Pop Tent

L.A.'s Poptopia Festival gathers the unabashed followers of the three-minute revolution

At the beginning of this century, the American labor movement galvanized behind a very simple premise: There's strength in numbers. It didn't take much insight to see that if you were working for the man every night and day, and you didn't have a smidgen of power, the only way to influence those who did have power was by organizing behind a single cause.

At the end of this century, the American pop movement has coalesced behind the very same premise. Through some cosmic jumble of raw coincidence and careful planning, magazines like Popsided, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Amplifier and Back of a Car have all emerged in the past couple of years to extol the virtues of the well-crafted, three-minute pop song. Simultaneously, indie record labels like Permanent Press, Not Lame, Sugar Fix and Big Deal have taken in several of the hungry pop bands perennially left waiting out in the cold by skittish majors.

But the ultimate flexing of pop's collective muscle comes every February at the Poptopia festival, a sort of Los Angeles-based South by Southwest for self-professed pop geeks. Poptopia began in 1996 as an outgrowth of a floating L.A. pop nightclub called Bubblegum Crisis. At the time, the idea of a club hosting a pop night was seen as a strange concept, according to Poptopia co-organizer Tony Perkins. He says Bubblegum Crisis created "cadres of bands that did this kind of music and thought they were the only ones." The floating-club concept went from monthly to biweekly until Perkins and his friends decided to mount a full-blown festival.

The third annual Poptopia Festival was held in Los Angeles from February 2 to 8, and it was a prolonged wet dream for those who find their bliss in a chiming Rickenbacker and three-part, sha-la-la vocalizing. Nothing--not the brutal torrents of rain delivered by El Nino, nor the power failure that cursed Spaceland on Saturday, February 7--could stymie the legions of power-pop devotees who gathered for Poptopia. At times, particularly on the final-night blowout at the stylish El Rey Theatre, the vibe evoked a comic-book-collectors convention, as white males unabashedly croaked along with every secret classic that came over the sound system, be it "Whatever Happened to Fun" by Candy, or "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" by The Rubinoos.

The differences between South by Southwest and Poptopia are primarily rooted in the intentions of the organizers. While South by Southwest is an inflated music-biz schmooze balloon that completely engulfs Austin, Poptopia is all about the love of a musical form. At Poptopia, you're not saddled with the kind of bogus seminars and industry panel discussions that make SXSW so wearisome. Bands at Poptopia know that a good showcase performance isn't going to start a label bidding war, so they don't even concern themselves with such thoughts.

If South by Southwest dominates all activity in Austin in mid-March, Poptopia barely registers any attention from nonzealots on the wildly eclectic L.A. club scene. But that's the paradoxical nature of this beast we call power pop, a genre whose very raison d'étre was to stimulate the neurological pleasure centers of the masses, yet finds itself consistently denied access to a mass audience.

The very word "pop" has been so abused through the years that for some people it means insipid Top 40 drivel by the likes of Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. Perhaps that's why some of the legendary architects of power pop, such as Cheap Trick, actually shy away from the term, preferring to simply identify themselves as rock 'n' roll, a term less easily misinterpreted. In fact, Poptopia was fairly rife with bands that squirmed around the "pop" designation like young Houdinis trapped in a glass water tank. For example, the ultrapretentious Skycycle--on the verge of releasing a debut five-song EP on MCA--sarcastically promised to provide "some seventh chords and pretty Beatley harmonies" after it rocked out a bit.

Other bands, like the shticky, Cramps-cum-Ramones punksters Groovie Ghoulies, poked affectionate fun at the "pop" biases of the gathering. The Ghoulies' astonishingly hyperactive singer, whose eyes were masked in thick black paint, took a momentary break from his methed-up shadowboxing routine to pay tribute to the famously dismal 1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, which he called "the Poptopiest event ever." He then tossed trading cards from the movie into the audience before blasting into a monstrous punk medley of Neil Diamond's "Hello Again" with The Monkees' standards "She Hangs Out" and "Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)."

Though power pop is often viewed as a subset of rock 'n' roll, their genealogies are exact inverses of each other. Early rock 'n' roll was hatched in America, but its most loyal, dedicated adherents ultimately tended to be British. Power pop, on the other hand, was born in England, but it's been kept alive largely through the ardent devotion of American disciples. Though its sound generally tends to revisit the basic themes laid down in the mid-'60s by The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks, power pop has also drawn energy from changing trends. For instance, an early-'70s band like Big Star drew nearly as much inspiration from the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin as from '60s Merseybeat. In the late '70s and early '80s, power-poppers like The dB's, The Shoes and The Plimsouls fed off the aggression of the punk movement to create a vibrantly quirky yet still melodious sound.

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