Sunday, December 2, 2012

Owl City, Pop Music, and Society

 Warning: this post may take up to thirty minutes to read if you watch all of the videos that I link with it.

So, I've recently been listening to a fair amount of Owl City (more specifically Ocean Eyes) lately.

I'm slightly addicted.

It all started when when of my fellow cellists brought in an easy piano book of this album a couple of weeks ago and suggested I sight read it for him since I am *ahem* pretty good at sight reading if I do say so myself. So I played some of the songs (never hearing them before) and I liked them. He also suggested I go and listen to some of Owl City's songs and I said I would.

Now before I listend to this album I of course knew the famous "Fireflies", the song that took over the charts sometime in 2009, because I distinctly remember it doing so. In fact, I remember one of my friends asking me to buy it off of iTunes because he wanted to listen to it (it's now been replaced with the deluxe version of Ocean Eyes). I did (and currently do) like that song, but I never thought that genre of music would be right for me; it just didn't seem like something I'd be interested in.

Boy was I wrong.

When I got home, I previewed all of the songs on iTunes and decided to buy the deluxe version since the additional songs on that album seemed good and it was only two bucks more.

Best $12 ever spent.

The first time I listened to it, I liked it. But the second time I listend to it, I wanted more. Although this was pop (and pop isn't my most favorite music in the world), there was just something so addictive, charming, calming, and refreshing about the synths/guitars, the simple melodies, the poetic and dream-like nature of the lyrics and not to mention Young's soothing voice. I felt like I was dreaming when listening to his music. The reason I like his music so much is because with all of the pop stars I've heard, they always seem to be talking about the same thing (Shawty in the club, being who you are, I want that girl, partying, youth) and some of it sends a bad message to children (which, unfortunately, I'm starting to see in my sister) and/or has no good purpose. With Young, he talks about mostly love and it's effects. He also talks about random, dream-like, or just silly things which I love. It set him apart from everyone else and it makes him so refreshing. One good word to describe his music: innocence: I feel innocent when I listen to his music. So, Ocean Eyes (including even the songs in the deluxe version) is one of the best albums I've ever listened to.

To compare his music to what is most popular today, I've provided an example:

"Locked Out of Heaven" by Bruno Mars
Number 4 on the Billboard Top 100 for Pop Songs December 1, 2012

Never had much faith in love or miracles
Never wanna put my heart on deny
But swimming in your world is something spiritual
I'm born again every time you spend the night

Cause your sex takes me to paradise
Yeah your sex takes me to paradise
And it shows, yeah, yeah, yeah
Cause you make feel like, I've been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long

(with random oohs and repetition of certain phrases and stanzas thrown in)

(On a side note, this song sounds like something Sting/The Police would produce)

Vanilla Twilight by Owl City
Number 36 on the Billboard Top 100 for Pop Songs March 6, 2010

The stars lean down to kiss you
And I lie awake and miss you
Pour me a heavy dose of atmosphere
Cause I'll doze off safe and soundly
But I'll miss your arms around me
I'd send a postcard to you, dear
Cause I wish you were here

I'll watch the night turn light blue
But it's not the same without you
Because it takes two to whisper quietly
The silence isn't so bad
Till I look at my hands and feel sad
Cause the spaces between my fingers
Are right where yours fit perfectly

I'll find repose in new ways
Though I haven't slept in two days
Cause cold nostalgia chills me to the bone
But drenched in vanilla twilight
I'll sit on the front porch all night
Waist deep in thought because when
I think of you I don't feel so alone

I don't feel so alone
I don't feel so alone

As many times as I blink
I'll think of you tonight
(Tonight, tonight, tonight...)

I'll think of you tonight

When violet eyes get brighter
And heavy wings grow lighter
I'll taste the sky and feel alive again
And I'll forget the world that I knew
But I swear I won't forget you
Oh if my voice could reach back through the past
I'd whisper in your ear:
"Oh darling I wish you were here"

How could those songs even be in the same genre?! And notice their places in the charts!

First of all, there's hardly any repetition in Young's song compared to Mars'. "Vanilla Twilight" tells a story; this song paints more of a picture or dream. He talks about missing someone badly, staying up and thinking about her non stop. Not only do the actions he states in this song speak his message, but the imagery he creates is so enticing and, in a way, intoxicating. You see a sweet, vanilla twilight. You see him looking off into the sky, fumbling with his hands, on his front porch. And that's what I love. That you feel dream like qualities coming from Owl City's songs while still producing a strong emotional connection or proving a message quite well. In this case, he proves that he misses this girl passionately and with every fiber of his being.

So what do you get from Mars' song? Sex with this girl makes him feel amazing and makes him feel like he had a religious experience. I mean, that's basically all we can say about these lyrics: they don't have much diverse language and the meaning is pretty clear cut, that he deeply enjoys (no pun intended?) having sex with her and that's that. To be fair, his new album that this song is from is called Unorthodox Jukebox and I'm assuming that the other songs on this album are similar to it. I know and realize not all pop songs are like this but it is becoming the trend more and more these days where songs are not poetic and just state the (usually bad) purpose of the song. It's more the sameness of songs today rather than the subject quality that I actually don't like. Equally as important as the music are the lyrics and both are starting to become less sophisticated and beautiful. In fact, I recently saw this great picture on Twitter about this exact same topic:

"Gangnam Style" kind of proves that you can make a song that people don't even understand and as long as it can be danced to and makes you feel somewhat energized or happy (or even you could like it because it's so bad or weird), it will succeed; this is sad. If you have a more simple song (like a pop song; I discuss that later), the lyrics should make up for it. That's why there are no lyrics for Chopin's Nocturne in Eb Major or Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata because they paint a picture and invoke strong feelings in people; lyrics aren't necessary. When you have just simple chord progressions in a song, it's necessary to put somewhat meaningful lyrics into it or else it just states a simple fact or feeling and is somewhat devoid of any meaning or feeling.

Another thing I wanted to touch on to is while I was listening to these songs everyday, I wondered why it was so addicting? Was it the chords, the tempo, the melody, the instruments? So I set off to find out. Although all of the things I mentioned above contribute to the addictive nature of these songs, I thought most likely it was the chords so I went a found all of the chords (I only did the choruses or repeating parts of the songs) and put them in their scale degree numerals. If you don't know what this means, it is basically what note (but technically chords) in the scale is being played. Example: IV (or four) in the the key of C (or just on the note C itself) is F (count up, C, D, E, F). Scale degrees numerals are the basis of basically any piece of music and it's easy to do for pop songs since they have simple melodies and thus simple chords. I did this for every song in Ocean Eyes:

1. Cave In


2. The Bird and the Worm

I iii vi V I iii vi V IV vi I V... (Da Da Da) I V IV

3. Hello Seattle

Uses same four chords basically the whole song


4. Umbrella Beach

IV I vi V (variation of this)... I V IV of IV IV

5. The Saltwater Room

IV I IV I vi V...

6. Dental Care

IV I V IV I V... vi IV V vi IV vi I..

7. Meteor Shower

I vi IV I IV I

8. On the Wing

IV I V (Pretty much repeats the entire song)

9. Fireflies

IV I V IV I iii IV IV I IV V vi IV I (V of V or V)

10. The Tip of the Iceberg

I IV V vi... (and variations on these chords)

11. Vanilla Twilight

I V vi IV I V vi IV I V ii IV

12. Tidal Wave

IV I IV I V (repeat)... IV I vi V

So, what does all of this data mean? You may have noticed I bolded and underlined every instance where there was some sort of succession of the chords "I V vi IV". 50% of the songs in Ocean Eyes are based on this chord progression.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a video called "Will We Every Run Out of New Music?" by Vsauce (I highly suggest you watch it; it was well done, interesting, and very informational) and it mentioned this other video called "The Axis of Awesome: 4 Chords Official Music Video" which talks about how the chord progression "I V vi IV" is almost a hackneyed progression used in modern music. They mash together 47 popular songs and I suggest you watch it:

This shows how much humans gravitate towards that sound. Maybe it's that there's two good sounding chords, then we're brought to minor chord, making us want a release from that tension, and finally a good sounding chord follows, but not the tonic (the first, original note) so that makes us want more. It's like a reward but a tease at the end. It's the same effect you get from a drug which makes sense because some of this music is positively drug like.

But what about the all of the other songs that don't use this progression? Look above and you'll notice that most of the songs (the ones that I only bolded) are based around the chords
I, IV, and V. These are the basic good chords that are the base of simple music. The IV and I sound produce the "A-men" sound that is very common in hymns and the V is the dominant chord, the second most important chord other then the tonic. Here's a video on Youtube teaching about chord progressions in which, in the first part of the video, a guy makes a chord progression and variates upon it using the I, IV, and V chords.

On an interesting note (pun intended), my favorite song from the album is "The Bird and the Worm" which is interesting because it has the most unique chord progression in the entire album. Maybe it has something to do with me liking it so much...?

But anyway, all of this applies not just to Owl City's music, but for much of the musical world. Throughout history, people from all around the world have used these basic notes to make music themselves and it's used in much of the musical world today.

This is not a bad thing. I am not discriminating the use of simple melodies and songs because sometimes those are the best kind. I am not saying that all music must be complex and sophisticated because it shouldn't.

However, it shouldn't be in the direction we're putting it towards today.

More and more music is getting simpler and very similar to each other. So simple that two or even only one chord will be used in a song and that the song itself relies on the beat guiding it. The sole purpose of the song is to provide a beat to dance to. I'm also not saying this is wrong; we should have music to dance to. But all dance music should at least have some musical substinence and not just focus solely around a beat. And also lyrics are getting more pushed to the side and have less meaning. With rap the lyrics are mostly dictated by the beat. Rappers are forced to rhyme with the last line (sometimes with weird or even comical results) and say the words incredibly fast to stick with the ever important rhythm. And, in my opinion, rap just sounds bad to the ears.

I've unfortunately seen this trend in Young's latest music.

After listening to Ocean Eyes an umpteen amount of times, I decided to check out his other albums to see what they had to offer, because after all I loved Ocean Eyes and assumed that his other music couldn't be too different.

I came across his most recent album called The Midsummer Station. As I scrolled through the reviews on iTunes about this album, lots of people commented on how awesome it was. I especially saw a lot of comments about it being great to dance to, which was fine, but had me worried. Was Young's music becoming more mainstream and just made to dance to? Then I saw some disappointed reviews and saw what I had feared: they had said Young had lost some of what had made him special. Some people said his music was lacking those beautiful, poetic, quirky lyrics and losing some of the beautiful synth work that they were more accustomed to. I went out to see how much it had changed. Just listen to his latest single "Shooting Star":

You know what I instantly thought of after watching this? Katy Perry's "Firework":

After listening to both, you can see how Young is starting to conform more to more popular artists. The tempos of both songs are exactly the same. Young is also starting to use more of a beating rhythm and is definitely putting less effort into in synths. Lastly, he has a very similar, trite message to "Firework": just be yourself and go be adventurous. Let yourself shine, whether via a firework or a shooting star. And it almost seems like Perry's lyrics are more sophisticated than Young's. Look at the lyrics:

Close your tired eyes
Relax and then
Count from one to ten
and open them
All the heavy thoughts will try to weigh you down
But not this time
Way up in the air
You're finally free
And you can stay up there
Right next to me
All this gravity will try to pull you down,
But not this time

When the sun goes down and the lights burn out
Then it's time for you to shine
Brighter than a shooting star
So shine no matter where you are
Fill the darkest night with a brilliant light
'Cause its time for you to shine
Brighter than a shooting star
So shine no matter where you are... tonight
Woah, Woah, Woah
Brighter than a shooting star
Shine no matter where you are... tonight

[Verse 2]
Gaze into my eyes when the fire starts
And fan the flame so hot it melts our hearts
All the pouring rain will try to put it out,
But not this time
Let your colors burn and brightly burst
Into a million sparks that all disperse
And illuminate a world that will try to bring you down,
but not this time


A thousand heartbeats beat in time
And makes this dark planet come alive
So when the lights flicker out tonight
You gotta shine


Comparing this to "Vanilla Twilight", you can see how much more generic and less poetic these lyrics are getting. The best part lyrically in the entire song is Verse 2 but it's nothing compared to "Vanilla Twilight".

This song isn't bad; in fact, it's quite good compared to other pop songs today. But I'm just sad that Young is starting to conform to general pop music and not do his beautiful lyrics and synth melodies that made him stand out and made me like him in the first place. If all of his new songs are going to be like this, I'm not really that interested. I believe this was his first non-solo album so maybe others influenced him? Hopefully, this is just a phase for him. I'm not saying he should go back to his old style of music because as an artist, you should do whatever music you feel like doing in your heart. However, his old style of music was just so unique and so much better and I hope someday he will do more songs like in Ocean Eyes.

Looking at Owl City and other popular music of the day, it is clear that lyrics are becoming more and more irrelevant and less thought out and meaningful. Although it is fine to listen to dance songs, dubstep (heck, I listen to dubstep sometimes), or rap and the like sometimes, it is not fine to make that your sole or primary musical choice. If all you listen to is meaningless lyrics and songs with a "good beat", then you're missing the whole point of music. The point of music is to invoke emotions. If all you're getting is an adrenaline rush from the pounding of the drums and the sounding of the good chords, you're listening to music very wrongly.

And most of this probably applies to my generation. I know I will sound 20 years older when I say this, but kids these days just aren't appreciative of music before their time. Maybe some kids are, but that's not what I observe in my day to day life. And maybe it's generally like that with most kids. Maybe kids in the 80's groaned whenever their parents cranked up the Beatles or Elvis and went on listening to Kiss through their Walkman headphones. I don't know. But my point is don't get just sucked in to popular music. Although most popular music is fine and well done, listen to other more substantial music too because if you're not, then you're missing a big, beautiful part of life.

- Aidan

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