SYNTHETIC GOODNESS “Some people get confused, saying, is it indie or pop?” says Elizabeth Harper. “Is it Lady Gaga or some awkward girl? Can’t there be an original in between?
At some point, we're going to have to stop referring to the type of glacially chilled synth-pop bliss that Elizabeth Harper and her Brooklyn-based trio Class Actress (and pretty much every other group worth listening to right now) are making as "retro," right? At what point does present-day genre saturation override a style's era of origin?
Let's face it, Class Actress — who come to the Middle East next Thursday — aren't just referencing the '80s with their new-wave electro any more, they're referencing the '90s version of it as well. And the 2000s. And tomorrow's version, and so on. It's not just quoting early Madonna, then, it's Saint Etienne on to Stereolab and Sally Shapiro and every other beat-tripping young lady who ever sighed real pretty-like over a beat. It's just another genre now, albeit one we can't get enough of.
"I totally agree," Harper says over the phone from Brooklyn. "I think people think of it as retro because I guess it started in the '80s. Maybe in the '90s, there was some Rage Against the Machine happening, and there was a small break? People have been making this dance music for a long time, ever since they discovered the sampler."
Class Actress's latest, the chilling and chilled-out Journal of Ardency EP (Terrible Records), is an example of the renewable returns inherent in what's oft considered a disposable template. It slides from the frolicking glitch and coo of "Careful What You Say" to the title track's icy stabs of Feistian romance. "Let Me Take You Out" flips the script, with a '90s-style indie-rock guitar figure splayed out over a stuttering hi-hat sample. Throughout, the distance between the warmth of the instrumentation and Harper's detachment is slow-disco romance personified.
"I have a penchant for a slow beat," she says. "The sexier beat. I find that, at our shows, people make out a lot. There's a lot of kissing, people get a little bit lascivious. I like the idea that it makes everyone get loose and sexy."
The freedom of flying under the radar — for now, anyway — is part of what allows Harper and her production partner and Class Actress bandmate Mark Richardson to do sexy on their own terms, and to stand apart from the pop stars traversing similar synthy terrain who are in essence the girly jock version of the genre.
"It's way different," she says. "Mark and I aren't working within a predetermined sort of system. I'm not writing for a major label that's like, 'You have to have this formula to have this song make sense.' In every Gaga video, there has to be a dance routine. It's like, mandatory, whether she wants to do it or not. Since we don't have to answer to anybody, we make our version of pop music."
There are some bigger stars whose steps she wouldn't mind following in, though. La Roux's surprising recent success is heartening for a band like Class Actress. "Honestly, I'm so excited about that. That's kind of what I want people to think of right now. That song 'Bulletproof' has been around for along time. Mark the other day came in and said he heard La Roux on [Top 40 station] 92.3 NOW, and I was like, 'What?' "