending in an irresistible run of their biggest hits: “If You’re Too Shy”, “It’s Not Livin (If It’s Not With You)”, “The Sound”. It’s not totally free of introspection. During their oldest single, “Chocolate”, Healy scoffs “what does that even MEAN?”, and he introduces “Sex” with the words, “Let me take you back to 2013, a time when you could write a song about luring a woman into a van to have sex and everyone thought that was fine.” “We wouldn’t have to play this song in 2022, ladies and gentlemen, if wokeness worked!” Healy shouts before launching into a screamo rendition of “Love It If We Made It”.

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All of this should have been overshadowed by a surprise acoustic performance from Taylor Swift, who appeared in a mirrored dress during the interlude to perform her most recent single, “Anti-Hero”, for the first time, as well as covering the 1975’s “The City”. But somehow, it wasn’t. Who knows how the 1975 manage to get away with what should be an insufferable combination of arch affectation and cynical pop hooks, but they do – this show is clever, funny, exuberant. Healy’s attentiveness to the cadence of language means his polysyllabic song-writing goes beyond the pseudo-intellectual. It has a rhythmic quality evident in the audience’s pleasure in singing every word back at him. For all his self-conscious hand-wringing about his own relevance, Healy has confidence in the abilities of his band. “The thing about us, ladies and gentlemen, is,” he says in his swaggering rockstar persona, “we keep getting better baby!”

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[See also: How Janis Joplin set the template for rock’s outcasts]

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