.Owl City and our embrace of lesser substitutes

owlcity-klostermanI just finished reading Chuck Klosterman’s new book Eating the Dinosaur (I know, I know, I’m a gigantic cliché, so sue me). There’s a number of great essays on a number of subjects, including one that mashes together Werner Herzog, Weezer and Ralph Nader (it makes sense, really). One of my favourites, though, is “The Passion of the Garth,” in which Klosterman psychoanalyzes Garth Brooks’ alterego Chris Gaines and what Brooks was trying to achieve.

Though unrelated to that thesis, this particular excerpt got me thinking:

“Rock writer Rob Sheffield once drunkenly argued that the supernatural success of nondescript country artist Garth Brooks was a social reaction to the temporary absence of Bruce Springsteen. This is the type of argument so simultaneously obvious and unseen that only someone as supernaturally brilliant as Rob Sheffield could possibly make it.”

I had a similar reaction to Sheffield’s idea: why hadn’t I thought of this before? Brooks may have had a country foundation instead of a rock ‘n’ roll one, but the template was the same: unironic, genuine stadium songs about America’s working class that alternated between celebrating their virtues and lamenting their hardships. The timelines match up almost perfectly, too: Brooks’ debut record was released in 1989, the same year that Springsteen broke up the E-Street Band. The Chris Gaines fiasco happened ten years later, the same year that Springsteen got the band back together full-time. Brooks’ final record, Scarecrow, came out in November 2001; less than eight months later, the Boss released The Rising and completed his return to pop culture relevance. Brooks has barely been heard from since, but with Springsteen back, who needs him?

I find this idea rather compelling: that when a musical entity abandons us, we unconsciously seek out substitutes that fulfill the same emotional needs. We are less interested in finding things that are ‘new’ than we are at replicating the same cultural archetypes time and time again. Few are as successful as Garth Brooks, obviously, and I don’t want to credit Springsteen’s absence as the sole reason for Brooks’ fortunes. But think about how many inexplicable success stories we can blame/credit on the absence/irrelevance of other artists? We need Miley Cyrus because Hillary Duff grew old and pointless. We turn Lady Gaga into a superstar because Madonna’s taking too long with what would be her third comeback. We champion Beyonce because Whitney can’t get her shit together. Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” was a huge hit because U2 didn’t give us one this year.

And Owl City are currently sitting near the top of the Billboard Hot 100 because Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello took too friggin’ long to finish another Postal Service record.

I’m of the mind that the Postal Service record is a tad overrated – it was a great record, just not the second coming – but that doesn’t mean that I wanted to hear its charming subtleties smoothed over into a piece of sentimental schlock like this. It’s as if Ryan Tedder (that OneRepublic guy who seems to write everything boring on pop radio these days) listened to Give Up and wanted to make his own, overproduced version. And those vocals – egads. It’s as if someone developed an autotune machine that makes you sound like Ben Gibbard instead of T-Pain.

I honestly can’t listen to “Fireflies” without feeling a bit depressed. Is this how society works – if we can’t get what we want, we’ll settle for a bad cover version of the same thing? If we can’t get the girl we’ve set our sights on, we’ll be content with a lesser, similar model? If we can’t vote for the politician who’s retired, we’ll vote for the person most like him because it feels familiar? If we’ll approximate our record collection – which for some of us, is a pretty intimate construction – what illusions won’t we buy into?

I suppose it’s funny that Klosterman, of all people, should have sparked this line of thought, as there’s probably nobody who’s written more about tribute bands in the past decade than he has. Is there no greater evidence of our desire to replace past experiences than our willingness to see costumed gentlemen (and women, as explored in Klosterman’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” in Chuck Klosterman IV) play the back catalogue of bands both distant and divorced? Hell, some can even make a career out of it – look at the Australian Pink Floyd, for example, a band that would be rendered near-irrelevant were their namesake touring the globe right now.

But they’re not. Nor are the Postal Service making a record anytime soon. So time and time again, we’ll settle for a lesser substitute. Because it feels better for that similar sensation to be present in our lives than to go without.

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One response to “.Owl City and our embrace of lesser substitutes

  1. Pingback: …in which McNutt considers Lady Gaga’s disinterest in the verse « McNutt Against the Music·

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