Vanderhoof: When the Machine Fails

“Animal” by Neon Trees is a very popular song. Right now, after having spent 21 weeks on the chart, it is No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Animal” is also a very bland song. I’m pretty sure that I have to hit snooze every time I listen to it. The chorus includes the lines “Oh, Oh, I want some more / Oh, oh, what are you waiting for?” Do those lines sound familiar? That’s because those same words have appeared in songs by Gwen Stefani, Lindsay Lohan, Jason Derulo, Tim McGraw and even Nina Simone. They’re generic and overplayed. And even if they weren’t, the chorus would still be terrible because it’s SO BORING.

Still, “Animal” is worth talking about because it is a specific type of boring, what I like to call “focus-grouped to death.” A song has been focus-grouped to death when it has been designed to sound “appealing,” but because it contains so many “appealing” elements, it sounds strange and completely unappealing.

The scary thing about the focus-grouped nature of “Animal “ is my realization that they are trying to pander … to me! From the first note of the song, I can tell I’m the target of focus-grouping.

First, there’s the band’s name. Neon Trees sounds like the opaque names of some of my favorite indie bands: Grizzly Bear, Cloud Nothings or Animal Collective. As pointed out by the blog HIPSTER RUNOFF, there are actually two different bands called Neon Indian and Taken by Trees that have nothing to do with Neon Trees. As in, those bands are good.

In any case, “Animal” features a litany of indie music essentials: crunchy bass, angular guitars, transparent synth lines, heavy use of the high hat and a singer with an emotive, deep voice. The video shows a band in blazers with funky haircuts and heavy eyeliner; the camera work is purposefully awkward and fuzzy. It’s almost sad, actually.

All of these signifiers are supposed to attract me. The major label that signed Neon Trees wants me to think that they are cool. Honestly, every one of these signifiers has attracted me in the past. I love bands with obtuse names, Interpol for their crunchy bass and angular guitars, and I can usually get behind a good synth line in any song from the 1980s to today. But I just can’t get behind these elements when they’re combined behind Neon Trees’ bland façade.

Even though they are a simulacrum of “cool,” they just lack the propulsion and urgency that makes indie worth listening to.

Neon Trees is an essentially manufactured pop band. Not that I have anything against manufactured pop as a genre; I love Ke$ha and the like, and I understand that there’s nothing better to dance to at a party. But there seems to be something more sinister at work with Neon Trees. With Ke$ha, the music industry seems to be looking for sounds that are scandalous and sensational but still universal enough for popular acceptance. With Neon Trees, the music industry is looking for something people will listen to because they think it’s “cool.”

On Oct. 6, the New York Times published an article titled “Looking to a Sneaker for a Band’s Big Break” about Converse’s attempts to align themselves with up-and-coming indie musicians. In it, the reporter quotes Josh Rabinowitz, director of music at Grey, an advertising agency, about his strategy of using indie music in commercial products.

“Indie-inflected music is kind of a Trojan horse,” he said. “Consumers feel they are discovering something that they believe to be cool and gaining admittance to a more refined social clique.”

This downright evil quotation shows why the marketing of Neon Trees is more sinister than that of Ke$ha. They shamelessly take advantage of signifiers that defined the music of my adolescence, hoping that they can create a meaningful and credibile attachment to a brand. At least Ke$ha and her handlers can admit that her music works because it’s insubstantial and silly.

So for that reason, I’m happy that “Animal” is not a great song. It’s blandness makes me feel like I am not a commodity. It’s really the machine’s intent that matters. Sometimes it manufactures great music (just listen to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”). But when the music industry tries to create “cool” music, they will ultimately fail. No matter how hard they try to fashion meaning out of nothing, and no matter how much money they put into the task, they still come up with nothing.

I certainly am not fond of “Animal” because it’s boring and it’s a sign of the sinister workings of the post-Internet music industry. But at least it’s not “The Best Thing About Me Is You” by Ricky Martin, featuring Joss Stone. That one just sucks.


  • Suckit

    Before coming to conclusions about the “bland” nature of Neon Trees, maybe you should have invested the time to listen to additional tracks or seen a live show – since they’ve been on tour for the past 8 months. Perhaps then, instead of irrationally concluding that the band or the song is the result of a “focus group” or part of the “major label machine,” you’d know the work that has been put into the album and the talent the band members have; that is actually their own, and not part of some “machine.” Maybe if you did a quick google search or looked at an interview, you would have read about the bands that have influenced Neon Trees and you’d have a more meaningful understanding of their sound. I think quoting a Hipster blog as a resource automatically makes your opinion less relevant, as you have fallen victim to the opposite “machine.”

    Neon Trees are the utter OPPOSITE of a “manufactured pop band” and the aforementioned research would’ve helped you to correct your initial conclusion. Animal is being used to promote commercial products because of it’s catchy sound. Because, believe it or not, the song is catchy. It makes people dance with it’s infectious hook – people, of course, who don’t care if the band is classified as indie or pop. People who can appreciate a pleasing musical aesthetic, without worrying about pretense.

    Seeing as though Neon Trees is at the top of the alternative charts, the rock charts AND the pop charts, I would hardly describe them as indie. I also don’t think people become a fan of the band because it’s “cool.” Neon Trees’ frontman is one of the most self-deprecating musicians in the industry and both casual and hardcore fans alike can recognize the band is not trying to be “cool.” In interviews and every night on stage, they show their true selves, for better and sometimes worse.

    If you would have attended a show, you would also see the crowd full of people from all walks of life from 6 year old kids to grandmothers, neither of which would choose to like a band on the basis of being “cool.”

    While I realize your article is an opinion piece, a good journalist should know they should have some type of tangible facts to support their opinion to convince the masses. I believe I learned that in Journalism 101.