Monday, May 30, 2011

OK Go's Master Plan and Why It Doesn't Quite Work

Up until very recently, the record industry played a dominant role in the music that you and I were exposed to.  This is not news: it has been the case ever since the industry’s inception, when flour companies began to buy air time on radio stations for their sponsored artists.  The role of the industry has been a bane from the artist’s perspective, because the kind of relationships that foster mass airplay are often based less on artistic merit and more on knowing the right person at the right time.  From another perspective, however, mass mediation provides a widely dispersed audience a common ground of experience.  Being a teenager in a certain demographic during the 80s assumes at least a passing knowledge of Duran Duran, children of the 90s relate similarly through Nirvana, and people from opposite sides of the globe can relate to each other through the seemingly omnipresent Beatles catalog.

The advent of MP3, however, sent the record industry scrambling for a new model, and dismantled its ubiquitous narrative.  A new environment exists now in which independent artists have more control over their overall visibility, and the listener who is willing to invest in a little research can find great music by groups whose voices would have never reached past their local scene.  With all voices available through multiple mediums, however, the common ground of musical experience has become more chaotic, at least for me. 

I wonder if it is possible for a singularly influential pop music phenomenon like the Beatles or Nirvana to arise in this new environment.  If so, the visibility of such a group could not be confined to mere record sales, or television appearances.  Instead, they would need a mastery of in all of these mediums and a viral online presence as vehicles for innovation.  OK Go is one of several bands that are creeping towards this model.

Like many, I found out about them through their innovative online presence.  They were among the first to have a self-made video go viral, and they have continued to rely on their low-budget but consistently creative videos to propel their career by centripetally drawing in listeners.  The one that really hooked me was this one.

Of the Blue Colour of the SkyI genuinely never get tired of this video.  I’m a particularly big fan of the guest-starring duck that shows up at 3:17.  I watched and shared End Love enough times that I finally decided to purchase its attendant album The Colour of the Blue Sky, which was the first one by OK Go that found its way into the player.  I was surprised to find that End Love’s obvious homage to Prince spills over into the entire album.  Obviously, they did their homework – check it out this classic with that video still ringing in your ears……

The unfortunate part of OK Go’s strategy is that the album as a whole does not pay off.  The Colour of the Blue Sky is wildly inconsistent.  It starts very strong with WTF and This Too Shall Pass, (both of which have been released with their own infectiously creative videos) followed by several tracks that are obvious filler.  After End Love, it’s almost like OK Go gives up, rendering the rest of the album a tedious listen at best.  Somehow, Prince’s b-sides seem brilliant, but OK Go’s attempts to recreate them seem grating.

If the band could release an album’s worth of material that held the same high standard as “The Colour of the Blue Sky’s” best tracks, I think that their media status would provide them with the clout to be far more influential.  Even so, their work has come to have pretty significant value as cultural currency.  Certainly, many of us common folk get a kick out of talking about them and their videos, which is where a lot of the pleasure found in popular media lies.

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