Were I to saunter up to a podium and announce through the condescending gaze of a monocle that "Two-piece bands are really hot right now!" you might just roll your eyes and leave my lecture hall.
Of course two-piece bands are hot right now. They've been hot for a while. This is not late-breaking news rushed to the press from the hands of ecstatic social scientists.
Two-piece indie bands
But a recent glance at my personal mountain of music caused the curious nerd in me to wonder: Could this spike in rock duos be a reflection of Darwinian selection? Survival of the smallest? And can the musical climate sustain a population boom such as this?
Nature is cruel, and the music industry is crueler, which makes for a valid argument that surviving in either environment is a result of timing, adaptation and brutal, bloody struggle.
From God's first celebrity couple, Adam and Eve, to proto-musical duo the Captain & Tennille, archetypal specimens of the genus Two-Piece have always held a certain level of allure. And as proved by such pairs as the Everly Brothers and Heart, the idea of a duo is perennially appealing, regardless of how many session players may lurk in its shadow.
However, a few years ago, you'll recall, a creature called the White Stripes was discovered in the dank barroom habitats of Detroit -- and the wildly improbable success of this actual, honest-to-God two-person rock and roll band spawned a mating frenzy and subsequent explosion of duet offspring with various mutations.
For a genus like Two-Piece to reach epic population levels, environmental and historical conditions must align. We'll examine how and why a trip to the CD emporium now almost always produces a handbasket crawling with two-piece indie-rock pets.
The question is not whether this population boom will end, but how soon.
II. Musical Duos: Why So Effing Many?
From a physical standpoint, the two-piece can survive on a minimal amount of resources. Compared to its full-scale peers, the duo thrives in a significantly smaller habitat, and requires fewer assets toward shelter, beer or sandwiches. Another key biological advantage for the duo is its increased mobility. (Five dudes traversing the country in a cargo van is a scientifically proven formula for self-destruction.)
But a two-piece can easily inhabit one hotel room, a conservation of monetary resources that allows for longer and more frequent tours. This, in turn, enables the organism to sow its two-piece seed across the land in ways that a four- or five-piece could not afford. And splitting the end-of-evening cash payout in halfsies, rather than foursies, provides greater motivation to follow their gig-instinct -- and therefore to continue to build their fan base.
Let's also examine intellectual simplification as a factor of success. When asked about two-piece dynamics, Micah Calabrese, drummer and synth man for L.A.'s two-person Giant Drag, unleashed his inner nerd by noting, "The communication overhead increases exponentially as the number of [members] grows." What Calabrese meant, we think, is that there's less room for the bass player's bullshit ideas, or the trumpet dude's opinion about the album cover. Decisions are made swiftly, with fewer compromises necessary. As a result, the band's overall artistic vision retains a level of purity that could otherwise become muddled by multiple members.
In musical terms, two-piece style tends by nature to veer toward minimalism, and in an era of third-wave Britpop choked with too many tracks, smothered with overly aggressive producers and stuffed to the gills with sound, the two-piece offers listeners and musicians that empty pocket of vital necessity: breathing room.
III. Two-Piece Appeal: The seX-Factor
Is it any secret, socially or biologically, that living things like to get it on? No, it is not.
There's something about mated pairs that keeps an audience in eager expectation of full-on intercourse. No matter if the pair are same-sex, siblings, spouses or all of the above, we in the audience are kind of hoping for humping at some point. We know that you won't actually get it on in front of us, but the possibility that you may be thinking of getting it on is just enough raw biology to keep us fully engaged.
The White Stripes, of course, remained legendarily coy as to their sexual past, and punk cabaret act the Dresden Dolls are one of many duos to toy with this allure. Front woman Amanda Palmer has acknowledged the ploy, stating that "music and sex are adjacent parts of the brain"; she has reportedly canoodled with drummer Brian Viglione whilst denying any sexual liaison. It's this brand of two-piece tension that holds an audience rapt with slack-jawed anticipation, barely suppressing the howling plea "Just start fucking, already!"
IV. The Future of the Two-Piece: Boom or Doom?
Do exponential-growth curves spell a two-piece doomsday?
If you've ever earned a degree in population studies, or owned rabbits, you may be familiar with the concept of exponential population-growth curves. Two people have two kids, those two kids each have two kids, who pump out a few more themselves, and before you know it, you've got a curve that increases slowly at first, begins a determined incline, then rockets off the charts. With so many duos proving the success of the formula, more musical hopefuls are steered into two-piece territory. Consider also the countless foursomes of blokes who decide to split up, creating two twosomes (At the Drive-In spawns the Mars Volta), thereby doubling the number of bands competing for gigs, record deals and fans.
The reality for all population booms is that exponential growth cannot sustain itself and must drop off at some point -- sometimes abruptly and mercilessly. The future of pair-popularity is dependent on many factors:
a. Will interest in novelty duos wane?
b. Will audiences grow tired and weary from too much pent-up sexual tension?
c. Will we crave bass lines again?
Most likely, the duos who survive the inevitable drop in two-piece-fan fascination will be those best able to adapt and cultivate a richer sound as demand necessitates. But as any giddy dork in a lab coat will tell you, the beauty of each individual specimen lies in the unique qualities that distinguish it from its neighbor, be it a butterfly or a dung beetle, a two-piece or an orchestra. And at the end of the day, for bands, it all comes down to whether they can rock you.
Genus Two-Piece: An Overview
The genus Two-Piece includes several species. Below are some of the most popular of the current era, though evidence suggests variations could, theoretically, be infinite.
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Two-Piece muchosexualis: The Raveonettes, the Kills, Fame, Jucifer, Mates of State, Quasi and married electronica duo Madison Park;
Two-Piece justfriendsicus: Giant Drag, the Dresden Dolls, I Want a Hovercraft;
Two-Piece sausage festali: Death from Above 1979, the Black Keys, Two Gallants, Om, Oppenheimer, Swearing at Motorists;
Two-Piece incesticus: Fiery Furnaces, prehistoric specimens the Carpenters and at one point the White Stripes (later controversially reclassified, much to the humiliation of musical scientists duped by previous research). Note: Also frequently misclassified here is Canadian lesbian twin-sister act Tegan and Sara, who are not in fact a true two-piece, as they employ backing musicians both in the studio and on tour. In this case, they represent a dazzling example of the evolutionary tactic mimicry.