September 2, 2013

GORDON | Hipster Righteousness

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After finding a mixtape he made for prom in his attic this summer, Brian Gordon ’14 remembers when band MGMT was popular on the radio. Gordon gets excited for the group’s upcoming album, but not for the reason you think. Rummaging through the attic early this summer, I came across the old family CD bin. Amongst the Crosby, Stills and Nash best-hits compilation (my Dad’s) and the 98 Degrees best-hits compilation (my uh… sister’s) was a compact disc with Junior Prom Mixtape sprawled across in red Sharpie. Suddenly, a rush of awkward memories pinched me like a hastily pinned corsage. But for all I’d rather disremember about that night, at least I had this one shining accomplishment: The mixtape. I knew I had composed the perfect soundtrack to the evening’s afterparty. The kind one would be proud to fail to lose his virginity too. “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn and John. “Wake Up” by Arcade Fire. Maybe a little Biggie.

Yet out of all the “in” music circa Spring 2009, only one band truly conquered the mixtape. With five songs on a twelve-track playlist, MGMT was alone on a pinnacle. MGMT released its breakout studio album Oracular Spectacular on January 20th, 2008. Fast-forward two years and the band has sold over three million copies. They have seen their font size increase on summer festival lineup posters, and have played Letterman. Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWynbgarden’s MGMT earns a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 2009. They begin getting solicited to collaborate by the likes of Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Coldplay and U2. VanWyngarden is listed as the third coolest person on the planet by the music magazine NME. The songs of Oracular Spectacular sell Nokia phones and Cadbury chocolates in commercials across the globe. “Kids” makes Chiddy Bang happen. Like my junior prom, French President Nicolas Sarozy’s reelection campaign leans heavily on a MGMT-laded soundtrack, as “Time to Pretend” blasts each time the philandering French politician (redundant I know) hops up to a podium.

Calling the duo’s 2010 follow-up album Congratulations the most anticipated release of the year wouldn’t be hyperbolic.

Calling it the most disappointing album of the year wouldn’t be either.

In Congratulations, MGMT released a question mark of a second album.  It’s similar to Oracular Spectacular only in that both albums utilize the English language.  In Congratulations, MGMT flushes out all residual pop strains leftover from “Time to Pretend”, “Electric Feel” and “Kids”.  They took an award winning, catchy as a cold sound and made it less explicit, less fun and less appealing to whichever bodily impulse drives a person to get up and dance.  To the fans and studio executives expecting more hit singles, listening to Congratulations felt like being punk’d.

I was one of these fans. Listening to Congratulations that first time was like a kid unwrapping a present on his birthday, expecting a shiny red hot wheel convertible, but instead finding he’d received a rusty toy van (albeit a van with weakly acid-laced sour patch kids in the trunk).  While the duo was down to let things get weird in their breakout LP, the follow-up album was a shamanic quest, one without any particularly fascinating visions.  I quickly went through the five-stages of grief, removed MGMT from my Facebook Likes page, and largely forgot about the group.

Now in September 2013, the upcoming release of MGMT’s third studio album has me reconsidering the group’s legacy in a more positive light.  Not because the group’s self-titled new album is a return to Oracular Spectacular-pop form.  From what I’ve heard MGMT is getting even stranger and less commercial with this next album.  For that is the type of band MGMT is; a niche psychedelic pop group that happened to write a handful of mega-pop hits back in college.  Mr. VanWyngarden has stated that Oracular Spectacular “felt very much like a charade,” the subsequent lavish touring experience too much for a group that never wanted “to get as famous as possible.”  The group has said creating their last two albums has been “kind of comforting” and acknowledged that despite the record label’s wishes; they won’t contain a Top 40 hit.

And MGMT is not a band that should make Top 40 hits with Coldplay or Lady Gaga.  That is not hipster righteousness on my part.  I’d want a MGMT-Coldplay collaboration as much as anyone. Yet it would be disingenuous to what the band really is.  While tracks 1-5 on Oracular Spectacular could rival any starting five this side of the Miami Heat, they are not the kind of music the two men of MGMT have said they want to be making.  There’s a good deal of honor in them not trying to pretend that it is, just to satisfy the label executives who want profits and the college students who want to bop to another “Electric Feel” during a pregame.

Not too many musicians could stare down sustained international stardom and opt for comfort over fame.  Not sure I could.  To spur a career trajectory on par (or greater) than Vampire Weekend’s or Passion Pit’s and instead go in the direction of Animal Collective or Of Montreal is refreshingly admirable.  So while their music might have gotten less appealing me and the masses, MGMT has produced a neat life lesson in the process: create, think and act the way you want, despite all pressures to the contrary.

Brian Gordon is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at bgordon@cornellsun.com. Run it Back appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Brian Gordon

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