Over the last six years, The 1975 have become our foremost musical experts on a particular strain of social media age ennui, both celebrating and condemning the youth of today.
“People”, the noisy glam-punk single the band debuted earlier this week, calls on a generation to “wake up”, throw away our lazier impulses (“We are appalling and we need to stop just watching s*** in bed,” the track urges) and take notice of the fact that the Earth around us is dying. And kicking off their Reading Festival headline set with it is a thrilling move, with frontman Matt Healy arriving on stage like Marilyn Manson if he were pretty, passionately screaming against backdrops of fire and brimstone, rotten teeth and rats in cages.
“People” is also something of a sonic outlier, if reflective of a divergent setlist that speaks to the brilliant oddness of The 1975. Within minutes, the Manson show has been transformed into an E Street Band throwback, with a run of anthemic Eighties pop in the form of singles “Give Yourself a Try” and “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)”. Dancing like Chandler Bing alongside two much better professional female dancers, Healy kicks and thrusts and haphazardly waves his arms with pure, rapturous joy. There’s even a Kenny G-like saxophonist that pops up intermittently, often covered in smoke and colour filters, to truly drive home the stadium-pop aesthetic.
From there, the band cycles through a number of back-catalogue highlights, from the eternally lovely “A Change of Heart” to the cheeky, fizzy “Girls”. An encore opens with Greta Thunberg’s defiant and inspiring spoken-word intro to the band’s new album, which plays in full to a warmly enraptured crowd as eager to listen as they are to lose their heads. That Thunberg’s voice leads into “Love It If We Made It”, a devastating call to arms for a society tipping off its axis, grants its message even greater potency.
At the centre of all of this, pulling it together as only he can, is Healy, a man perpetually flabbergasted, and someone who has never faced a moment of mid-song silence without wishing to fill it with awkward confessional banter. “I’m problematic,” he says unprompted at one point, referencing his tendency to tweet or speak to the press without thinking, and how often it has got him into trouble. “I’m impulsive and humanly flawed but I will take those criticisms all day.”
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Healy is 30 years old but with the “aww, shucks” ebullience of someone much younger. His shirt half-untucked, a tie fashionably loosened around his neck, he brings to mind a teenage boy lounging around the house in his uniform after the school day is over. And it extends to his audience interaction, his words a messy sprawl of child-like thank yous, apologies and self-deprecation that somehow manages to fall on the right side of simpering.
Perhaps it works because he so often makes a vaguely performative spectacle out of things that are, above all, ultimately positive. Towards the middle of the show, he references his decision to kiss a male fan on stage at the band’s Dubai concert earlier this month – a stirring act of defiance that played out in a country where homosexuality remains illegal. “So I kissed a boy in Dubai last week,” Healy says, with characteristic faux-modesty. “F***!” There are cheers, both for the protest but also for Healy’s explanation as to why he did it. He speaks of “government d***heads” and the hope that they’ll eventually “leave you and your lovely genitals alone”. “I really liked that boy and I think he really liked that kiss,” Healy adds. “And the world needs to change, so f*** off!”
Healy is one of those pop-culture figures so suffocatingly sincere and earnest in his feelings that it is easy to make fun of him. Because it’s never been particularly cool to think that music can change the world. But watching him and his band be received so enthusiastically by a vast crowd of young people, identikit bum bags and Love Island haircuts and all, conjures a genuine and satisfying feeling of hope. The kids are all right, aren’t they?