At some point during the 1975's headlining set at Saturday's 97X Next Big Thing festival in Tampa, amid all the screams and shrieks and bold neon lights and crisp songs that felt time-warped from 1989, it all became clear.
This was a pop show. It's the end of 2016, and Next Big Thing has gone pop.
Sixteen years in, judging from the lineup of funk-pop, alt-country and glitchy electro put forth this year by 97X, it's harder than ever to spot the lines dividing the Top 40 and what the station calls "your new alternative."
Gone was almost every trace of the angsty, screamy guitar rock (think My Chemical Romance, Rise Against or the Used) that for so long defined Next Big Thing. In its place at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre was a genre-melding party that tried to bring all the feels without all the fury, proving that you can, in 2016, spell alternative without the letters R-A-N-T. Welcome to the new subculture! Help yourself to a neon coozie!
Just to be clear: This isn't a bad thing. True, Next Big Thing '16 drew a smaller crowd than 2015's sold-out affair with headliners Twenty One Pilots, but its lineup felt fresh and stylistically diverse, with several artists playing Tampa Bay for the first time. The 1975 are one of the year's breakout bands, the Head and the Heart's All We Ever Knew is currently the No. 1 alternative song in the country, and several other acts are poised for big years in 2017. It's good music.
But is it alternative music?
Consider the 1975, ambitious British pinups and unabashed '80s pop pastichists whose sophomore album I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it might be 2016's most best mainstream rock release. They sure look like a rock band, and to a degree they also act like it – especially singer Matty Healy, who spent much of the set wandering, smoking, sipping wine and rubbing his frizzy 'do against a mesmerizing backdrop of bold, colorful, symmetrical LED polygons.
Sonically, however, they're all about sweet, slick confections about Girls and Sex and Chocolate, to name three songs they played Saturday (only one of which, Sex, felt like a propulsive, guitar-driven rock song). Now and then they'd meander into an atmospheric instrumental interlude, but otherwise, their all-or-nothing aesthetic was on full display as they played perfectly calibrated funk throwbacks like Love Me and UGH!, tossing in the odd sax solo and shining like diamonds on anthemic singles She's American and The Sound.
It's hard to think of any previous Next Big Thing headliner that did more than the 1975 to get the crowd bouncing, dancing and singing along. When Healy commanded them to jump on the count of four on The Sound's squealing guitar solo, he didn't have to tell them how high. The band's tight, whip-smart energy was equal parts INXS, Duran Duran, Prince and Phil Collins – and if that doesn't sound like alternative rock to you, then welcome to the confusing state of alternative rock in 2016.
And it didn't stop with the 1975. Just below them you had Seattle Americana troupe the Head and the Heart, who walked out on stage to the Eagles (the freaking Eagles! at Next Big Thing!) and beguiled the crowd with honeyed folk vocals on the enchanting Take a Walk. They stirred up a harmonious hootenanny on Lost In My Mind, and even got a little gospelly on closer Rivers and Roads.
Incredibly, the Head and the Heart might not even have been the most country-ish band on the bill. That honor might go to Nashville's super-positive Judah and the Lion, whose danceable main stage set featured a driving cover of the Killers' Mr. Brightside, but also their hit Take It All Back, which flirted with the edges of modern country. And when they returned for an acoustic set later in the background, they brought a banjo and mandolin, transforming their songs into something much closer to bluegrass.
New York indie duo Phantogram, known for their buzzing, blipping anti-party jam You Don't Get Me High Anymore, had a few songs that sounded like indie rock (Same Old Blues, Mouthful of Diamonds), but for the most part, their atmospheric grooves, choice samples and Sarah Barthel's enchanting voice slinked through the darkness like Brooklyn alley cats (When I'm Small, Fall In Love). And earlier, New Zealand electro-pop group the Naked and Famous delivered sweeping, swirling, synth-driven songs like Higher and Hearts Like Ours, and upbeat ones like Girls Like You and Young Blood.
Accordion-wielding, genre-defying South African-born swamp-rockers Kongos were the closest thing to traditional guitar rock on the bill, but even they drew from influences as disparate as theatrical prog (Autocorrect), New Wave (the Talking Heads-ish The World Would Run Better) and Balkan pub-punk (Come With Me Now).
One alt-leaning scene stealer on Saturday was British-born, globally raised singer Bishop Briggs. The 24-year-old singer bounced back and forth across the stage wearing a Bad Brains T-shirt and gigantic smile, wailing stormy singles like Hi-Lo and River that skirted the line between glitch-pop and gospel, drawing out a slew of backstage onlookers and earning a huge response from the pit. If any act on Saturday felt like a Next Big Thing, it was her.
But after Briggs camme dance-funk duo Capital Cities, who traded guitar licks for trumpet solos, synth grooves and choreographed dance moves. This is a band that actually had a Top 10 pop hit in Safe and Sound, and by the time they played it, with every band member ditching their instruments and twirling their tops, and singers Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian dancing down in the pit, thousands of fans were up on their feet all the way back in the lawn.
With all this joy and jubilation and frenetic feel-goodery, you again have to ask: Is this really what we think of when we think of alternative music? How different, really, is Bishop Briggs from Halsey, or the 1975 from Maroon 5, or Judah and the Lion from American Authors, or Capital Cities from, um, Capital Cities?
Well, as the old cliche goes, maybe these days it's more like the alternative to the alternative. Forget ranting and raving; today's 97X acts just want to rave. And that's okay. Indie kids like a good party, too.
-- Jay Cridlin