John Darr | Wednesday, January 29, 2014
If I had an owl for every zero-star review of Owl City on the internet, I could found an actual city of owls. Poor Adam Young is one the least critically respected musicians in America. His whimsical lyrics, straightforward production style and unrestrained pop-tendencies make him a consistent target for “all that is wrong with electronic music” declarations. Even worse, his innocent, bleep-bloop electronica follows in the footsteps of The Postal Service, a revered side project of Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. Even though Young’s music is thematically and structurally different than The Postal Service’s, the comparison is always made. In every comparison, The Postal Service is good. Owl City is evil.
Stumbling upon a plethora of scathing reviews of Owl City’s latest album a couple months ago, I found myself listening to “The Midsummer Station” to see what all the ‘hype’ was about. I couldn’t really figure it out. It was catchy, it was sunny, it was hopeful and it did not sound like the negative 60-degree weather outside. Sure, the production held nothing new or interesting and some lyrics delved into Kraft-level cheesiness, but I didn’t mind. It was if my brain needed a break from the usual ‘artsy’ or ‘quality’ music I often subjected myself to. Owl City was a breath of fresh, albeit sugary, air.
Upon doing more research, I found that “The Midsummer Station” was considered a disappointment by the Owl City fan base. Excited, I drove back deeper into the catalog, jumping straight into “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “Ocean Eyes.” The albums took what I liked on “The Midsummer Station” and amplified them to the point where Owl City exceeded your average pop artist. The production was vivid, colorful and exciting. The melodies were more infectious and numerous. The lyrics were irresistibly optimistic and joyful. The Owl City catalog is the candy shop of the music world — everything shines so bright that it’s hard not to leap from treat to treat.
Yet upon rereading some of Owl City’s less favorable reviews, I realized that most criticisms still held up. Owl City’s lyrics are often overwhelmingly cheesy. The production, while clean and exciting, isn’t experimental or forward-thinking. And the songs are structured like normal pop songs with verses, choruses and bridges.
But it was also clear to me that these criticisms were misguided. Owl City isn’t supposed to be artsy or groundbreaking — it’s supposed to be life-affirming and hopeful and sweet. The lyrics are silly in a sort of ridiculously magical way, sweeping a listener off into an alternate world where life is more straightforward and focused on love, happiness and being yourself. It’s about finding the brightness in everyday things and the power in the imagined. What could be healthier for a person to listen to?
I can still remember the day I downloaded “Fireflies,” Owl City’s breakout single, in seventh grade. I would listen to it all the time, especially before I fell asleep at night. The magic held me more powerfully then — Owl City wasn’t famous enough to draw the negative attention I’d soon encounter. That enchantment was severely damaged when the single became famous and Pitchfork, my favorite music website, ripped it to shreds. I abandoned it because the innocence and joy it held were ridiculed and made uncool.
Thankfully, Adam Young is a musician whose mission is to counter that negative force. No matter what is considered ‘valuable’ or ‘high-quality’ in the music scene, Owl City will be making music to inspire happiness and celebrate simple things in life. Owl City has a lot to offer that critics ignore, even scoff at. Sure, if you’re looking for the next great existential experience or the next milestone in music history, then Owl City is to be ignored or set aside. But if you’re just in search of a sunny day, a good time or just some hope in the storm, Owl City is the brightest star out there. As one of my great friends once said: “Yeah, sunglasses make you look cool. But if you’re looking for the light, be a real man and take them off.”
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.