Arts and Entertainment

Owl City, Tame Impala and the art of psychedelic performance

Jordan Javelet

Associate Editor

It’s no secret that Owl City’s popularity fell after “Fireflies” dropped from its position at the top of the charts, the follow-up single “Vanilla Twilight” doing surprisingly little considering its beauty to maintain the momentum created by his first true hit. This is why it surprised me when it was announced that Adam Young, creator of solo act Owl City and the man behind “Ocean Eyes” (2010), “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (2011), “The Midsummer Station” (2012), “Beautiful Times” (2014) and “Mobile Orchestra” (2015), would be going on tour this fall.
I jumped at the chance to see Owl City at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. on October 9, purchasing two tickets and immediately inviting my best friend, Jenna, to attend the show with me. We got to the theater early to see a surprisingly long line already formed outside the club, filled with families and the occasional high school kid still in his or her pop-punk phase (and, evidently, still under the false impression that Owl City makes pop-punk music—something I may also be guilty of).
The show passed like a Technicolor dream, the drumbeat building the intensity and the layers of synthetic tones and effects making the whole room feel alive, as if it were crackling with energy. Owl City’s music is not popular, and I often wonder why not: the chords, the melodies, the synth effects—they’re actually incredibly evocative of that brilliant, swirling feeling you get in your chest when a roller coaster drops. It’s not happiness, and it’s not even excitement. It’s pure, unadulterated revelry.
Unfortunately for Young, however, there were a lot of factors working against him during his show that prevented this revelry from achieving the unselfconscious psychedelia I had experienced at the last concert I had attended: Tame Impala in San Diego over the summer. Because Owl City’s crowd was mostly made up of 12-year-olds and their families, there wasn’t a lot of “letting go”—and I don’t mean “no one was drunk” (although probably no one was, to be honest). The parents stood in the back as if they were supervising, and the kids looked far too self-conscious to dance or admit to enjoying the music. They were preteens with their parents at a concert. I’m sure I did the same thing at that age.
Young attempted to build the intense, unstoppable energy of a psychedelic electronica concert in this environment by playing his set nonstop. He didn’t speak to the audience beyond the customary “What’s going on, D.C.?” that is practically a requirement of any performer. And this just didn’t work. Instead of recognizing that, however, Young didn’t stop to chat and connect with the audience. Perhaps Kevin Parker, the front man and mastermind of Tame Impala, didn’t need to talk—he was playing at a concert hall full of intoxicated twentysomethings who were connected through music and youthful spirit—nothing else was necessary. Owl City cannot quite achieve this effect.
All of this begs the question of how a performer builds the correct ethos with his or her audience so that people lose their inhibitions and get to that reveling stage that makes a show feel like a transcendent religious experience. I think there are several ways to achieve this, but you have to read your audience correctly—something that Tame Impala did, but Owl City did not.
The intoxicated, uninhibited crowd at the Tame Impala show was made of people predisposed to losing themselves in the music, but the crowd at Owl City required more than just the music and the lighting effects to get to that point—and that’s where performers need to engage with their audience. Had Young chatted with us, maybe even making a few self-deprecating jokes or flirting with the audience a little bit, we might have relaxed enough to enjoy the show, even without the influence of alcohol or drugs. When I saw Snow Patrol back in 2012—not a psychedelic band at all—Gary Lightbody danced around the stage like an idiot in love with the music. He flirted with us and drew us in as if his taunts and winks were for each of us individually. It was intimate, and it felt like the band was playing just for me—and I’m sure the rest of the audience felt the same way, because everyone was singing and dancing, totally unselfconscious. Gary Lightbody had built the perfect rapport with his audience. We trusted him.
At the end of the Owl City concert, I didn’t trust Adam Young. I didn’t know him at all. I left the show feeling empty because at the end of the set, it felt like I could have achieved the same effect by blasting an Owl City playlist and dancing alone in my room. There was no reason Adam Young had to be there at all: he may as well not have been. In a sense, he really wasn’t, and neither was the rest of the audience. Everyone was off in their own world, and Young’s performance did not give us any means, whether through music or through speech and flirtation, to get to the same world—the world of the show.
In the end, it wasn’t a bad show. The music was great, and I had an excellent time dancing and singing along even if no one else did. But I won’t go see Owl City again: it ruins the effect that his music already possesses. A concert should be like the scene of Young’s song “Alligator Sky,” which says, “Roller coaster through the atmosphere, / I’m drowning in this starry serenade / Where ecstasy becomes cavalier: / My imagination’s taking me away.” That can only happen if the performer and the audience work together to create the right atmosphere: one in which everyone loses themselves in music and revelry together.

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