Meme Girls: Three squares talk about Wet Leg, the band everybody's talking about
As the music critic Joe Levy wrote 30 years ago about Pavement, Wet Leg is a band that feels simultaneously like it came from nowhere and everywhere. History repeats itself: Another crew of droll, deadpan rockers has slouched out of an unlikely locale to rattle indie rock awake. As alluring and insouciant as those California boys Stephen Malkmus and Spiral Stairs were in 1992, Wet Leg's front duo of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers seemed to emerge fully-formed last summer with their sexy and silly single "Chaise Longue." And just as Pavement nodded without nodding at Jonathan Richman and the Velvet Underground, Wet Leg bears sonic echoes of New Wave and '00s indie rock, and aesthetic and thematic similarities to contemporary television shows and fiction.
Wet Leg is as fun to listen to as it is to think about, and in the band's loopy, addictive rock songs you can either turn your brain off completely, or turn your brain on to the sounds and styles of the far-reaching musical universe contained within it. And while Teasdale and Chambers would probably roll their eyes at anyone who takes their music too seriously, this week they respond with a full-fledged statement of their own in Wet Leg's self-titled debut, a collection of free-wheeling rock songs peppered with dry talk-singing and sex jokes, but also real moments of millennial existentialism. To greet its release, three NPR Music staffers discussed the amalgamation of references bound up in Wet Leg's arrival.
Ann Powers: We're here together because we had the same question about Wet Leg — not whether they're the next big thing (who cares) or even good (with a band this cheeky, qualitative judgments seem extraneous), but ... where did they come from? Not literally, but in that lipstick-traces way in which all popular culture reflects many elements of its own past. Each of us hears an entire history of music in this band. But we're picking up slightly different signals. So... what are we talking about when we talk about Wet Leg?
Hazel Cills: We made a 69-song playlist of all the things Wet Leg reminds us of. My contributions mostly came from two sonic spaces: one, the recent, mostly U.K. post-punk revival, bands like Dry Cleaning and Shopping, who are drawing on the sounds of original post-punk groups like Kleenex, the Au Pairs and Delta 5. And then this idea of the female f***-up in rock — that 2011 to 2016 era with acts like people like Bully and Childbirth and Tacocat who were kind of working in like Riot Grrrl lineage, almost in the same vein as Liz Phair's "F*** and Run": songs about being in your 20s and waking up hung over and sex being kind of reckless. I hear a very specific strain of young, millennial messiness that has been really popular not just in music but in pop culture at large.
Powers: We represent three different generations and it's interesting: We all hear a bit of our youth in this band, the kind of moment in youth where you're still wild and experimenting, but you're also realizing that maybe this isn't so good for your brain. I remember once when I was a kid in San Francisco, being on the train with my friend after a night of debauchery and my friend turning to me and saying, "Did you know when you drink too much the next day, your brain shrinks?" And feeling my brain shrinking in my head at that moment! Wet Leg is the sound of your brain shrinking, but it's also the sound of what happens to make your brain shrink.
What I loved in my youth was original punk and New Wave music, and particularly the oddballs in those scenes — bands like the Flying Lizards, the B-52s, singers like Lene Lovich and Nina Hagen. Often those artists engaged in a similar kind of speak-singing. They were often women, though not always. They also often represented a kind of, I don't want to say marginalized because that's not the right term, but more under-recognized identity. I immediately thought of an artist like Lovich, this crazy singer who dressed like she'd just stepped right out of a dumpster and walked through an enchanted forest. She made wild songs, like her critique of consumerism, "New Toy," which sounds so much like a Wet Leg song. Or the B-52s, with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson skewering traditional femininity by wearing pink wigs and cocktail dresses, and then singing unhinged, sci-fi Stepford Wives songs like "52 Girls." There's something about Wet Leg's way of inhabiting the "normal" both in the music and in their presentation to the world that is exactly what New Wave meant to accomplish: some sort of an opening for people who were not part of the original rock myth.
Jacob Ganz: The music that I kept finding myself drawn to when I thought about Wet Leg doesn't really sound anything like Wet Leg. But it did emerge one generational cycle ago in a moment when there was a desperate hunger for almost cartoonishly traditional rock from bands. I thought of bands like The Hives and The Donnas who were enacting archetypes of rock and roll that are right at the surface of the songs and performances. For a certain audience aware of rock history and how the genre has risen and fallen, it was impossible to turn away from those songs. Whether you liked them or not, there was a need to have an opinion about them.
I think I'm reminded of that garage revival moment because, as much as its music draws on the odd rock sounds you both correctly link to bands of the '70s or today, Wet Leg isn't using those sounds to face away from the mainstream or present a kind of outsider take on traditional rock and roll. It's a band that, like The Strokes or, a few years later, tongue-in-cheek revivalist acts like The Pipettes, understands exactly where it fits in the lineage of rock and roll. But here's the difference: Wet Leg executes that role with so much playfulness and humor that it keeps some of the "saviors of rock" nonsense that accompanied those bands at arm's length. Are they representing anything? The focus of the sound and the seeming lack of obligation to a scene or ethos is impressive. Anything in the history of this very narrow genre is accessible to such bands, right? It's like globalist locavorism — they can make commerce or product out of anything, but they're choosing a really precise row of influences to do that within.
Powers: That leads to a question that people seem to have about Wet Leg — how calculated is this project? That question is one that resonates across the history of the music we're discussing. (Call it odd rock or outsider rock or off-kilter rock). Humorous songs, the wacky songs often made by women, are always suspected to be artifice or calculated. Guys I knew would ask, are the B-52s even really a band? Is Cyndi Lauper actually New Wave, or just faking it? I think those early New Wave icons, there's a little bit of them in Wet Leg. There's this energy of: I'm doing femininity, but I'm doing it like a little off or maybe flamboyantly off.
Cills: I have admittedly been skeptical of Wet Leg — not in the sense that I think they're an "industry plant," because those things don't really exist — but I do think Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers are very savvy and it's interesting that we're talking so much about the '80s, the era of the music video, because the pressures on artists to stand out in an overcrowded field and make a really strong visual and hook that can be looped on TikTok into a meme are more intense than ever. When I first heard "Chaise Longue" and I saw the video for it, I felt like I knew exactly what these girls were doing immediately. I could see their references, down to the clothes they were wearing and the ways in which they were singing about sex.
There are also a lot of moments on this album of real emotional vulnerability — an "I'm almost 28, I didn't expect my life to look this way" lyricism — but they never linger on them. Teasdale and Chambers wield that New Wave coldness aesthetically, and they don't really let the listener get close. Maybe I'm demanding too much emotional intimacy from them, because they're clearly a very playful band. But I think that emptiness also kind of contributes to my skepticism, and also because the imagery of the f***-up is so well-worn in pop culture, it's an experience that doesn't feel necessarily as sharp to me anymore.
Powers: I see an interesting relationship between the words and the music in the way that Teasdale delivers these lyrics — which for me adds depth. Like the song "Supermarket," where it's just kind of a whimsical love song about transforming a place of commodity exchange into a magical place when you are young and in love. But then there's that chorus of "We got too high, we got too high." They're using ghoulishly, almost helium-inflated voices. And then in the middle of the song, she's trying to introduce this partner to her parents, and he gets too high in that situation, which is actually a dark moment. The playfulness of [her] voice undercuts the darkness of the moment.
That song in particular really made me think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her [show] Fleabag, and Waller-Bridge is someone who's really mastered the ability to go to that dark moment and deliver true pathos. But maybe not giving us that moment is the true challenge. Staying in that more disaffected state doesn't deliver a catharsis that's more conventional, and maybe that's what's interesting about this band.
Ganz: It does feel like an album dedicated to a particular time in a young person's life when you can see the end of that period of being young. When you wake up feeling those regrets but you do the same thing again the next weekend, just make the same decisions over and over again. The Wet Leg album feels very zine-y in some ways, like just Xeroxed notes about the things that happened last weekend. No time to zoom out and assign meaning to the collection of events.
Cills: The music is very zine. But what I connect it to is that mid-2010s moment I was talking about before where you had all of these women who were making music in a very '90s lineage about their lives. I think of a song like "Trying" by Bully, where she sings about praying for her period all week. And I think Wet Leg is picking up on that trend of articulating a kind of anxious, young millennial experience, but they're bringing a new kind of numbness articulated in a wider way across pop culture. We mentioned Fleabag and Lena Dunham, but they also feel connected to writers like Ottessa Moshfegh and Halle Butler, whose heroines are very cold, bitchy young women and professionally aimless. Or Sally Rooney, whose young characters can't articulate their feelings in an emotionally vulnerable way, women who put up walls.
Powers: There's an honesty to that rejection of what we're usually asked to give. By "we" I mean both women and artists. Sincerity, authenticity, all of these things. I'm thinking about Debbie Harry singing "Rip Her to Shreds," which was always one of my favorites. She was this classically gorgeous, Hollywood movie-looking person, but in her vocal affect and in the way she looked out at you in performance, [she] very much denied that she would ever give herself to you in any way. I think that's one thing about Wet Leg — they're not giving themselves away. Think about that in contrast with the popular indie rock artists who give themselves away, almost as a strategy? People like Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Mitski. Their whole thing is intense emotionality presented almost as a tonic: what we need in this f***** up time. I love all those artists, but sometimes you just need to laugh it off, you know?
Cills: I think that's what confuses me personally about Wet Leg because it's like, I love a cold woman. I love a woman who slips through your fingers. I mentioned the Au Pairs and I love Lesley Woods as a lyricist and vocalist because you can never quite tell if she's joking or if she's being serious in half of those songs. And I think the expectation that every young woman artist should be writing sincerely about their experiences or sort of giving over their emotional vulnerability is such a trap. But I think with Wet Leg, there's just something about their package that gives me pause. And maybe it has to do with the fact that it is so well received or that song did go viral. And if "Chaise Longue" did go viral and it was so well received, then what is the kind of biting, withholding statement that's actually being made there?
Powers: I wanted to raise one thing to the group, which is do you see any relationship between this album and hip-hop? Because I was thinking about all the moments when this kind of off-kilter, spoken word-driven rock surfaces, and it's often at a moment when hip-hop is posing a real challenge to rock truisms.
Cills: I think there is a relationship. I was thinking about the way Wet Leg sings about boys, especially in a song like "Wet Dream," and how they often make fun of men. It's very emasculating. And I was thinking about "WAP," which is one of the last great pop songs about sex, but men are almost just a tool to be used in that song. I thought it was funny, when I read Rob Tannenbaum's profile of the band for The New York Times, that "WAP" was the only song Wet Leg referenced as being an influence. Their music may not sound like rap, but if we think about who dominates that genre right now it's Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, it's more alternative artists like cupcakKe, women who are doing something demanding and funny and grotesque with how they talk about sex and desire, simultaneously flirting with but also making fun of men. It's music for boys who want to be stepped on.
Ganz: I don't know, it's never embarrassing when I climb on the hood of a car and lick the windshield.
Powers: I don't think Wet Leg's success is going to lead to rock coming back to the center of anything. I think those days are gone. But I think that's one reason why a lot of older rock fans love this band.
Ganz: It's an argument for the usefulness of rock as a genre or as a delivery mechanism. But a lot of the goofiness and the self-sabotage that is part of a lot of great rock has been gone for a long time or at least not part of the center. They have managed to pull that into a package that is very palatable. They can do it, it seems based on this record, over and over again, depending on your tolerance.
Powers: We should talk about the band's visuals, starting with the video for "Chaise Longue," which really was as much part of their breakthrough as the sound of the song. Hazel, what was your take when you first saw it?
Cills: I immediately thought about the clothes they were wearing, those kind of Little House on the Prairie, almost Amish-style dresses that have been very en vogue for a certain 20-something woman for the last 10 years — fashion brands like Ganni and Batsheva. I thought about the wrongness of it; these are two young women who are singing about sex, but they're dressed like schoolmarms. And I thought too about artists like Su Tissue and Exene Cervenka, '80s artists who wore aprons on stage and contorted a conservative piece of clothing into something punk rock. And I think those clothes are an extension of the aesthetic coldness but also humor of Wet Leg's music — clothing that keeps you at a distance, almost as a troll. They're saying, you're not going to get me emotionally, and you're also not going to get me physically, but I'm going to joke about sex and maybe imply that it could happen between us, perhaps in your dreams.
Powers: That was a smart move. It's perhaps calculated, perhaps not, in a pop landscape where so much is exposed, not just emotionally, as we talked about before, but in terms of bodies, right? When we tune in to an awards show, we see lots of flesh, male and female and non-binary at this point. And there is an explicitness in the mainstream — I never want to say it's more than ever because I think everything in pop is cyclical. It's sort of a mid-70s moment when there's a lot of nudity and sexuality on stage. Here's this band that is like, no, I'm not going to do that. And then there's an interesting element of self-protection embedded in the relationship between the two women at the center. That's not so much something you hear in the music because you don't really hear Chambers' voice that much. But in the video, she's really central as a foil for Teasdale, as the best friend who's hugging her and holding her up.
Cills: I don't know if I hear female friendship in the music. I feel like it's more lonely. There are a lot of lonely moments on the album as well.
Ganz: I hear friendship in the presentation. When you hear Chambers' voice, it's often in direct response to something Teasdale is saying. Chambers also plays the lead guitar on the record and so much of the melody and the fun and the attraction of the music is dependent on those guitar lines. Teasdale's vocals are so flat and monotone, but the songs get energy from the guitar. On many of the other songs, any melody that exists in the vocals is actually cribbed directly from the guitar line. So it does feel like there is a musical element where Chambers is that same kind of support, building a wall or building protection.
I did a little slightly trolling thing of putting a song by The Lonely Island on our playlist. And I think that humor — particularly inside humor between friends — is an essential thing in this music. It's not a coincidence that there are two big, dumb inside jokes in "Chaise Longue." The first thing that she says is trying to convince us that her parents don't know that the "Big D" is not actually her degree. And then that "Is your muffin buttered?" line, which is stolen from Mean Girls. You know that the two of them are going off and laughing about having delivered those jokes to you as an audience. You might know you are not included in the laughter, but you're a necessary prop for the delivery of the joke.
Powers: Mean girls and meme girls. Chambers is sort of like a hype man in a way, like she's the Flavor Flav to Teasdale's Chuck D, or maybe the Bob Nastanovich to Stephen Malkmus. I was actually surprised at the live show in terms of how much fun they were having on stage with each other. It didn't feel choreographed; they weren't wearing the prairie dresses. The band was real, not put together in a London studio, and it felt like that was another place where the friendship was located.
Ganz: I do think it's possible that playing live will change the band. It's interesting to remember that the record was made before anybody heard it — it was completely finished before anybody heard any of these songs. In The New York Times profile that was presented as something strange, but maybe it's rare in a valuable way to catch a band before there is any awareness of who they are out in the world. And maybe the pandemic allowed that to happen in a way that hasn't happened in more normal recent times. But in this album we have a document of a band that was not yet influenced by the public's demands for what they do in any way. They had not toured. They had not played live. They didn't have any songs on SoundCloud. They were a new thing and somebody had the great idea not to wait for them to evolve – to put them in a studio and capture that newness whole.
Powers: It reminds me of when Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted came out. And Joe Levy wrote a piece for The Village Voice where he said the band's sound came out of nowhere. There was just this image of these young men walking across the dusty, central California fields to change rock. This idea of a sound coming out of nowhere is such a necessary rejuvenation, it seems for rock — over and over again.
Cills: This is why the term industry plant keeps getting thrown around by younger audiences because the music industry has changed so rapidly that younger audiences are used to an artist going viral and then they get signed and then they record material. The idea of someone having demos and shopping those to a label or before their career takes off is just foreign. It creates a kind of skepticism when a young person sees an artist and they're not already inundated with their body of work.
Ganz: It's kind of a privilege to get to experience it in 2022. That's a thing that used to happen all the time. We didn't have access to those early materials. We didn't have access to bands touring or videos of them playing live. We saw the records show up on a shelf in a record store and you bought it or you didn't.
Powers: That's the real Little House on the Prairie s*** about this band.
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