So, some people seriously hate Owl City—and I understand why. Musically, Adam Young’s pop hit generator isn’t often complex, even with time to mature after its glory days on the Top 40 charts. Lyrically, I read an article recently where the kindest review was that the songs “could make a motivational speaker seem suicidally depressed.”
(Which is funny but SO TRUE. Like, if you froze the laughter of unicorns and put it into a blender with fresh sunshine and synth, you’d get an Owl City smoothie.)
When thinking about why I don’t have the same violently negative reactions to Owl City that some critics do (and why I sometimes feel ashamed admitting that I don’t) my immediate thought was Citizen Kane, probably because I watched it this weekend. The classic film deals with a man so unlike Adam Young’s lyrical persona that you’d only overlay the credits with one of his songs if you were making a parody.
(Do you need to warn people about spoilers for a movie that is over seventy years old and consistently named as one of if not the greatest American films of all time? If your answer to this hypothetical question is “Yes,” then skip the next three paragraphs because it gives away the movie’s ending.)
In the movie, we are taken through an investigation of the life of Charles Foster Kane, billionaire newspaper magnate, basically watching him use and discard everyone around him. In each scene, a reporter interviews those people, seeking to find the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud.” After finding nothing, the reporter reasons, “Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost.”
In the last few minutes of the film, the audience—but none of the characters—realize that “Rosebud” was the sled that young Charlie played with before his carefree childhood ended and his parents sent him away from them.
So the reporter was right after all. Kane lost his innocence and security of being loved that day, and he spent the rest of his life trying—and failing—to get it back, often in terribly selfish ways.
Here’s the point: it occurred to me that most of us relate more to Charles Foster Kane and his life than we do to Adam Young and his songs. We’d rather assume the worst of people than idealize them. We are afraid of being hurt or abandoned. We know it’s cool to seem aloof and rational and independent. We’re more comfortable with cynicism than joy.
Again, feel free to critique Owl City’s musical ability or the “sameness” of many of his songs. If you like, you can flood the comments with technical analysis, and I will probably agree.
But the reason I don’t mind is this: almost every Owl City song is about Rosebud.
Unlike Kane, who pursued what he lost and couldn’t get (which was his own prideful fault), Owl City songs are about love and innocence found or maintained or remembered. The narrator of his songs has a childlike happiness. He’s not afraid to love, and even love foolishly. He doesn’t take simple things for granted. He’s not weighed down by the drama and trauma that we mistakenly define as all that “real life” means.
Instead of going for gritty noir or stark realism, Adam Young is talking about playing in his basement as a kid, pointing out the scenic details of various places he’s traveled, making bad puns about dentistry, praising the people he loves, and dancing with fireflies. And, critically valuable or no, I appreciate that.
Is life “always a good time”? No. Of course not. And it’s silly to put those songs on a loop in an “Everything Is Awesome” Lego Movie sort of way.
We need fugues and laments and hymns in minor key. We might even need breakup songs and cautionary tales and rallying cries for difficult issues facing us today.
But I think it’s good to have a reminder of the small joys in life too. Without those voices, it becomes easy to accept a distorted and incomplete story about the world: that failure is inevitable and terrible things happen to good people and love isn’t worth the risk and all heroes fall and the only one you can really count on is yourself.
I don’t want to be trapped in that story or feel threatened by art that is simple-but-earnest just because it’s got a happy ending (and sometimes beginning and middle).