Listen Up: If This is the Decade of Glorious Musical Autonomy, Why do I Keep Hearing That Owl City Song?
As the first tenth of our new century draws to a close, humankind is still waiting on the jet-packs we were promised nearly sixty years ago. Still, this is the decade we got the iPod, so it's almost a wash, right?
I should say, though, that perhaps it was all a matter of the iPod getting us, filling a need I'm not sure we even knew we had—the desire to listen to pretty much any song in our own personal music libraries at any given time. But the iPod said we could have it and so we wanted it, and with it came the growing social acceptance of closing ourselves off from the world with two carefully tucked-in white earbuds. This act was nothing new—the Walkman and its spawn had been closing us off in much the same way for more than twenty years already. But with the iPod's capacity for thousands and thousands of songs and hours of battery life, we could seal ourselves off almost completely in a glorious musical cavern deeper than ever before.
In a way, the iPod's promise was greater than any flame-fueled personal transportation technology: If you had one, you'd never have to hear a song you hated ever again. You could tune out every outside source of noise, become completely musically autonomous. You'd be a rock, you'd be an island, and if you really didn't care for that particular Simon & Garfunkel song you'd never have to worry about it popping up in your life and making you run screaming from whatever grocery store or elevator you might be in.
This was the iPod's promise, but as we look back on the decade that gave it (and so much else) to us, let's not forget that it didn't completely follow through. Perhaps this failure is more attributable to user error—the iPod never forgot to charge itself, never lost itself in anyone's laundry hamper for a weekend, never accidentally wiped itself of all its files and left you only with Johnny Cash's Greatest Hits for the month it took you to rebuild your library. No, we deserve the blame for all such occasions. But for me, the iPod has often asked for more than I've been willing to give.
Three incidents from my recent life nicely illustrate this conundrum, and all of them involve the same song—“Fireflies” by Owl City. Perhaps you've heard of it. The band is basically this one guy, Adam Young, who started making music a few years ago in his parents' Minnesota basement and, in early November, had the #1 song on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. (At this writing, it had dropped to a lowly #3.) If you didn't know of him because of that, you probably know of him because he's been hailed as both the second coming of and a flagrant coattail-rider of The Postal Service, that dearly-beloved album-by-mail one-off side-project of Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard and Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello. Young himself shrugs off both of those accusations, telling EW that the band “never really caught his ear.” Fine. Whatever. I might be more inclined to care about whether or not he is or is not ripping them off if I could actually manage to sit through the three-minute, 48-second duration of the song without having to resist the urge to do something unspeakable to myself and/or any other bodies, human or otherwise, in my general vicinity.
Several things about this song make me angry. Musically, it has always reminded me more of the soundtrack to all the underwater levels in Super Mario World than any Postal Service song. Lyrically, it's insufferable—dim-witted and vague and blandly cute. But the fiery, molten-lava core of my fury rages and boils when Young comes to the second chorus, which contains the lines, “I'd get a thousand hugs / From ten thousand lightning bugs / As they tried to teach me how to dance.” To understand how I feel when I hear these words uttered in this song please just imagine yourself experiencing exactly what is described in that chorus: A thousand hugs, not just from anyone—not your mom or your boyfriend or your dear darling aunt Hilda—but from ten thousand lightning bugs. Young does not specify whether these are individual hugs or if they are administered en masse, but either way, that is just appalling. Picture it: Ten thousand bugs crawling and clinging and cleaving to your body—ostensibly teaching you how to dance but probably just getting all up in your nose and in your ears and down your shorts and in all sorts of places you do not want bugs to go—hugging you not once, not twice, not one hundred times, but one thousand times each.
If you're not so hot with the brain-maths, that's ten million lightning bug hugs.
To Fark commenter GypsyJoker, who read my recent, rather hyperbolic blurb on the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack and deduced, “Rachel [sic] Maddux obviously cuts herself,” let me reassure you: I don't, but this song sure makes it tempting.
I haven't loathed a song like this in quite some time, and so of course it follows me everywhere. It's not just that it's popular—I haven't heard “Empire State of Mind” or “Bad Romance” out anywhere in the wild, and was never so lucky as to be aurally stalked by Beyonce's “Single Ladies” when it was in the same Hot 100 position this time last year. I don't know what it is. I do know that at one point a few paragraphs back I was making some point about iPods, though, so on with it.
Three recent occasions on which my iPod has not swooped in to save me from music I did not want to hear:
About a month and a half ago. I am sitting at my desk at work. The office is almost totally quiet, which is a rare but blessed occasion as I generally work better in silence. But out of nowhere, the gently maddening opening strains of “Fireflies” fills the air like so many twinkling, maniacal—well, you know. The culprit is my boss, Paste editor-in-chief Josh Jackson. He has not yet decided that Freelance Whales is his preferred Postal Service replacement band, and I have not yet convinced him of the truly frightening implications of the above mentioned insect orgy. I begrudgingly don my headphones, queue up some other song on my iTunes (a proxy for iPod, in this case), and press play. I can still hear “Fireflies” over my music, so I turn it up louder, at which point it becomes almost more difficult to work than if I was still listening to Owl City. What am I supposed to do, kill my eardrums and my productivity for four minutes just so I don't have to hear the song? I cut my music off, ride the song out, and breathe a sigh of relief when the office falls silent again.
A few weeks ago. I am sitting at a sandwich shop having lunch with my boyfriend. The restaurant's satellite radio plays in the background as we eat and talk, and all is fine until “Fireflies” starts dribbling out of the speakers. What am I supposed to do, keep my iPod and headphones with me at all times and just throw them on whenever this song comes on, just to protect myself? I try to avert my attention, making really intense, unbroken eye-contact with my boyfriend and talking louder and faster—like you do when you see someone out that you really don't want to talk to and who you hope doesn't notice you either, you know?—but it's no match for the song, which pulses and whines in my ears for its miserable duration. Perhaps my boyfriend would've looked at me less funnily if I'd frantically pulled on headphones and started blasting some other song in defense. Ah, well. When it's over, another sigh of relief.
A week and a half ago. I'm driving in my car, listening to the radio because my cell phone needs to charge in the same plug that powers my iPod adapter. I'm stopped at a red light, my windows down, enjoying a sunny afternoon and some noise-rock on Album 88, when a rusty blue pickup truck pulls up at the light alongside me. The truck's windows are cracked too, and over the sound of my fuzzy college radio wafts the sound of “Fireflies.” Not just any part, but that particularly eye-clawing second chorus. And not just “wafts,” really—this guy has his radio up all the way, and Adam Young and his little synths outright overpower whatever nameless moody droning my speakers emit. My face contorts in horror and I turn to peer into the truck to see what handyman-type might be voluntarily listening to this song, but I pull away at the last second, not sure if I want to be confronted with the visage of my enemy. Before I can roll up my window and crank up my own volume, the light turns green and I speed away. What am I supposed to do, keep a—oh, forget it, this is getting ridiculous.
It's ridiculous because of course no one can reasonably expect to go through life hearing only what they want to hear, controlling every last segue of their life's grand playlist. Our iPods make this a somewhat more feasible pursuit (honestly, who knows how many times mine has protected me from “Fireflies” without me even knowing it? Oh, the horror!) but also make it all the more frustrating when we fail. Those minutes spent listening to some song we'd have rather not heard feel like small human tragedies—we think, what could we have done with that time? What old beloved song could we have heard? What new beloved song?
But that's a ruse, too. We need the bad songs to appreciate the good ones, to remind us that there is some value in what we love. We need the bad ones to keep us a little angry so we're always on the search for something better. And we need the bad ones to remind us that we're people and not fully autonomous in any real sense—that we exist as part of families and communities and a culture that throws shit on us that we don't necessarily like, but that is nonetheless part of our collective experience, part of what we just do. We're humans here—humans in the early-dawn hours of a new millennium, still figuring it all out, still needing to be reminded we can't make up false little happy worlds of our own and expect them to go unruptured by cruel reality or crueler pop songs.
That said, if given the choice between never hearing “Fireflies” again in my life and getting everyone an advance on one of those jet-packs—well, we've waited long enough for those things, so what's another fifty years?
Rachael Maddux is Paste’s assistant editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.