The year is 2013: Barack Obama has embarked upon his second term as president of the United States, and other than teensy indiscretions such as drone-bombing children abroad and using taxpayer money to bail out banks, it feels like the country is generally on the right course. Gawker and sister sites such as Deadspin are as healthy as ever, and there’s little reason to believe an October 2012 post involving a Hulk Hogan sex tape will cause any problems down the line for the media outlet. Musically speaking, Daft Punk’s EDM rejoinder/love letter to disco, “Get Lucky,” is dominating the charts, and Kanye West’s abrasive, sacrilegious Yeezus is generating hot takes across the still-thriving blogosphere and internet forums. Meanwhile, cult rappers El-P and Killer Mike have announced an unexpected collaboration under the moniker Run the Jewels, Justin Timberlake has shared his first album in seven years, and, after a decade of near-silence, David Bowie is keeping busy by teaming with Arcade Fire and James Murphy in addition to releasing his own new record.
Me, I’m working my summer job, stocking bras and panties at a Boca Raton Victoria’s Secret for its semiannual sale. It’s Friday, July 5, and as a college sophomore who’s still green on the thrill of Miami nightlife, I’m counting the minutes until I can head south with friends to catch Of Montreal at Grand Central. In a few hours, I’ll be rocking a Passion Pit tee (long since lost) and dodging aggressive come-ons from older women; for now, I’m confined to a decadent shopping mall, my employer-mandated all-black ensemble standing in for prison garb.
The day is inching toward its end when, as I’m folding clothes, I’m struck by one of the simplest, most beautiful piano riffs I’ve ever heard laid against an insistent kick drum. Victoria’s Secret’s music selection generally ranges between fine and above average, reliably sticking to the upbeat, synth-heavy stuff you’d hear on the likes of Pandora’s Indie Pop station during the late 2000s and early 2010s. But this is something else entirely: The female vocals are mournful, not celebratory, and the synth line is somehow both transcendent and gloriously goofy.
I’ve never heard anything like it before. I immediately abandon my post, run to the nearest speaker in the corner of the display room, and whip out my phone to open Shazam and learn the name of the heavenly transmission.
Six years onward, I no longer work at Victoria’s Secret, nor do I often think back to the annoyed, confused glances I got from my manager and customers that day. I do, however, still listen to “Beautiful Object” by Glass Candy regularly.
The synth-pop stunner was my first exposure to the murky world of Italians Do It Better (IDIB), the Los Angeles-based record label cofounded by Glass Candy member and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Jewel.
Since the label’s inception in 2006, Jewel and various collaborators have fashioned a very specific and highly influential aesthetic, rife with faded neon lights, impossibly beautiful and immeasurably sad women, and the occasional intrusion of the surreal. Although the label carries a singular identity, IDIB’s sound spans decades and genres: Arresting instrumentals, hip-hop homages, hypnotizing ballads, Italo disco, and even smoldering Bruce Springsteen covers share space under the Italians umbrella without ever striking a false note.
Jewel is involved in nearly all of the label’s projects in some capacity: Besides collaborating with singer Ida No on Glass Candy and lending his hand as a producer for several artists, he’s a member of the groups Chromatics, Desire, and Symmetry. Chromatics is the most visible act in the IDIB pantheon, thanks in part to the band’s inclusion on multiple film and TV soundtracks, as well as appearances in the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks.
The members of Chromatics — Jewel, singer Ruth Radelet, guitarist Adam Miller, and drummer Nat Walker — are set to stop in Miami Thursday, November 21, for a live performance at Pérez Art Museum Miami. The show marks the final 2019 installment of Currents — an ongoing concert series the museum produces in partnership with the Miami-based creative agency Defy — and finds Jewel and Walker joining vocalist and IDIB president Megan Louise for an opening set as Desire.
It has been seven years since Chromatics last visited. In 2012, the group bookended the year with a January show at the dearly departed Grand Central before returning for an Art Basel gig at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts (since renamed the Olympia Theater).
Fittingly, Thursday’s show falls near the end of a decade that saw Jewel, Chromatics, and Italians leave an indelible mark on the pop-culture landscape. Drive, the 2011 Nicolas Winding Refn-directed film starring Ryan Gosling, had a large part to play in circulating Italians' sensibilities among a larger audience. Even beyond the presence of Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock” and Desire’s “Under Your Spell” in some of the movie’s most unforgettable sequences, the influence of the Italians catalog can be felt throughout Drive’s 100 minutes, from the recontextualizing of '80s musical tropes to its neon-tinted vision of a world in decay. Chromatics’ breakthrough release, 2007’s Night Drive, reportedly inspired Gosling and Refn long before filming properly began, which might explain why Jewel was tapped to compose an ultimately unused score for the movie.
Drive’s impact and the subsequent dissemination of the Italians gospel wasn’t limited to the realms of film and music. The infamously violent 2012 videogame Hotline Miami was essentially a more abstract, dreamlike rendition of Drive’s story line, and it even included the Chromatics song “Lady” in an early iteration. Even though no IDIB artists ultimately made it into the final game, the popularity of the soundtracks for Hotline Miami and its cinema predecessor helped to spur the spread of synthwave and other '80s-indebted musical movements. As demonstrated by Kendrick Lamar affiliate Schoolboy Q’s sampling of Chromatics’ “Cherry” for his 2013 single “Man of the Year,” not even hip-hop has been immune from Jewel and Italians’ reach.
Barring last-minute entrances by Chromatics’ long-delayed record Dear Tommy or Glass Candy’s nigh-mythical Body Work, the former’s surprise October release Closer to Grey may wind up being Italians’ final statement of the 2010s. It’s appropriate that even as the album sees the band reach into heretofore unexplored musical territory, the primary concerns of the IDIB discography — the passage of time, doomed romantic affairs, and the escapism of late nights spent on city streets and dance floors — stand out more starkly than ever.
No matter the particulars — whether it be Glass Candy in a Victoria’s Secret or a Chromatics performance with a Port of Miami backdrop — Jewel’s music has the ability to suspend listeners in time and take them somewhere else. For all of its ephemerality, the world of Italians Do It Better is one worth getting lost in.
Currents: Chromatics Presented by Defy. With Desire. 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, November 21, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; pamm.org. Tickets cost $24; discounts are available for PAMM members.