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10 Years, 100 Songs: #39. “Pick the Insects Off of Plants, No Time to Think of Consequence…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 17, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

First things first here: While it is “Kids” that I decided to write about it for this article, there are two other MGMT songs that could have just as easily slotted into this place on our list. In fact, not since Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair–where I would have trouble choosing between “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Shout” and “Head Over Heels,” even in an all-time list–can I remember one album producing three songs of such stunning (and more important, equally stunning) quality as MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular did last year. “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Kids” are all such sonically wonderous, viscerally exciting songs, that any one of them could’ve served as a career-making, era-marking single all by their lonesome. That MGMT were able to squeeze three songs of that quality on one album–a debut album, no less–surely ranks as one of the greatest musical achievements of the Naughty Oughties.

In fact, I basically let the MGMT song I’d write about here be something of a gametime decision, allowing for any of the songs to move me one way or the other in the interim. I went with “Kids” basically because it had the greatest impact of the three, despite being the last released and the last that I heard or heard of. I remember witnessing a webboard argument around ’08 year-end time where one boarder expressed disbelief at someone including “Time to Pretend” and “Electric Feel” on their singles list but not “Kids,” and I went practically bug-eyed at the notion. You mean there’s another one? One that’s supposed to be even BETTER? I refused to believe it, and listening to it the first time, it seemed like my doubts were well-founded–the song was good, sure, but c’mon, it had nothing on the anthemic psychedelia of “Time to Pretend” or the blacklit disco of “Electric Feel.” But there was something about that synth riff–those ten notes, basically just going up and down the scale–that wouldn’t stop nagging at me, keeping up far after I was done listening to it. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be writing the song off quite so easily.

The thing that really strikes you listening to MGMT these past few years was just how fresh they sounded. They weren’t innovative in any traditional sense, but there’s also no artist I could really easily compare them to. Both The Polyphonic Spree and The Knife are cited as comparable artists on their AMG page; Wikipedia lists them as both “Dance-Punk” and “Folktronica” (whatever that means). None of these are wrong, necessarily, but none get anywhere near the whole picture–especially considering how different the band’s three signature songs sound from one another. The one thing consistent about MGMT’s hits was how gloriously adrenalizing they are, feeling very rock and roll at their core in just how young and excited the songs all sound.

Indeed, he most accurate descriptor of MGMT’s music might be “collegiate”–fitting, as MGMT formed while attending Wesleyan, played a key gig with M.I.A. at Vassar, and currently base out of in Brooklyn, practically ground zero for art-school types past and present. They were kind of like the flipside of Vampire Weekend, the band whose preppiness saw them become (somewhat purposefully) the band this decade most associated with the college setting. While Vampire Weekend earned their uni stripes wearing sweaters, making obscure grammatical references and scamming on Seven Sisters chicks, MGMT were more of the skip class, hang out in the dorms, do lots of drugs and see what household items we can’t turn into an instrument ethos. (I wasn’t really either type in my college days, but I certainly see the latter type as more of my spiritual brethren than the former).

Luckily for MGMT, despite their reckless stoner nature, the group was all business when it came to crafting fanatstic pop songs. Well, not all business, perhaps–they certainly kept that freewheeling, “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” verve in their singles (and they DEFINITELY kept it in their culty, back-to-nature music videos)- but they were shockingly adept at  basic songcraft as well. A lot of the credit probably goes to producer Dave Fridmann–the zen master of American neo-psychedelia, frequent companion of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev–probably didn’t hurt, as he harnessed their high energy and creativity and shoehorned it into these quirky, spectral, but also mercilessly catchy and impressively floor-ready hits. Consequently, the band crossed over on multiple levels and to multiple audiences–not only to modern rock (where “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” were both moderate hits), but to dance (they’ve been remixed by Soulwax, Justice and Pet Shop Boys) and even hip-hop (Jim Jones tried his hand at a verse on “Electric Feel,” Kid Cudi got ’em to guest on his third single, and Jay-Z supposedly originally had a song featuring them on Blueprint 3). Not since Franz Ferdinand a half-decade earlier had a bunch of arty white boys been so universally embraced.

What makes “Kids” arguably MGMT’s finest, longest-lasting moment, is that it gets at the core of the band’s appeal–they indulge their audiences’ basest, most immature impulses, making them feel like…like they’re, well, kids again. “Time to Pretend” was about how much fun (albeit slightly tragic) it was to fake being like rock stars, “Electric Feel” was about an early (first?) sexual encounter, and according to Ben Goldwasser (one-half of MGMT), “Kids” came about as “a result of us being 19 years old, in this fantasy college world, which is a little bit like childhood because you don’t have much responsibility.” I had never thought of it like that before reading the quote, but it instantly made sense to me. “Kids” doesn’t really have a coherent storyline or thematic progression to it, but it just seems to describe the feeling of being young and impressionable and just in awe of everything there is in front of you–which can describe either childhood or university life, possibly depending on your personal experiences.

Either way, it was bound to be relatable on some level, and it seemed to resonate with a whole lot of people, leading to a good deal of high-profile covers. Some were overly sincere (Ben Lee’s acoustic rendition), some were mostly novelty (The Mentalists’ all-iPhone/iPod interpretation), and some were disturbingly natural (Weezer’s live blend of the song with Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” essential stuff for just about anyone), but all were worthwile in their own way–a transmutability that’s a frequent mark of the best kind of song. And really, it all comes back to that riff–that simple, endlessly repeating synth line. I can no better describes what makes it great than explain the appeal of chocolate ice cream or helvetica font. It’s just awesome. If you hear it, you know it, and if you know it, you love it. “Kids” does the listener the favor of not over-using the riff throughout the song, teasing audiences some by holding it back in the verses and bridge–but in truth, it matters little. I keep expecting to get sick of it, and maybe I will someday, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet.

With three songs as good as these–once again, on their debut album–the potential for MGMT going into the 2010s should be as limitless as for any band out there. And it probably is. But the strength of these three songs covers up the ugly secret about MGMT–they’ve yet to write a fourth that was any good, at least not one that could be found on Oracular Spectacular (fourteen-minute, multi-part, non-album single “Metanoia” is fun in its progged-out ridiculousness). The rest of the album is surprisingly worthless, a bunch of boring Bowie-esque ballads and psychedelic retreads, with none of the vivaciousness and originality of the three hits. But of course, if they gave us three more songs like “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Kids”–fuck, if they gave us one more–it’d absolutely be cause for their second album to be one of the most anticipated of the  decade. With sophomore effort Congratulations due in 2010, we’ll find out soon enough. Until then, I’ll continue to immerse myself in the “Kids” synth riff, and feel like I’m eight (or eighteen) again.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids”

One Response to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #39. “Pick the Insects Off of Plants, No Time to Think of Consequence…””

  1. Aly said

    YES. This kids are pioneers. I have been completely in love with them for a long time now. Great to see them on top 40!

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