Being that it was a nice day, today, I thought I would take advantage of the weather and walk to lunch. So there I was, ambling down a quiet side street, listening to Dan Auerbach and enjoying the sunshine – when a Chevy HHR (quite possible one of most ludicrous-looking vehicles to come out of Detroit in the last decade) blows past me about 40 miles an hour, windows rolled down, stereo blasting FUN’s ubiquitous hit “We Are Young.” As if that weren’t spectacle enough, there was a young man hanging out the rear passenger window, fist-pumping the air, and yelling “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” at the top of his lungs.
I stunned at this Dadist tableau. At first, being a Child Of The Nineties, I thought that perhaps this poor fellow had grossly misinterpreted TLC’s injunction about hanging out the window of your best friend’s ride and hollering at people (a process that does not normally involve actual “hollering”). If so, not only was this chap being absurdly literal, but he was also adding an unintentionally homoerotic subtext to TLC’s lyrics.
More fundamentally, though, I was puzzled that a song which originally rose to prominence on Portland’s flagship hipster radio station (KNRK 94.7 FM) had now been co-opted by a demographic that, ten years ago, would no doubt have contented themselves with harassing people to the sounds of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. But I suppose I shouldn’t be completely surprised – for the 2010s are fast-establishing themselves as the Era of the Indie One-Hit Wonder (IOHW).
This is not exactly a new phenom, but it’s definitely enjoyed a wonderful Renaissance in the last two or three years, no doubt due in part to the fact that people now spend far more time on websites like Facebook and Youtube than they do indulging in healthier, less addictive activities, such as drinking, video poker, or freebasing cocaine.
At any rate, the IOHW follows a relatively simple formula: take a moderately-good to moderately-bad band that has a vaguely unique sound, have them record a single, and then flog said single to death on every radio station in every major market in the country (which is relatively easy to do now that ClearChannel owns every radio station on earth). Usually a song of this ilk will make its debut on the 94.7 or the local Hippie Burnout Station (KINK 102FM), before making it’s way to more mainstream stations, such as Local Top 40 stalwart Z100 or Local Top 40 for Old People stalwart, 105.1 The Buzz. Occasionally, they’ll even crossover into urban markets such as WiLD 107.5 – thereby ensuring that every indie music enthusiast / hipster will instantly declare them a sellout and every normal person will cringe and attempt to lobotomize themselves with an ice pick whenever said song comes on the air. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, these bands tend to disappear back into the depths.
(Ironically, the two most egregious offenders in this regard are perhaps the most talented and longest-lived. Adele and The Black Keys are both extremely talented and they’re extremely EVERYWHERE. At one point, I flipped through the radio dial and managed to hear Adele singing on FIVE different radio stations AT THE SAME TIME. That beezy is a Juggernaut.)
As I said, this is not a new phenomena. Almost every hipster I know claims that they loved Modest Mouse before they became popular – a moment pinpointed in the annals of Hipsterdom as “Whenever Isaac Brock first sang ‘Float On.'” A raft of other bands followed. Remember Interpol? The Bravery? Yeah, me neither. But back in 2005 they were selling out Portland venues like nobody’s business.
One of the first recent examples of this was AWOLNATION, a band that became momentarily famous in late 2010 for their song “Sail“, which boasted a vaguely ominous sound and a slightly catchy refrain that captivated 18-25 demographic for a hot minute. But have you ever actually listened to the lyrics of “Sail”? They’re all about an angry guy who’s bad at relationships and (apparently) paying attention in class. More importantly, all of their other songs deal with similar topics, albeit without the benefit of a catchy riff. In a normal and just world, this would have no big deal. They would’ve spent a season or two opening for some equally banal but more successful act, such as Nickelback, and most honest, hardworking citizens would never had been the wiser. But instead, because America loves a bandwagon, we all had to hear that song approximately 85,000 times over the next year. That song finally went away… just in time for their next single, “Jump on My Shoulders” – which features the lyrical gem, “There’s a mad man with a mad plan, and he’s dancing at your door.” Overlooking the fairly obvious fact that most crazy people do not content themselves with doing pirouettes on your doorstep, these lyrics are so ridiculously bad that even Rob Thomas probably thinks they suck. And we never would’ve been subjected to them if it weren’t for all those people who downloaded “Sail” on iTunes.
2011 has continued this trend in a big way, most notably with Fun.’s “We Are Young”, Gotye’s “Someone That I Used to Know“, and Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” – all songs that feature catchy refrains and emotive lyrics – and all songs that, when looked at more carefully, are actually a wee bit sinister. Every American under the age of 50 has already pondered the fact that “Pumped Up Kicks” seems to be about school shootings (although how many of you remember that Bob Geldoff’s seemingly innocuous,”I Don’t Like Mondays” is about a real school shooting?), so I needn’t dwell on that. But in “We Are Young”, Nate Ruess complains that his friends are in the bathroom doing blow, then laments the loss of his seat to “some sunglasses / asking ’bout a scar” before admitting that he “gave it to you months ago”… which is the sort of casually hedonistic misogyny that you might expect from a Bret Easton Ellis novel, not from Modern Top 40. (Also, their follow-up single, “Some Nights” sounds like something Billy Joel would’ve written for the “Rain Man” soundtrack. While this is not a Terrible Thing, it is definitely Not A Good Thing.)
At face value, “Someone That I Used to Know” is more emo than ominous, but if you’ve had to listen to this song immediately before or after “We Are Young” as much as I have – i.e. to the brink of madness, you may begin to divine a darker meaning to the song. An initial listen to “Someone That I Used to Know” might lead you to believe that the protagonist of the song is simply a whiny bitch. And you might be right. But I prefer to think that it’s actually the same guy from “We Are Young”, albeit several months or years later. I’ve had a couple of crappy ex-girlfriends in my day, but I’ve never had any that felt it necessary to send other people to collect their shit or to change their number. Normal ex-girlfriends don’t do that. You know who does that? Ex-girlfriends leaving abusive relationships – like ones where you beat your lady and then take her to the bar.
So there you have it. You listen to these songs enough, you start to develop conspiracy theories about them… and/or suicidal tendencies.
The sad thing is that aside from AWOLNATION, none of these bands are terrible. They’re just mediocre. And in a more sane world, they would’ve had a much longer, albeit less successful careers. But I imagine they’re ok with that, because they’ll probably make a crapton more money enjoying their 15 minutes of fame (and the ensuing years playing at Casinos and County Fairs) then they ever would’ve on the coffeeshop circuit.
The other piece of good news, of course, is that they’ll eventually fade back into obscurity, and we’ll never have to listen “Someone That I Used to Know” again. Until someone gets drunk at the bar and decides they miss their ex.