MGMT: The Management Is Still In Charge
MGMT’s first appearance on the music scene was as unexpected as it was uncompromising. Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser showed up at a Wesleyan University college party as an inauspicious duo called “The Management,” playing nothing but a continuous loop of the Ghostbusters theme song for hours. The idea was to mock the pop culture music scene, mostly through the uses of irony and satire. Subsequent performances consisted of the boys dressing up in costumes, hitting each other with plastic dinosaurs, and running out of shows for no apparent reason whatsoever. As VanWyngarden explains in an interview for honoluluadviser.com, “We acted like pop stars on our campus of 3,000 people. We would play little living room parties and act like we were playing stadiums. It was all part of the joke.”
Needless to say, some mistook MGMT’s behavior as an insincere attack on the human experience, but the group was mostly just savaging Hollywood and the music industry while having some fun in the process, and a growing body of loyal fans got this. MGMT’s breakthrough came with the release of their 2007 hit album Oracular Spectacular, a manifestation of what most consider the “classic MGMT sound,” with such songs as “Kids,” “Time to Pretend,” and “Electric Feel” defining the group’s early identity. Heavy pop-synth and electro-funk rip through the chord progressions of each song, accompanying a lyrical exploration of themes like self-destructive rock behavior, a longing for the bygone days of childhood, and the myriad traps set by the average American lifestyle.
Despite Oracular Spectacular’s persistently sarcastic tone, sincerity and optimism often define the album’s message. “Time to Pretend,” a song that parodies the fast-paced, glamour-driven pursuits of the average musician, still manages to catch us off guard when it sums up the nostalgic grip we tend to maintain over our early childhood years. So, though we may not identify with the trials of the binge-drinking, model-marrying, heroin-shooting legends of the rock ‘n’ roll genre, we can still find a kind of solace within the lyrics of a song that chronicles all of these in an elegantly melodic, even elegiac, manner.
As often happens with visionary artists, following the success of their first album, MGMT began to develop a much more experimental sound, both lyrically and stylistically, and gradually, the audience morphed, too. Congratulations, released in 2010, represented a more progressive and psychedelic sound than its predecessor. As a result, MGMT’s American fan base dwindled. To Goldwasser and VanWyngarden, alienation had become a familiar feeling since experiencing the rapid success of Oracular Spectacular. They both point out that after the success of their first album, interviewers were disturbingly unified in their anticipation that the next album would fall short of the success that the former had achieved.
In an interview for NME, Goldwasser recounts that Congratulations “was written coming off of a really intense run of touring and we didn’t really give ourselves any kind of a break, so the paranoia and lack of feeling that we were in control, I think that came across on Congratulations a lot. The way that we wrote the music, it was intentionally uncomfortable.” In this way, Congratulations is not a follow-up to their first hit, but an ironic response to all of the initial “congratulations” that had been issued to the band members, given that their success was responsible for the resulting expectation of failure.
In “Flash Delirium,” the musicians sing about feeling overwhelmed by the media response to Oracular Spectacular. Andrew and Ben had become famous directly out of their college dorms, with no idea of the nearly inconceivable success they would encounter. Then, they immediately began feeling intense fan scrutiny during the process of recording their second album. The song that really defines the transition from youthful optimism to bleak cynicism is “Siberian Breaks,” which laments the harsh lessons learned by the musicians about the cost of not meeting someone’s expectations. Here, the band members liken themselves to a “silver jet plane making a turn, exciting the brain that expects it to crash and then burn.” VanWyngarden goes on to sing that “It’s not the life lesson I’d’ve guessed — if you’re conscious then you must be depressed, or at least cynical.” Finally, in a line from the album’s title song, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden express disillusionment with their fanbase, the majority of whom supposedly want nothing but the same poppy sounds of Oracular Spectacular: “But damn my luck and damn these friends, who keep on combing back their smiles.”
None of this has seemed to affect the group’s willingness to push boundaries and deliver honest expression. Their most recent release, a self-titled album that debuted in 2013, accurately reflects the band’s progression through fame in the pop culture arena. Though the title was initially chosen as a joke referencing the trend of bands self-titling their third album, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden admit that the title MGMT lives up to its name. In an interview with Digital Spy, Goldwasser remarks, “I think this is the most comfortable we’ve ever been — it seemed very uninhibited and the whole recording process had a nice flow to it. I think we ended up actually fulfilling [the title].” The album is about finding yourself through experiment and not letting anyone but you define the things you ought to want out of life.
In fact, one could argue that the album traces an Everyman’s personal odyssey in chronological detail. For instance, Track 1, “Alien Days,” underscores the importance of experimentation. The song speaks to the strangeness of being on drugs, along with all of the lessons learned during the period in one’s life when drug use is frequent. It explores the sudden feelings of awareness, compassion and positivity that influence a person during a psychedelic trip, as well as an awareness of the sufferings of others:
Today find infinite ways it could be
It’s a blessing but it’s also a curse
Track 4, “Introspection,” examines the uncertainty of defining identity, asking the question, “What am I really like inside?” The following track, “Your Life Is a Lie,” is a blunt, definitive response to “Introspection.” By the end of the song, both the protagonist and his wife have discovered the shallowness of their lives and gone their separate ways, but the singer at least reassures us that the man will “survive on [his] own.”
Track 6, “A Good Sadness,” explores the loneliness experienced by the now-single protagonist and those unsuccessful attempts we make to mitigate the damage and pain of broken relationships. Track 9 revisits the issue of loneliness by offering the time-honored advice that there are “Plenty of Girls in the Sea,” but this is a cautious, cynical tale:
There’s plenty of girls in the sea
And plenty of clowns in the village
The trick is to try to be free
And tend to the void, don’t just fill it
The bartender concedes, from inside his vest
That none of the best ones were ever the best
So keep it short, simple and sweet
Cause there’s plenty of girls in the sea
Whenever you want there to be
Even though MGMT claims that Congratulations offers a more integral representation of their musical style than does Oracular Spectacular, many industry analysts have interpreted the disparity in album sales between the two releases to mean failure. Regardless, MGMT has proven that success shouldn’t depend on someone else’s approval. Today, the band members focus on impacting the world in positive ways. In a Rolling Stone interview, VanWyngarden says, “I don’t want to be seen as a band that’s just another messenger of a generation that doesn’t really care about what’s going on in the world and just wants to party, which I think we sort of belong to.” The band members emphasize responsibility and a conscientious attitude — when they matter. Otherwise, why take ourselves too seriously since life is short and should be enjoyed as much as possible?