Milwaukee hates Chester French! Wait, who’s Chester French again?
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Cristina Daglas of Milwaukee Magazine and Evan Rytlewski of the Shepherd Express recently posed a not-so-recent question: Why does Milwaukee hate Chester French? Before I get to addressing that issue, perhaps we should be asking a more pertinent question: Who’s Chester French again?
According to an interview I did with group member D.A. Wallach about two years ago, Chester French apparently is a proudly poppy (and somewhat less proudly jokey) R&B duo with local ties; Wallach grew up here, though he wasn’t an active member of the local music scene before leaving Milwaukee to attend Harvard. The group generated some pre-release hype for its full-length debut, Love The Future, which came out on Pharrell Williams’ label in 2009. But neither the record nor any of its singles took off.
Nevertheless, Chester French at least had a puncher’s chance of being popular—sorry, has a puncher’s chance of being popular—and this fact coupled with its Milwaukee-ish background was enough for Milwaukee Magazine to commit almost 4,000 words to profiling Wallach as he works on Chester French’s new album in Wauwatosa. It’s a pretty good read about a pretty self-absorbed guy. (He chastises “fucking white people” for moving to Bay View “because they don’t want live in the hood,” and then complains about paying the stadium tax when he goes to Starbucks. Did I mention Wallach went to Harvard?) Still, this passage struck me as odd:
In 2008, Rolling Stone declared Chester French an artist to watch, Spin awarded a comparable honor, GQ lovingly dubbed them “smart-asses,” and socialite/blogger/influential loudmouth Perez Hilton voiced support. In 2009, they released Love the Future but were already in the thick of national touring behind big-name acts such as Blink 182, N.E.R.D. and Lady Gaga. The band’s single “She Loves Everybody,” first released in an oversized condom wrapper as an ode to safe sex, was heard by millions on HBO’s “Entourage.”
Here were two white guys, flourishing with the support of the mostly black world of hip-hop, with a musical style closer to standard (not quite bubblegum) pop. The duo posed for a 2010 fashion spread in Vogue and seemed to quickly cement their off-the-cuff, jokester approach to interviews in the psyche of music journalists nationally.
Yet despite the tsunami of attention, Milwaukee has resisted the wave. Here, Chester French has mostly gotten small write-ups (mediocre concert previews and album reviews) and a whole lot of criticism, most harshly from DJ Hostettler of ThirdCoast Digest.
Maybe my meteorology skills are lacking, but I’m not sure Chester French has generated a “tsunami of attention” outside of Milwaukee. Love The Future garnered middling-to-promising reviews from major music publications like Rolling Stone, Spin, and Vibe—good for a “mediocre” Metacritic score of 59—and precious little press (or sales) since. So far, promotion of Chester French has not translated to popularity; Wallach hasn’t been able to monetize his hype. I seriously doubt Milwaukee “hates” Chester French any more than any other city, since the group isn’t (yet?) big enough to elicit any kind of widespread reaction. Yes, A.V. Club contributor DJ Hostettler loathes Chester French, but I think my ol‘ pal DJ would be the first to admit that his opinions almost never reflect those of the majority of Milwaukeeans, who have been mostly indifferent on the subject thus far.
In a twisted sort of way, Hostettler is Chester French’s biggest local proponent, because at least he’s passionate about the group. Otherwise, talk of a local backlash seems a bit premature. Not saying Wallach won’t get there eventually, but the scale of his success hasn’t even come close to matching the size of his generously ample ego or its attendant persecution complex. Is it true that certain segments of Milwaukee’s music scene laugh at Chester French because of its frothy music and association with cheeseball stuff like Entourage and singles packaged inside condom wrappers? Most definitely. But if Chester French ever manages to make pop music that pop-music fans actually care about, the Milwaukee mainstream will almost certainly fall in line with everybody else. Danny Gokey can’t shoulder the burden of local music-related celebrity all by himself.