The Sublime Irrelevance of The Bangles

A relic of when rock doubled as pop, the '80s survivors' latest album is nonetheless a fun listen

the bangles 615.jpg
The Bangles

It's hard to think offhand of a band more irrelevant than the Bangles. Hugely popular in the 1980s, they stumbled out of the decade and into semi-obscurity with neither apparent influence nor lasting legacy. Too ingratiating to inspire Riot Grrrl, too rock to make much of an impression on the Spice Girls or Britney, the Bangles were one-of-a-kind largely, it seemed, because their successors gave them the once over and said…"eh." (Or, at best, like Robbie Fulks—"Hey! Susanna Hoffs is hot!") The news that they have their first new album out in eight years—Sweethearts of the Sun—has predictably been met with a vast and polite indifference.

It's tempting to chalk this up to quality—maybe, after all, the Bangles were the beneficiaries of one of those inexplicable 1980s delusionary enthusiasms which also gave us Night Court and Oliver North. Which sounds plausible except for the small fact that the Bangles are awesome, goddamn it. Their 1990 Greatest Hits CD is a jangly joy, from the sublime harmonies that fade up at the beginning of "Hero Takes a Fall" to the surprisingly primitive drums under the chiming lament of "Where Were You When I Needed You." And yes, even including that ridiculously gaudy mega-hit "Walk Like an Egyptian," with its crass, echoey production, go-go twist, and relay vocalists.

"Walk Like an Egyptian" nicely encapsulates the Bangles oeuvre, in that it is music that just about everyone can feel good about hating. Rockists can get off on despising producer David Kahne's layers of studio schmaltz (which the Bangles themselves apparently loathed) as well as the song's the smug inoffensiveness: There's a long, long road from "all the cops in the donut shop say o-way-o" to "here we are now, entertain us." As for popists, they can sneer at the song's nostalgic cleverness. Even inside Kahne's machine, it's clear that the Bangles want to be from the '60s so badly that their towering coiffures are ready at any moment to spontaneously combust into mop-tops. "Walk Like an Egyptian" isn't just a groove and a beat; it's a song written and choreographed to within an inch of its life. That whistled chorus detonates with all the spontaneity of a dental appointment scheduled six months in advance.

Of course, those are all also reasons to love the song: the way it takes the Beatles and the Kinks and the Who and all those sainted rock gods and slathers them in layer upon layer of tacky shellac. If present-day nostalgia acts like Fleet Foxes give us smart, thoughtful, reverent reworkings of the rock pantheon, the Bangles provide just the opposite—turning sainted best-singles-ever into smiling, hollow, sold-out pop. Which is arguably what those best-ever-singles were to begin with.

If "Please Please Me" was a vapid transient pleasure at one point, though, it has long since been transformed through the mystical process of retrospective canonization. And that goes a long way to explain why the Bangles have been so thoroughly marginalized. Simply put, rock isn't really pop anymore. Mindless feel-good hooks and production gimmickry (Auto-Tune anyone?), not to mention female performers, are largely the purview of hip hop and post-disco R&B. Chart-denting rock is more male nowadays and, in general, less popular. Bands that do attain fame, like Fleet Foxes or Coldplay or Vampire Weekend, sell their idiosyncratic, earnest genius rather than good looks and hooks and polish. That's why less successful Paisley Underground bands like the Long Ryders and Mazzy Star seem to cast a longer shadow even though they sold fewer units. The Bangles' eager radio readiness is what's made it difficult for them to make sense in the current musical landscape, for the simple reason that radio readiness and rock no longer fit together the way they used to.

As far as their own music goes, though, the Bangles' irrelevance may have been a blessing. Without any real purchase on contemporary pop or rock, they've pretty much had to settle for just doing the same thing they've always done. As a result, their 2003 album, Doll Revolution, sounded exactly like the Bangles: all '60s hooks, '80s sheen, and those harmonies that sound sort of like the Beatles but really like nothing else in pop.

Their most recent effort, the just-released Sweethearts of the Sun, isn't quite as perfect, in part because of the departure of bassist Michael Steele, whose songwriting had a brooding, glammed-up '70s sexual swagger that contrasted nicely with the other Bangles' sunnier aesthetic. Still, two decades after they stopped mattering, the Bangles continue to sound pretty great. "Ball N Chain" is all guitar crunch and Debbi Peterson sneering "There's a thousand reasons I can't stay / and every one of them has your name." "Open My Eyes," a Nazz song, features the band throwing themselves at the tracks' proggy changes like they can't tell the difference between Todd Rundgren and the Kingsmen —a confusion that gives them a ton more urgency than Susanna Hoffs's much more sober '60s cover project with Matthew Sweet from a few years back. And, of course, Hoffs does her obligatory weeper on "I'll Never Be Through With You" as the Petersons supply the "ahhhs" behind her. It's sappy radio gold that'll never touch an air wave.

That's not going to make the Bangles lose any sleep. They tour, they make a decent album every decade or so; lots of bands have been consigned to much more embarrassing fates. It's fun, though, to think about what might have happened if the winds of pop had blown slightly differently, and they'd been a band that had more influence. Maybe we could have had a Nirvana that embraced its Beatles influences a bit more enthusiastically and wasn't quite so freaked out by its own popularity, or a Britney who had a place in her heart for some guitar jangle even if she didn't know who John Lennon was. But that's not how things turned out, and instead the Bangles exist not so much as a touchstone but as a curiosity: the last place, maybe, where Nirvana and Britney could have waved at each other before going their separate ways.