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Passion Pit vs. MGMT

December 27, 2012

As I once discussed, 2010 was in my opinion a peak in the current cycle of music.[1]  One of the albums that foreshadowed the coming peak – an upswing that began in 2007 – was MGMT’s debut album, Oracular Spectacular, which exploded onto the indie scene in early 2008.  Behind mega-hits “Kids” and “Time To Pretend” (and to a lesser extent “Electric Feel”), MGMT’s music became ubiquitous on radio stations catering to the 16-25 demographic.  Never mind that hardly anyone who loved these songs had bothered to ever listen to the entire album, and in many cases didn’t know the name of the band behind the hits (and if they did, they certainly didn’t know whether to pronounce it M.G.M.T. or Management[2]), “Kids” and “Time To Pretend” were the flavor of the day.  Weezer, of all bands, performed a mashup of Kids and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face that went viral on YouTube; for many, these two songs were an ideal match.

Two years later, “Kids” and “Time To Pretend” were still popular among the college set, and MGMT’s follow-up album Congratulations was hotly anticipated.  By that point, MGMT had been joined by other indie pop bands having mainstream success.  Phoenix’s 2009 release, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, was its 4th full length album, yet it was the one that propelled the band onto Saturday Night Live, major commercial spots Grammy awards and other mainstream accolades.  Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire each saw their popularity cross over into the mainstream, as their 2nd and 3rd releases respectively each reached the top of the Billboard charts.  All three of these bands sold out shows in major New York City venues.  However, each of these bands released their first LP prior to Oracular Spectacular, and while some of those debuts were successful in their own rights, none had the cross-over appeal that MGMT did.

One indie band that did debut post-2008 and enjoyed similar cross-over appeal was Passion Pit, which released its first LP Manners in 2009.  Immediately, anyone could tell that Passion Pit was built to be a mainstream success story.  Singles off of Manners had catchy hooks and were designed for radio play.  Each of the three massively hit singles off of Manners – “Sleepyhead”, “Little Secrets” and “Moth’s Wings” – were used in TV shows and video games meant to attract a teen following, such as CW’s Gossip Girl and MTV’s Skins.  All three songs were the subject of constant remixes, with versions meant to be played in clubs, in commercials, everywhere.  Like MGMT, Passion Pit became a staple on the festival circuit, attracting huge audiences at places like the Glastonbury Festival and Coachella.  Fans of so-called “good music” would have been rightfully skeptical of this indie-pop friendly dance-pop band that appeared to be riding a cultural fad to a very short-lived stay at the top of the charts, a feeling that was best articulated by the king of all music snobs, Pitchfork.  They say of Passion Pit, in their review of Manners:

“It’s extroverted, brash, and unconcerned with nuance, each synthesizer used for maximum melodic impact instead of texture. … There’s an almost archaic belief that a record should have at least four singles and the nagging feeling that Passion Pit could just be another garage/emo band that traded in their guitars for samplers.”

But something strange happened in the heart of the Grinch-fork reviewer – suddenly his small heart grew three sizes that day upon listening to Manners.  All of the aforementioned criticisms (and more) “works in Manners‘ favor, as it’s the sort of heart-to-heart populist record that’s every bit as sincere as it is infectious– though Angelakos sings in a manner rarely heard outside of a shower with unpredictable temperature control, it feels symbolic of a band that’s completely unashamed, not shameless, in its pursuit of a human connection.”  And more:  “I realize how it puts me in a difficult position as a music critic: what happens when you’re scrambling to think of why a record is worth hearing and you keep coming back to ‘it makes me happy’? Too often, we use a band’s debut simply to conjure comparisons to other bands, but Manners is every bit as likely to bring to mind a successful night out with friends, or the party where you finally got to talk to that person you’ve been eying all semester.… [It’s] a record that’s certainly not the most innovative or cred-boosting you’ll hear this year, but quite possibly the one that most demands to be socialized with and is just so easy to love back.”

So there we were, early 2010, both bands well-positioned to further capitalize off of popular debut albums and mega-hit singles.  It was then that MGMT began to signal that Congratulations might not be exactly what its fans were expecting.  Before the album’s release, the band told NME that they hoped not to release any singles from the new album. Ben Goldwasser, co-founder and force behind the band along with Andrew VanWyngarden, explained: “We’d rather people hear the whole album as an album and see what tracks jump out rather than the ones that get played on the radio – if anything gets played on the radio!”  One song, “Flash Delirium”, was released a month before the full album as a free download “taster” (not a single of course), and while many thought it was weird, some loved it.  “Flash Delirium” was in fact a taste of things to come.  As Goldwasser also said, “There definitely isn’t a ‘Time To Pretend’ or a ‘Kids’ on the album. We’ve been talking about ways to make sure people hear the album as an album in order and not just figure out what are the best three tracks, download those and not listen to the rest of it.”  Strangely though, in response to the backlash of fans on social media (remember, these are fans of “Kids”), Goldwasser backed down, explaining away “Flash Delirium” as a mistake and apologizing for it.  He told Spinner:

“When we first wrote that song, we were laughing so hard … Andrew just reminded me of that, that we thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. And then we got used to it, it started to sound more normal. It’s not a single, but we thought it was a good way to entice people to listen to the whole record. I’m sure there are plenty of people who think it’s completely weird and not what they were expecting … I’m sorry … We’re trying to come to grips with that world. It’s not our world. We don’t feel comfortable in it. But we didn’t want to make that typical second album either, about fame. So we’re definitely observing it, as opposed to reveling in it.”

In retrospect, I suspect that Goldwasser would have preferred to say what one fan/blogger did: “What’s that? This song is original? Holy shit. Yes, that’s right. All of you expecting something like ‘Kids’, ‘Electric Feel’, or ‘Time To Pretend’ can go fuck off because you won’t like this, so learn to appreciate their other songs too.”  Because although MGMT didn’t say it in their words, one month later we’d all find out that they’d done so in their music.

On April 13, 2010, Congratulations was released.  On that very same day, Passion Pit released a “deluxe edition” of Manners which embraced their new popularity.  The new edition contained new versions of “Sleepyhead” and “Moth’s Wings” and a cover of the Cranberries’ early 90s hit “Dreams”.  (Shortly thereafter they’d also cover Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” as part of a deal with Levi’s – imagine MGMT doing something like that!)  Congratulations sold like gangbusters – presumably no one could wait to hear the second coming of “Kids” despite the many warnings.  In a moment of clairvoyance, Pitchfork’s review (released a day before the album) got it exactly right.  “If you’re coming to the second MGMT album because you loved ‘Time To Pretend’, ‘Kids’, and ‘Electric Feel’, there’s the door. No such moments exist on Congratulations. Hell, there aren’t even failed attempts at replicating those songs here. This time out, MGMT aren’t crafting pop; they’re Creating Art. The problem is that many of the half-million or so people who bought their debut, Oracular Spectacular, just want a couple catchy-as-fuck, ear-candy singles to blast in their cars or put on with their friends.”

Critical review was mostly positive (though not enthusiastically so) as it seemed that the band was trying to do Something.  Combined with the brisk sales of the new album, no one would have thought that despite the band’s obvious efforts to self-destruct, they would in fact succeed in such -destruction.  Later in April they would perform on SNL, in May they would appear on Letterman, and in June they played their largest headlining gig ever to a sold-out nearly 10,000 person crowd in Colorado.  It was all happening.  The band that wanted to do whatever it wanted (and not what its fans wanted) and succeed commercially while doing so, was getting their wish.  Or so it seemed.  I was at one of the shows towards the end of the Congratulations tour, the first of two nights at Radio City Music Hall[3]. I could have told you then and there that the band’s days as a success story were behind them.  As has been well documented, the crowd was extremely young (Kids indeed), but MGMT didn’t pander.  Quickly, the crowd became bored.  The second song was the exciting, clever and most-well-known from Congratulations (having been played on all the late-night shows), “Brian Eno”; it barely drew a rise from the crowd.  “Electric Feel” gathered some momentum, which was immediately lost for the next 30+ minutes.  Nearly everyone was seated, except for those wandering the concession stands.  Finally, at song #11, the crowd squealed in delight.  It was “Time To Pretend.”  But in true MGMT fashion, all of the life was sucked out of the venue when the hit was followed up by the 12-minute “Siberian Breaks” off of Congratulations.  VanWyngarden once told Spin Magazine of “Siberian Breaks”, “It’s kind of like eight different songs strung together into one, and the general theme is about surfing in the Arctic Circle by Russia.”  Talk about throwing some cold water on the crowd.  Even with “Kids” next, the crowd was lost.  The band’s anthem was actually met with less enthusiasm than “Time To Pretend.”  You can only imagine how the 4-song encore was received.

MGMT set out to become this generation’s Flaming Lips – a psychedelic rock band that has a cult following but no one truly loves, gets some critical respect (though not as much as you’d think) and very little commercial appeal.  At first blush their weirdness makes you think that they have something to say, but all they seem to be saying is “we’re here, we’re weird, and we can do whatever we like whether you like it or not.”  The Flaming Lips have a following, but it’s not a Grateful Dead-like devoted one.  MGMT voluntarily started its way down the same path.  Their third album is due out in 2013 and while fans (like me) are (somewhat) excited, the times of brisk sales are over.  One doesn’t even need to hear the album to know this.

Passion Pit could have easily gone down the same route.  In fact, they were a far more likely candidate to do so.  Their second album, Gossamer, was originally scheduled to be released in 2011 but was pushed back twice, finally being released in July 2012.  While fans were excited, many critics (who are of course by nature cynical) were skeptical.  But unlike his counterparts in MGMT, Passion Pit’s band leader Michael Angelakos cares a lot what other people think.[4]  Less than a week before Gossamer was released, a detailed profile of the band ran on Pitchfork, subtitled “Inside the brilliant and troubled mind of Passion Pit leader Michael Angelakos.”  It explains:

“Angelakos is aware of the barbs that have been aimed in Passion Pit’s direction since Manners came out: it’s too poppy, it’s cartoonish, it could soundtrack an episode of Dora the Explorer. There’s the singer’s voice, which is sometimes dismissed as all-helium, all-the-time. He’s heard it all, and it bothers him. Over dinner one night, he casually notes that his vocal range spans four octaves. After an audio specialist at a hi-fi store we visit tells Angelakos that Gossamer is ‘actually great,’ the singer accepts the praise gracefully, only to gripe immediately after leaving the shop. ‘Actually great!’ he exclaims with an exasperation that suggests he’s been in this situation before. ‘Why does there always have to be an actually in there?’”

Gossamer was delayed for a very simple – and yet very complicated – reason:  Angelakos suffers from bipolar disorder (officially, rapid cycling bipolar 1).  This came out in the Pitchfork piece and was further elaborated upon in a Rolling Stone interview two weeks later, after Passion Pit canceled a string of shows to give their leader a chance to get additional treatment.  Angelakos’ disorder is by no means mild either.  While touring for Manners, Angelakos said that his post-performance feelings were anything but triumphant.  As he told Pitchfork, he went through a dissociative psychotic reaction – his stress reached a biological level that induced a breakdown. “Everything was a blur. We were doing promo appearances, and I didn’t even know who I was talking to. No one knew me well enough to say, ‘There’s something wrong.’ They just thought I was drunk.”  He began to drink heavily, and checked himself into a mental health clinic after the tour, where he stayed for five weeks.  The recording sessions for Gossamer were extremely difficult for him and everyone around him, eventually leading to a break where Angelakos headed home to Brooklyn, took a dose of an antidepressant, and went full throttle into a bout of mania that lasted nearly two months.

Miraculously, and with the help of the band’s producer, Angelakos was able to quit drinking and pull it together enough to make Gossamer, though no one could have expected the actual final product that Passion Pit produced.  The band had every reason to make something bleak, something tormented, something that even if good, would be miles from the poppy Manners.  They also had every reason to self-destruct.  Somehow, though, Passion Pit did the impossible – they put out a second indie-pop, dance-rock, made-for-remixing album that was better than the first.  More remarkably, they did it without compromising who they were.  The subjects tackled on Gossamer include (but are by no means limited to) immigration, alcoholism, economic disparity, suicide, mental illness, drugs, and domestic abuse.  The album was immediately a massive success, both critically and commercially.  From the A.V. Club: “more elegant than its predecessor …  Angelakos sounds broken and confused, wrestling with his demons, cage match-style, on an oversized stage … But despite the emphasis on struggle, Gossamer couldn’t sound more assured.”  From Allmusic: “Though the environment that birthed the appropriately titled Gossamer may be a bummer, the end product is winningly majestic as it is obviously spun by the most malevolent of spiders.”  From Pitchfork: “Anyone can manufacture hope through a slogan, but there’s an empathy and humanity that simply can’t be faked as Angelakos tries to figure out how to stay atop his life. It’s hard to think of a more noble goal for a pop album.”

The album has three hugely popular singles in “I’ll Be Alright,” “Carried Away,” and “Take a Walk”, the latter being featured in a Taco Bell commercial.  The irony of “Take a Walk” being used as a breezy way to sell fast food is remarkable.  Angelakos is unabashedly embracing pop success – you want to say he’s a sellout – yet he openly admits “It’s the most overtly depressing and pathetic song on the record, but apparently Taco Bell thinks it’s pretty fun.”  Meanwhile Angelakos describes the meaning behind the catchy, poppy, “I’ll Be Alright” as follows:  “I was just fucking tired of putting someone through pain. I was like, ‘Listen, I’m crazy, so get the fuck out. I am never going to get better.’ The party is over.”

So the man who couldn’t get out of bed for weeks wound up making 2012’s most successful indie-pop album and is touring – against doctor’s orders – to support it.  As Angelakos has said many times, “I have to make a living.”  Doctors have warned him that the life of a touring rock star contains exactly the kind of troubles and stresses that could trigger his disorder.  Yet the tour is so far a wild success.  As he told Rolling Stone, “It’s a giant fuck you to everyone who said I couldn’t do it because I’m crazy and out of my mind.  I’m like ‘Fuck you. Watch me do it.’”  Angelakos was speaking of Passion Pit’s headlining gig at Madison Square Garden in February.  It seems the apparent sellout was actually a man who wasn’t afraid to say “Fuck you”, was able to appease his fans without compromising his music or his message, all while selling out the World’s Most Famous Arena.  Meanwhile, the band that critics supported for making music the way they wanted to quickly apologized for doing so and, ultimately, had nothing to say and few fans left to say it to.  I have a feeling that despite Angelakos’ many challenges, we’ll be eagerly awaiting new Passion Pit albums long after MGMT has faded away.

[1] I don’t think 2012 was necessarily a bad year, just that we’re in a natural decline phase.

[2] It’s pronounced M.G.M.T.

[3] That link contains a full download of the show!

[4] Angelakos is the singer, song-writer, and everything else that is Passion Pit.  On tour the band consists of 4 other members, but the essence of the band is one man.

  1. Jenn permalink

    I’m in love with the new MGMT video for “Alien Days”

    • I’m a fan of everything these guys do and I really like the new album … but did you write this only because you work for Sony? (It’s ok if you did, I support the labels that support the good bands!)

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