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MGMT are indie rock's Goldman Sachs

Oracular Spectacular album cover

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You know what sums up a zeitgeist? A new album from the hottest act made of private school educated, upper-middle-class kids obsessed with escapism, entitled Congratulations. Amiright? Nothing’s quite as representative of the Great Recession as MGMT, a band so steeped in reality their callow songs about being famous for the sake of fame actually came true. Just like the dreams of every American came true in 2009… oh wait. Umm… You mean a 9.8 percent unemployment rate isn’t what we as a nation strive for?

The “news” about the new MGMT album is slowly starting to seep through the ‘net, and it’s probably the last thing I would ever want to hear about. At a time when people around the world are struggling to make ends meet, I could care less about a couple of spoiled neo-hippies spending their days surfing in Malibu.

I completely understand the desire for escapism these days, but there’s something about the very essence of MGMT that irritates me to no end. Sure, though not every band I listen to is entrenched in political philosophy, most of it is deeply connected to the realities of human existence. Most tunes I tend to play are devoid of the kind of narcissistic consumerism (more so as in to consume above any concept of capitalism) that MGMT propagates in their music. The fact that this band is somehow representative of an alternative to mainstream rock music is as ludicrous as the existence of AIG employee bonuses and the potential $23 billion in bonuses for folks at Goldman Sachs.

There are other places you can turn to in order to get everything you could ever want to know about the big business bonuses. (I sincerely hope no one is reading this as their source for business news!) However, MGMT’s blatant, well, out-of-step nature with what most folks are experiencing today is something I may be able to speak more eloquently about.

Here’s a little word game. It’s kind of like Mad Libs, except there’s only one way to fill in the blank. Take a section from Matt Taibbi‘s now-famous screed on Goldman Sachs, “Inside The Great American Bubble Machine“:

The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

Now, replace all references to “Goldman Sachs” with “MGMT,” “powerful investment bank” with “hyped-up indie band,” and “money” with “trend chaser” or “hipster.” (Whatever makes it seem funnier.) Make any sense?

Something about MGMT’s sudden rise to fame just never sat well with me. It could be the fact that there are literally hundreds of thousands of talented musicians who spend their free time focusing on honing their art that just never got the same kind of chance, hype and attention that MGMT received. It could be the fact that the band has somehow deceived the hype-driven tastemakers (NME), old people (Paul McCartney) and those still brave enough to cough up $20 for a CD or $100 for a concert ticket into thinking they are the greats of today’s generation. (Last time I checked, MGMT didn’t speak for me.)

Or it could be the fact that the band is outright terrible. There are swathes of consumption-driven lyrics that spin irony into something so post-modern the band members probably can’t wrap their heads around it. Then you have the music, something of so nostalgic in its essence there’s just no feeling left in the notes being played. Combine it all into one “phenomenon” (using the term loosely) which saw the rise of an act so insipid it all demands the question “why?”

It took several years for the group to go from Time To Pretend to Oracular Spectacular, during which time the band sucked what little life was in the slow-burning drone ditty “Time To Pretend” and made it into the droll tune it is today. I remember first discovering the single in a Said the Gramophone post back in ’06. Dan said it best himself:

I saw these guys open for Of Montreal and they sucked. But when I saw the name of their cd, Time To Pretend, I thought it was so honest of them. They don’t play instruments (literally, a guitar hung from strings and they strummed it with a drumstick), they can’t really sing, they just want to be cool, so they buckle down and start pretending. And it’s only fitting that the song of the same name, the only good song on the disc, is actually quite fun to listen to. So pretending is being, and everyone’s wrong about being right. The Wizard of Oz reminds us that we’re all fakers in some way, and MGMT reminds us that if you’re willing to pay, you can have it.

I’m not willing to pay. Why should I, and for that matter, the free world have to pay for the musical mistakes of some Wesleyan kids? Whatever the case may be, my response to such a musical madness will be anything but Congratulations.

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10 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. jpaulgale #
    1

    To be fair, “Control yourself / take only what you need from it” doesn’t exactly “consumerism”.

    I understand / agree with what you mean, but the angle from which you are attacking seems a bit forced to get the Sachs metaphor in there.

  2. jpaulgale #
    2

    * exactly promote “consumerism”.

  3. Leor Galil #
    3

    And this doesn’t promote vapid consumption (?): Let’s make some music/make some money/find some models for wives/I’ll move to Paris/shoot some heroin/and fuck with the stars/You man the island/and the cocaine/and the elegant cars.
    I think all senses of irony in whatever pretense they decided have been lost in a cataclysmic, “Fight For Your Right” trope (where the Beastie Boy’s parody of frat culture went from joke to an account of their existence when the song blew up).

    The metaphor is is forced in the same way that all metaphors are: comparing unlike things. But the same way I see a shameless disregard for the public’s well being in corporate bonuses, I see shameless disregard for the pursuit of music for the sake of making music for the goals of fame and fortune. And while the folks at Sachs are enjoying their bonuses after a little help from tax dollars, the guys in MGMT are relaxing at Malibu after a little help from American conspicuous consumption.

  4. peacebabynow #
    4

    Unfortunately, music has become a means to an end vs. an artful pursuit for many young people. The glorification of the past decadence of rock and roll coupled with the constant media attention given todays musicians has resulted in a population whose ideal job is Rock Star. And the reasoning is ass backwards. On the other side, record executives are seeking, not the cream of the musical crop, but an image they can exploit and mold into “the next big thing” in order to line their pockets. Talent has little to do with it. Just look good and take direction well. That’s not to say there’s no great nationally recognized bands out there, but they’re getting fewer and fewer. True musicians, the gifted people who study their craft, tend to resent being told how to write a song, resulting in a life spent playing the local clubs for beer money at best. Or it forces them into a cover band in order to pay the bills while doing what they love. It also results in a generation of young people who will never know what great music is. That’s a crime against humanity in my book.

  5. kidgenius #
    5

    LMAO wow man…

    From a birds eye view, i think this post has something more to say about the state of mainstream music and American culture as whole… I’ve felt the same exact way for years and i’ve summed most of it up to listening to two teenage girls talking about nothing meaningful. I see that metaphor everywhere I turn too, especially amongst my friends on facebook.

    The sad thing is, no body seems to care about this rampant state of escapism. Its essentially ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Has America really devolved this much, listening to shitty drull music and watching dancing with the stars…WHO THE FUCK CARES!

    As you put it so eloquently, is there really more important things going on than the next big reality tv show or even worse, MGMT…lol?

    Sometimes i wish i wasnt even born on this planet…

  6. Leor Galil #
    6

    All good points, but I really have to wonder: How is that any different from the past few decades? Record companies have always exploited artists for the sake of profit, often going for flavor of the moments over talent. Fortunately, it seems that a lot of the power record companies hold are starting to erode and things are mixing up. It’s exciting. Unfortunately, they still do hold a majority of power and arms lengths of influence, so when they uncovered the market potential of “indie,” they went after bands like MGMT. So it goes…

  7. Leor Galil #
    7

    I think the issue with escapism is as much a personal decision as a societal impact. Sure, Michael Bay movies collect millions by the baleful, but there are other options out there… And, as I said, there’s nothing wrong with escapism in theory – just as long as that’s not the only connection to others in society. I’ve been known to indulge in a little mindless TV, but I’ll be sure to read the day’s headlines… And it’s not just something affecting America: Big Brother, the dismal reality show that no one watched in the U.S., is a smashing success in the U.K. How can that be? To each his/her/their own!

  8. aysengirit #
    8

    I personally think that “Time to Pretend” was meant to be a satire to the exact situation you have criticized. Yet, they were fortunate (or unfortunate, after seeing such a negative reaction) to make a deal with a big record company, and to continue making their music in their own way. And yes, in addition they “made some money”, should we really blame them??

    I totally get your point about the music industry and agree to some extent. It’s true that we are exposed to musicians and band overrated by the media and forced to make them rich. What I don’t get is why you have chosen MGMT? There are tons of so-called musicians and bands who are not making anything in terms of music but still making millions of dollars. Also, the fame and wealth they got is not even comparable to MGMT. And believe me, “surfing in Malibu” is a very modest leisure time activity when compared to theirs.

    So a little respect would be nice to the band itself and to the fans who are not listening to a band according to its “hipsterness”. We’re not herd animals, right? I truly believe that they are very talented, multi-instrumentalists, writing their own songs, and yes they have improved their live performance since 2006, that’s a good thing, no? Clinging to a show review written in 2006 may not reflect today’s reality.
    What I see in your article is almost a personal hatred towards MGMT. Attacking a band just because its members went to Wesleyan, or because they are “private school educated, upper-middle-class kids” (which I advise you to recheck your facts), is not making your argument more plausible.

    Finally, I honestly advise you to listen to other songs from the album except “Time to Pretend” or “Kids”, you don’t have to buy the album and make them rich, since they are sooo hyped and popular I’m sure you’ll find a friend who has it.

  9. Leor Galil #
    9

    Yes, “Time to Pretend” was meant to be a satire, much like this post was meant to be: for some reason, people take some stuff I write with humor as straight up fact. True, I do dislike MGMT (I’ve heard more than just “Kids” and “Time to Pretend” by the way), but I was using Goldman-Sachs as a metaphor for a more creative way of discussing what I don’t like about them. And the band has taken on this Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right” example: there’s a pretty interesting read there, where the BB’s satire on frat culture eventually manifested itself into more of a truth than a joke as they began to act that way in real life the more the song/band became popular. I can see the same thing with MGMT.

    And yes, they were fortunate to do well and grab a record contract and make some money, etc etc. And yes, there are plenty of other “musicians” out there who are just as bad, if not worse, than MGMT and are making a ton of money (I’ve written about them too – BrokeNCYDE ring a bell?)

    Besides all this, I think you’ve taken real offense to my piece and taken some things out of context. I’m not saying MGMT are bad because they went to Wesleyan or go surfing in Malibu; these are merely descriptions of why I believe they are out of touch with a majority of what Americans are going through. This was another angle for the MGMT/Goldman-Sachs comparison: just as Goldman-Sachs executives are so out of touch they believe it is appropriate to give billions of dollars in bonuses to employees after receiving tax benefits, I feel that MGMT are gloriously nostalgic for the past (music wise, etc) and that’s something that I don’t necessarily look for in a musician. The real point I was making with the “surfing in Malibu” or “upper-middle-class kids” (believe me, I’ve got a friend who knew one of them growing up – no question there) was merely that this is supposedly a band that’s the cream of the musical crop, that is representative of our culture today, and I just don’t feel that it’s that way. To do that, I compared an extreme of relaxation and higher-class society to an extreme of the unemployment reality today as a method to use the Goldman-Sachs metaphor. Nothing more, nothing less.

    The reason I used the quote of the ’06 performance is simply because I still feel that, improvements over time and everything else, the band puts more of an emphasis on image than anything else. In some cases, I feel that works, but MGMT just doesn’t work for me. That quote, I feel, illustrates that, above all, the band places more of an emphasis on “pretending” to play (as it were) than doing it their own way, teaching themselves how to play. For me, it speaks waves about the motives of the band. Since the band became a known item among many of my friends over the years, and a handful have seen them live, I have yet to hear a positive comment about their live set from any friend who has seen them. This summer, I happened to walk by Fenway Park when they were opening for Paul McCartney and what I heard (quite well actually – those Fenway speakers have a lot of juice in them) was, at best, kinda boring.

    I’m hardly criticizing a band because of its “hipster” value. The reason I put “replace money with trend-chaser or hipster,” is because I feel a lot of folks who listen to MGMT aren’t necessarily hipsters, but are trend-chasers. Unfortunately, the definition of hipster is so fluid and changes from person to person, it’s harder to provide some form of description with trend-chaser than hipster. Sure, I could’ve written a five-paragraph screed about that, but it would’ve been off-topic. I consider a trend-chaser to be anything (not necessarily person) that finds the foibles of hipster culture and uses them for some other means (such as, say, American Apparel). This is hardly saying that there are fans out there who are trend-chasers or hipsters listening to the band, but a large appeal of the band (if you picked up any music magazine last year) was that they were the “hot, hip” new band. That appeals to people, sometimes more than the music. I tend to listen to bands that “hipsters” like, and when they get famous I still hold my ground. For example: TV on the Radio has been one of my favorite bands since Desperate Youth and I love them even more today.

    Listen, these are merely my opinions, and yours are your own. I never try to force mine down on others, just try to create conversation and make people look at things in new ways. Clearly I created some conversation with you as you came up with reasons to defend the band. That’s great – I’m glad you can write some well-argued points about the band. I felt like discussing these points in an entirely different fashion, to remove the usual space within which music is discussed and see it in a new light. Not everyone is going to like it, I get that. But I just think it’s odd that some would call me a “dick” or actually seek physical violence for something that’s relatively innocuous. I’ve been upset with things that other folks have written about a band or a politician or anything before, but resort to wanting to slap someone is just beyond me. Usually I’ll just write a response. So thank you for writing a response, I really appreciate hearing your comments and concerns.

  10. aysengirit #
    10

    I do appreciate your response too Mr. Galil. I just wanted to express the points that I do not agree. Sure, these are your thoughts, which I honestly respect.

    Yes I’m aware that I have taken “Wesleyan and surfing” and represented them out of context. I should have put it differently, what I meant is that mentioning the fact they went to Wesleyan, etc. seems to me quite irrelevant with the music a band makes, good or bad. The same has been done to The Strokes when they released their first album, they were accused of being “rich kids”, making album with the help of their rich daddies, etc. That was also something I strongly opposed at that time.

    Although I pretty much agree what you are saying overall about the your point, seeing MGMT (whose music I really value and enjoy) as the prime example in your article have made me overemotional, I believe.


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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