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Radical Space: How The xx Inspired a Decade of Minimalism

on August 22, 2019, 12:00am

The first sound on British indie act The xx’s debut album — also called xx — is a spare guitar note played more than 10 times in a row. At this point, you’ve likely heard the riff hundreds of times, synched with major corporate advertisements and television programs. Even if you don’t know The xx, you know this song, one of those modern moments where we can stop and marvel at the both the impact and insignificance of certain bands. The xx titled the song “Intro”, in either an act of irony or transparency.

True to its title, the song went on to introduce the band to millions and millions of listeners. By the time the kick drum and snare start talking to one another at 40-ish seconds, you can almost hear the corporate boardroom salivating: This manufactured intensity, this head-nodding earworm, this sound that a Cadillac commercial makes. “Intro” is the sound that upper middle-class people make when they make love to other upper middle-class people. This is the sound of return on investment.

That the band had no such aspirations when Romy Croft and Oliver Sim met in high school, at the Elliott School in England, matters little to the discourse and legacy of their 2009 debut. The band would go on to win the prestigious Mercury Prize for xx in 2010, and they would launch a thousand minimalist imitators, bands chasing that same moment of perfection that The xx achieved in the first minute of “Intro”. More than making indie rock imitators, the band would help launch a minimalist movement in pop music, which resonates through the current cultural moment. It’s a legacy that Croft and Sim never could have foreseen when they reportedly wrote some of the lyrics to the debut album to one another over AOL Instant Messenger or when Jamie Smith, later Jamie xx, produced their first demos.

I remember seeing the band — very raw and, weirdly, playing during daylight hours — at South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan in August of 2009. The show made no sense; it was free, and maybe a few hundred people came. The financial district wasn’t then — and isn’t now — a draw for indie music fans. The xx were in no way a finished product, and it didn’t seem like a long shadow of good press and corporate attention awaited them on a weird, humid late afternoon where the band was opening for School of Seven Bells. They seemed as painfully self-conscious and claustrophobic as their music.

But if you liked independent music in 2009, you knew who The xx were, and you likely had heard some of their earliest songs, which music blogs shared around, like later hit “Crystalized” and xx album closer “Stars”. The album hadn’t come out yet, but the feeling about the band at the time was that you would have gone to see them if you could have. You would have gone to see them even if their baggy, androgynous, black clothes and taut, brooding arrangements produced a bizarre incongruity in the light of day. I thought at the time that this band should never play in daylight; this band should never even play outside. The xx demos sounded distinct, like something minimalist and bleak enough to be authentic in an age of poptimism and maximalist aesthetic. Seeing them play close to Wall St. now feels a bit too metaphorical for what happened next.

If the late aughts had a core maxim, it might well be “If some is good, more is better.” The prevailing cultural trends in 2009 either came in the form of unblinking escapism — Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Passion Pit’s Manners, for instance — or stoner jams like Dirty ProjectorsBitte Orca and Animal Collective’s iconic Merriweather Post Pavilion. It was a maximalist bubble. Even bands like Real Estate and Grizzly Bear, releasing much beloved records in 2009, weren’t experimenting with making more from less. They sounded clean, syrupy, and anodyne. There was no leading edge to the sound of most independent music in 2009. Instead, it felt like the cultural equivalent of sitting in the middle of a ball pit: colorful, vapid, a bit dishonest about how fun it might actually be.

Everywhere you turned in 2009, bands either tried hyping you up or chilling you out. It was the year even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released a dance record, It’s Blitz. A financial crisis was in full bloom around the globe, and it seemed like, culturally speaking, musicians didn’t see the value of less. When Amy Phillips described Passion Pit’s debut album, Manners, in Pitchfork’s end-of-year list, she wrote it was: “one part ‘Eww, too much!’ and two parts ‘Aww, I can’t resist!’” She might as well have been describing the ethos of the entire era. The xx sounded different, though, which was one reason to go see them wherever they played — and however badly they sounded — in 2009.

This difference between The xx and the rest of the late-aughts musical landscape was in the band’s design and early recordings. When Croft, Sim, Smith, and original band member Baria Qureshi, began working with the Young Turks label in 2006, the band and label struggled to wrangle the sparse and minimalist demos into the form of a debut record. After signing to XL records, The xx tried working with a series of producers, including Diplo and Kwes, none of whom captured the original energy of the demos. Smith told Dummy Magazine in 2009, “The results all sounded like a collaboration rather than us.” The band finally recorded xx in the XL studios in a series of late-night sessions, with Smith taking the production lead. What began with late-night messages between Croft and Sim became the austere and smoldering debut record. “Everyone started saying how much space there was in the songs,” Smith recounted. “We started to notice that and deliberately took out things in the songs that weren’t necessary.”

Croft and Sim went back to ’90s hip-hop and R&B for their inspiration. Though The xx is often compared to Interpol for its dark, sonic palate, Croft and Sim aimed for something more like The Neptunes and Timbaland. Early in their career, The xx often covered American R&B singles, finding creative energy in the sparse production. The clapping backbeat and baseline of a song like “Basic Space” shows the homage to The Neptunes in particular. If The xx changed what indie rock and popular music would sound like for the next decade, it must be noted that these innovations were themselves a derivation of something older, something quite essentially black. The historical oddity that these musical inspirations could end up in the hands and minds of teenagers in London is only a feature of modernity.

The final product, xx, resounded with restraint. On “Infinity”, Sim and Croft’s vocals weave in between one another in a loose figure-eight, while a muted kick drum and a snap-as-snare builds the backbone of the arrangement. Sim sings, “Give it up,” and Croft responds, “I can’t give it up,” as the track comes to what feels like a swelling conclusion. It’s one of the most sonically dense moments on the record, and it still sounds full of pent-up energy and absence. The essential creative paradox of The xx lies in what the band could do by what it did not do. In the world of visual art, this technique is called “negative space,” and the band used the aural version to great impact on xx. On fan favorites like “VCR” and “Islands”, the production almost seems to come to a stop at a few critical moments. When Croft sings, “But you, you just know, you just do” on “VCR”, listeners seem to hear each comma like a miniature chasm, falling into the spaces between her lyrics, into the spaces between the sparse guitar line and the chime of a tiny xylophone. The band’s success lies in these spaces, too.

Fast-forward a few years after the release of xx, and minimalism was everywhere in pop music. James Blake released his debut record in 2010, an album whose production and sound contributed almost as much to the sound of modern popular music of the next decade. Kanye West would tell reporters and fans that his 2013 record, Yeezus, was inspired by minimalist architecture — and it was — but the philosophical project is very much the same as what The xx popularized on their debut record.

When Lorde’s transformative 2012 single “Royals” arrived the year earlier, the influence of The xx was impossible to miss. Built around a snapping back beat, though the aesthetic is more joyful and wry than anything Smith, Croft, or Sim would ever write, the ode to the minimalism of xx is unmissable. “Royals” became, perhaps, the single most influential pop single of the decade. When you hear one of the many “Royals” imitators today, and there are legions of them now, you’re hearing a conversation about music and space that began with The xx fighting for their debut record to sound like themselves, to sound like less than everything around them.

There are other important legacies — ones that can’t be tracked through a delineation of music theory — to The xx. The band’s androgynist aesthetic, and the queer identities of Croft and Sim, created space that wasn’t necessarily musical. Though the band spoke more openly about the ways in which their identities and style informed their music on subsequent records, it was all there on xx. A landscape beyond gendered signifiers and heteronormative love stories also resounded in the silences of the band’s debut album.

When they used no gender pronouns on xx, it wasn’t a mistake. In this sense, even their black attire wasn’t about attitude so much as it was a radical political rejection of prevailing aesthetics and labels. Sims once described their music as “quite like a queer space.” He spoke in the political optimism of queer theory: In deconstructing systems, power, music, and culture, bands and fans could construct something new in the space between binaries of all types. Even the band’s name seemed to connote a mixture of the explicit — one “x” short of a signifier for the pornographic — and the anonymous, as if the “xx” was a placeholder for a name to come later. This mixture of the radical and what almost seemed redacted was the band’s nexus of political and cultural power.

LGBTQ+ communities have encouraged the band to be more explicitly political in recent years. Sims and Croft have responded with more outspoken music and more activist language in their press appearances. In 2009, sonic and theoretical deconstruction represented something of a radical project, but by 2019, the quiet parts were being said out loud all over the place. Not speaking became less of an option. The band’s music shows a newly assertive and expressive creative energy, and their comments in the press reflect an activist understanding of the stakes of the game. In our troubled historical moment to not speak is effectively to be silenced. While minimalism colors so much of our popular music, our politics are loud and getting louder.

In this sense, it’s easy to overlook the power and range of xx’s impact on modern pop. It’s easy to miss how culturally radical their sound and politics of androgyny and inclusion were in 2009. The sound they helped create is now so ubiquitous listeners hearing a snapping back beat and a shiver of synthesizer might only wonder if Drake has a new album out. To go back to 2009, to think again about those first measures of “Intro” or the taut sensuality of “Crystalized” is to recapture a moment where bombast and maximalist pop ruled, where the most radical thing to do was to say less, to pause, to deconstruct.

It’s how The xx made space for themselves and made space for so many others.

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