Carbon Copies: The Problem with the Epic Party Song
    • MONDAY, FEBRUARY 04, 2013

    • Posted by: Dorit Finkel

    The idea of a life-changing party existed long before 80s movies or pop music (see: The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet), but it wasn't until these supposedly magical moments were captured on dumb films with carefully crafted soundtracks that the idea truly emulsified into something sellable. With the right background music, any mundane activity can seem to align the planets, and the current generation of pop rock is taking full advantage.

    MGMT's "Time To Pretend" captured perfectly the Peter Pan psychology of being stuck in nostalgia mode and facing an adult life of avoiding responsibilities and having a perpetual good time: "This is our decision, to live fast and die young/We've got the vision, now let's have some fun/Yeah it's overwhelming, but what else can we do?/Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?" Ironically, the song turns out to be about how escapism in adult life ends up feeling as suffocating as the monotony we were trying to avoid, but I'll be damned if that was how people felt about it when it was played at parties. The song made us feel like our parties were a declaration of our independence, that by drinking beer and making out we were somehow part of a revolution. And, whether or not they were being ironic, MGMT started a trend.

    Recently, Portlandia aired an episode called "Take Back MTV" in which two characters tried to write a protest song for the current generation of jobless artists, but no matter what kind of song they tried to write, it always turned into a generic techno chorus of, "Change the world one party at a time!" It was a perfect crystallization of the problem we're currently facing in pop music: no matter how significant we try to make our parties sound, they're still just fucking parties.

    And the worst part is, the very corporate entities that are ridiculed in these songs are fully aware of the commercial value of an "epic party." I first heard Fun's "We Are Young" in a car commercial, so I might be a little biased, but the idea seemed very straightforward: we're young, we're fun, and we're having a meaningful party in this car (or this beer, or these jeans, or whatever). The topic is so intrinsically vapid that you can stick anything in there and make it sound like this item changed your life that one magical night. This genre, it seems, is an advertiser's dream come true.

    Then there are songs like Passion Pit's "Take A Walk" and Foster The People's "Don't Stop" which, like "Time To Pretend," talk about the problems of adult life amidst unrelenting synth riffs and pounding drums, and return to the classic refrain of escapism. Perhaps they're not as straightforward as "We Are Young," but when you play them at a party, no one can tell the difference.

    No one is more guilty of whoring out the epic party than Ke$ha, ironically or not. The chorus of "Die Young" goes: "Lookin' for some trouble tonight?/Take my hand, I'll show you the wild side/Like it's the last night of our lives/We'll keep dancing 'til we die." Our first reaction, of course, is that Ke$ha makes trashy, terrible music that we wouldn't play at a party. But if you listen to one of her choruses closely and imagine some doll-faced dude with a keyboard singing into an effects-ridden mic, is it really that different than what's on our iPod? The god-awful One Direction song "Live While We're Young" sounds eerily like a more bubblegum version of exactly what's playing on alternative rock stations.

    Don't get me wrong: I love parties as much as the next person, and we're always in need of new music to dance to. But bands and listeners take heed: at this point, putting a string section, persistent echoing synth, and crashing bass drum in your dance jam does not make it especially important. Being young, directionless, and loving to party is nothing new (what do you think they were doing in The Great Gatsby?), but if we keep singing about parties as these life-changing events, what happens when we really do experience something significant in life, something truly worthy of an epic song? By then, we may interpret these sonic cues as mundane or commercial. Just look at what happened to the "epic" guitar solo. Even Kelly Clarkson has one of those.

    The song that started it all: MGMT's "Time To Pretend"

    The song that's cashing in: Fun's "We Are Young"

    The song that sounds like everything else: Passion Pit's "Take A Walk"

    The shameless pop version: Ke$ha's "Die Young"

    The song that you don't really want to hear: One Direction's "Live While We're Young"

    The perfect comedic criticism: Portlandia's "One Party At A Time"

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