We need to talk about OK Go

Ok GoOK Go – they’re like the music video band, right?  Are they even still going?  I see and hear those words every time they release a new video.  For those who don’t know, OK Go are a 4-piece pop band from Chicago.  (Are they really ‘pop’?  I’ll explain why I think so in a minute.)  And they’re famous for music videos which get anything up to 50 million views on YouTube alone.  Despite this, there is a view that they’re not really a proper band.  As a friend said recently: who is actually a passionate fan of OK Go?  Who is really into what they do?  Who even knows what the lead singer is called?  There’s this sense that here is this band who was absolutely the zeitgeist in 2006, and now, 10 years later, they just keep trying to recapture that one moment.  A good example of this view can be read in this blog article entitled Optical Illusions: The Problem with OK Go’s Accidental Legacy.

And yet, for a band that’s sliding into irrelevance, they seem to be doing pretty well.  They’re still written about in newspapers, they’re clearly making money as they own their own record label, and their ‘event’ videos are still getting an average of 20 million views.  True, some people are probably watching these videos more than once, but just to put it into perspective, that’s quite a bit more than the populations of Denmark, Finland and Norway combined.

But I want to go a bit further than to say they’re successful.  I believe them to be the best pop band around.  Certainly one of the most consistently innovative, one of the most talked about, and one of the most influential – directly and indirectly.  (I’m talking specifically about pop bands here.)  I’m going to go further still, and suggest that they’re at the forefront of a new wave in popular music.  Or perhaps it’s a very old wave, but as usual I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me backtrack…

First, I call them a ‘pop’ band – aren’t they really a rock band?  4-piece guitar bass drums type deal?  I think they may have started out that way, but stylistically I think they have much more in common with the ‘Pop’ movement that started in art in the 1950s and moved into music a decade later: bright coloured, of the moment, easy to sing along to, easy to dance to, upbeat (if occasionally melancholic), uninterested in the past, and inclusive.  This is not music for the beard-stroking indie elite who are only interested in bands you’ve never heard of.  This is a band that wants to write songs that you’ll sing in the shower.

I came to OK Go fairly late.  Well, I came to every new musical release after about 2003 late, when I developed an interest in traditional music that meant that before long I hadn’t heard any music that wasn’t (a) on the radio when I was a teenager or (b) written before about 1910.  I probably saw their famous treadmill video – their first viral success – and dismissed it as an internet gimmick.  The first video I remember seeing was ‘The Writing’s On The Wall’, which I found interesting, but also kind of depressing: ‘Shit. Is this the level bands need to go to get noticed these days?’  The video that really made me take notice was this one:

Firstly because to me this was a whole new level: shooting a video in zero gravity, in a single take.  And secondly because I really liked the song.  I’m one of those people that listens to lyrics, and always feel a bit disappointed if I don’t feel there’s any kind of story going on, even if it’s completely abstract.  This one felt like it had a story:

“So when you met the new you
Were you scared?
Were you cold?
Were you kind?
Yeah when you met the new you
Did someone die inside?”

And that led me to a critical evaluation of their back catalogue.  Forget the videos for a moment, and listen to the songs.  They’re very varied, leaping from a Weezer guitar riff style to the indie disco of Franz Ferdinand to out and out Jackson Five dancefloor boogie.  The arrangement and production of their songs is crisp and punchy and always hits the mark.  Lead singer Hayden Christensen has a suitably distinctive voice.  And the songwriting, particularly the lyrics, are great too.

To begin with, I felt that maybe the downside was that yes, there was too much energy put into making the videos, and not enough on the emotional content of the song.  Maybe it was a bit shallow?  But then I realised that no, this is a style of pop that is aiming for very universal songs that don’t get too bogged down with specifics.  They’re not Suzanne Vega, or even the wry mock-shallowness of the Magnetic Fields.  They don’t really do soul searching in songs – and not everyone has to!  Instead the emotion creeps up on you: “And yeah, I still need you. But what good’s that gonna do? Needing is one thing. And getting’s another.”

And that’s why I feel that this is fundamentally a pop band.  The videos, the songwriting style, the dancing, the bright colours.  It’s all about the Now, the present, the moment.  And a really good example of all of this coming together, I think, in a song with time signature jumps and unusual sounds and a deeply catchy chorus – as well as an eye-catching video, it goes without saying – is this song:

Now, I mentioned earlier about how I thought OK Go were at the vanguard of a new wave, that was possibly an old wave.  I’ll explain what my mean, with a (very) potted history of popular music in the English-speaking world (I would do the wider world but I don’t know enough about it).  In the beginning, there was Latin.  When the offspring of King Alfred founded England it was a Christian country and part of the Roman Catholic empire, and this meant that, to begin with at least, not a great deal of English popular music was written down because the people who could write generally weren’t that interested in ‘the common chatter’ that wasn’t in Latin.  This changed with the arrival of Protestantism, the rise of the English language and with the printing press, and low and behold – really quite quickly – the English music business was born.  Songs, ballads, political pamphlets, pornography and basic journalism were sold on cheap printed sheets called ‘broadsides’.  And there were publishers who made a ton of money commissioning these songs and their performers, in a way we might recognise today.  Broadsides were eventually replaced by printed piano score sheets, and eventually mass-produced ‘records’ came along.

Now, during this time there clearly were musical composers and performers who became big stars, but none big enough so we remember them.  In fact, the precursors to the Elvis Presleys and John Lennons of yesteryear were not musicians – in the 17th and 18th centuries they were poets, and in the 19th century they were novelists.  And my theory is that this happened because, to put it bluntly, that was where the money was.  Poems were written with a lot more care than broadsides, and books by the likes of Byron and Wordsworth sold a great deal.  A generation or two later, writers like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens cannily used their business acumen as well as their literary genius to sell novels by the cartful.  In the music business, on the other hand, it wasn’t enough to just be a great musician.  You needed to specialise, to be able to find a particular thing you were really good at, and corner the market at it.  Which is why the history of English popular music is so fragmented.  It wasn’t so much that there were different ‘genres’ of music so much as completely different functions of it: church hymns, parlour ballads, drinking songs, military marches, operattas, and so on.  With the arrival of the recorded ‘album’, however, it became the turn of music to rake in the cash.  This one product was so popular that even the lesser ranks of artists who made them could become household names.  And from around the 1940s to the 1990s it was perhaps the dominant artform in terms of mass appeal.

We all know what happened next.  The rise of the internet and the digitisation of music meant that the money was just knocked out of the music business.  And OK Go were right at that transition point.

In fact, if you want to really get a sense of what the OK Go phenomenon means, I think it makes sense to compare them to another pop band that, a generation ago, seemed to be equally ubiquitous, and constantly talked about, and constantly trying to catch that zeitgeist.  U2 started at a time when popular music had become so sacred that, as with poetry and the novel before it, you had to show it respect.  You had to constantly reference previous giants like Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols… because if you didn’t show that you were intimately aware of the lives and works of the Greats, how could you ever learn enough to be great yourself?  And few embraced that idea as tightly (and, at first, effectively) as the four Irish lads who all went on to become household names (yes, even Adam Clayton, the bass player, became famous for going out with supermodel Naomi Campbell).  And they had larger than life names, like Bono and The Edge.  They made endless grandiose gestures in their songs and their videos, until they realised they were seen as being a bit ridiculous, and then they embraced the irony of the 90s and started to make fun of themselves a bit.  It’s easy to forget how hugely hugely successful they were: they were the big guns of the music business.  And looking back now, if you had decided to make a manual entitled ‘how to be a John Lennon for the 80s and 90s’ then you might find that Bono had followed every step of it.  And they did everything they were supposed to do.  They were Rock, they were macho.  They did big anthemic songs — and knew they would never really be cool but they were still careful not to fall too far from the graces of the musical press.

I rather liked U2 actually.  I think they did some great songs.  But I get the sense that when the music business party stopped and the lights got turned on, they were the ones who everyone could see standing in the middle of an empty dance floor.  Which was perfectly encapsulated in ‘iTunes-gate’, when they joined forces with Apple to automatically download their new album into every Apple user’s iTunes account, whether they wanted it or not.  Iggy Pop neatly summed up the problem with them, and their insatiable desire to ‘be huge’.

To me, OK Go are the natural successors to U2.  Even the name feels similar.  And yet the big difference, I believe, is that OK Go are part of a movement that don’t want to be huge, and that aren’t as in awe of the monsters of rock as previous generations, because these monsters now seem more like dinosaurs.

OK Go’s argument with their record label in 2006 about whether they should put their songs on YouTube for free was perhaps one of the warning shots of the coming rout.  What the record label, and that Optical Illusions article at the top of the page, didn’t want to appreciate is that videos can be the art, and not just a promo for the art.  In fact, lead singer Mark Hamill wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he very clearly and concisely explained how the business was changing, and how the record labels were failing to act on that change.

And that’s another thing that’s different: how they relate to the press.  Because gone were the days when the PR machine would step in and give the official company line: the singer was actually happy to talk to the guy who wrote that Optical Illusions article, and explain in a down to earth way what the band were about and why.  And that same journalist wrote this up in a new article, with the rather more flattering title of Do What You Want: OK Go and the New Landscape of Artistic Integrity

In fact, the way I see it, OK Go are not actually chasing the zeitgeist at all.  Instead, they are using the viral nature of the internet (which they have a particularly good understanding of) to run their own music business, which is something completely different.  True, they are probably not seen as being as culturally relevant as they were 5 or 10 years ago.  But they don’t need to be.  They’re not U2, and they don’t need to be huge.  They seem, to me at least, to be part of a new generation that believes pop is an artform, and just wants to make great art.

And you can also see the transition in the difference between the video that the record label decided to shoot for their big single:

And the one that they co-directed themselves, that already has all the hallmarks of the OK Go videos we know:

One of the curious contradictions about the old monsters of rock was that they liked to be seen as free spirits who didn’t conform to the rules of society.  But in reality we all knew that they were under the thumb of the record labels, and could be spat out into the street at any moment.  The much more modest and down-to-earth bands like OK Go, on the other hand, are now actually in charge of their own destinies.  How else would they have global careers, and yet the freedom to release this?

And… this?

So.  My theory is that this is the new music business.  Just like the old music business.  You find the aspect of it that you’re most passionate about, and you specialise in it.  You get really really good at that, and you run it yourself and don’t expect the rest of the business to tell you how to do it.

To quote lead singer Damien Skywalker:

“For me it’s sort of all wrapped up in the fact that [when you] look at that [career] arc … it never happened.  The music industry just ceased to exist.  And so, if you were in our band, if you were sitting in the position of someone who wants to live off your creative ideas for a living, we managed to get a double-wind, avoiding the death of the music industry while at the same time getting to chase more creative ideas rather than fewer.  So [if] the public perception is a tradeoff for credibility—[that] we gained so much freedom and so much success—like, how is that a problem?”

* Editor’s note: for the eagle-eyed amongst you who might not share Mr Bell’s sense of humour, he does actually know that singer is called Damien Kulash. He’s just convinced that, based on his physical appearance, Mr Kulash is also one or both of the protagonists from the first 6 Star Wars films.