You know what band I have a lot of feelings about? OneRepublic.
Look – a vital thing to know about me is that top 40s pop music is one of the more important things in my life. My love for it is fervent and unironic. This is not to say that I like every popular song out there, or that I don’t like music that’s not popular and involves a lot of autotuned repetitions of the word “TONIIIIIIGHT” – but I have opinions about basically every popular song out there. Strong opinions. Angry opinions. Opinions that cannot be spoken, only shouted.
The progression of my love of OneRepublic started with “All The Right Moves,” released all the way back in 2009. “Apologize” had managed to slip under my radar, but that second one got me, somehow – it didn’t sound the same as most of the other things on the radio at that time. There was that lush, electric organ background; that intense, forward-moving drum kit; those plaintive, almost desperate vocals. I couldn’t have told you what it was about, but the lyrics didn’t belong to a party song, even though the music did.
Yo – you know what “All The Right Moves” is about? It’s about the transience of fame. It’s about the band itself; a self-deprecating acknowledgment of the arbitrary, fleeting recognition that OneRepublic is seeking. They’re a pop band, doomed to eventual and probably even imminent obscurity, and so they made the top 40 with a melancholy, sardonic ode to exactly fucking that. It asks of the audience, bobbing their heads to it in the car, Do you think I’m special? / Do you think I’m nice? / Am I bright enough to shine in your spaces? and the conclusion doesn’t even matter, because everybody knows where they’re going! Right the fuck back into nothingness! No one’s going to care about them in ten years! Yeeeeeeeeah, we’re goin’ down!
(I will still care about you in ten years, OneRepublic. I will still care.)
Ugh, God, do you remember “Good Life“? Remember how that played on the radio, like, every fifteen seconds for three straight months? They STILL play this goddamn song. I remember that this one, when it wasn’t overplayed to the point that I would scream over it rather than listen to it again, when there weren’t twenty-five different local-radio-station variants, hit me hard, and confusingly. Because– this is a happy song. It sounds happy. Good life! It’s about the good life! Yes! Right? Right?
“Good Life” is about seeking but ultimately failing to find meaning in near-constant human interaction; it’s about knowing that something vital is lacking, but being unable to pinpoint exactly what; it’s about feeling trapped by freedom. It never manages to say anything definitive. Every positive statement it makes falters before it manages to become an expression of genuine happiness. It’s noncommittal. Right there in the first verse – We begin with the vague memory of happiness, but with no actual connection to any of the people or places involved, falling into the transition of We’re young enough to say / This has gotta be a good life.
What, OneRepublic? So if we weren’t young enough, we wouldn’t be able to say that? Why don’t any of your friends know where you’ve been? This could be a good life, sure, but is it? There’s nothing to complain about, either, but– but that’s just not the same as life being good. That’s not a definitive statement. And then! That bridge! The one where that bright, warm background synth drops out, where every line starts with hopelessly–, the one that ends with The hope is we have so much to feel good about.
The song is about creating brief and quickly-passing moments of joy (When you’re happy like a fool / let it take you over), in an ultimately futile attempt to drown out the growing realization that these moments, no matter their quantity or duration, can truly make up for the narrator’s perception of a persistent lack of meaning in his own life. It is a song that became something of an anthem of YOLO culture, despite being a powerful antithesis to the idea that youthful hedonism carries meaning inherent to its nature. It’s a noncommittal cry for help.
…So, like, let’s move on to “Secrets,” which has a cello in it. (GOSH.) This one gets touted as a love song. An expression of vulnerability and trust. It’s totally fucking not. It’s in the vein of “All The Right Moves” – it’s written to no single person, but the audience, and not even as people, but specifically as people who listen to top 40s pop music. It’s about the songwriting process, and, in a way, feels like some kind of reply to “Good Life” – though it only further articulates the problem framed therein, without reaching any meaningful resolution.
There’s a conflict here, in our narrator (whom I am assuming is the same for all of these songs) – there exists the desire to write something that is compelling and honest; that is appealing to a wide audience (something that’ll light those ears); and something that carries personal meaning and truth for the writer (‘Til all my sleeves are stained red / from all the truth that I’ve said). You’d think, from certain verses, that the obstacle preventing this is a lack of popular appeal for that kind of confession (the second verse, for example, differentiates the writer’s previous approach from the kind of expression he’s hoping for in the rest of the song) , but this is not actually the case – in actuality, it is his lack of anything meaningful to confess.
He has nothing. He has nothing meaningful to impart. There is no experience from which he can draw (Got no reason, got no shame / got no family I can blame), and no satisfaction to be gained from writing without it (I don’t really like my flow, no). As a result, even though he swears that he wouldn‘t lie, he struggles with the feeling that what he produces is inauthentic. The theme, overall, is that he’ll give all his secrets away – when he has them. Which he doesn’t. He’s that guy from “Good Life,” with nothing committal to say, no real stand to make; there is nothing lasting in that music, and as a result, it’s going to disappear, the fear articulated in “All The Right Moves.”
In conclusion: These three singles, taken together, paint a melancholy portrait of a struggle that is both deeply personal, and reflective of a greater struggle in the consciousness of the top-40s audience. They are a subtle expression of a lost and confused response to the pervasiveness of what has been called YOLO culture– only disguised, couched in the same tropes as the lifestyle they critique.
We keep misinterpreting these songs and making them popular. Something in them speaks to us, whether or not we understand it. I loved these songs years before I spent any time taking them apart; they meant something to me before I really even understood what they meant. I hear a lot of shit about how the top 40 is getting more vapid, more stupid, less interesting as time goes on, and there are long stretches where I wonder if this is not the case; but so long as OneRepublic keeps on being popular, I have hope for the human spirit.
I am dead. Fucking. Serious.